ORLANDO, Fla. -- NFL Hall of Fame head coach Marv Levy said the talent he witnessed at the first Under Armour All-America practice far exceeded his expectations. It surpassed my expectations, as well.
While last year's inaugural game certainly had its fair share of superstars, the overall quality on the 2009 roster appears superior, judging by the first practice. From the interior to the perimeter, the depth was impressive, with little dropoff in ability between some of the nation's best high school football prospects.
Wednesday's practice was more instructional, as players shook off the rust and adjusted to the different formations, cadences and timing with their new teammates and coaches. Despite it being the first time on the field in over a month for most players, they were ready to compete from the start, and the intensity was high.
Here's a look at who stood out and who struggled in Wednesday's practice.
Man among boys
It was quickly apparent that White inside linebacker Manti Te'o (Honolulu/Punahou) is this year's version of last year's top-ranked player DaQuan Bowers, who is now at Clemson. Whether matching up with backs in the passing game or filling downhill against the run, his ability was far superior to his competition. His thick frame was even more impressive in person, as was his explosiveness. Te'o is the complete package and, similar to Bowers, should be a player who makes an immediate impact as a true freshman next fall.
The next Sean Spence?
Spence, who earned ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year honors as a freshman at Miami this year, wowed everyone last year after the first practice and quickly silenced the doubters who thought he might be too small to hold his own against upper-tier national competition. On Wednesday, Black outside linebacker Frankie Telfort (Miami/Gulliver) made a similar impression, as he stood out in all phases of his linebacker play despite lacking prototypical measureables for the position. His instincts, closing speed and overall athleticism in space were eye-popping. In terms of coverage skill, I did not see a better linebacker Wednesday than Telfort.
Talent in the trenches
Black defensive tackle Josh Downs (Bastrop, La.) was impressive with his ability and high energy. His intensity, coupled with his great get-off and explosiveness, made him almost unblockable when shaded in one-on-one matchups. The LSU commit seems to be all of his listed 6-foot-2, 267 pounds, and showed his potential scheme versatility at the next level with his blend of speed and power. Downs has the skill set and measurables to potentially contribute at end or defensive tackle in Baton Rouge.
Fellow Black defensive tackle Jacobbi McDaniel (Greenville, Fla./Madison County) quickly showed why he's ESPN's No. 1-rated interior defender. While he doesn't stand out physically like Downs, he was a handful for any guard or center in one-on-one drills with his great quickness, strong hand technique and deceptively fluid hips. During the team session he was equally effective as a run defender and pass rusher.
Good as advertised
While Russell Shepard (Houston/Cypress Ridge) struggled at times with the exchange and cadence, like the rest of the UA All-American signal-callers at Wednesday's practice, his athleticism and speed with the ball in his hands were striking. Shepard was basically a human blur when keeping the ball on draw plays. His ability to reach top speed instantly through the hole made him almost impossible to wrap up.
White team CB Branden Smith (Atlanta/Booker T. Washington) showed why he's one of the better cover corners in the country. Throughout the first practice receivers had difficulty creating separation on the highly coveted perimeter defender. His off-man foot quickness when mirroring receivers off the line and recovery burst were unparalleled.
Tough first day
Tight end Ra'Shede Hageman (Minneapolis/Washburn) certainly passed the eyeball test physically, but he seemed to struggle at times with the increased speed of this high level of competition. While he showed he was a difficult matchup with his height on smaller linebackers, his hands were inconsistent.
Black team corner Ricardo Dixon (Hallandale, Fla.) competed hard throughout the day, but his lack of size and upper-body strength were evident when employed in press-man coverages versus some of the Black team's bigger receivers.
While Black corner Prince Kent (Norcross, Ga.) has imposing size as a perimeter defender, Wednesday's practice raised questions about whether he has the hips and transitional quickness to play corner at the next level. His great size, range and ball skills might be better suited at safety.
White receiver Logan Heastie (Chesapeake, Va./Great Bridge) looked very smooth at times during seven-on-seven passing drills, but he had a few drops and showed some difficulty adjusting to poorly thrown balls.
Day 1 surprises
Black cornerback Greg Reid (Valdosta, Ga./Lowndes) might not possess the best blend of size and speed compared to the other corners in this elite group, but in terms of pure cover-corner quickness and skills, it was hard to find anyone better the first day.
Black receiver Terry Hawthorne's (East St. Louis, Ill.) combination of size and speed stood out immediately during passing drills. But it was his precise route running and sharpness out of his breaks that impressed me more.
Late add White offensive guard David Harding (Orlando, Fla./Boone) struggled in his first few one-on-one matchups, but he quickly proved he belonged after stalemating the bull rush of massive White defensive lineman Gary Brown (Quincy, Fla./West Gadsden).
One thing that stood out quickly was the increased talent in this year's quarterback crop. Despite the usual first-practice problems with cadence and timing, White signal-callers Matt Barkley (Santa Ana, Calif./Mater Dei) and Richard Brehaut (Ranco Cucamonga, Calif./Los Osos) showed good arm strength and polish throughout the day, while fellow teammate Moses Alipate (Bloomington, Minn./Jefferson) flashed impressive zip on his intermediate routes.
Not to be outdone, Shepard, Garrett Gilbert (Austin, Texas/Lake Travis) and Josh Nunes (Upland, Calif.) looked very accurate throughout the first practice. Nunes, despite a slight hand injury, threw one of the better balls of the day on a deep comeback route to Hawthorne.
Black team WR Andre Debose (Sanford, Fla./Seminole) showed great hands, vertical speed and one of the faster releases of a strong receiving corps.
Black receivers should have their heads on a swivel Sunday night as the White safety trio of Devonte Holloman (Rock Hill, S.C./South Pointe), Craig Loston (Aldine, Texas/Eisenhower) and Stephon Gilmore (Rock Hill, S.C./South Pointe) proved to be an intimidating presence over the middle and down in the box when employed in Cover-3 schemes.
Black offensive tackle Paden Kelley (Austin, Texas/Lake Travis) looked excellent in pass protection versus some of the quicker edge players in the country.
It was an athletic draw between White offensive tackle Taylor Lewan (Scottsdale, Ariz./Chaparral) and White defensive end Justin Chaisson (Las Vegas/Bishop Gorman) during one-on-one pass rushing drills, as both players showed great feet and quickness.
There was a similar battle that opened up my eyes between the powerful Brown and undersized White offensive guard John Martinez (Salt Lake City/Cottonwood). Brown initially knocked back Martinez on the snap, but the Salt Lake City road-grader eventually held his point and anchored.
While it was hard to gauge the true talents of the UA All-American running backs Wednesday (they were not exposed to many live in-line situations), Trent Richardson (Pensacola, Fla./Escambia) certainly looked the most explosive and appears to be the complete package. Jarvis Giles (Tampa, Fla./Gaither) showed great suddenness throughout the day and was a bit bigger in person than we expected.
The Black squad's Jelani Jenkins (Wheaton, Md./Good Counsel) flashed his top-10 talent throughout the first day, but his leadership and competitiveness during drills were equally impressive.
Billy Tucker is a recruiting coordinator for Scouts Inc.