LOS ANGELES -- Sunday's Nike Football Training Camp on the campus of USC featured one of the more high profile turnouts of notable prospects in the 2012 class, especially at the skill positions. Southern California has always been a hotbed for talent overall, but this camp also drew top prospects for Arizona and Nevada.
Lefty on fire
QB Matt Morin (Temecula, Calif./Chaparral), who is the total package, really stood out. So often with left-handers there can be a lot of wasted motion in their delivery with a windup and slight three-quarters motion, but not with Morin. He clearly had the strongest arm and best velocity at the camp, as well as the ability to make all the throws. Working from under center is something he has been groomed to do at the high school level and as impressive as his arm was, it was his ability to change ball speeds, gear it down and show touch on necessary throws that impressed many on hand. He is well built and strong, but actually may need to dial it back in the weight room as to not get too bulky to the point it affects his movement and delivery. It is a real head-scratcher as to why he currently only holds one offer. We suspect that will change dramatically in the spring evaluation period.
Longhorn at work
The most high profile prospect on hand was Texas commit QB Connor Brewer (Scottsdale, Ariz./ Chaparral). He is well versed in footwork, balance, consistent setup and delivery. Plus, he shows very good touch and timing in the passing game. As we have thought since we first saw him, he does not have an elite arm, but rather a good arm with the ability to anticipate and throw on time and to a spot. He is a very good ballhandler, is consistent in his mechanics and gets rid of the ball quickly. He reminds us a lot of last year's Max Wittek, only not quite as tall. His methods are very similar and when accuracy comes into play this is where Brewer on film really jumps out at you.
End result matters
There are many prospects at the high school level that may not always look pretty or may be long and lanky with little body mass and you wonder if they have what it takes. This was our first impression of Shane Dillon (El Cajon, Calif./Christian) on tape. However, as hard as it can be to do at times, it's the end result that matters most. Coaches want it to look good too, but if that were the case there would be no Philip Rivers or Chad Pennington-types. Dillon may not always look the part and he is certainly a late bloomer, but the ball is always thrown to a catchable spot with zip and touch. On tape, he displayed a very concerning long and over-the-top delivery, but he has sharpened his motion and it was not as evident on Sunday.
Second helping of Rettig
Hayden Rettig (Sierra Madre, Calif./Cathedral) who we have seen since he was a freshman is really starting to come into his own as a very impressive passer with a live arm and he continues to grow and fill out. There is no doubt he will be a highly-sought after prospect in the 2013 class. He can really unleash it and by next year may display the same arm power his brother Chase Rettig has.
Unknowns gaining steam
Two prospects very similar in their overall talent level, measurables and methods really got better throughout the day. QB Matt Adam (Las Flores, Calif./Tesoro) and Shane Truelove (Corona, Calif./Corona) showed live arms, quick releases and sound overall accuracy. Both currently stand at right around 6-feet which may be hampering their respective recruitment at this stage, but both performed in a manner that may cause coaches both at the FBS and FCS level to take a little notice.
Athlete or QB?
In our opinion, Hassan Henderson (Las Vegas, Nev./Las Vegas) may end up moving to wide receiver, H-back or even tight end in time. He is a wonderful athlete, looks great on the hoof and can really move around. He certainly possesses adequate arm strength and good zip, but needs fundamental development in the passing game. At the high school level, he is in the zone scheme and that is where he would need to be at the next level.
Looking the part
Watch List QB Travis Wilson (San Clemente, Calif./San Clemente) is a great looking prospect on the hoof and showed in person exactly what we thought of him on tape. He has great size, a big arm (when he unleashes it) and deceptive movement skills. Wilson really seemed to "aim" the ball instead of throw it. He has the arm to make all the throws, but was a bit tentative on Sunday. His size could also land him at some point at another position, but there are tools to work with here because he can throw it, he just needs to develop overall consistency.
Two of the finest high school receivers you will see on one team were on display at this camp in Watch List prospect Darius Powe and Malik Gilmore (Lakewood, Calif./Lakewood). Both are big, strong and run well, but Powe is the blazer of the two. Given his size, he can really go. He can accelerate and stretch the field. With Gilmore, you don't get the same top-end speed, but you get quickness and strength and both are very good route runners for young players. They caught the ball consistently and both have bright BCS-level futures.
Watch List WR Richard Smith (Long Beach, Calif./Long Beach Poly) can hit zero to 60 in the blink of an eye, but he is small. His feet, ability to accelerate and open-field run skills after the catch make him a dangerous space player. His size (5-8, 160 pounds) could get him some looks given his skill set and he has return man written all over him.
Polished and sharp
WR/DB Gabriel Marks (Los Angeles, Calif./Venice) may not be a top-end speed guy, but he is quick, savvy, knows how to get open and has great ball skills. We were hoping to see him play some defense Sunday as well, but he played wide receiver exclusively. He is one of those guys who just does everything well. He is sneaky in his vertical efforts and he shows very good quickness with low pad level as a route runner. There is a lot of upside with him because he is smart and crafty. He attacked alignment, got on toes of defenders and consistently created separation.
