In 2007, Justin Blackmon was a lightly regarded three-star prospect in an Oklahoma State recruiting class ranked sixth in the Big 12. Who would've guessed that the Plainview High (Okla.) standout would emerge as the most feared receiver in college football -- and a two-time Biletnikoff Award winner and consensus All-American -- just a few years later?
"I think everybody was surprised," Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said. "In somebody's opinion, he was a two-star guy. He was a pudgy kid from a small school. He made a ton of plays on his highlight tape, but the concern you have as a coach when you're watching a player is the level of competition.
"When you're watching players competing against Texas schools and in Atlanta, where you know they have a lot of speed, you can make decisions faster. But with a player from a small school -- in the back of your mind -- you wonder if the accomplishment is because the level of competition isn't the same."
By developing players such as Blackmon from obscurity to stardom while recruiting others that fit within their systems, programs like Oklahoma State (No. 31 class in 2012), Oregon (No. 16), Wisconsin (not ranked) and Cincinnati (No. 50) have become college football's perennial overachievers. They may not show up at the top of the post-Signing Day recruiting rankings, but they show up in the national polls at season's end.
To wit: None of Oregon's five recruiting classes from 2006-10 were ranked among the top 10. Twice in that span the Ducks' classes weren't even among the top 30 (48th in '06 and 31st in '09). Yet, Oregon and Virginia Tech are the only teams to finish ranked in the Top 25 in each of the past five seasons. The Ducks have won three straight conference championships, played for the national championship in 2010 and took home the Rose Bowl on Jan. 2. In fact, Oregon wins so frequently that the tag "overachiever" may be an understatement.
"We don't care about that. Call us whatever want," Oregon coach Chip Kelly said. "We always talk about blocking out outside influences. We look at praise and blame the same way. If someone doubts you, it can be used as motivation and that's a good thing. But you can get caught up in that and then you're living your life based on what others say about you.
"We don't have an 'us against the world' mentality. We don't have an 'overachievers' mentality. We have the Oregon mentality, which is that you get whatever you put into it."
Kelly seeks to identify players with self-discipline, those who possess skills that mesh with Oregon's up-tempo style of play.
"The tough part is to project what a high school kid will be like when he's 21 or 22," Kelly said. "Everybody misses. We miss. Scouting services miss. Everybody can tell a story about the two-star recruit that went on the NFL. We're looking for intangible qualities."
Those intangibles can enable overachieving programs to get the most out of the talent that they have.
Wisconsin's recruiting classes from 2006-10 never ranked higher than 34th in the nation. Yet, the Badgers registered 48 victories over the past five seasons and appeared in the Rose Bowl twice. Cincinnati didn't have a recruiting class ranked among the top 50, but the Bearcats finished in the Top 25 in four of the past five seasons. Perhaps most impressive, neither Boise State nor TCU had top 45 recruiting classes in that same five-year span, but both finished among the country's top 15 in each of the past four years. TCU went undefeated and finished at No. 2 in the polls in 2010.
Oklahoma State's highest-ranked recruiting class was 22nd in 2006, and the Cowboys slotted 30th or higher in three of the past four years. But the Cowboys won at least nine games every year since 2008, even capturing the Big 12 championship and Fiesta Bowl last season.
"We've been fortunate to hit on some kids and have been able to build on it," Gundy said. "We've won 41 games in four years and 23 in the last two. I don't know how many other schools playing in the highest level conferences have won that many. Probably LSU and Alabama have. I guess there's not more than four or five."
In fact, over the past four years, the only teams from AQ conferences with more victories than Oklahoma State are Alabama, Oregon, Oklahoma and Virginia Tech.
"I think we do overachieve," Gundy said. "I think our coaches overachieve. Our players play at a higher level than they should based on talent, but we're bringing in more players that are faster and more athletic. So, we do overachieve, but not as much as we used to. From a recruiting standpoint we're always ranked 23rd or 25th based on somebody's opinion. We've not been in the top five or top 10 in recruiting ranks, but we've finished in the top five [of the polls]."
Like Oregon, Oklahoma State coaches seek players that fit well in the Cowboys' scheme and are disciplined enough to work hard to improve. Gundy believes strength and conditioning coach Bill Glass is the best in the country, using regimens that allow dedicated prospects to flourish.
"We believe in our system," Gundy said. "It goes back to the stars in recruiting. If we get a two-star player, we want to make him a three-star. If we get a three-star, we want to make him a four-star. If you get a five-star, we want to make him a first-round pick.
"We believe the system, which is about accountability, takes players and makes them better. The players we have on our roster have never lost more than four games, and they all have won at least nine. So there is an understanding of what it takes to win."