College Scout Ruston Webster enjoys studying videotape, which is fortunate since he must spend hours on end at the task
Consider three Tampa Bay Buccaneers, past and present: DT Santana Dotson, WR Karl Williams and DT Anthony McFarland.
On the surface, they might appear to have little in common. Dotson was a 1992 fifth-round draft choice from a medium-sized school, Baylor, a fine college player whose NFL stock had slipped due to questions about his effort. Williams was an unknown wide receiver with 66 career receptions at tiny Texas A&M-Kingsville, grabbed up by the Bucs as an undrafted free agent. McFarland was a highly-publicized offense-wrecker at a football powerhouse, Louisiana State, and an easy choice as the Bucs' first-round pick in 1999.
All three have gone on to fine NFL careers, albeit much of it with the Green Bay Packers for Dotson. And, while they seem to have very disparate backgrounds, their three routes to the NFL have one very real connection: Ruston Webster.
Before any of these three, or any player in what Tampa Bay terms the Southwest Region, could begin a path towards Bucdom, they had to impress Webster, the team's college scout for that area.
Webster is one of five regional college scouts in the Buccaneers' personnel department, a quintet of football lifers who spend weeks and weeks on the road every year laying the foundation for the team's annual draft efforts. They are at ground zero, first contact with the college players that may become hot prospects or surprise picks. The men who make the final personnel decisions for the Bucs – General Manager Rich McKay, Head Coach Tony Dungy, Director of Player Personnel Jerry Angelo and Director of College Scouting Tim Ruskell – don't even look at a college player until he has been graded by Webster or one of his colleagues.
That means a lot of responsibility for Webster and, moreover, a lot of ground to cover. The state of Texas alone is a huge, dense region of football talent, and it is only part of Webster's chunk of the map. So, year after year (he's been in the Bucs' personnel department since 1988), Webster hits the highway.
"I'm on the road pretty consistently," he said. "From the middle of August, every week, until the end of the college season, I'm out there. Then we have a break when the college season ends, then we go to the All-Star games. Right after that, we start meetings and then we head to the (NFL scouting) combine. Then we hit the road again once the workouts start on March 1st. I don't know how many weeks it is, but it's the majority of the year."
The Bucs' regional scouts are not based in Tampa but rather maintain homes somewhere within their designated region. Webster, for instance, has made a permanent home in Cordova, Tennessee with wife Gayle and their two children, Hannah and Jacob. During the fall, obviously the busiest time of the year for a college scout, Webster generally spends 10-12 days on the road followed by about three at home. That cycle repeats throughout the fall; during spring workouts, he gets home almost every weekend.
That's no easier than it sounds. As much as Webster enjoys his job – and it's clear that he does, quite a bit – the tradeoff of one weekend at home every two weeks during the fall is a difficult one.
"It's hard," Webster admitted. "You've got a family. That's the hard part, especially when you've got kids. But, when I'm home, I'm home. So, I'm kind of able to make up for it. I try to get my work done on the road so I don't have too much to do when I get home for three days. Then I hit it again. You get used to it, but it does get old some times.
"You just get to that point. You get tired of hotel rooms and being in different places. If the team's doing well, it's a little easier. If the team's not doing well, it can affect the way you feel about your job, too. It gets frustrating for the scouts, too. There's always a time every year that I think I need to do something else. But I don't know what else I would do and enjoy it as much."
The schedule is made even tougher by an endless parade of hotel rooms and mile after mile of highway. Typically, Webster will begin a week by heading out on Monday, what he calls a 'travel day', in order to get in the first college town on the itinerary by that evening. That allows him to spend the night and get started first thing in the morning, watching videotape somewhere on campus.
After the early film session, Webster goes in search of people within the football department to interview regarding the players he is scouting. He's interested in the 'intangibles' you can't see on the videotape – a player's background, how hard he works, his feel for the game. Around 3:00 p.m., generally, it's time to hit the practice field and see the prospects in action.
As soon as practice has ended, the scout hits the road, because there's another school with the exact same schedule on the agenda for Wednesday. That's how the week goes, one school a day unless there's a football giant on the list, a Florida State, say, that might need a two-day visit to catch up on all the prospects. Reports are filed on laptops during the lonely evenings in hotel rooms. As he said, Webster wants to have all the work tied up before he gets back to his family in Cordova.
