ORLANDO, Fla. -- As expected, the second Under Armour All-American practice was a lot sharper with a much higher tempo than Wednesday's opening session. The players did far less thinking and more reacting, which allowed their natural skills and abilities to stand out, thus giving me the chance to get a more detailed evaluation.
As the speed and competition picked up a notch, it also became more apparent that the defenses for both the White and Black squads are ahead of the curve and may be more talented than their respective offenses. The timing and precision from both offenses was much improved, but the number of big plays was still limited. It is apparent that this year's receiving corps at the Under Armour Game is lacking its Julio Jones (Alabama) or A.J. Green (Georgia), both of whom participated in last year's game.
Helping to shut down the Black attack Thursday were a few players who came into this game without the national hype of some of their counterparts on offense.
Sunshine State sleepers stand out
Black corner Greg Reid (Valdosta, Ga./Lowndes) showed great cover and ball skills throughout Thursday's practice. Receivers had a very tough time creating separation on Reid with his smooth hips and foot-quickness. I also saw his versatility as a return specialist and the dynamic skills he's going to bring to the next level. Reid's a kid who is not going to blow you away at a combine with elite size and speed measurables, but he flashed the intangibles and willingness to be coached that has shown me that he can get on the field early in Gainesville, Fla.
Without ideal height, Petey Smith (Seffner, Fla./Armwood) may not pass the eyeball test with flying colors as an inside linebacker. This Black team fire hydrant, however, is deceptively athletic, instinctive and just a great football player. He has flashed his superior downhill run stopping skills, but it is his ability to sniff out plays and move in space that has exceeded expectations.
Florida was represented on offense as well: receivers Duron Carter (Fort Lauderdale, Fla./ St. Thomas Aquinas) and Nu'Keese Richardson (Pahokee, Fla.) made most of the big plays for the Black offense despite not coming into the week with particularly high rankings at their position. Carter displayed his great hands coming up with two or three difficult grabs under the watchful eyes of his future Hall of Fame father Cris, who was coaching up players on both squads during the practice session. Richardson proved to be a difficult matchup in the slot for linebackers all day with his quick release and ability to retain top speed on his stems as a route-runner.
There was another Reid without a lot of hype coming into this game who stood out on the practice field Thursday. Jamal Reid (Mayo, Fla./Lafayette) came up with several big catches showing his outstanding ball skills; he may be one of the White squad's biggest game-breakers. Like Greg, Jamal Reid also could provide plenty of highlights in the return game Sunday night. A kid who went under the radar, having played in a smaller Florida division, he is certainly showing he belongs on the national level.
It has been very difficult all week for any of the White squad's outside receivers to make many big plays with Steve Williams (Dallas/Skyline) and Branden Smith (Atlanta/Booker T. Washington) in lockdown coverages. Both players are a bit on the leaner side when it comes to pressing, but their transitional quickness, hip fluidity and recovery burst have been outstanding and really frustrated the more physical White wideouts.
Safeties showing off cover skills
With the employment of a lot of Cover 3, this week's practice has showcased several safeties playing down in the box over slots -- and looking impressive. Black's Isaiah Bell (Youngstown, Ohio/Liberty) came into this game with a reputation for his great run-stopping skills, but he has surprised me with his ability to open his hips and turn and run with faster slots. On a few plays, Bell even mirrored a quicker Andre Debose (Sanford, Fla./Seminole) tightly out of his breaks and made plays on the ball. Craig Loston (Aldine, Texas/Eisenhower) and Devonte Holloman (Rock Hill, S.C./South Pointe) showed similarly impressive coverage skills for the White squad Thursday. Both of these well-built safeties are strikingly athletic and have very smooth hips for their size. At some points in Thursday's practice, Loston even lined up at corner in some packages.
Not to be outdone, playing the high-point positions for both squads were Darren Myles Jr. (Atlanta/Carver) and Stephon Gilmore (Rock Hill, S.C./South Pointe). Both of these players have flashed great range, breaking quickness and physicality -- separating the ball from even the more imposing receivers.
Feeling their groove
Despite the chilly temperature and a slight wind, both squads' quarterbacks heated up in practice. Black signal-caller Garrett Gilbert (Austin, Texas/Lake Travis) looked particularly accurate and crisp Thursday with his short-to-intermediate passes. Josh Nunes (Upland, Calif.) continues to show his good polish and arm strength. Russell Shepard (Houston/Cypress Ridge) threw his share of bad balls and struggled at times with accuracy, but he surprised with his downfield arm strength. The future LSU Tiger continues to freeze some of the nation's finer defenders in space any time he tucks the ball away.
The White QBs also looked a lot sharper Thursday. Matt Barkley (Santa Ana, Calif./Mater Dei) had a few of the nicer deep balls of the day, flashing his good arm strength and downfield accuracy.
In the trenches
White's Gary Brown (Quincy, Fla./West Gadsden) continues to be one of the more dominant defensive lineman on his squad. Currently our No. 7-rated defensive tackle, Brown's blend of power and quickness off the line has proven to be too much to handle, and he could see his ranking jump up at the conclusion of the week.
Antwan Lowery (Miami/Columbus) also was playing on the interior line on Thursday. He needs to finish a bit more down the line of scrimmage, but Lowery is tough to move at the point of attack; he consistently jolted back White offensive linemen off the ball on initial contact.
Sam Montgomery (Greenwood, S.C.), a White defensive end, is proving to be one of the week's more intriguing prospects to evaluate. Although he is very raw and still growing into his large frame, his natural athleticism and quickness for his wide frame are very promising. He may not know exactly where he is going on every play, but the undecided senior was very disruptive throughout practice with his great penetration.
Players who struggled on Day 2
• Throughout two practices Black tight end Barrett Matthews (Houston/North Shore) has not done much on the field to open our eyes as a potential future weapon for the Longhorns. He's dropped a few passes and has had difficulty creating separation.
• Linebacker Tom Wort (New Braunfels, Texas) certainly has proved to be a great downhill filler and hitter for the White squad, but he has shown difficultly with his hips and fluidity in coverage and changing direction.
• White defensive back C.J. Barnett (Clayton, Ohio/Northmont) has backed up our evaluation that he may be limited to hard Cover 2 schemes at the next level. He has struggled at times mirroring receivers off the line and out of their breaks in man coverages.
• Jacobbi McDaniel (Greenville, Fla./Madison County) continues to be the most dominant defensive lineman in Orlando with his great quickness, leverage and upper-body strength.
• Xaiver Su'a-Filo (Pleasant Grove, Utah/Timpview) has shown that he could play tackle at the next level. His ability to stalemate several speed rushes from some of the faster White defensive ends off the edge during one-on-one drills was impressive.
• Zach Martin (Indianapolis/Bishop Chatard) needs to sink a bit more in his hips. Still, he showed good feet Thursday and a very strong core anchoring the bull-rush.
• Prince Kent (Norcross, Ga.) redeemed himself Thursday by showing great breaking quickness at corner and overall coverage skills despite his 6-foot-2 frame.
• Jelani Jenkins (Wheaton, Md./Good Counsel) provided some of the bigger hits for both squads as did Manti Te'o (Honolulu/Punahou). Once again, the Hawaii native looked very explosive and instinctive blowing up plays in the backfield.
• Trent Richardson (Pensacola, Fla./Escambia) has been the most productive back in Orlando. His great hands out of the backfield have surprised me. He's also lived up to his ability to bounce off initial contact.
Billy Tucker is a recruiting coordinator for Scouts Inc.