In every second-season known as "college recruiting" the star-gazers will pronounce multiple 17-18 year olds as "can’t miss prospects". Inevitably, some of them will not reach the vaunted status put upon them by recruiting experts, and those same kids will find themselves placed on click-bait ‘Top Busts’ lists.
During the 2016 NBA Draft, ESPN added Jalen Rose to the commentary team, and while his appearance was panned for a number of reasons, not least of which was his bizarre comparisons of 2016 prospects with past or present NBA players, there were a couple of insights transferable to college football: Rose posited that any NBA player should not be referred to as a ‘bust’ for they had accomplished what approximately only four thousand others had throughout the history of the league. Furthermore, Rose detailed the longevity, not to mention bank account, of former lottery picks, explaining that anyone who played a game for a living and provided for their family should not be a labeled a bust.
This is a compelling case to take up, perhaps even more so for college football players than any other sport. By now, we are all getting a sense of what the rotations will be barring injuries, and there is the likelihood that a few five-and-four-stars are not listed in the two-deep. Are they busts? Is it fair to label college kids busts for any reason? Let me make the case that we should retire the word "bust" in college sports, particularly in football.
Reason # 1 is the most evident in the SEC: It is a grown man’s league, and adolescents who do not have the luxury of redshirting will have plenty of growing pains. The Crimson Tide just sent 7 players to the NFL…in the first 73 picks. Those guys feasted on not just on young fellas who could not hack it in the big boy league but on other All-Americans. In short, some kids simply are not going to measure up, immediately or ever.
Reason # 2: Perhaps by the time some student-athletes arrive on campus they have already lost their love of the game and are one bad moment away from pulling the full "Marinovich". Kids who excel at football are supposed to play the sport until their bodies fail them, all for our enjoyment. The ridiculous rhetoric of giving 110%, aside from being a mathematical impossibility, fails to capture the complexity of the modern power conference athlete, not all of whom have the world at their fingertips. Furthermore, the new reality of football is that giving 110% actually means sacrificing to the game well beyond what one’s body really has to offer, including lost capacities at 40 or 50 years of age – capacities that young men simply cannot appreciate in their late teens and early twenties.
Reason # 3: College is a volatile time as most of us likely recall…or vaguely recall. Any number of things can torpedo a student’s college career. Having worked in university student services and taught courses for a number of years, I can attest to this fact. Troubles in the classroom, a bad breakup, family issues and tragedies, to say nothing of returning to the classroom after an injury (or head injury) is difficult enough for any student. However, multiplying those common difficulties for the student-athlete, who also has daily responsibilities to his team and lives inside the virtual fishbowl of the 21st century, making college football something more akin to an elaborate psychosocial experiment that we all fund, rather than the mythological amateur athletics about which the purists like to wax eloquent. Simply put, university personnel (at any school) will express little surprise that student services’ budgets are increasing so universities can retain those enrolled students and address the range of their struggles.
Everyone has experienced a rough patch or two during their college careers, but few of us know the feeling of having to perform for 100,000 fans in-person and millions more tuning in on television. For some kids, it will be too much; however, that said, if a student earns their degree and conducts themselves as an outstanding representative for their team and university, should we care what arbitrary star-rating was affixed to them when they were still making prom plans? Should we label them a "bust"?
The simple fact is that some players do not find their groove until the end is in sight, or they just took advantage of an opportunity when one was finally presented to them. Take one of the all-time under-appreciated Vols, Mark Jones, as a perfect example of the point. The former USA Today Player of the Year in Pennsylvania was named an All-State performer and won a state championship. That year Tom Lemming dubbed Jones the #71 player in the nation.
Jones did not make much of an impact his first two years in the program. Then again, scroll through Lemming’s list and you will see plenty of others who did not either. Jones played in 49 games, starting only 17, most of which came his last two years in the program. He was a special teamer and a part-time defensive back, finally carving out a niche in his junior year with 55 tackles, an interception, and a kick return for a touchdown. But it was Jones’ senior year (2003) in the program that was truly special, contributing in all three phases of the game for a 10-3 team. Jones finishing second on the team in receiving yards (556) and adding five touchdowns. Jones added two interceptions on defense and led the team in punt return yardage bringing one back for a touchdown. Jones still holds the record for the longest touchdown reception in UT history at 90 yards against Georgia.
Mark Jones will never make any fan's all-time great's list. Furthermore, there might have even been a time when this Top-75 overall recruit was not meeting the expectations for a player with that lofty of a national profile. That said, Jones remains one of my favorite VFLs, and because of his example, I routinely root for the fourth and fifth-year player who finally breaks out in his final year. Beyond that, though, none of these young men - the good citizens, teammates, and students - should never be considered 'busts.' They are our Tennessee Volunteers.