"You drink a lot of coffee," said Webster of the non-stop schedule. "Coffee in the morning and Mountain Dew at night. Whatever I can do to stay awake."
Webster has maintained this type of schedule for more than a decade and become a very valuable, if somewhat anonymous, cog in the Bucs' personnel efforts. It is a difficult routine, but one that has allowed him to develop the work ethic that he feels is crucial to his profession.
"You have to be able to recognize talent," said Webster of his job requirements. "You have to know your team and what kind of players fit your scheme in order to be able to recommend guys. And then you just have to work hard. You've got to dig. You've got to dig for information and you've got to hustle. The work ethic in scouting is half the battle.
"You're on the road, you're busting it, you're by yourself. You get tired and it's easy to make excuses (to work less). But if you work and you've got an eye, you've got a chance. A lot of it is talking to people and finding out what their experiences with the players are."
Before joining the Buccaneers in '88, Webster was moving down a different football path, trying his hand at coaching at Tulsa and Alabama. Since moving over to the personnel side, however, he has never looked back.
"I enjoy it more (than coaching)," he explained. "I seem to have a little more stability, even though the travel is major. But I do enjoy the scouting. I enjoy going on the road, seeing all the colleges, getting to know the players."
Coaching in the NFL is another profession best described as 'grueling', with long hours and heavy doses of stress. Scouting may be another step removed from the NFL limelight, but it has definite advantages over being on the sideline in Webster's mind.
"It's not quite as stressful during the season," he said. "The only stress is wanting the guys that you recommended to do well and wanting the team to win. You go up and down with the team. I enjoy it a little more. I like being in the film room, watching tapes with all the guys. When you see a player you really like and would like to get on your team, the feeling you get at that point – I like that."
Of course, only a handful of the players Webster scouts ever become Buccaneers; Tampa Bay's roster generally sports about five to 10 rookies a year. Still, the Bucs have emerged in recent years as one of the league's most successful drafting teams in part because of the depth of their preparation.
When one considers the thousands of college seniors across the land each year, that can be a daunting task, one that makes a scout team of five men seem small. Thus, the Bucs get an early start, using the summer before each college season to attempt to narrow down the field to the best prospects. That includes deciding which among the prospects fits specifically into what the Bucs are trying to do on the field.
From there, the Bucs hit the road and take a close-up look at each player on the list – actually, three looks by three different people if there is strong interest. They apply a laundry list of particulars to each prospect but also try to get an overall feel for the player.
"We have a list of specifics that we look for at each position, and we have a list of 'major factors,' as we call them, that apply to every player," said Webster. "That would be things such as production, athletic ability, toughness and how he competes. The specifics would be related directly to the position he plays."
A cornerback for instance, might be graded on how well he moves his hips, his overall body control, his ball skills and his tackling, the last of which is an emphasis particular to the Bucs' scheme. Each position has its own list, some more extensive than others. The most difficult position for a scout to get a true reading on is quarterback.
"You really have to study the quarterback," said Webster. "There are a lot of intangibles that go into how well a guy plays. Sometimes the guy can have a strong arm, be a big guy and have all the physical tools but he doesn't have the other stuff. Sometimes a guy can be missing something physically but his intangibles are such that he can play over it."
The Bucs' current starting quarterback, Shaun King, comes from Webster's region and was an interesting scouting decision in that he lacked the ideal size for an NFL hurler but seemed very high on the 'intangibles.' King became a starter before his rookie season was up.
And that's how a college scout stays personally connected to the success of his team. Seeing King take the team to the NFC Championship Game or watching Williams return a punt for a crucial touchdown against Buffalo last November, Webster feels a sense of accomplishment.
And that's good, because the romanticized version of the road scout, the baseball talent man who uncovers a Roy Hobbs, is mostly a thing of the past. Thirty-one NFL teams pounding the beat, independent scouting organizations around the country and increased fan interest in general means that no player really toils in obscurity. The hidden gem, the diamond in the rough that nobody else knows about, really isn't out there.
"It happens but it's hard for it to happen," said Webster of the hidden-gem phenomenon. "It's not so much that nobody knows about him, but you saw something in him that nobody else did. Every player gets seen, pretty much, at one point or another during the year. Other people may not like him, but you may have a conviction on him because you saw something in him. You recommend the guy and he makes it and plays.
"That's what it's all about. That's how a scout gets a high from what he's doing, when you recommend a guy and he plays well. When he does, it really makes it for you."