Before Bryce Young was considered one of the top prospects in the 2023 NFL draft, before he led Alabama to the College Football Playoff and before he won the Heisman Trophy, he was a five-star college football recruit ranked No. 5 overall in the 2020 ESPN 300.
But not all first-round draft picks started out as highly touted college recruits. Sauce Gardner, the fourth pick in the 2022 draft, was a three-star recruit out of high school, developed his game at Cincinnati and became a Pro Bowl cornerback in his rookie season in the NFL.
We highlight six players who went from unranked (and in some cases, ungraded) high school recruits to potential Day 1 NFL draft picks thanks to years of improvement, growth and opportunity.
Texas A&M and Texas Tech | 2018 recruiting ranking: Three stars
Scouts Inc. ranking for the 2023 NFL draft: 6
Wilson originally signed with Texas A&M before transferring to Texas Tech. It took some time, but he exploded into one the country’s top defensive linemen, posting 14 tackles for loss and seven sacks in only 10 games as senior in 2022.
Looking back at our scouting notes, we referred to Wilson as an “intriguing prospect” with length, quickness and a promising ceiling for development. At 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, we had concerns about his lack of power, but likely should have put more emphasis on his production, as he recorded 126 tackles, 38 TFLs, 5 sacks, 5 forced fumbles and 5 fumble recoveries as a high school senior.
We were accurate in identifying his high ceiling, however. Wilson has grown two inches while adding 51 pounds of muscle. He can now swing between the interior or edge, which is a significant value add at the NFL level and a major reason why he will come off the board early.
Illinois | 2019 recruiting ranking: Ungraded
Scouts Inc. ranking for the 2023 NFL draft: 7
Witherspoon’s journey to Champaign, Illinois, and the top of the cornerback class of this year’s draft board has been anything but ordinary. He didn’t start playing football until his junior season at Pine Forest High School in Pensacola, Florida. His first love was basketball and he excelled in track (11.2 100-meter and 6-foot-5 high jump). Once he strapped on the helmet, he was an immediate standout, recording seven interceptions as a senior.
It was not until Witherspoon earned a qualifying SAT score late in the process that he earned his only Power 5 offer from Illinois, as he cleared the NCAA requirements in July. Witherspoon enrolled during training camp after initially planning to attend Hutchinson Community College (Kansas).
The rest is history. He developed into an All-American corner who excels in an array of coverages and is a physical ball hawk on run support. How did every recruiting service fail to anoint a first-round talent with even one star? It’s a simple answer. He went to a smaller school, didn’t start playing until his junior season and had nonqualifying test scores until training camp of his freshman year. To that end, if prospects were ranked on perseverance alone, Witherspoon would be a five-star.
Iowa | 2020 recruiting ranking: Three stars
Scouts Inc. ranking for the 2023 NFL draft: 11
Van Ness was highly athletic in high school, even playing hockey at 6-foot-5, 240 pounds. In the defensive trenches, his game wasn’t flashy; it was built more on power and less on edge speed, which is why he slid under the radar and had just three Power 5 offers.
He didn’t even start at Iowa, yet he was a disruptive force who saw action in 27 games and was plenty productive with 19 tackles for loss. He maximized his frame, as he now stands at 6-5, 272 pounds, while increasing his speed and acceleration.
His draft stock soared from his coveted measurables and his agility. His versatility to play most positions along the D-line is also highly sought-after at the NFL level. On the biggest stage at the NFL combine, he ran a 4.58 40-yard dash. By comparison, 2014 No. 1 pick Jadeveon Clowney ran a 4.53 as a defensive end in 2014.
San Diego and Utah | 2018 recruiting ranking: Ungraded
Scouts Inc. ranking for the 2023 NFL draft: 14
Kincaid was a high school basketball star at Faith Lutheran in Las Vegas who came out to the gridiron as a senior. While he was productive — 745 yards, eight touchdowns — it was too late to garner much recruiting attention, and he lacked film with in-line blocking plays. (Lutheran didn’t use a blocking tight end, utilizing Kincaid outside for mismatches with his ball skills and jumping ability.)
While our scouts missed on Kincaid, Brent Browner, head coach at top high school power Bishop Gorman (Nevada), did not. “We actually devised a game plan to contain him but it obviously didn’t work,” he said, reflecting on when Kincaid had three catches for 81 yards and a touchdown against his team. “He was able to create mismatches with his length and athleticism. I believe his touchdown was the first we let up in six games.”
Kincaid walked on at the FCS level with San Diego, and after an All-American season in 2019 (835 yards, eight TDs), he transferred to Utah, where he broke out. Over the past two seasons, Kincaid totaled 1,400 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns, as Utah won back-to-back Pac-12 titles.
Recruiting isn’t an exact science ⬇️
Dalton Kincaid only played one year of high school football after dominating on the basketball court 🏈🏀
Scored the only TD Bishop Gorman allowed in their first 6 games of the season. Now, he’s a projected 1st rounder in the 2023 NFL Draft pic.twitter.com/HdZCaXm5NJ
— The Underclassman Report (@TheUCReport) April 18, 2023
Boston College | 2019 recruiting ranking: Three stars
Scouts Inc. ranking for the 2023 NFL draft: 21
Flowers was listed at 5-10, 160 pounds in high school, but even that was generous. He hasn’t grown much in height, but he put on 22 pounds of explosive muscle during his time in Chestnut Hill. From a positional standpoint, he was the No. 123 WR nationally; next week, he is projected to be among the first at his position to come off the board.
Flowers was a consensus three-star from Florida without offers from any of the in-state blue bloods. Aside from lacking size, he also lacked exposure. Flowers was a modest prospect who stayed off the camp and combine circuits and didn’t run track to capture any verified speed metrics. He was a two-way starter at wide receiver and defensive back. He was extremely quick but had yet to refine his pass-catching skills.
Boston College was the perfect spot to contribute early and utilize his versatility. In four seasons, he totaled 3,056 receiving yards and 29 touchdowns, including 1,077 yards and 12 scores in 2022. Success is often based on circumstance, and Flowers was given the perfect opportunity to soar with the Eagles.
Kansas State | 2020 recruiting ranking: Three stars
Scouts Inc. ranking for the 2023 NFL draft: 31
Anudike-Uzomah had one Power 5 offer out of high school: Kansas State. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Wildcats are one of the best programs in the country at identifying and evaluating sleepers. While we saw a three-star prospect despite his big frame (6-3, 220) and ability to move well, Kansas State saw more.
“We saw a long frame that could handle 260 and retain that great upfield quickness he flashed in high school,” said Hank Jacobs, Kansas State’s director of recruiting. “We also thought he had an extremely high ceiling because of his work ethic.”
Anudike-Uzomah went on to dominate at KSU as sophomore and junior, earning Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2022 with team highs of 11 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks included in 46 total stops during 14 starts. Although he is a bit raw in terms of NFL projections, he’s considered one of the top-rated defensive ends in the draft, far surpassing his No. 220 positional ranking out of high school.
Kansas State rarely lands in our Top 25 class rankings 📈
However, very few teams do a better job of recognizing and developing talent than the Wildcats 🏈
Case in point: DE Felix Anudike-Uzomah. He’ll be featured in our upcoming ESPN draft article on unheralded CFB recruits 🔜 pic.twitter.com/nyV76o5xch
— The Underclassman Report (@TheUCReport) April 18, 2023