Commentary

Shepard takes over the top spot in the ESPNU 150

Originally Published: October 28, 2008
By Tom Luginbill | Scouts Inc.

With most high school teams having played at least six games, we felt it was time to make some adjustments to the 2009 edition of the ESPNU 150. These changes are based on performance and injury status among other criteria affecting a player's production.

Most of the changes you will see have affected the top 30 or so players, with many players moving up due to outstanding senior-year performances. (Click here to see the revised ESPNU 150.)

The most noticeable change you will see is at the top: Athlete Russell Shepard (Houston/Cy-Ridge) has exchanged spots with QB Matt Barkley (Santa Ana, Calif./Mater Dei) as the nation's top player. Although many will point to statistics being the reason for the change -- Barkley is not on pace to have the same year he had as a junior (he's completing 52 percent of his passes and has thrown 11 interceptions to 18 touchdowns this year) -- we look at it from a different viewpoint.

[+] EnlargeRussell Shepard
Troy FieldsRussell Shepard is bound for LSU.
First and foremost, we have stated on several occasions that Mater Dei was going to have some rebuilding to do offensively and that Barkley was not going to have the same personnel around him as he had in the past. This would affect any QB statistically, even Barkley. Statistics don't always tell the whole story. They are not always an accurate indicator of how good a player is.

From our perspective, of all the kids we've seen over the spring and summer circuits and during games this year, Shepard has been, without a doubt, the player who has shown the ability to have the biggest impact on a game when his hands are on the ball. He plays in the spread, which suits him perfectly, but it is not a "pass happy" spread like most people believe the spread to be. In other words, you will never see Shepard attempt 35 passes in a high school game. In fact, two weeks ago in a big win against rival Cy-Falls he attempted just 11 passes, but completed all 11.

Shepard dominates the opposition with his legs, speed, ability to make people miss and savvy as an athlete, and we feel he is deserving of the nation's top spot at this time. For recruiting fans, we can put it in these words: The only difference between Terrelle Pryor and Russell Shepard is five inches in height. In fact, through our evaluation, Shepard is smoother, more sudden (like Percy Harvin). Although he doesn't possess the same arm strength as Pryor, Shepard has a better release and has competed against much better competition. (For those who have not seen Shepard, imagine a right-handed, faster Pat White at West Virginia.) You could also argue Shepard plays against better competition than Barkley and Mater Dei.

Is Barkley better groomed and further along as a passer than Shepard? Yes. But Shepard is more versatile as an impact player, and he could also become an elite wide receiving prospect. Barkley and Shepard will compete against each other at the Under Armour All-American game in January 2009, so the competition for top billing in the ESPNU 150 for 2009 -- between these two and other top prospects -- will only heat up between now and national signing day.

The most noticeable jump in the rankings belongs to QB Garrett Gilbert (Austin, Texas/Lake Travis). He enters the top 10, moving from No. 19 to No. 6, and has been without question the hottest signal-caller in this class during the high school season. Gilbert has been on fire, tossing 30 TDs to just one -- yes one -- interception. When we saw him this July, we questioned whether or not he was going to be at full strength after offseason shoulder surgery. He has certainly put those concerns to rest. Gilbert could make a push for No. 1 overall QB in the class.

We initially had RB Trent Richardson (Pensacola, Fla./Escambia) so high in our first edition (No. 12) that we took criticism. Richardson, however, has actually earned the right to jump into the top 10 at our No. 5 spot. He has been a workhorse despite suffering from some nagging nicks and bruises. Richardson has 1,487 yards and 19 TDs on the season.

[+] EnlargeManti Te'o
Jesse Beals/Icon SMIInside linebacker Manti Te'o is considering USC, Notre Dame, UCLA, Stanford and BYU.
Come February, both Richardson and Gilbert could be legitimate contenders for the No. 1 overall spot if they continue at their current paces.

Two players we felt were legitimate threats to campaign for the No. 1 slot unfortunately suffered season ending injuries. Both QB Aaron Murray (Tampa, Fla./Plant) and DE Devon Kennard (Phoenix, Ariz./Desert Vista) were injured and dropped from No. 3 and No. 4, respectively, to just outside of the top 10 at No. 13 and No. 14. Obviously injuries are part of the game, but it's unfortunate that two great players have lost the remainder of their senior years as a result.

With Murray and Kennard moving down the rankings, CB Dre' Kirkpatrick (Gadsden, Ala.) moves up from No. 5 to No. 3 and OLB Manti Te'o (Honolulu, Hawaii/Punahou) improves from No. 6 to No. 4.

