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Peak Perspective: What position does each team excel at developing?

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A look at each school’s development over the past decade.

It is common for announcers during games, or even fans on social media, to make claims that “_____ team does a great job developing ____ position.” It sounds nice, but how accurate is it? How does anyone know if teams actually do well at developing a particular position? Today’s column will attempt to examine just that.

A team’s success at developing different positions will be measure by using two different criteria, players being named to all-conference teams and players drafted in the NFL.

Players on all-conference teams were tallied by the names listed on the official Mountain West site. The years used for this article were 2013-2019, which are the years all 12 current teams have played in the Mountain West. All-conference team numbers include the first and second teams, but not the honorable mentions.

NFL draft picks since 2010, which were found via pro-football-reference. The past ten years were used as the benchmark, regardless of the team being in the conference at the time.

This exercise is far from a perfect science when evaluating teams. For instance, not all positions are the same, meaning there is only one quarterback on all-conference teams but five offensive linemen or four defensive backs. Therefore, teams will have more of those positions highlighted below than positions where only one player is on the field or named on an all-conference team. On the other hand, just because a position has more opportunities doesn’t mean a team takes advantage of that.

This doesn’t consider coaching changes or differences in philosophies that occurred at different teams. Even the cutoff years that were decided won’t allow some teams or coaching staff to tell the full story.

Also, only looking at players drafted by NFL teams doesn’t fully reflect the number of talent teams put in the NFL, as the Mountain West has several players who have been or currently are on teams after being undrafted free agents.

In some ways, this compares a specific team to the rest of the conference. However, in many ways, this is a comparison of each team in relation to themselves. How does the team ____ develop a specific position compared to their ability to develop other positions?

Note: I’m 97% sure I got the numbers correct on the all-conference selections, but if I made an error, it was not done intentionally and hopefully did not detract from the discussions in the post.

Air Force

Initial Guess: Running backs, offensive line, defensive backs

Positions on all-conference teams by number (24): Offensive Line (8), Defensive Back (5), Defensive Line (5), Linebackers (3), Special Teams (2), Wide Receiver (1)

Positions drafted by the NFL by number (1): Special Teams (1)

Total: 25

The first thing that comes to mind is: how does AFA have a wide receiver on an all-conference team and not a running back? Other than that surprise, it’s about par for the course for the Falcons. They don’t put many players in the draft, but their offensive and defensive lineman plus their defensive backs show up on the all-Mountain West teams. There are critical positions in the Falcon schemes, which appear to help certain positions and hurt others. The outcomes are pretty straightforward.

Boise State

Initial Guess: Running backs, Offensive Line, Defensive Line

Positions on all-conference teams by number (71): Offensive Line (16), Defensive Line (14), Defensive Back (14), Special Teams (5), Wide Receiver (5), Running back (6), Quarterback (5), Linebacker (4), Tight End (2)

Positions drafted by the NFL by number (26): Defensive Line (6), Defensive Back (5), Offensive Line (5), Wide Receiver (4), Running Backs (4), Linebacker (2)

Total: 97

The largest total number on this list by a surprisingly wide margin, the Broncos excel in developing a number of positions. They have a streak of putting left tackles in the NFL dating back fifteen years and have a recent history of doing the same with running backs and pass rushers. Boise State continually finds production in their defensive backs, and in the past few years, their wide receivers have gotten much more attention. None of this should be surprising given how they recruit and win on an annual basis.

Colorado State

Initial Guess: Wide Receivers

Positions on all-conference teams by number (35): Offensive Line (8), Wide Receiver (6), Special Teams (5), Linebacker (4), Tight End (3), Quarterback (3), Running Back (3), Defensive Back (2), Defensive Line (1)

Positions drafted by the NFL by number (9): Wide Receiver (3), Offensive Line (3), Quarterback (1), Tight End (1), Linebacker (1)

Total: 44

In a surprise to absolutely no one, the Rams excel at developing wide receivers and have for quite some time. Their success at developing offensive lineman is a bit of a surprise. Special teams make sense, but linebacker was a little surprising as well. The Rams are another team that can be said to have talent each year without seeing results on the field. However, aside from linebacker, most of their development is on the offensive side of the ball.

Fresno State

Initial Guess: Defensive Backs

Positions on all-conference teams by number (34): Linebacker (7), Offensive Line (6), Defensive Back (5), Wide Receiver (5), Special Teams (3), Defensive Line (3), Running back (2), Tight End (2), Quarterback (1)

Positions drafted by the NFL by number (13): Wide Receiver (3), Offensive Line (3), Linebacker (2), Defensive Back (2), Quarterback (1), Running Back (1), Defensive Line (1)

Total: 47

The Bulldogs do a great job of developing many positions. Specifically, linebacker, offensive line, wide receiver, and defensive back stand out more than all the rest. They’ve produced a pretty high level of talent throughout the years and have enough winning series to show they can make pretty good use of it. Also, Fresno State is tied for third in the conference with the highest number of players drafted. When looking at development, the Bulldogs are among the top programs in the conversation.

