- Tom Luginbill, ESPN Staff Writer
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The initial ESPN 150 for football's Class of 2009 will be released in one week (on Aug. 5). And while the Scouts Inc. crew -- Craig Haubert, Billy Tucker, Bill Conley and I -- bunker down in Charlotte to review, debate and compile the rankings, we thought we would whet your appetite with the five outstanding prospects who could be No. 1.
Keep in mind that of the players we have graded and written reports on so far -- almost 2,000 prospects -- those who have graded out the highest to this point are all candidates. We are performing the final analysis as to who is going to make the cut for the entire ESPN 150, and it is safe to say the following not only have a case for the top 10 or top five but also for the No. 1 slot.
Based on junior film and the spring and summer evaluation period, we've made a case for and against each prospect's claim to the top spot. As always, grades and evaluations will certainly change between now and Aug. 5. The players below are in no particular order (other than alphabetical), so try not to read anything into the order in which they are presented.
QB Matt Barkley (Santa Ana, Calif./Mater Dei)
Why he could be: Because everyone always assumes a high profile quarterback should be No. 1 overall, but that's just not always the case. That's not a knock on Barkley in any way, but he plays the most important position in all of sports, so it is a natural and easy thing to do when putting together rankings. In the 2007 class everyone assumed Jimmy Clausen would end up No. 1 because of his hype, but it was talented RB Joe McKnight who claimed the No. 1 in the final rankings.
Barkley is the real deal and has played in and won huge games, which is important. He has all the physical tools and has been well schooled and understands the position as well as anyone. He will also have the benefit of having great players around him at USC, which is a big part of the equation, and does not necessarily have that luxury in high school, making his accomplishments that much more impressive.
Why not: Again, not to take anything away from Barkley, but other position players rarely receive the type of national hype and attention quarterbacks get, especially on defense. One must be careful not to buy into anything other than what should be considered -- talent, aptitude, intangibles, measurables, upside, dominance and most importantly production.
Just like last year when DE DaQuan Bowers was considered to be a great one in the summer, it took awhile for many to truly realize how dominant he was. We had him at No.4 for a long time, and he eventually became No. 1 because his play certainly overcame any other players' hype. In other words, you count discount other players just because of their position.
CB Dre Kirkpatrick (Gadsden, Ala.)
Why he could be: Because he is a cornerback and good ones, especially those with blessed with his height (he's 6-foot-2), do not grow on trees. To consistently pressure people up front defensively, you better have guys who can match up and lock down on the perimeter -- especially against an opponent's top receiving threat. The dearth of these types of players are why you are seeing so much Cover-2. It is extremely difficult to find true corners, especially ones who don't have to switch to corner from another position once they enter college. Cover guys are rare, and Kirkpatrick can cover.
Why not: It is a high-risk, high-reward position with so many opportunities to fail while everyone is watching. It is also the most difficult position to evaluate and project. Rarely is a corner at the high school level put into pressure-packed situations against elite wide receivers, so you may not always know what you are getting from the neck up. This position with young players is often evaluated at times solely on physical talent.
QB Aaron Murray (Tampa, Fla./Plant Senior)
Why he could be: One, he's a quarterback (see Barkley above). Two, he is a creative playmaker with both his arm and his legs. With Murray it is all about finding a way to move the chains and create on his own if he has to. He has the "it" factor, and you can see it in his style of play.
Why not: He is in the same class as Barkley, which makes it tough. Also, he is on the shorter side -- which we have never really put much stock into, but it is a factor that should be considered, especially if he is not working out of the shotgun at the next level.
ATH Russell Shepard (Houston/Cy-Ridge)
Why he could be: Because he is a game-changer with the ball in his hands, especially as a runner. He has played and succeeded at a very high level and consistently shown he can make plays both on his own and within the scheme. If you make this comparison, Shepard has a legitimate case -- he has played against much better competition than Terrelle Pryor did last year and is further along as a passer in terms of release mechanics.
Any player being recruited as an "athlete" who could be a difference maker at more than one position such as Shepard, with his combination of speed, quickness and ability to make defenders miss, must be considered in the running for the nation's top player.
Why not: If you are banking on Shepard at quarterback, he is going to have some of the same challenges as Pryor will in the passing game, one of the reasons we did not have Pryor No. 1 overall in the 2008 class. Whether or not he stays at quarterback in college is up to LSU head coach Les Miles and offensive coordinator Gary Crowton, but he is going to have the opportunity to compete against the best as a quarterback in the 2009 Under Armour All-American Game. The impression he makes there could be big for him as to what his final ranking ends up being in the 2009 class.
OLB Manti Te'o (Honolulu/Punahou)
Why he could be: Can you say Junior Seau? We feel Te'o is this type of player without a doubt.
We know he is an outside linebacker, but he can also play inside or line up with his hand on the ground and rush off the edge just like Seau could. Physically he looks the part, but he also plays like he looks. His relentless motor is something that jumps out on tape. He could potentially be the best defensive prospect in this class.
Why not: He's an outside linebacker, and while he is versatile and can do so many things, generally speaking defensive players up for consideration for the No. 1 spot must be a game changer as a pass rusher along the defensive line.
Tom Luginbill is the national director of recruiting for Scouts Inc. Luginbill is a college football and recruiting studio analyst for ESPNU.