With less than a month to go until signing day, the final major adjustments to our ESPN 150 have been solidified. After collectively breaking down each of the premier all-star games and popping in tape of our last unevaluated state playoff contests, we feel we have put together a credible and objective listing of the top 150 college prospects in the country.
While we did make some significant alterations midweek at our own Under Armour All-America Game with players we felt were vastly under- or over-graded after evaluating their live performances once again, this rendition of the ESPN 150 reflects the culmination of our practice and game reports and more importantly, a general yearlong overview of which prospects currently possess the elite physical gifts needed to excel at the college level.
In a "War Room" type atmosphere, our debate over who should, if anyone, overtake wide receiver Julio Jones (Foley, Ala.) for the top spot in the ESPN 150 was long and hotly debated. No matter how we painted the picture, we just kept coming back to defensive end DaQuan Bowers (Bamberg, S.C./Ehrhardt) and his dominance as an edge pass-rusher, not to mention his prowess in the kicking game.
Jones may be one of the most talented and physically gifted athletes at the position in recent years, but this class is very deep with tall, big-catch receiver prospects, a microcosm of the reoccurring talent at the position in general. Conversely, dominant pass-rushers at any level are rare and highly coveted. Just tune into the NFL draft every April and you will see a disruptive defensive end next in line behind the franchise quarterback.
At 6-foot-4 and a chiseled 265 pounds, Bowers is a rare physical specimen. His supreme blend of first-step quickness and power off the edge were basically impossible for some of the elite tackle prospects in the country to mirror all week. A 1,200-yard rusher in high school as a senior, Bowers' athleticism for his size is extraordinary and his room for future physical development is outstanding. This kid could tip the scales at 290 pounds in college, retain his speed and quickness and be a top-10 pick out of Clemson in the 2011 draft.
Bowers' move to the top spot did precipitate a natural shift in the top 10 of the ESPN 150. Jones fell to No. 2 while Will Hill (West Orange, N.J./Saint Peter's ) slid to No. 3 and saw a position change from athlete to safety, his expected college position. QB Terrelle Pryor (Jeannette, Pa.) dropped to No. 4 overall and is now labeled a quarterback, his projected position with the probable schools remaining on his list. We actually slightly raised the grades of Jones, Hill and Pryor as a result of their senior seasons of great accomplishments, so their slight drop in ranking actually has nothing to do with anything other than Bowers' rise to No. 1.
A.J. Green's (Ridgeville, S.C./Summerville) impressive performance all week moved him back to the No. 5 spot, where he had been ranked most of the season. His immediate impact at Georgia is now a definite in our eyes.
Jermie Calhoun (Van, Texas), although impressive at times as an Under Armour All-American, did fall to No. 7 as a result of Green's and Arthur Brown's (Wichita, Kan./East) jumps. Newly committed LSU Tiger Patrick Johnson moved up one spot to No. 8, bumping Darrell Scott to No. 9. Dee Finley (Auburn, Ala.) stays firmly at No. 10 despite some arguments that his standout performance down in Orlando garnered a higher ranking.
There were a few considerable changes in the top 25 as well: two prospects moving into elite status and one significant move out. Sean Spence (Miami/Northwestern) continued to shine after his midweek evaluation, impressing coaches and fellow players alike with his speed, deceptive strength and keen nose for the football. Spence, now rated as the No. 2 outside linebacker prospect, should explode with size on his rangy frame at Miami and continue the tradition of fast-attacking Canes 'backers.
Tight end Blake Ayles' (Orange, Calif./Lutheran) blend of size, athleticism and excellent hands in the passing game now has us thinking he will step into Fred Davis' spot as a true freshman, eventually growing into a solid in-line blocker and subsequent first-round draft pick. Ayles now claims the No. 1 tight end spot with Jonathan Baldwin's (Aliquippa, Pa.) permanent move to wide receiver. Baldwin was impressive split out wide in the U.S. Army game, his impending starting position at Pitt next fall. We still feel Baldwin may grow into an H-back in time.
For every Sean Spence, a player we have loved since last June, there is an E.J. Manuel (Virginia Beach, Va./Bayside), a QB prospect we may have over-evaluated as a fluid and pure passer. Our previous No. 1-rated quarterback as a result of Blaine Gabbert's (Ballwin, Mo./Parkway West) season-ending injury, Manuel looked like a smaller version of JaMarcus Russell getting off the practice bus on day one in Orlando. His great physicality and surprising foot speed were clearly evident from the get-go. However, he is raw, and as good of an athlete as he is, he still needs to develop as a passer much in the same way Terrelle Pryor does. Nonetheless, the raw materials are definitely present for Jimbo Fisher to polish up and mold into a good one in Tallahassee.