Hawaii

Initial Guess: Quarterbacks, Wide Receivers

Positions on all-conference teams by number (14): Wide Receiver (3), Offensive Line (3), Defensive Line (3), Linebacker (2), Quarterback (1), Running Back (1), Special Teams (1)

Positions drafted by the NFL by number (8): Wide Receiver (3), Linebacker (2), Quarterback (1), Running Back (1), Fullback (1)

Total: 22

Hawaii ended up with the third-lowest total out of the twelve teams. They are at their best when developing wide receivers and linebackers and putting them in the league. Unlike the Falcon running backs, the Rainbow Warrior wideouts don’t seem to have their offensive scheme held against them. Quarterbacks may be a different story, however. Linebackers are a developmental success they can hang their hat on, and it will be worth keeping an eye on if offensive line numbers keep increasing in the future.

Nevada

Initial Guess: Offensive Line, Defensive Backs

Positions on all-conference teams by number (22): Defensive Line (7), Offensive Line (4), Special Teams (4), Linebacker (3), Defensive Back (2), Wide Receiver (1), Tight End (1)

Positions drafted by the NFL by number (11): Linebacker (3), Defensive Back (3), Offensive Line (2), Quarterback (1), Tight End (1), Wide Receiver (1)

Total: 33

The Wolf Pack do their best work in the trenches. The defensive line populates the all-Mountain West teams, although it hasn’t shown up in the draft numbers yet. O-line is something they’ve been recognized for and continually seem to have a draft-worthy prospect at that position the past few years. They also are getting good returns on their investment at defensive back.

New Mexico

Initial Guess: Special Teams, Offensive Line

Positions on all-conference teams by number (14): Special Teams (6), Offensive Line (3), Running Back (2), Defensive Line (2), Linebacker (1)

Positions drafted by the NFL by number (2): Special Teams (1), Offensive Line (1)

Total: 16

It’s nice when complete guesses on the position the Lobos develop end up being accurate. And it wasn’t just lip service either. For all the struggles the New Mexico football program has had over the years, they were consistent with their specialists and offensive linemen being bright spots. Interpret that how you will, but the fact remains those positions have stood out over the years.

San Diego State

Initial Guess: Running Backs, Offensive Line, Tight Ends, Defensive Backs

Positions on all-conference teams by number (50): Defensive Back (13), Offensive Line (12), Special Teams (7), Linebacker (6), Defensive Line (5), Running Back (4), Tight End (3)

Positions drafted by the NFL by number (18): Running Back (4), Defensive Back (3), Offensive Line (3), Wide Receivers (3), Tight End (2), Quarterback (1), Defensive Line (1), Linebacker (1)

Total: 68

The second-highest total in the conference comes from another program at or near the top of the conference standings every year. While it was a bit surprising their totals at running back are not higher on all-conference teams, they are still the second-best at that position. To no one’s surprise, they are exceptional at developing both offensive linemen and defensive backs, and for good measure, they add in some quality development with specialists. They consistently out-perform their recruiting rankings, and this continues that pattern.

San Jose State

Initial Guess: Defensive Line, Defensive Backs

Positions on all-conference teams by number (23): Defensive Back (4), Linebacker (4), Wide Receiver (3), Special Teams (3), Quarterback (2), Tight End (2), Defensive Line (2), Offensive Line (2), Running Back (1)

Positions drafted by the NFL by number (8): Defensive Back (3), Offensive Line (2), Quarterback (1), Running Back (1), Tight End (1)

Total: 31

It was a bit surprising the Spartans ended up with as large a total number as they did. This can be interpreted in one of two ways. Either they always have a few good players but not enough depth or overall talent to produce good teams, or they do less with more talent than most other programs. They also spread the recognition around to a number of different positions, but defensive back stands out the most on the list above.

UNLV

Initial Guess: Linebackers, Defensive Line

Positions on all-conference teams by number (12): Running back (4), Wide Receiver (3), Offensive Line (2), Defensive Back (1), Defensive Line (1), Linebacker (1)

Positions drafted by the NFL by number (1): Offensive Line (1)

Total: 13

In a surprising outcome, the Rebels produce the lowest total amount of players. In some ways, it can be argued they do more (to some extent) with less, as they aren’t a terrible team every year. The numbers show they do a decent enough job developing running backs, but otherwise, not much stands out for UNLV.

Utah State

Initial Guess: Linebackers, Quarterbacks

Positions on all-conference teams by number (30): Linebacker (9), Defensive Back (5), Special Teams (4), Defensive Line (4), Offensive Line (3), Wide Receiver (2), Quarterback (1), Running Back (1), Pass Rusher (1)

Positions drafted by the NFL by number (13): Running Back (5), Defensive Back (4), Linebacker (3), Quarterback (1)

Total: 43

The Aggie’s linebacker development stands out above and beyond their other positions, which should not be a surprise considering the number of players they’ve put on the all-MWC teams as well as in the NFL. They have also been very successful in producing high-quality defensive backs. It’s also worth noting their running backs get noticed and drafted by the NFL despite not getting any recognition on all-conference teams.

