Best is yet to come

NEW ORLEANS -- Not since 2001 has a class of players in the state of Louisiana received such acclaim. Legends are growing with stories of freakish athleticism and highlight reel plays on Friday nights. There is an elite-level left tackle, defensive end, defensive tackle, two receivers and running backs galore. The list includes two players committed to LSU and one to Tennessee.

One important note -- they are all juniors.

Get familiar with names such as Hilliard, Rasco, Collins, Johnson, Landry, Lewis, Thomas and Hill. College coaches already have and word is spreading about the wealth of talent from Patterson, Lutcher, St. James, Baton Rouge and in resurgent New Orleans.

"All the recruiters that come in here that came through to recruit Jeremy [Hill] and La'El [Collins] talk about everybody else. I personally haven't seen everybody play yet, but the recruiters talk about the great talent in the class," said Redemptorist High School (Baton Rouge, La.) head coach Guy Mistretta. "I think it's something that excites Jeremy and La'El to be a part of. It excites them about the possibility of LSU getting a lot of those guys."

The 2011 class is already drawing comparisons to the class a decade prior, one that LSU mined en route to a national title. The Tigers, then coached by Nick Saban, kept the best players from Louisiana in-state, including WR Michael Clayton, DE Marcus Spears, OT Andrew Whitworth and DE Marquise Hill, en route to what many said was the nation's top recruiting class that year.

All four of those players helped lead LSU to a national championship in 2003 and then were taken in the first two rounds of the NFL draft -- Clayton and Spears in the first round, while Whitworth and Hill were second round picks.

While 2001 was a deep and talented class, 2011 looks ready to rival it. The 2011 class features depth on the offensive side of the ball led by a pair of talented running backs.

The prospect with the most fanfare is running back Kenny Hilliard. If the last name sounds familiar, it should. The 6-foot, 223-pound bruising runner is following in the footsteps of uncle Dalton Hilliard and cousin Ike Hilliard, who also came out of the small town of Patterson.

"He's outstanding," St. James High School (Lutcher, La.) head coach Rick Gaille said. "We get tired of seeing him because they have been on our schedule since he was a freshman. He not only has terrific size -- Brandon Jacobs-like because we played against Brandon in high school -- but great skill and flexibility. He has the ability to run around you and run over you."

Redemptorist's Jeremy Hill joins Hilliard as one of the best at the running back position.

"Hill is more of a straight-ahead runner than Hilliard. He's an outstanding player like Hilliard. He is a slashing back and a downhill runner," said Gaille, whose St. James team has faced both runners this season.

Mistretta points to Hill's versatility as his calling card.

"Jeremy is a big back with speed," he said. "He has some open-field ability, but he can still put his shoulder down. He can also catch the ball well. He's got great hands."

Mistretta also has a top left tackle prospect in LSU commit La'El Collins.

"He's relentless. He's got a great motor and has great feet. That's why LSU really liked him at left tackle, because of his feet," Mistretta said. "We use him as much on defense as offense right now because he is relentless and has a great motor."

Two talented defenders also help make up the special class. Defensive end Jermauria Rasco garnered national acclaim as a sophomore while setting a national high school record with 26 quarterback sacks. Rasco is one of the rare players who started on varsity as an eighth grader.

Anthony Johnson joins Rasco as a top defender. The 6-4, 275-pounder, who committed to Tennessee, is pound-for-pound the best athlete of the group.

Here's a quick rundown (in alphabetical order) on some of the top players from the Class of 2011 in Louisiana.

La'El Collins (Baton Rouge/Redemptorist)
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Breakdown: LSU plucked a big time left tackle prospect in Collins. At 6-5, 280-pounds, Collins has terrific feet, agility, initial punch, a fluid kick set in pass pro and the ability to run. Bottom line is Collins is one of the top offensive tackle prospects in the 2011 class. Unlike some other young lineman that have to raise their physicality a notch at the next level, Collins already possesses the physicality and tough mindset needed to play at the next level. More than a big, athletic body type, Collins looks to hit.
Recruiting update: Collins picked the Tigers over offers from Tennessee, Florida, Florida State and others. He was a summer camp standout at LSU.

Jeremy Hill (Baton Rouge/Redemptorist)
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Breakdown: Hill is impressive on the hoof at 6-feet and 220-pounds. Hill is a downhill runner with good feet in the hole. He can make a defender miss in the hole with a quick lateral jump cut and then accelerate to the second level. Hill also flashes impressive hands out of the backfield with the ability to make the catch and turn up the field fluidly.
Recruiting update: Hill committed to hometown LSU in September over offers from Florida State, Tennessee, Colorado, Ole Miss and others.