Watch List WR Derrick Woods (Inglewood, Claif./Inglewood) was registered as a safety, but played on offense where we have initially evaluated him and he is good. He caught the ball extremely well, made some tough plays in traffic and is a well-built, strong prospect. He has a thick lower body and while he has just adequate height he can be imposing off the line.
Check out his ankles
The first thing that stood out about Watch List OG Jordan Simmons (Encino, Calif./Crespi Carmelite) was his skinny ankles. It is one of the first things we look at in offensive linemen because it's an indication of athleticism and nimble feet. He is a mammoth prospect and carries much of his weight above the waist. He will need to get his body redefined once he gets to the next level, but he is really strong and moves around nicely. At almost 6-5 and 300 pounds he is a load from his guard spot and held his own in one-on-ones.
Competitive offensive tackle
OT Eduardo Middleton (Oceanside, Calif./Oceanside) really stood out in one-on-one drills because the drill is set up for the defense to win, but Middleton held his own and won many battles. He had a sound base, solid hand placement and the ability to bend at the knees, not the waist. He displayed some natural, raw strength and was highly competitive, taking a ton of reps and didn't care who lined up in front of him.
Playing hoops not a bad thing
USC commit OT Arik Armstead (Elk Grove, Pa./Pleasant Grove) was on hand as a spectator prior to heading to basketball. In our opinion, especially with big guys, we love to see prospects playing basketball. We feel he will likely end up as an offensive tackle for the next level. His hand-eye coordination and footwork will only become enhanced on the hardwood.
McCarthy stands out
Watch List DT Ellis McCarthy (Monrovia, Calif./Monrovia) really stood out at this camp. He is taller in person than he looked on tape and he carries his weight very well. He showed more first-step explosiveness throughout the day than he has on junior tape, which was very encouraging. His combination of size, quickness and strength is very impressive and he appeared to be active and in pretty good shape. He will impress you with his ability to get skinny from his tackle spot and work at getting after the quarterback. He also has some weapons with his hands, natural size and strength to anchor at the point of attack.
Shittu pegged as one-gap player
Watch List DT Aziz Shittu (Atwater, Calif./Buhach) is a slight off-shoot of McCarthy. He is not quite as tall and doesn't possess as much bulk, but he is disruptive and quick off the ball. He plays with a low base and is conscious of pad level. He is very active with his hands and is likely more of a one-gap guy at the next level.
Ruffin's versatility is impressive
USC commit ATH Jabari Ruffin (Downey, Calif./Downey) is as advertised in person. He looks awesome as he moves fluid with quickness. Ruffin's versatility is what stands out on tape. He is a playmaker in a variety of roles, but we project him as a linebacker and this is where he performed on Sunday. He has a chance to be really good.
Cornering the market
Watch List prospect Davonte Neal (Scottsdale, Ariz./Chaparral) has been evaluated on both sides of the ball and given his feet, hips, quickness and ball skills it is becoming more and more apparent that he may end up as a corner -- which is where he played exclusively Sunday. He is like a slightly bigger version of WR Richard Smith. He is a jet speed-wise and he can change directions effortlessly. His upside as a return man is outstanding. However, with how difficult it is to find cornerbacks, Neal could make himself a hot commodity if open to playing defense exclusively. He is already highly coveted, but corners don't grow on trees.
Watch List CB Ishmael Adams (Westlake Village, Calif./Oaks Christian) is stout, but short and has very good feet. He is a physical player which isn't always evident in a combine setting. His height may limit him some, but he is feisty, breaks on the ball with sudden plant and drive and you like his willingness to come up and get in a wide receiver's face at the line
For what it's worth
There are a couple of areas on the combine circuit that fans of recruiting and college football should always be aware of and take with a grain of salt.
First, the combine setting is a resource that is supplemental to film study and in-person evaluation during the season. Is a prospect as tall as listed? Is he as big as advertised? How does he react in a foreign environment? Does he compete? Does he always fall to the back of the line? We take these factors, and many others, into account when we see a prospect work out after viewing him actually playing the game, which ultimately will be the deciding factor in his evaluation. Combine settings are just a percentage of it.
For example, with quarterbacks, they are being thrown into an environment they are unfamiliar with. They are not working with their set of backs and receivers, so their timing likely will be off, their anticipation and accuracy gets hampered. Plus, working from under center in this day and age can be completely foreign to many, if not most, prospects and that includes guys with multiple BCS-level offers. We take all this into account, so when a guy really wows in a foreign setting that tells you something about him.
Another thing to remember is that during one-on-ones in shirts and shorts the offensive player is at a distinct disadvantage. Defensively, the prospect has no run/read/gap responsibility. It is a pure pass rush drill and the defensive player has a two-way go and the really good defensive lineman or even adequate ones are going to win the drill nine times out of 10 guaranteed and they should. So, when you see an offensive lineman (based on who he is going against) win on multiple occasions, that tells you something. If you read or hear somewhere that a defensive lineman "dominated" one-on-ones, he should.
The point to be made here is don't get too caught up in shirts and shorts settings if you are a fan. While this environment is a positive resource and a very competitive stage, verifying measurables or answering questions you may have with a prospect on tape is the real value here.
Tom Luginbill is ESPN's national director of football recruiting.