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A blog post Ben Weiss wrote for a Northwestern fan site made its way to the desk of athletics director Jim Phillips, who then forwarded the link to Chris Bowers, the Wildcats director of player personnel.

Inside Weiss' article was a breakdown of Northwestern football's recent recruiting efforts -- a deep dive into the Wildcats' hits and misses, and so detailed in its methodology that Bowers called Weiss into his office and offered him a position.

It was unpaid, sure, but that was to be expected: Weiss was then just a freshman undergraduate, albeit one with a strange fascination -- and a long-standing one, dating to his early years in high school -- with the recruiting landscape.

Three years later, with just months until his graduation date, Weiss no longer works in Northwestern's recruiting office, technically speaking. He does, however, maintain a close bond with the Wildcats program, thanks to a company he co-created with three fellow Northwestern students that attempts to take an analytical approach to college football's most inexact science: recruiting.

"Schools are looking, naturally, for the best players in the country that are somewhat likely to commit to their school," Weiss said. "So what we're saying is, 'Look, you're essentially trying to do this in your head.' We have proof that this can work and this is how we do it, and this is what we do."

One of the recent sea changes in college football has been the growing acceptance of in-game analytics as a coaching tool, as more and more coaches embrace percentage-based metrics to aid in the decision-making process.

"The more advanced studies you can do to prepare for a test -- and that's what a game is, it's a test -- I think it's beneficial," said Old Dominion coach Bobby Wilder, a proponent of leaning on analytic tools to help decide whether to punt or attempt a fourth-down conversion, for example.

The company founded by the four Northwestern undergraduates, called Zcruit, essentially borrows that same mentality, one of putting numbers behind what have long been gut-based decisions, and applies it to the recruiting landscape.

Think of it this way: Every program in the Football Bowl Subdivision is chasing after the same pool of recruits; most programs recruit the same region as countless others; some programs offer hundreds of recruits to sign just 25 future student-athletes.

Boiled down, Zcruit's goal is to assist a program's efforts by streamlining the process -- by taking all the streams of data at their disposal and creating a formula for recruiting success, in the same way a university's admissions office attempts to pinpoint the best and most likely fits for the student body at large.

Three baseline factors are taken into account. The first is demographic information: background information, such as where a recruit is from. The second is a prospect's interactions with the school, such as how many visits he has made on campus, whether he attended any camps or when the scholarship offer was tendered.

The third is the prospect's interactions with other schools. Is he showing any interest? When was he offered by another school, when did he visit, how many times did he visit? In the end, the data compiled by Zcruit creates a threshold, for lack of a better word, between whether a program should recruit a player -- if the data suggests he's gettable -- or whether it should move on to another prospect.

"The reality is, there isn't anything in the world that gave you that data," Bowers said. "Like, Ben literally created something that doesn't exist. It's fascinating."

Added Weiss, "We're in uncharted territory. There's nobody else doing what we're doing."

More than anything, the model created by Zcruit might see its greatest impact in how a program allocates time -- a precious resource throughout the year, but during the recruiting process in particular.

By and large, FBS programs land roughly 10% of the student-athletes they recruit. "Most of that time is wasted chasing the wrong guys," Weiss said. It can be a cruel cycle: A program misses on one group of players before chasing its second tier of prospects, many of whom have already been offered by a number of recruiting rivals.

Many programs simply provide a blanket of offers, extending scholarships to upwards of 25 players at a single position in hopes of landing just two or three on signing day. Instead, if a program was able to offer just six or seven prospects -- and know that each one is gettable -- it would allow for more time to devote to a single recruit; every second counts, especially when going head-to-head for a prospect's signature.

"It would be one more thing that can help with time management," Wilder said.

The proof of effectiveness is seen in Northwestern's own recruiting efforts. (Zcruit also worked with two other FBS programs, one in a Power Five conference and the other on the Group of Five ranks.)

Zcruit worked alongside Bowers and the coaching staff during this current recruiting cycle, helping the Wildcats identify and evaluate a number of recruits at positions of need. With one week until national signing day, the algorithms created by Zcruit have predicted which recruits would not sign with Northwestern with 94% accuracy; the same algorithms predicted which recruits would sign with the Wildcats with 80% accuracy.

"We became the guinea pig," Bowers said. "There are going to be people who are resistant, as in anything. But there are people who are open-minded and think differently and want every advantage there can be."

But this is a copycat sport: As programs become open to the idea of on-field analytics -- even as many coaches have shown an unwillingness to adapt to the changing tide -- it's almost inevitable that a similar mentality will pervade how teams attack their off-field responsibilities.

After all, an entire regular season is simply composed of a dozen 60-minute chunks. In comparison, exponentially more time is spent recruiting, from the period of early evaluation -- when teams create their general board of prospects -- through the final home stretch into signing day. So an analytical approach wouldn't simply help programs sign specific recruits; it would streamline the entire operation, allowing coaches to not just save time but spend their time effectively.

"The marketing world has known about this a long time, the advertising world has known about this," Bowers said. "It's just about applying that into a different space, a different concept."

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January 24, 2017


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