Kenny Hilliard (Patterson/Patterson)
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Breakdown: Hilliard comes from a long line of talented players in the family who played for Patterson, including former LSU and NFL running back Dalton Hilliard and former Florida and NFL receiver Ike Hilliard. Simply put, Kenny runs violent. At 6-feet, 223-pounds with the ability to stick his foot in the ground, cut vertically and finish runs with a powerful stiff arm and lean, Hilliard is a powerful downhill back. He will enter the playoffs with more than 6,000 career rushing yards and with a healthy senior season will graduate from Patterson as the state's career-rushing leader.
Recruiting update: Hilliard is a strong lean to LSU over offers from Miami (Fla.), Alabama, USC, Tennessee, Notre Dame, Minnesota, Texas A&M and Tulsa among others.

Anthony Johnson (New Orleans/O. Perry Walker)
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Breakdown: Johnson has been dubbed "Freak" by many with a combination of size, speed, quickness and leaping ability rarely seen at the defensive tackle position. Should Johnson not beat his man with his first-step quickness, he will with his ability to change direction and pursue the football. Aggressive with lower body power and closing burst, ballcarriers hit the ground hard when Johnson makes contact.
Recruiting update: Johnson, 6-4, 275 pounds, picked Tennessee over offers from Alabama, LSU, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Oregon, California and others. He ran 4.89 at Tennessee camp during the summer.

Jarvis Landry (Lutcher/Lutcher)
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Breakdown: Landry is smooth and effortless. He simply makes playing receiver look easy with gliding speed, quickness in and out of breaks and the ability to make defenders miss in small spaces. At times, the 5-11, 175-pounder can look eerily similar to former Florida State star Peter Warrick. Landry is more than an electric playmaker, though. He is a physical player who is willing to block, play special teams and doubles at linebacker for Lutcher. He is also a talented punt returner.
Recruiting update: Landry has offers from LSU, Tennessee, Auburn, UCLA, Mississippi State, Notre Dame, Michigan and others. He has attended two LSU games this season. He attended camps at Tennessee, LSU and Auburn.

Alonzo Lewis (St. James/St. James)
ESPNU 150 Watch List

Breakdown: Lewis is one of the top skill players in the state. At nearly 6-3 and 194-pounds with swivel hips and long arms, Lewis has the ability to play receiver or corner at the next level. A hamstring injury has plagued Lewis throughout the season, however.
Recruiting update: Lewis has been offered by LSU and Tulsa. He is considering LSU, Georgia, Alabama, Oregon, Miami (Fla.) and lists Ohio State as a childhood favorite. He was a camp standout at LSU during the summer.

Jermauria Rasco (Shreveport/Evangel Christian Academy)
ESPNU 150 Watch List

Breakdown: Rasco is one of the top defensive ends in the country. At 6-3, 244-pounds with first step quickness, ideal arm length, strong hands, closing speed, flexibility, change of direction and physicality, Rasco is on the wish list of college programs coast-to-coast.
Recruiting update: Rasco is considering LSU, Texas, Alabama, Tennessee, Oklahoma and has offers from many others, including UCLA, Texas A&M, Stanford, Duke, Colorado, Texas Tech and Vanderbilt.

Renaldo Thomas (New Orleans/St. Augustine)
Breakdown: Thomas is the sleeper of the bunch, but not for long. Word is getting out quickly on the 6-4, 210-pound safety. Thomas, at times, doesn't start for a stacked St. Augustine team that features a number of talented skill players on both sides of the ball, but he routinely makes his presence known with a big hit or an athletic play on the ball. Current LSU safety Chad Jones is Thomas' cousin.
Recruiting update: Thomas is considering LSU, Alabama, Miami (Fla.), Florida, Florida State and Arkansas. He camped at Alabama, LSU, and Louisiana-Monroe during the summer.

Other top junior prospects in the state include offensive lineman Greg Robinson (Thibodaux/Thibodaux), running back Robert Kelley (New Orleans/O. Perry Walker), defensive tackle Chucky Hunter (Monroe/West Monroe), receiver and 100-meter sprint champion Bradley Sylve (Plaquemine/South Plaquemine), receiver Marc Edwards (New Orleans/St. Augustine) and quarterback Bryan Ensminger (Hahnville/Hahnville).

Gerry Hamilton has covered recruiting in Texas and the Southwest for more than a decade. He can be reached at espngerry@yahoo.com.