It's that time of year again! The first edition of the ESPNU 150 for 2009 has been revealed. It's sure to hold some surprises, maybe even some shockers, but also some reality checks in terms of hype, overhype or even a lack of hype for some prospects.
If you have kept up with our content over the past three months or so, you know we have closely scrutinized the quarterback position -- including guys who are considered dual threats who may move to another position. With ESPN's acquisition of the Nike Football Training Camps and the Elite 11, we have been more "up close and personal" in our spring evaluation period than ever before. Based on the gathered information, it became clear to us that QB Matt Barkley (Santa Ana, Calif./Mater Dei), ATH/QB Russell Shepard (Houston/Cy-Ridge) and QB Aaron Murray (Tampa, Fla./Plant Senior) are a cut above and thus captured the top three spots of the first edition of the 2009 ESPNU 150.
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ESPN's in-depth look at the top talent in high school football involved scouting nearly 2,000 prospects. The ESPNU 150 will change throughout the year with a player's final ranking getting determined before national signing day.
What else can be said about Barkley that hasn't already been said? He has the size, arm and fundamentals, and perhaps the one determining factor that gives him the nod at No. 1 is the fact that he does not have bona fide playmakers around him with great speed, size and the ability to create mismatches. This is not a knock on Mater Dei's football team; coach Bruce Rollison is one of the finer coaches in high school football and he has won for a lot of years. Still, unlike QB Jimmy Clausen, who had several BCS-caliber players around him in high school, Barkley simply does not have that luxury.
Shepard's athletic accomplishments are nothing short of sensational. Like Will Hill last year, Shepard can change a game every time he touches the football (except Shepard is more likely to remain at QB in college because of his upside as a passer). He is lightning in a bottle as a read-option QB and a nightmare in space to deal with when he takes off and improvises. Shepard's development as a passer is ongoing. His progress in the pocket ultimately will dictate whether he stays at quarterback or gets moved to another position down the road. Compared to Terrelle Pryor, last year's top dual-threat prospect, Shepard has played against far greater competition, and although he doesn't possess the same arm strength or height, Shepard has better throwing mechanics and is every bit as fast, and he's smoother an athlete.
Although our No. 3 prospect in the land, QB Aaron Murray, may be a surprise to some fans, it probably isn't to those who have watched him closely as a junior and have seen him absolutely rise to the occasion on the spring and summer circuit. Murray is the ideal blend of passer and athlete, gunslinger and risk taker. The only true knock on him is that he is on the shorter side in terms of ideal measurables (listed as 6-foot-1). But I think there is enough proof with QBs like Chase Daniel, Matt Grothe and Todd Reesing to put that worry to rest, especially if he plays out of the shotgun.
Kennard could make a serious push for No. 1 at some point down the line, much like DaQuan Bowers in the 2008 class. Although Kennard may not be quite as physically imposing as Bowers, you could argue that he is a better technician at this stage. Kennard is a potential difference-maker off the edge as a pass-rusher, and he is also a stout run-stopper; he's the total package at defensive end.
If you've paid attention to our lists in the past, you know how much we value cornerbacks. Aside from quarterback, it is the most difficult position to find, project and oftentimes develop. That's because most cornerbacks in college didn't start out as corners coming out of high school. This is why Kirkpatrick (Gadsden, Ala.) is so valuable. He is tall (6-2), a true corner, and he can run and play in run support with safety-type determination. Coming into the process, Kirkpatrick was a sure top-10 player, but after further examination, he is special and worthy of a top-five slot.
As we entered into the selection process of the 2009 ESPNU 150, our fourth class as a group here at Scouts Inc., we quickly realized we had mixed feelings on just about every player who was considered. That was likely a result of our seeing more prospects than ever before at this point in the year, both in person and on tape. We have never been even close to the 2,000-player mark at this point before, but we are quickly approaching that milestone. Our increased exposure to players has given us much more information to consider -- especially when you take a player's weaknesses into account. All players have weaknesses, regardless of who they are, especially at this age. In other words, it's easy to turn on some highlight film on the Internet and get excited about a guy. The more important factor, from a scouting perspective, is how that player looks when he's not on a highlight tape.
