I'm a firm believer in the importance of program players. To some, this may be perceived as pejorative labeling, particularly when talking about young athletes, whose athletic upsides are often impossible to predict. No matter how much tape we study, no matter how many athletic traits we place confidence in, no matter how high their intelligence, character and work ethic may be, there's always room for failure. It's the innate trouble of human evaluation and expectation. People fail for any number of reasons, many times exclusive of their own ability to control.
So when I call someone a program player, there is no intent at a slight. A program player is quite often the lifeblood of the program itself. Sure, he may not win awards, show up on any All-everything lists, or move to a successful NFL career. But they will be consistent, reliable and trustworthy. They won't miss workouts or team meetings. They'll set the example for all young talent that enters the program. As Les Miles would say, "THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A FLOP THAT TAKES THE FIELD FOR OUR FOOTBALL TEAM. JUST SO YOU KNOW. I'M PROUD OF THOSE MEN."
Every so often a player finds his way into our recruiting class that I did not expect. I keep pretty good tabs on the players we are pursuing and even when new ones pop up, they're often on the radar for a few weeks before pulling the trigger on a commitment. Tony Upchurch falls squarely into that surprise category.
Hailing from Dawson, Texas, Upchurch is a guy that never got a ton of coverage. The recruiting sites didn't discuss him much, though he did finish as a composite 4-star on 247. He didn't make any HS All-American games. He didn't sport a lengthy offer list, or at least it wasn't reported. He's even an oddly configured prospect, standing between 6'1" and 6'2" and weighing 230 pounds as of his move onto campus a couple weeks ago. That's the type of build we have come to expect from linebackers and running backs, not outside receivers. Not that a player should be pigeonholed based on his size, but it's also tough to put into context. What other players are like that? Will he stay at receiver, despite seemingly being built for other duty?
Upchurch pledged way back in March of 2013, so he obviously did something to catch the coaching staff's eye. It's no secret that Adam Henry would like to add size to the wide receiver position. As sensational as Beckham and Landry both were, adding big-bodied targets remains a priority for Henry. Size is something Upchurch possesses in spades.
His recruitment never really picked up, nor did he seem to spend much time on the camp circuit looking to broaden his profile. Upchurch tallied 148 catches for 2,692 yards and 25 receiving touchdowns to go along with 66 carries for 753 yards and 7 rushing touchdowns, displaying his versatility.
He ranks as a composite 4-star on 247 with a .8917 rating. That puts him on the fringe of the top 50 receivers in the nation and around the 300th best player in the country.
110 - 101 = Franchise Player. One of the best players to come along in years, if not decades. Odds of having a player in this category every year is slim. This prospect has "can’t miss" talent.
100 - 98 = Five-star prospect. One of the top 30 players in the nation. This player has excellent pro-potential and should emerge as one of the best in the country before the end of his career.
97 - 90 = Four-star prospect. One of the top 300 players in the nation. This prospect will be an impact-player for his college team. He is an All-American candidate who displays pro-potential.
89 - 80 = Three-star prospect. One of the top 10% players in the nation. This player will develop into a reliable starter for his college team and is among the best players in his region of the country.
79 - below = Two-star prospect. This player makes up the bulk of Division I rosters. He may have little pro-potential, but is likely to become a role player for his respective school.
Tale of the Tape
Weight: 230 pounds
Can't find any testing times for Tony, but my guess is he's not an overly explosive athlete based on the tape. He doesn't look like a run fast, jump high type.
Strengths: Size, Versatility, Hands, Natural Runner
Weaknesses: Speed/Explosion, Natural Position, Route Running
Size: As documented above, Upchurch is a well built 6'1", 230 pounds already, pre-LSU conditioning. How much bigger will he get? That's roughly the same size as Leonard Fournette and 20 pounds heavier than Darrel Williams, though also a couple inches taller. He's bigger than every linebacker on the roster, sans Welter and Beckwith. That's one big wideout. With all that natural size, does he stick at reciever? The official roster lists him at 6'2", but I'd imagine he's somewhere between there and 6'1".