While we are still concerned about the level of competition RB Bryce Brown (Wichita, Kan./East) faces each and every week, his production has been off the charts as a senior. He jumps up four spots to round out our top 10. Brown is averaging 211 yards and has scored a staggering 28 TDs to date. Brown jumps both WR Rueben Randle (Bastrop, La.) and RB Jaamal Berry (Miami/Palmetto), who has been battling injuries.

Teammates and South Carolina commits OLB Damario Jeffery (Columbia, S.C.) and S Chris Payne (Columbia, S.C.) will see a drop in the rankings due to injuries -- Jeffery goes from No. 15 to No. 34 and Payne drops from No. 58 to No. 81.

[+] EnlargeDamario Jeffery
Tom Hauck/ESPN.comDamario Jeffery has been sidelined for most of the season with an ACL injury.
ATH Greg Reid (Valdosta, Ga./Lowndes) is on his way to breaking his own single-season interception record of eight, which he set as a sophomore in 2006. He has five through seven games and has scored 11 touchdowns. He moves from No. 115 to No. 106 and could move into the top 100 by the year's end.

RB David Wilson (Danville, Va./George Washington) is a guy who has played extremely well and has already surpassed the 1,400 yard mark. We felt he deserved a bump from No. 65 to No. 52.

In other running back news, RB Eddie Lacy (Geismar, La./Dutchtown) will slightly drop due to a knee injury sustained earlier in the season.

RB Michael Ford (Leesville, La.) has posted a stellar senior season in the early going, accumulating more than 1,600 yards on the ground. Ford will move from No. 140 to No. 132.

As we said in July, OT D.J. Fluker (Foley, Ala.) has great upside on offense -- after a poor junior year -- and his future is as an offensive tackle and not a defensive tackle. We moved him up to No. 39 last month but, come January, with even more experience, we feel he could end up being in the top 25 overall in this class. Keep in mind that due to depth issues, Fluker, an Alabama commit, could start out at DT because of his size and ability to fulfill a two-gap role.

After injuring his knee a year ago and suffering nagging injuries as a senior thus far, DE Chris Bonds (Columbia, S.C./Richland Northeast) has not been able to get back in the swing of things and drops out of the ESPNU 150.

QB Jon Budmayr (Woodstock, Ill./Marion Central Catholic) has dropped out of the ESPNU 150 as well, since he suffered a broken collarbone that required season-ending surgery.

DE Craig Drummond (Chicago/Morgan Park) hasn't recovered well enough from a broken foot to get on the field as senior, so he drops from No. 67 to No. 110.

[+] EnlargeCraig Drummond
Ross Dettman for ESPNRISEChicago defensive end Craig Drummond is considering Illinois and Wisconsin.
We moved DE Ryne Giddins (Tampa, Fla./Armwood) up in the rankings in September, and he has made another jump from No. 80 to No. 64. He is pushing Demonte McAllister (Tampa, Fla./Alonso) for the No. 4 DE spot. McAllister has posted 15 sacks thus far, surpassing his mark of 12 as a junior. Keep in mind, McAllister isn't playing defensive end on a full-time basis, either. Fifteen sacks from a 3-technique position is downright impressive. He moves up as well from No. 62 to No. 50.

ATH Chad Bumphis (Tupelo, Miss.) has shown remarkable versatility this year by splitting time at QB and continues to show why he is so valuable as an athlete. Just this past weekend he accounted for six touchdowns, four through the air. He moves from No. 135 to No. 119.

A new entry into the ESPNU 150 is DE Abry Jones (Northside, Ga./Northside Warner Robins) who has had an impressive senior campaign to date. He enters at No. 112.

A prospect who has jumped in and out of the ESPNU 150 throughout the fall, WR Duron Carter (Fort Lauderdale, Fla./Saint Thomas Aquinas), comes back in at No. 150.

As always, the ESPNU 150 rankings -- and all of our rankings through almost 2,400 prospects evaluated thus far in the 2009 class -- is an evolving process. Nothing is static. We will continue to tweak player rankings and grades on prospects just outside of the ESPNU 150 as well. As senior campaigns come to a close and the All-Star games conclude in January, we will make further adjustments as needed.

Tom Luginbill is the National Recruiting Director for ESPN's Scouts Inc. He has an extensive background in professional football talent evaluation and coaching. He played quarterback at Georgia Tech (1994) and Eastern Kentucky (1995).