Bruce Feldman is the talented writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com. He's also the author of Meat Market, the 2007 book that serves as the most intensive examination of the college football recruiting process and the inner workings of a college football program that you can find. The program Feldman probed was the University of Mississippi's, which means he was around the team while Michael Oher, the Ravens first-round draft pick last weekend, was beginning to make a name for himself. You can check out Meat Market for yourself by clicking here.
Question: In Meat Market, it seems you were in the trenches for every twist and turn of the recruiting process at Ole Miss. Before I ask about Michael Oher, can you give us an idea of the access you had to the Ole Miss program, coaches and players?
Feldman: I was able to be a fly on the wall for an entire year. I sat in on every meeting, camps and even recruiting visits. I also did some traveling with the coaches and saw pretty much everything their staff sees. It was really incredible because so often you read about the recruiting process and you only got to see a fraction of the truth. I mean you look at the online recruiting profiles of these kids and they are touted to be 6-2 and weigh 230 pounds, run a 4.6 forty and have a 2.8 GPA. But in most cases that's not the reality the staffs deal with. Maybe that kid comes to their camp and measures 5-11 ½ and weighs 215. He gets timed running a 4.98 and then when his transcript shows up he really has a 1.9 GPA. Then you're not even sure if you can take him even if you think he's a good enough prospect.
It also really blew me away to see just the level of evaluating they would do, from studying film to try and gauge little details as to whether a prospect could really play or not.
Question: I believe Michael was a sophomore when you were around. Did you have any early impressions of him? Sounds like he was a pretty raw talent.
Feldman: Yeah, I was there for almost two years, which were his sophomore and junior years. He was very, very raw. With the exception of Patrick Willis, almost the whole team was so green and probably shouldn't have been starting in the SEC at that point of their careers. I mean physically they were a big team but they had so many guys who really didn't know what they were doing. You would see Oher on the sidelines during games and he certainly looked the part. I know the staff tried to spoon-feed him info and it helped a lot that they lined up Andrew Wicker, who was their best lineman that season, right next to him so he made sure Oher knew what his assignment was before each snap. I do think there was quite a bit of hype about Oher early on and that had to have been so hard to cope with for him.
I mean athletically he's very good, but I remember last winter when he was thinking of coming out early, some of these draft analysts were talking about how he'd run a 4.9 forty and was this and that and would be a top 10 pick. That's crazy. When they timed him at Ole Miss when I was down there, he was a 5.45 guy, and while he's gotten better and shed about 20 pounds, he still ran around a 5.3 at the combine this winter. And I know he's had to work really hard in the weight room because he was very far behind in that regard and had struggled a lot as a run blocker.
Question: Despite going through three O-line coaches in four years, Oher played alongside some talented players. How much did it help to have guys like Andrew Wicker and John Jerry on the same line? Did Oher seem like the most dominant lineman while you were around?
Feldman: Wicker was a big asset to him in Oher's sophomore season. He was the one who would tell him who he had to block and what the combination might be.
Question: Art Kehoe, who was the O-line coach for two years under Ed Orgeron, says that Oher made huge strides from year to year. He said he looks at Oher more like a freshman next season, not an NFL rookie. Do you think this is simply a result of Oher not picking up football until so late in life, or do you think his development has been especially slow?
Feldman: I'm sure that has something to do with it. I do know that back then Oher got frazzled a lot. I recall there were more than a few times the staff was frustrated that he didn't take coaching very well and there were some things he really struggled to grasp.
I'd heard from guys I know inside the program that he has continued to mature last season and was more focused last season, which I think is expected considering he was a fourth-year senior. It'll really be interesting to see how he develops in the NFL.
Question: A lot has been made about Oher's intelligence. His high school coach Hugh Freeze stressed to me that Oher is a visual learner and does best with one-on-one attention. Did you observe or hear anything that led you to believe that this might be a problem area?
Feldman: I honestly don't know about the visual learner part of it although I imagine most young linemen would work best with one-on-one attention. I know he did pretty well in school at Ole Miss and was diligent about going to all his study sessions and tutoring, and that initiative can only help him, but obviously the NFL is going to be a much more complex game for him to learn.
Question: In explaining why Oher fell so far in the draft, Michael Lewis said, "...what happened was, the scouting types in the NFL went for some data on him, some anecdotal stuff on him, and they called all these fired Ole Miss coaches who were kind of bitter and disgruntled." Do you think that's fair? You were around those coaches; do you think they might've poisoned the water at all when asked about Oher?
Feldman: I think it's ridiculous to think that. Keep in mind that those same coaches will tout that they coached Oher among the players they worked with in their careers, especially if he's a first-round pick. It would be counter productive to think they just went off and made up some stuff to tarnish Oher's stock. I'm pretty sure many of those same coaches raved about Peria Jerry, the DT who from Ole Miss who also went in Round 1.
Ultimately, the NFL teams visit with the player. They get to pick his brain about what he truly knows about football and they can determine how sharp his mind is and what kind of athlete he is. They get to study his game film. They're going to make their own evaluations. I mean he was a first-round pick. It's not like he dropped to the fourth round.
Question: Your book focuses on an Ole Miss class that came in a couple of years after Oher. Obviously you knew a lot about recruiting and Signing Day before you took on the project, but were you still surprised by what you encountered during your reporting? How similar or dissimilar is the college recruiting process to the days and weeks that lead up to the NFL draft?
Feldman: I was really amazed at how much misinformation is out there when it comes to recruiting. Players spin. Parents spin. The coaches spin. I guess that probably feels a little like what you get with agents and front-office types. Ultimately, I do think there are a lot of similarities with recruiting and the draft because it's all about the evaluation and trying to make something that can be such a crapshoot a science. And, for all of the combines and vertical jumps and 40-times, the truth is if a guy is stiff or soft or not sharp enough to learn your scheme, he'll get you beat and that's usually where the busts in recruiting come from because many of these four- and five-star guys are anointed because of how they perform in shorts and t-shirts at some combine, not necessarily in how they do in the games.
I think for college recruiting it's a lot more of a gray area because in the NFL you're rarely projecting a position switch. Usually a running back is a running back at the next level, not a linebacker, safety or wide receiver. Same for a QB with a few exceptions. In college it's fairly common where a high school QB gets projected as a defensive back, wide receiver or linebacker. Plus, you don't have to assess which guy's frame might be able to handle another 50 pounds on it after he gets drafted the way you do in recruiting. Grades and character are issues with both and I think as much as some will say that they won't mess with bad character guys, there is still a lot of temptation that coaches have that they can handle guys if they put them in the "right" environment.
Photo: Associated Press