Versatility: You'll notice on tape that in HS Upchurch lined up all over the formation. He split out wide as a classic WR. He lined up in the slot. He even lined up as the RB on some snaps. At :30 (and :45 for a wider view) you can see him in the slot running up the seam and using his athleticism to get open on a safety that can't hang. At 1:21 he's lined up almost like an H-back, inside the trio of WRs. He runs a flag and makes a nice snag. They liked him in the slot in the RZ, probably to capitalize on his size advantage. Check him out at 1:50 and again at 2:00. At 2:08 he's the deep back in the rushing attack. 2:29 he's the deep back again, taking a toss. Finally they get him involved in the screen game at 3:33.
Hands: There's no better example than the first clip at :02. He goes up against tight coverage, he gets vertical and plucks the ball from the air with his big mitts. At :31 he makes a less difficult catch, but still a nice job tracking the ball over his shoulder and catching with his hands. At 1:30 his QB throws the ball out in front of him on the slant and he does a nice job extending his arms and plucking it from the air. He's certainly got big, nice mitts.
Natural Runner: Love the way he runs the ball at 2:08. He flashes good vision and does a good job of running to space rather than trying to break everything outside and hit a big play. His running style reminds me a bit of Joseph Addai, even. He's got good feet with the ball in his hands. 2:29 you see more of the same. At 3:33 we see that RAC ability and his patience as a runner. He allows his blocks to set up and shows good anticipation.
Speed/Explosion: On tape, he doesn't stand out as an explosive athlete. Upchurch just isn't a guy that's going to explode into the open field and beat people the corner. He's not going to scale up and win a ton of jump balls. That's just not his game. Now, he can use his natural size and strength to help overcome the lack of explosion.
Natural Position: Where does he play? To me, he's not really a WR. If he is a WR, he's almost certainly a slot all the way. He stated there's been no talk of moving him positions, but a lot can change once they get practicing. I think he could most easily fit as an H-back, moving around the formation, creating mismatches. Similar to how we use Travis Dickson now.
Route Running: On tape, there's not much happening here. Watch at :48. That's probably the best route he runs on this tape. He does a nice job of selling the go, plants his outside foot hard and cuts inside for the deep post. At 1:21 he runs a corner and though he goes out of frame, you can tell he kind of rounds it off just by the way he's running as he breaks toward the corner. At 1:41 he runs a decent slant, but he's given so much cushion it'd have been a shame to not catch it. He's not unlike most young WRs, and just needs some polish there.
When I label Tony Upchurch a program player, it's meant with the utmost respect. This is a guy that I can see coming in, being a four-year leader and eventually donning the #18. I don't think he will ever be one of the best players on the team, but he might be one of the hardest workers.
The question will be, what position does he wind up? I think he fits most naturally as an H-back, but they could beef him up and try him at fullback. They could shift him to defense and see how he looks as a linebacker. They could even try him as a running back. Hell, maybe he proves me wrong and sticks at receiver. None of those things would shock me terribly. Ultimately, having a coach like Cam Cameron should play into his favor.
We're moving into an era where the "prototypes" of each position or slowly drifting away as the emphasis shifts on "Well, what can you do?" It's the most logical approach, but it's also amazing how little it's been adhered to throughout history. Upchurch will be his best when he's not asked to do things he cannot do. In my opinion, that may mean not lining up outside unless they get a favorable match-up. It may mean moving him around the formation and isolating him on slower LBs that can't handle his speed and smaller DBs that can't handle his size. Upchurch should not be a player the coaches look at and say, "Well, he can't run a 4.4 and he's not big enough to block on the end as a TE, may as well just not use him." Find ways to get him the ball. Let him be a weapon.
Because, after all, that's what program players really do. Find ways to become useful.
High End: Role player, potential starter, future No. 18 recipient.
Low End: Never sees the field on anything but special teams.
Realistic: Special teams ace, part-time offensive weapon, team leader.