One of the best sleeper recruits in recent conference history, Chargers cornerback Antoine Cason was lightly recruited coming out of high school.
There is a perpetual debate among college football fans who follow recruiting as to whether or not recruiting rankings really matter that much. Most detractors will regularly point to the plethora of players drafted each year that were completely unknown and unheralded recruits coming out of high school.
Though the vast majority of draft picks and all-conference players are highly recruited athletes coming out of high school, there always seems to be a number of players each season who somehow slipped through the cracks of hype. While the majority of these types of players usually end up signing at non-BCS conference schools, the Pac-12 has produced a good number of sleeper type players who were two or one-star recruits coming out of high school since the advent of online recruiting rankings.
With the NFL Draft having just wrapped up, it is an interesting time to take a look at the Top 10 recruiting sleepers to sign with and play on Pac-12 schools since 2002 since some have gone onto successful NFL careers after great careers in the Pac-12.
*Obviously players who have signed in the last few years will have a harder time making the list since they have had less time to succeed and only players who have been signed in the last two classes by Utah and Colorado were considered since they were not in the conference beforehand. Also, walk on players were not considered since they were not actually recruited by schools.
1. J.J. Arrington - RB - Class of 2003 - Rocky Mount, NC - College of the Canyons (Santa Clarita, CA) - Cal
Cal scored big when they snagged Arrington out of College of the Canyons, where he had been placed by East Carolina in hopes that the tough running back would return after completing his JC degree. After a controversial recruiting battle between Cal and Oregon where Ducks running back coach Gary Campbell was involved with the forging of Arrington's father's signature (How he kept his job after this is confounding), Cal got Arrington for two years and he made them count. After a solid junior season, Arrington put together one of the best seasons any running back has ever had in college football, racking up more than 2,000 yards and 15 touchdowns. A second round draft pick by the Cardinals, Arrington failed to ever really make an impact in the NFL after bouncing around with a few teams.
2. Derek Hagan - WR - Class of 2002 - Palmdale, CA - Arizona State
Completely unranked coming out of high school, then coach Dirk Koetter plucked the completely ignored receiver out of the fine city of Palmdale. Hagan quickly teamed with quarterback Andrew Walter and made an impact his sophomore season with more than 1,000 yards receiving. By the time he left Tempe after the 2005 season, he ended up with the second most receptions and receiving yards in conference history. A third round draft pick by the Dolphins in 2006, Hagan struggled with dropped passes and was out of the league after a few seasons.
3. Antoine Cason - CB - Class of 2004 - Los Alamitos, CA - Arizona
Cason was actually overshadowed by his teammate Randy Estes (Who was featured in my biggest recruiting busts Top 10) at Los Alamitos who was considered to be the best safety recruit on the West Coast going into his senior season. Somehow, the majority of the big time schools who scouted Estes passed on Cason and he ended up signing with Arizona over Oregon State. Cason started nearly every game of his four year career in Tucson and ended up taking home the Jim Thorpe Award and being named a consensus All-American his senior season. A big cornerback (6'1 195), Cason was the most highly rated cornerback going into the 2008 draft and was taken by the Chargers with the 27th pick. Cason hasn't developed into the shutdown corner many thought he would be coming out of Arizona but has started for the Chargers infrequently over the last couple of seasons.
4. Alex Mack - C - Class of 2004 - Santa Barbara, CA - San Marcos - Cal
A fantastic student, Mack chose Cal over Stanford and Northwestern and continued his academic success off the field earning the Draddy Trophy (The academic Heisman) two seasons in a row. Incredibly, Mack was equally as impressive on the field, winning the Morris Trophy in 2007 and 2008 and being named First Team All-Pac-10 three times. Unlike some of the other guys on this list, Mack has done nothing but continue the success he had in college after being drafted by the Browns with the 21st pick of the 2009 draft as he has started nearly every game of his career and was selected for the Pro Bowl in 2011.
5. Max Unger - T - Class of 2004 - Kamuela, HI - Hawaii Prep - Oregon
Hidden away at a small prep school, Unger went under the radar in high school and Mike Belotti and the Ducks were lucky enough to earn the signature of the gem from the big island. Unger started all four years at Oregon, earning first team All-Pac-10 honors as a junior and senior while paving the way for the start of the Ducks high octane offense in its infancy. Not ignored coming out of college, Unger was selected by the Seahawks in the second round of the 2009 draft and has started every game in which he has been healthy during the last three seasons.