Wyoming

Initial Guess: Running Backs, Linebackers, Defensive Backs

Positions on all-conference teams by number (27): Defensive Line (6), Defensive Back (6), Running Back (5), Offensive Line (3), Special Teams (3), Linebacker (2), Tight End (1), Quarterback (1)

Positions drafted by the NFL by number (11): Defensive Back (4), Linebacker (3), Quarterback (1), Running Back (1), Wide Receiver (1), Offensive Line (1)

Total: 38

The Cowboys have produced most of their players during the Bohl era, so they are more of an up and coming program in the player development department. True to form, they are strong in the three defensive units as well as the running back position. It’s a pretty good formula and one that has been working thus far for the Cowboys.

Were any of these numbers eye-opening? Let’s look at each team’s totals in a few different ways to continue viewing the data.

The total number of players on both lists combined:

Boise State: 97

SDSU: 68

Fresno State: 47

Colorado State: 44

Utah State: 43

Wyoming: 38

Nevada: 33

SJSU: 31

Air Force: 25

Hawaii: 22

New Mexico: 16

UNLV: 13

Ranking each position by school (both all-MWC and draft):

Quarterback

  • Boise State: 5
  • Colorado State: 4
  • SJSU: 3
  • Fresno State: 2
  • Hawaii: 2
  • Utah State: 2
  • Wyoming: 2
  • Nevada: 1
  • SDSU: 1

Running Back

  • Boise State: 10
  • SDSU: 8
  • Utah State: 6
  • Wyoming: 6
  • UNLV: 4
  • Colorado State: 3
  • Fresno State: 3
  • Hawaii: 3 (counting their fullback here)
  • New Mexico: 2
  • SJSU: 2

Wide Receiver

  • Boise State: 9
  • Colorado State: 9
  • Fresno State: 8
  • Hawaii: 6
  • SDSU: 3
  • SJSU: 3
  • UNLV: 3
  • Nevada: 2
  • Utah State: 2
  • Air Force: 1
  • Wyoming: 1

Tight End

  • SDSU: 5
  • Colorado State: 4
  • SJSU: 3
  • Boise State: 2
  • Fresno State: 2
  • Nevada: 2
  • Wyoming: 1

Offensive Line

  • Boise State: 21
  • SDSU: 15
  • Colorado State: 11
  • Fresno State: 9
  • Air Force: 8
  • Nevada: 6
  • New Mexico: 4
  • SJSU: 4
  • Wyoming: 4
  • Hawaii: 3
  • UNLV: 3
  • Utah State: 3

Defensive Line

  • Boise State: 20
  • Nevada: 7
  • SDSU: 6
  • Wyoming: 6
  • Air Force: 5
  • Fresno State: 4
  • Utah State: 4
  • Hawaii: 3
  • New Mexico: 2
  • SJSU: 2
  • Colorado State: 1
  • UNLV: 1

Linebacker

  • Utah State: 12
  • Fresno State: 9
  • SDSU: 7
  • Boise State: 6
  • Nevada: 6
  • Colorado State: 5
  • Wyoming: 5
  • Hawaii: 4
  • SJSU: 4
  • Air Force: 3
  • Nevada: 1
  • UNLV: 1

Defensive Back

  • Boise State: 19
  • SDSU: 16
  • Wyoming: 10
  • Utah State: 9
  • Fresno State: 7
  • SJSU: 7
  • Air Force: 5
  • Nevada: 5
  • Colorado State: 2
  • UNLV: 1

Special Teams

  • New Mexico: 7
  • SDSU: 7
  • Boise State: 5
  • Colorado State: 5
  • Nevada: 4
  • Utah State: 4
  • Air Force: 3
  • Fresno State: 3
  • SJSU: 3
  • Wyoming: 3
  • Hawaii: 1

The number of different positions each team has:

Boise State: 9

Colorado State: 9

Fresno State: 9

SJSU: 9

Utah State: 9

Wyoming: 9

Hawaii: 8

Nevada: 8

SDSU: 8

Air Force: 6

UNLV: 6

New Mexico: 5

Conclusion:

This was a fun and interesting exercise to closely examine which teams excel at developing specific positions. The limitations described at the start of the article still hold true, but it doesn’t mean the results aren’t telling. The teams that consistently win year in and year out also positively correlate with developing a high number of players at multiple and key positions. The teams that struggle to win consistently also appear to struggle at developing players at any position with any frequency. As some teams demonstrated, developing players or specific positions doesn’t solely guarantee success on the field, but it is vital nonetheless.