Sticking with signal-callers dipping in rank, QBs Nick Crissman (Huntington Beach, Calif./Edison) and Landry Jones (Artesia, N.M.) also saw their stock drop in the ESPN 150 after further evaluations. Like Manuel, the skills are available for each, but as a quarterback class as a whole, we are not convinced this is an elite class, rather a very good one with upside and guys who have their best football ahead of them.
New to the ESPN 150 and jumping both Crissman and Jones in quarterback rank is Arkansas commit Tyler Wilson (Greenwood, Ark.). This is a kid we tried to invite late to the Under Armour All-America game due to Taylor Cook's (Eagle Lake, Texas/Rice) injury and think is a perfect fit for Bobby Petrino's system at Arkansas.
There are a few other notable offensive skill prospects who saw their stock go down somewhat in the updated ESPN 150. WR Deion Walker (Christchurch, Va.) never had a chance to get going in Orlando due to a knee injury, but even on his first few days of practice we noticed his listed measurables did not quite add up and the talent at defensive back exposed some of his weaknesses. This is something that happened to each and every player during the week in Orlando and San Antonio for that matter, as many prospects were truly challenged for the first time. In the backfield, ATH Kye Staley (Guthrie, Okla.) has gained some weight that has changed his running style from a slasher to more of a bruiser.
One of the main guys exposing weakness in the offensive skill players in Orlando was cornerback Terrance Parks (Fairburn, Ga./Creekside). Hurt throughout most of his high school career due to an ACL injury, Parks showed superior physicality jamming and pressing receivers off the line as an Under Armour All-American but also looked smooth in transition turning and running with the elite wideouts in the game. Parks moved to the No. 5 corner spot and impressively from No. 92 to 35 in the ESPN 150.
In the front seven, Uona Kaveinga's (Lawndale, Calif./Leuzinger) fast, physical style of play combined with his mental intelligence slid the hard-hitting inside linebacker headed to UCLA into the top 100. However, as Kaveinga moved up the inside linebacker rankings, Jon Major (Parker, Colo./Ponderosa) fell down from 111 to 137. The physical run-stopper came into the game with a twisted ankle and was not as laterally quick or fluid as his competition at linebacker on Saturday.
In the defensive trenches, Templeton Hardy (Como, Miss./North Panola) dropped out of the ESPN 150. He is going to end up as an offensive lineman in college in our opinion but will start out on the defensive line. The massive lineman heading to Mississippi State looks the part and has a future, only it is on offense not at defensive tackle.
Vaughn Dotsy (Ventura, Calif./Saint Bonaventure) also saw a slip out of the ESPN 150 this week, but Khaled Holmes (Santa Ana, Calif./Mater Dei) impressed mightily with his well-rounded skills as an Under Armour All-American, leaping up to No. 67 from 144. Dotsy was essentially a victim of numbers and a back injury late in the season.
Centers Ben Jones (Centreville, Ala./Bibb county), a player highly regarded by his coaches in Orlando, and Braxston Cave (Granger, Ind./Penn), a high school prospect with the rare physical tools and technique at the position, leaped to ESPN 150 status.
On the outside at offensive tackle, the general consensus among NFL coaches and evaluators was that the prospects all looked the part with their tall, well-built bodies but physically are not quite ready to anchor the run as college freshmen. Technique improvements are needed by all. No. 1-rated OT Tyler Love (Birmingham, Ala./Mountain Brook) remains at the top but dropped down slightly in the ESPN 150 due to some other prospects' rises, while Dann O'Neill (Grand Haven, Mich.), a player who gave Bowers the best matchup all week during one-on-ones, made a significant jump into the top 100 at No. 69.
As our ESPN 150 is concluded for 2008, we are well aware that assigning a high school prospect a number ranking and signaling out 150 prospects out of 2500 evaluations is very difficult with all the variables these student-athletes will face on and off the field at the next level. After much analysis, we do feel the current prospects included in this elite list are the most ready from a physical and mental standpoint to make a smooth college transition and a possible early impact. Many players omitted from this list could and will develop into outstanding college players with their supreme physical tools, athleticism and eventual positional polish, but when evaluating intangibles and projecting prospects to contribute in today's game, this group is on its way.
Tom Luginbill is the national director of recruiting for Scouts Inc. Billy Tucker and Craig Haubert are recruiting coordinators for Scouts Inc.