6. Alex Brink - QB - Class of 2003 - Eugene, OR - Sheldon - Washington State
Despite being named the Oregon Player of the Year, putting up huge numbers and leading his team to a state championship as a senior, Brink was not offered by Oregon or Oregon State and actually ended up committing to Boise State before flipping to WSU a few days later. Brink started nearly every game of his career as a Cougar and graduated as not only one of the most prolific passers in Cougar history, but in conference history, finishing as the third leading career passer in yards and fifth in career touchdowns. Despite being the only quarterback in Cougar history to beat the hated Huskies three times, Brink fielded a lot of the disappointment Cougar fans felt for the team's lack of success during his career. Brink ended up being drafted by the Texans in the seventh round of the 2008 draft but failed to stick in the league and is now in the CFL.
7. Jason Hill - WR - Class of 2003 - San Francisco, CA - Sacred Heart - Washington State
Lightly recruited coming out of high school despite being the runner up for City of San Francisco Player of the Year award as a senior, Hill chose Washington State over Oregon State with little fanfare. Though having only played receiver for one year in high school, it didn't take Hill long to catch on at WSU as he terrorized Pac-10 corners with his deceptive speed and quickness on fade routes. At the end of his career, Hill was second all-time in receiving touchdowns in conference history and near the top of the record books for every receiving category at WSU. After a great combine, Hill was drafted in the third round by his hometown 49ers and despite showing flashes of what made him great in college, has failed to establish himself as a consistent receiver in the NFL.
8. Jarius Byrd - CB - Class of 2005 - Clayton, MO - Oregon
Byrd was a do everything type of player who led his high school to the state championship his senior year as a dual-threat quarterback, wide receiver, safety and return man and despite being passed over by the top schools in his region, earned an offer from the Ducks. The Ducks scored big taking a flyer on the undersized quarterback/utility man who didn't have outstanding speed as he started at cornerback nearly every game of his career and earned first team All-Pac-10 honors as a junior along with leading the Ducks to victory in the 2008 Holiday Bowl. After forgoing his senior season, Byrd was selected by the Bills in the second round and made the Pro Bowl as a rookie after grabbing nine interceptions in his first season.
9. Mason Foster - LB - Class of 2007 - Seaside, CA - Washington
Much has been made about Tyrone Willingham's inability to recruit during his tenure at Washington, but there is no arguing that his staff did an excellent job in identifying Foster as a Pac-10 level player and offering. Probably the least recruited guy coming out of high school on this list, Washington found Foster in the lightly recruited Monterey Bay area and he was a virtual unknown to fans when he signed. Once on the field, Foster quickly made sure everyone knew who he was, leading the conference in tackles as only a sophomore. A key part in a group of players that pulled Washington out of the conference cellar, Foster led the Huskies to a Holiday Bowl victory in 2010 and was second in the nation in tackles. Foster's monster senior season led to him being taken by the Buccaneers in the third round of the 2011 draft and he started nearly every game for them in 2011.
10. Patrick Chung - S - Class of 2004 - Rancho Cucamonga, CA - Oregon
An undersized cornerback coming out of high school, Oregon was the only BCS offer for Chung and it ended up being a wise one by the Ducks. After redshirting, Chung immediately made an impact, earning all conference honors as a freshman before going on to being named first team All-Pac-10 as a junior and senior. A physical and tough safety, Chung racked up tackles and big hits for the Ducks and holds the distinction of starting more games for the school than any other defensive player. Since being taken in the second round of the 2009 draft by the Patriots, Chung has developed into a starter and one of the leaders of the defense.
Yvenson Bernard (Class of 2003 RB Boca Raton, FL Oregon State), Donald Butler (Class of 2006 LB Fair Oaks, CA Washington), Juron Criner (Class of 2008 WR Las Vegas, NV Arizona), Andy Levitre (Class of 2004 G Felton, CA Oregon State), Mike Mohamed (Class of 2006 LB Brawley, CA Cal), James Rodgers (Class of 2007 WR Rosenberg, TX Oregon State)