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NFL stars reflect on their high school Rivals rankings

Donte Jackson
Donte Jackson (AP Images)

NEW ORLEANS — Stars don’t matter, right?

That’s a polarizing question of course. It depends on who you ask and when you ask it.

Every year, Rivals ranks the best college football prospects in America. It divides that group into the Rivals100 and Rivals250, with only a small percentage earning a five-star ranking. There are about 300 four-stars each recruiting cycle and even more three-stars, a ranking allotted to prospects viewed as impact college players with NFL potential.

Overall, there are roughly 1,200 prospects in every class that are ranked as three-, four- or five-stars. That translates to roughly .001 percent of the one-plus million high schoolers that play football in the United States.

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Certainly, only a small portion of high school football players qualify as college prospects with a future in the professional ranks. Yet within that group, there is an ongoing discussion about being over- or under-ranked. That’s mainly a conversation for prospects while in high school, because the importance of stars and rankings certainly fades from the moment players sign with a college program and face the unique challenges that come with playing in college and eventually the NFL.

“I don’t really remember mine,” said Deion Jones, who was ranked as a three-star outside linebacker by Rivals coming out of Jesuit High School in 2012 before signing with LSU and eventually being drafted in the second round by the Atlanta Falcons in 2016.

“It was a matter of me believing in myself, keep grinding and wherever I ended up, trying to make something happen. I didn’t focus on what everyone else was thinking … The pressure is always on you when you’re ranking kids as five- and four-stars. Guys are expected to go to the next level and perform a certain way, so the pressure has slash been there. It’s just gotten to be more pressure because of social media.

Jones could not recall how many stars he had or where he was ranked, but another New Orleans high school legend remembers precisely where he was ranked, but simply chose not to entertain it.

Donte Jackson was ranked No. 58 in the Rivals100 for 2015, a top-five cornerback that was eventually drafted No. 55 overall by the Carolina Panthers in 2018. Jackson, who is never short on confidence, considered himself a five-star prospect for sure, but didn’t let rankings or stars alter his mindset in high school, college or as a rookie in the NFL last season.

“It was accurate,” he said of ranking, “but self-assessment is the best thing. Whatever you feel like you are, that attitude and that confidence is what you are. I branded myself as the best player in the country. I said, ‘I’m a five-star!’ I wasn’t on the fanciest high school team, so I just worried about what I had to do and that took me further than anything else.

“I was never thinking about stars, only what I could do. When I was a two-star, I already felt like a five-star. I knew what I could do so by the time I got (four stars), mentally I was already a five-star.”

Tyron Johnson was a five-star, but he had an unconventional path, unlike most prospects ranked as highly as he was.

Johnson was the No. 11 overall player on Rivals in 2015 and the top-ranked prospect from Louisiana. An Under Armour All-American, the five-star wide receiver signed with LSU but elected to transfer in fall camp prior to his sophomore season. He wound up at Oklahoma State, where he was a role player in 2017 before enjoying a breakout campaign in 2018. Johnson managed 53 receptions for 845 yards and seven touchdowns in 2018, including a career-best performance in the Liberty Bowl.

Yet Johnson did not hear his name get called last April during the NFL Draft. He signed with the Houston Texans as a free agent and is currently battling for a roster spot.

“I felt like stars didn’t matter,” Johnson said. “I earned the stars, but it didn’t matter. In college I had to make plays. I went undrafted and I have to make plays. You can have all the stars you want, but I still went undrafted. I did what I had to do to fit on each team, so it doesn’t matter how many stars you have as much as how you adapt to each team you go to.”


Tyron Johnson
Tyron Johnson (AP Images)

Despite being highly-ranked coming out of Warren Easton, Johnson played a limited role in his first seasons at LSU and Oklahoma State before emerging as a 13-game starter as a junior in 2018. What never left him was his five-star mentality.

“I would play ball, show up to camp and back my tape up. I was the best receiver every time I went to camp,” Johnson said. “I went to different Rivals camps in different cities and won two MVPs. I showed them I was the best and no one was better than me … As a five-star, I made up my mind to leave LSU and every school in the country called me. That five-star helped me stay alive with options. Schools were like, ‘He was a five-star. OK, let’s go see his film. We want him,’ and it helped me go a long way.”

Unlike Jones, Jackson or Johnson, BJ Blunt didn’t have a ranking to harp on — at least by Rivals.

Blunt, a hybrid safety/outside linebacker from McDonogh 35 was, at one time, committed to Arizona State. He signed with McNeese State in 2014, but his lack of academic credits forced Blunt to take the junior college route.

Blunt signed with the Washington Redskins as an undrafted free agent this past spring and will compete for a roster spot. He went from unranked out of high school to potentially finding a full-time home in the NFL.

“It didn’t bug me too much,” Blunt said. “I had a nice bit of offers and I was committed to Arizona State, but my grades held me back. I remember having conversations with some of my close friends (about rankings), but I never showed it, but I most definitely had that conversation before about being a four- or a five-star.”

Naturally, being overlooked was on Blunt’s mind, but he had a larger purpose in mind as he flourished from high school to junior college and eventually the league.

“I was a Katrina victim,” Blunt recalled, “and I remember seeing my mom cry. When she felt that type of pain, my thing was to prove her right.”

Jones and Jackson have carved out prominent roles with their respective NFL teams, while Johnson and Blunt both have rigorous summers ahead as they fight for roster spots. High school rankings and stars were on their minds years ago, but as they navigated through the college ranks and look to make their marks in the league, it has been mitigated into archaic thought.

Jones, a 2017 Pro Bowler, agreed with his three-star ranking, but never let it hinder his career aspirations.

“I probably would’ve given myself the same thing,” he admitted. “It takes time for people to develop. Sometimes it doesn’t click until college. Sometimes it doesn’t click ’til the league. I was a little underweight, a young pup. It didn’t click until I got to LSU, being around (players) that size and playing hard ball. I became a part of it. I was always built for it, but I never really experienced it until I played in the SEC.”

Jackson was a borderline five-star ranked inside the Rivals100. His ranking in 2015 was only three spots off from where he was eventually drafted by the Panthers. However, those stars meant nothing when he arrived at LSU and had to fight for playing time as a true freshman.

Johnson’s five-star build-up translated to only a few opportunities to make plays as a freshman at LSU. When he elected to transfer, his phone did not stop ringing. Yet as he battles for a spot on the Texans’ 52-man roster, he has maintained the same degree of confidence while finding himself having to prove himself all over again.

Whether it’s pressure, expectations or a mindset, the stars have never left these athletes.

“I have the same feeling as how I felt when I wasn’t a five-star,” he said. “I’m trying to get my fifth star in the NFL. I’m back grinding, trying to prove myself all over again — just like that Rivals camp in Mississippi and in New Orleans.”