- Tom Luginbill, ESPN Staff Writer
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We keep the "athlete" category in high regard for obvious reasons, the primary one being the more you can do -- the more versatile you are -- the more value you bring to a roster. In many cases, prospects can be so talented and run so well that college coaches and recruiters don't necessarily worry about what position they'll play until they actually get to school. In other words, just take the kid and worry about where he plays later.
There are 18 athletes in the 2009 ESPNU 150 (there would be 19 if Donavan Tate (Cartersville, Ga.) chose to continue his football career along with playing baseball) and of that number, nine have played or are playing quarterback. This is the downside of the athlete category -- a lack of experience developing at one true position.
With the spread offense now having trickled down significantly to the high school level, many teams take their best player and place him in the shotgun, making him the focal point of the offense (whether he is a true QB or not). The logic is simple: put the ball in the hands of our best player as often as possible, do what he does best (most likely run and make people miss) and we'll figure out the passing game as need be. Also, the shotgun read-option package makes this type of player very dangerous.
For college coaches, however, taking a player with great physical tools but little overall consistent experience at one position poses some risks. Most, if not all of the prospects in this category will end up at either cornerback or wide receiver, some will stay at QB (in the right scheme) and some possibly will play safety or running back. Without having developed consistent techniques, instincts and experience at one specific position on an every-down basis, there can be a bit more of a learning curve in college when a player is committed to one position.
Our No. 2 overall player in the ESPNU 150 is the one player in this group who is a legitimate quarterback prospect. Russell Shepard (Houston/Cy-Ridge) is a special player. The LSU commit can do it all. To list him as a quarterback, though, we would have to be absolutely convinced he will be a quarterback – by our own evaluation, by an indication from the school he's committed to, or by determining that he fits a recruiting school's scheme well enough to stay at the position.
However, Shepard is every bit as dangerous and may be even faster than Class of 2008 sensation Terrelle Pryor (Ohio State). Plus, he is facing much better competition in high school than Pryor did. His explosive playmaking skills with the ball in his hands are unparalleled in this class. We'll feature Shepard and his teammates on ESPN2 on October 16. Look for him to focus on the short and intermediate passing game as an area of improvement this fall.
Ray Ray Armstrong (Sanford, Fla./Seminole) is one of three standouts sharing the spotlight on the Seminole High School squad, along with WR Andre DeBose (who could easily be in this category) and DE Dyron Dye. Armstrong is a monster of an athlete, cast from a mold similar to Dee Finley (Florida) in the 2008 class. He has played QB, WR, RB and lines up at safety on defense, which could likely be his home in college if he doesn't move down to outside linebacker in time.
We had a hard time deciding where to place Cierre Wood (Oxnard, Calif./Santa Clara) not only positionally but in terms of ranking as well. He is a wonderful athlete with size, speed, fluid change-of-direction skills and versatility. But while he has received a ton of hype and attention as a running back, in our opinion he is a safety. His dimensions, ball skills and range are all indications he will end up on defense. He is built like a receiver -- not a running back -- and moves like one, too. The level of competition he has faced has not been terrific.
Branden Smith (Atlanta/Booker T. Washington) is not only a receiver, cornerback and running back candidate, but he is also a dangerous return specialist who can change field position in a hurry. He is so quick and explosive that all his tools lead us to believe he could be a difference maker on defense as a perimeter player.
Another QB, 5-foot-11 Brandon McGee (Fort Lauderdale, Fla./Plantation), is expected to end up at cornerback, although he could also play wide receiver. In our opinion, if he were taller he would be recruited to play quarterback by teams incorporating the spread. The Miami commit has great feet and overall athleticism.
Speaking of undersized QBs, 6-0 Denard Robinson (Deerfield Beach, Fla.) is the one undersized QB in this class we believe could really be good if he remained at the position, but his speed, quickness and change-of-direction skills will have coaches envisioning a cover corner or wide receiver. When you watch Robinson throw the ball, you can't help but come away impressed; if he were 6-2 or taller, he would be purely a QB prospect.
McGee and Robinson are very similar prospects in a lot of ways.
Some believe Byron Moore Jr. (Harbor City, Calif./Narbonne) will end up at safety, but he could easily be just as dangerous as a wide receiver. We have seen him on tape and in person doing both, and it is anybody's guess where he will end up. He epitomizes the statement earlier: just take him and figure it out later. He burst onto the scene late in the spring, and has dropped a UCLA commitment to join the USC Trojans.
We do feel Darius Jones (Marshall, Texas) will end up at cornerback, and he will likely get moved to that position in our rankings at some point during his senior year. However, he is a spread QB right now, and we would like to see him more on defense before we make that change. He has flown under the radar and has not gotten the national attention we think he is worthy of, in terms of his overall skills.
Stephon Gilmore (Rock Hill, S.C./South Pointe), yet another spread QB, is being recruited as a safety. While he didn't see much time at safety as a junior, expect him to have much more of a defensive presence as a senior.
One of the sleepers in this group is Victor Marc (Hallendale, Fla.), a player we feel will end up at running back, but linebacker may not be out of the question either. Thick, strong and well-proportioned, Marc is a load with the ball in his hands. And here is a shocker: he has spent considerable time at QB, too. South Florida may have gotten a steal here.
Logan Thomas (Lynchburg, Va./Brookville) resembles Terrelle Pryor both in stature and methods. While we feel Thomas could remain at QB in the right scheme and with continued development in the passing game, in all likelihood he will end up at wide receiver or tight end/H-back. He is a terrific, long-legged athlete.
Patrick Hall (Ventura, Calif./Saint Bonaventure) is very much like Cierre Wood as an overall player. Hall could end up at running back or safety. Expect a big year from Hall with RB Darrell Scott graduating and signing with Colorado.
Greg Reid (Valdosta, Ga./Lowndes) is a scrappy little ballplayer as both a running back and cornerback, but his true role could be return specialist in college. He is undersized but plays big and likes to mix it up in run support on defense.
We are very intrigued by Drayton Calhoun (Tucker, Ga.) because he is built like a wide receiver or corner/safety, but plays running back. We are not sure he could be an every-down back but could be more of a change of pace. He is smooth and fast but tall and lean, too. The LSU commit is dangerous with the ball in his hands.
We can't talk about the athlete position without mentioning Kevin Newsome (Chesapeake, Va./Hargrave Military) because he wants to play QB and truly believes he is a QB, which may have led to him decommitting from Michigan. Newsome is stacked -- he looks like a big running back or strong safety/linebacker -- and is still developing as a QB. It is only natural for coaches to envision him at another spot (and we have, too), which is why he is not in the QB category exclusively. Is he capable of staying under center? Of course, but until he gets on campus there's a good chance he could end up at another position.
This is just an overview of some of the top athletes in the 2009 class. Scouts Inc. has written reports and grades on 149 athlete prospects and counting in the 2009 class, so check them out.
Tom Luginbill is the national director of recruiting for Scouts Inc. Luginbill is a college football and recruiting studio analyst for ESPNU.