The athlete category in this year's class is fruitful, particularly the 19 in the ESPNU 150.
As usual, many of these prospects are seeing significant time under center as dual-threat or running quarterbacks because they are often the best overall athlete on their team. However, this also makes projecting them for the next level all the more difficult.
While we feel prospects in this category possess tremendous value due to their versatility, we also recognize that some may have a steeper learning curve than others when it comes to adjusting to the next level. They have not yet developed the little nuances and intangibles of what will be their future position in college. This is especially true when evaluating athletes as future cornerbacks.
This year's group of athletes features players of all shapes and sizes and not just prospects projected to play a skill position. Some could end up on the defensive front seven or on offense as tight ends and hybrid H-backs.
Regardless of where prospects may land at the next level, the athlete category is often reserved for the most gifted of prospects, which is why we ended up moving last year's top overall player, Ronald Powell (Moreno Valley, Calif./Rancho Verde), to the athlete category leading up to signing day for the 2010 class.
James Wilder II (Tampa Bay, Fla./Plant)
Ht.: 6-3 | Wt.: 219 pounds | Stars: 5 | ATH rank: 1 | ESPNU 150 rank: 8
While we think Wilder will end up on defense as an outside linebacker, his role as a running back at the high school level kept his defensive skills from developing. He is a rare athlete, but we put significant stock into being a football player. Until Wilder has a chance to commit to one position, he fits better as an athlete at this stage. We know he has rare tools, but we want to track his development and intangibles on defense. Those traits may not manifest themselves until he enters college.
Quan Bray (Hogansville, Ga./Callaway)
Ht.: 5-11 | Wt.: 180 pounds | Stars: 5 | ATH rank: 2 | ESPNU 150 rank: 11
Bray is another example of a player that has lined up everywhere and been a difference-maker every step of the way. We feel he will end up at wide receiver or cornerback, but his blend of speed, quickness and acceleration coupled with ball skills and instincts for the game are in the upper tier of prospects for this class. Some may feel we have him ranked higher than he should be, but we feel confident he has the tools to be an early contributor for a top-flight FBS school.
Devon Blackmon (Fontana, Calif./Summit)
Ht.: 6-0 | Wt.: 180 pounds | Stars: 4 | ATH rank: 3 | ESPNU 150 rank: 38
Blackmon is one of those prospects who leads his team at quarterback, but you cannot coach his hips, feet and outstanding top-end speed. This is why he will probably land at wide receiver, but don't rule out cornerback. He has been a game-changer with the ball in his hands, and he could have great upside as a return man at the next level. Blackmon is one of the fastest players in this class.
ATHs to watch
• We are tracking Jamal Turner (Arlington, Texas/Sam Houston) closely because he has been committed to Nebraska for quite some time and has not garnered the attention we feel he deserves on a national level. He reminds us of 2009 LSU signee Russell Shepard to some extent. While we are not convinced he will play quarterback at the next level, we are convinced he is a great athlete that can run and change directions, which gives him positional options.
• A.C. Leonard (Jacksonville, Fla./University Christian) will likely end up as a tight end, but Leonard's production at multiple positions is enough for us to believe he could be looked at in other areas of the game. He has played running back, linebacker, defensive end and tight end/wide receiver. Simply put, he is a very good football player.
• DeAnthony Thomas (Los Angeles/Crenshaw) was one of the most hotly-debated prospects in the class. He is likely the fastest prospect in 2011, and there is no questioning his game-breaking ability or talent level. But he's also one of the smallest prospects in the class (5-foot-9, 160 pounds). The question is: Where do you play him and how often can he stay on the field? If he ends up on offense, he has to be utilized the right way because we don't feel he can carry the load as an every-down back, which is why he may have a future on defense at cornerback because of his feet, hips and top-end speed.
De'Ante Saunders (DeLand, Fla./DeLand) can really run and plays all over the place. ... Danzel Williams (Arlington, Texas/James Martin) possesses some of the quickest feet in the class and is cornerback material in our minds. ... Kevin Grooms (Hollywood, Fla./South Broward) may be undersized, but he has great quickness and is best suited at cornerback. ... Undervalued and mostly unnoticed Vad Lee (Durham, N.C./Hillside) has played quarterback, wide receiver and could even be a safety. ... Clifton Richardson (Newport News, Va./Menchville) is a safety/running back, but most of his production has come on offense. ... Aubrey Coleman (Walnut, Calif./Walnut) may be the most underrated WR/TE/OLB in this class and has not gotten enough attention. ... Zachary Witchett (Atlanta/Washington-Wilkes) can play anywhere. He has terrific speed and quickness to go with nice measurables. ... Everett Golson (Myrtle Beach, S.C./Myrtle Beach) may not be very big, but he has a lightning quick release. If the North Carolina commit can play in the spread, we feel he can remain at quarterback.
Tom Luginbill is ESPN's national director of football recruiting.