Rarely does one high school team feature a handful of Division I-A or I-AA prospects, let alone eleven like the Oaks Christian Lions. Quarterback Jimmy Clausen, running back Marc Tyler and safety Marshall Jones are all top-ten prospects nationally, and this roster is also loaded with college-bound talent like wide receiver Sean Wiser, ESPN 150 defensive end Michael Ebbitt and linebacker Casey Matthews.
Oaks has only been open since 2000 and only has an enrollment of 570 in grades 9-12, yet the Lions have a record of 71-8 since the inaugural season and have won three consecutive CIF Championships under coach Bill Redell. In 2006, with a tougher non-conference schedule featuring St. Bonaventure (who they blew out this last weekend 59-13 on the road), Diamond Ranch and Venice, the Lions look to prove that they are for real regardless of their schedule.
Their next test will come against Venice on Thursday at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN2.
The Venice Gondoliers come into the game having won two in a row in convincing fashion over powerhouse Loyola and Santa Monica after a season opening loss to Carson. Coach Angelo Gasca has been at the helm for 11 years now, and while this year's group may be young, they are extremely talented -- the 2007 version of the Gondoliers could be lethal. Venice finished 9-3 in 2005 and shared the league championship with Fairfax High School, and now the goal is to win the city championship if they can get through a rough non-conference schedule. The Gondoliers have nine Division I prospects on their roster, and eight of them are juniors.
Oaks Christian offense vs. Venice defense
The Oaks Christian offensive juggernaut is led by Notre Dame commit Clausen, the ESPN 150's No. 1 ranked player in the country. He directs a multiple-set, wide-open spread attack with playmakers at his disposal at just about every offensive position.
This team reminds me of a high school version of the USC Trojans' 2004 team. They are a big play waiting to happen on every snap and feature eight seniors in the starting line-up. Despite being a four-wide team, they can run the ball at will with running backs Marc Tyler and Marshall Jones.
Tyler, ESPN's No. 3 ranked player, is the country's most complete back, but don't be surprised if he makes a move to linebacker at the next level -- he is that good on both sides. Jones lines up as the slot but will see turns in the backfield and is a two-way starter.
Jones is the ESPN's No. 2 ranked safety in the country and a sensational overall athlete. If he was a full-time time player at running back, Jones would be one of the best runners ranked in this class. The receiving unit is rounded out by two juniors in Chris Potter and Chris Owusu, a rising prospect in the 2008 class. Perhaps the most unheralded, savvy player on the offense is WR Wiser, who also starts at safety and is a big hitter. He has the look of a possession guy, but is much more than that and makes big plays in the vertical passing game.
The offensive line is experienced and does a great job protecting Clausen with three two-way starters in left tackle Duke Lemmens, left guard Justin Landseadel and right tackle Michael Ebbitt. The only junior is right guard Bis Kin.
What makes this passing game so potent is Clausen's ability to get rid of the ball so quickly with range to put it anywhere on the field. This unit is well groomed, polished and has exceptional run/pass balance. Venice will have its hands full trying to slow down this runaway freight train.
The Venice defensive unit is about to face an offensive unit with very few weaknesses, but this is a physical group that plans on taking it right to the Oaks Christian offense. The defense is young with 10 of 11 starters being juniors. They too are a four-man front team, but depending on who they face could jump into a "50" front and also could incorporate some 3-4 looks as well.
Two-way starter Gerald Blackmon leads the front four at his tackle spot. The linebacker crew is headed up by up-and-coming junior prospect Chris Woods on the outside and two-way starter Jonathan Brasfield on the other end. Expect the linebackers to hug up to the line of scrimmage to slow down the Oaks running game, but it's a "pick your poison" situation -- do you want Tyler or Jones to beat you on the ground or Clausen to beat you through the air?
If Clausen is forced to throw to win, the young but talented secondary will be tested by the likes of Potter, Jones, Wiser and Owusu. All four secondary starters are juniors, and two-way star Curtis McNeal will likely match-up with Wiser or Jones and try to lock him down. Safety Shamar Thornton is a rising prospect directing traffic in the Venice secondary. Expect the Gondoliers to change things up on the perimeter with a multitude of coverage looks blending zone and man concepts.
If Venice is to slow down the Oaks attack, they must keep the ball in front of them and not give up big plays. Oaks is not used to having to be patient, and forcing them to make 8-10 play drives will take time off the clock and keep the score down.
Venice offense vs. Oaks Christian defense
The Venice Gondoliers are maybe a year away from being a dominant offensive football team and will have some of the finest offensive firepower in the state of California. The Oaks Christian defense will have their hands full with Venice's skill position players this week after the Gondoliers seemingly have found their stride with junior quarterback Richard Ragland at the helm.