The ESPNU 150's top schools
For the first time, we feel we can honestly say that the race for the nation's top player is one that could go back and forth for months; the top three players in the ESPNU 150 are all worthy, and so are a few who are right on their heels. In our opinion, much like college football these days, this class offers more parity and comparable prospects than many of the classes before it. The top 25-30 prospects all have a legitimate case for being ranked higher than they are, and many are interchangeable. Conversely, on the back end of the 150, for each of the prospects ranked from 101-150 in this first edition, there are another 50 or 60 prospects right on the cusp who are deserving and could find themselves jumping in and out of the rankings leading up to signing day.
While some prospects aren't as strong as those in the 2008 class, the depth of this class in the grade range of 80-81 is strong (including those who did not make the 150).
Keep in mind that, aside from the 2006 class, we have yet to start the rankings off with a No. 1 player who finished in the top spot. The evaluation process is constantly evolving. So excellent, unknown players will certainly pop up between now and February -- like WR DJ Grant in 2008 and 2007 class surprise DE Carlos Dunlap, both of whom were not even evaluated until the fall.
We are also keeping a close eye on guys who suffered injuries as juniors but who could come up big their senior years and make a big jump in the rankings. DE Chris Bonds (Columbia, S.C./Richland Northeast) and OT J.K. Jay (Greenville, S.C./Christ Church Episcopal) come to mind in this category. We are even waiting on more film of certain guys already in the 150 and some who we are going to see in person soon to make further determinations regarding the current rankings. The running back and athlete positions are two that warrant a closer look.
No shortage of OLBs
This year's group is extremely fast and agile, but as the trend continues to be on the smaller side, only two of the 12 OLBs in the ESPN 150 stand taller than 6-2 and only two are 230 pounds or heavier. Outside linebacker, especially on the weakside, has become more of a strong safety position with guys who run like the wind and pursue sideline-to-sideline. This group can hit, too, with guys like Jelani Jenkins (Wheaton, Md./Good Counsel) and Tom Wort (New Braunfels, Texas), but hitting and tackling are two different things. The 2009 linebackers showed some inconsistency in their tackling production. They might want to take a cue from this year's group of corners.
Where are the inside linebackers?
Sadly, the crop of inside linebackers is very thin. With 75 inside linebackers graded to this point in the 2009 class, only 17 have a grade of 78 or higher, and just three of them made the ESPN 150 out of the gate. ILB Vontaze Burfict (Corona, Calif./Centennial) is the best blend of size, speed, range and inside plugging ability in this class.
Corners who will tackle!
Yep, you read it right. This class has some cornerbacks who take pride in run support and have a displayed a knack for consistent open-field tackling. Guys like Darius Winston (Helena, Ark./West Helena) and LSU commit Janzen Jackson (Lake Charles, La./Barbe) will come up and lay a hit on you, sometimes with bone-crushing force. In fact, this class of corners as a whole, especially guys near the top, is full of well-rounded football players; they are more than cover guys. With so much Cover 2 being played, the true man-to-man corner isn't the only guy coaches covet these days. Eight cornerbacks are peppered throughout the 150.
Offensive line is a strength
Twenty offensive linemen (12 OTs, seven OGs and one OC) grace the 150 with their presence. Some of the guys who play tackle now will end up at guard down the road -- Xavier Su'aFilo (Pleasant Grove, UT/Timpview) and Thomas Ashcraft (Cedar Hill, Texas) are two examples. The tackles are extremely athletic. Mason Walters (Wolfforth, Texas/Frenship) is one of the best tackle prospects we have seen since Andre Smith -- the 6-foot-7 standout even plays center. OT Paden Kelley (Austin, Texas/Lake Travis) is the surprise, underrated prospect in this group, in our opinion.
Ala.: 6; Ark: 1;
Ariz: 3; Calif: 16; Fla: 23; Ga.: 16; Hawaii: 1; Iowa: 2; Ill.: 5; Ind: 2; Kan.: 1; La.: 7; Md.: 2; Mich.: 1; Minn: 2; Mo.: 1; Miss.: 2; N.C.: 3; N.J.: 1; Nev.: 1; Ohio: 6; Okla.: 2; Penn.: 5; S.C.: 10; Tenn.: 2; Texas: 19; Utah: 2; and Va.: 8
Tom Luginbill is the national director of recruiting for Scouts Inc. Luginbill is a college football and recruiting studio analyst for ESPNU.