The offense features seven top Division I prospects with six of them being just juniors. Wide receivers James Hood, QueSean Gregory and Jerry Johnson are the playmakers with senior Jonathan Brasfield leading the group with the most experience. Venice is a mirror image of Oaks Christian on offense with a four-wide spread look.
However, Ragland really provides a spark in the running game as a dual-threat guy and is able to create some big plays when things break down, which is not something you will see much of from Clausen.
The offensive line is stout and experienced with senior right guard Thomas Garcia developing nicely into a possible Division I guy. The right side of the line is anchored by junior right tackle Gerald Blackmon.
Oaks Christian's biggest concern has got to be running back Curtis McNeal, who has been called "Baby Bush" (as in Reggie) because of his big-play ability. The junior will not come off the field and starts on both sides of the ball. He returns punts and kicks and sells hot dogs at halftime! McNeal may be a bit undersized, but he is speedy, quick and extremely elusive in space. The viewing audience will have a chance to see some of the top juniors on the west coast in this match up.
The Oaks Christian defense is as experienced as it gets with eleven starting seniors on the field who have now played together for four years. The unit features nine -- count them, nine -- Division I or I-AA prospects. They are a base 4-3 team with an aggressive, up-the-field style of play led by defensive ends Michael Ebbitt (No. 134 in the ESPN 150) and Duke Lemmens.
The linebackers are stout and speedy with Casey Matthews, son of former NFL linebacker Clay Matthews, anchoring the unit. Matthews has committed to play at Oregon.
The front seven will have the unenviable task of trying to stop Venice's all-purpose nightmare McNeal. If you can say one thing about Tyler and Jones, it would be that they have endurance, that's for sure. Both players star on both sides of the ball, and their impact at the next level could be on either side of the ball, which is why they are both so valuable.
The secondary is capable of locking down opponents in the passing game with cornerbacks Anthony Gildon (another Oregon commit) and Brad Freeman. Safeties Jones and Wiser are as talented as Glade Central's tandem of Damien Berry and Johnny Lee Dixon. The secondary will have its greatest challenge of the year against a Venice unit which features three upper-echelon Division I prospects at wide receiver in Johnson, Gregory and Hood, not to mention senior pass catcher Jonathan Brasfield.
• QB Jimmy Clausen: verbally committed to Notre Dame commit
• RB/LB Marc Tyler: verbally committed to USC
• S/RB Marshall Jones: verbally committed to USC
• DE Michael Ebbitt: verbally committed to Texas A&M commit
• S/WR Sean Wiser: considering Stanford, Duke, Virginia and Oregon
• S Anthony Gildon: verbally committed to Oregon
• ILB Casey Matthews: verbally committed to Oregon
• ILB Tommy Grillo: considering UC Davis, Cal, Colorado, Michigan and Brown
• DT Justin Landseadel: considering Air Force, Louisville, Colorado and Cal Poly SLO
• DE Duke Lemmens: considering Arizona, Oregon, Cal, Texas A&M and Florida
• CB Brad Freeman: considering Idaho, SMU, Vandy, Virginia and Georgia Tech
• WR Jonathan Brasfield: considering Oregon and Oregon State
• Eight juniors in RB Curtis McNeal, S Shamar Thornton, RT Gerald Blackmon, WR Jerry Johnson, WR James Hood, QB Richard Ragland, WR Quesean Gregory and Chris Woods.
Oaks Christian has taken a lot of heat for their weak schedule, but you can't fault them for being in the Tri-Valley conference. They scheduled St. Bonaventure, and they proved to be no challenge for the high powered Lions. Next on the docket is Venice, who is capable of matching up with Oaks Christian in terms of speed and athleticism but is young and will have their hands full. Venice can't let Oaks set the tempo early and dictate how the game is going to be played.
In my opinion Venice has to be physical with Oaks Christian and get them out of their "7 on 7" look offensively. Few teams offensively or defensively have attempted to get in a phone booth with Oaks and duke it out toe-to-toe, and that is exactly what Venice must do to win the game. If they can win the battle up front and put some pressure on Oaks Christian, this should be an excellent game.
Venice has excellent players but lacks experience. Oaks has great players with experience but lacks depth. If any of Oaks' key players go down to injury, they could be in trouble. This is where they could be exposed, but so far they have been able to stay healthy despite having five players start both ways.
Tom Luginbill is the national director of recruiting for Scouts, Inc. Tom is a college football and recruiting studio analyst for ESPNU.