- Christopher Lawlor, High School Basketball
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ORLANDO, Fla. -- Russell Shepard, the do-it-all quarterback bound for LSU, has a theory about the Under Armour All-America High School Football Game.
"You have to learn to work with athletes who are used to getting the ball in a hurry," said Shepard, who recently graduated early from Cypress Ridge High in Cypress, Texas. "There's a lot of talent here. All the players were the stars on their high school teams, and now here's one last test."
Eighty of the nation's elite football players will close out their high school careers Sunday (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET) at the Florida Citrus Bowl on the grandest stage.
The second Under Armour All-America Game will showcase the nation's top high school seniors. The inaugural game was played last year at Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
Shepard, the nation's top-ranked prospect, might be on to something after taking snaps and huddling with the Black team. Here are a few tidbits that back up his theory.
• Want star power? Consider these numbers: Sixty-six players -- 33 on each roster -- are ranked in the ESPNU 150. That means nearly 44 percent of the ESPNU 150 is competing in one game and more than 80 percent of each roster is composed of elite players.
• Star players need superior coaching. Shepard said, "When a Hall of Fame coach talks, you listen." Head coaches Mike White of the Black team and Marv Levy of the White team have NFL pedigrees. White coached the Oakland Raiders, and Levy, the Pro Football Hall of Famer, guided the Buffalo Bills to four consecutive Super Bowl appearances.
Both teams are backed by 10 of America's most successful high school coaches, and their veteran offensive and defensive coordinators boast thick dossiers. The Black team has Dave Levy guiding the offense and Rex Norris heading the defense. Levy won four national titles with Southern California, while Norris has more than 30 years of college and NFL experience.
The White team has Sherman Lewis, formerly of the Packers, Lions and Vikings, heading the offense. George Dyer, who has more than 20 years of NFL experience, will lead the defense.
Additionally, future Hall of Fame wide receiver Cris Carter instructed wide receivers. His son, Duron Carter, is a wide receiver for the Black squad.
• The linebacking corps have drawn rave reviews from coaches and players alike.
"It's our [the linebackers'] time to shine," said Jenkins, who starred at Good Counsel (Olney, Md.). "We have a job and must play as a team."
• Both squads boast several game-breakers.
Defensive back Ray Ray Armstrong, defensive lineman Jacobbi McDaniel and Jaamal Berry are Floridians who will play for the Black team. Quarterback Garrett Gilbert of Lake Travis (Austin, Texas) was Gatorade's national player of the year.
For the White team, there's quarterback Matt Barkley (the No. 10 overall prospect), Morrell Presley (top-ranked tight end), Trent Richardson (top-ranked running back) and Craig Loston (top-ranked safety).
• The offensive lines are a coach's dream and a quarterback's best friend. A pair of Texans, Mason Walters and Paden Kelley, are two of the nation's top three tackles playing for the Black team. Both are headed to Texas in the fall.
The White team features guard play with the top two prospects, John Martinez and Xavier Su'a-Filo, who both hail from Utah.
Although the players have practiced less than a week, their high football IQs reduced the learning curve.
"Everyone here is a student of the game," said Jamal Patterson, a wide receiver from Henry County (McDonough, Ga.). "You may have coaches instructing players once or twice, but that's it."
Mark Brazinski, the No. 2-rated center from Immaculata (Somerville, N.J.), is amazed by the level of play.
"You're surrounded by greatness," he said. "There aren't many anonymous players here."
Nationally, Michael Campanaro (5-foot-10, 180 pounds) of River Hill (Clarksville, Md.) might not have a reputation, but he's showing why he was named the Washington Post All-Met Offensive Player of the Year. (Jelani Jenkins was named the defensive player of the year.)
At Friday's hands competition at the 2009 Burger King All-American Varsity Skills Challenge, Campanaro finished second to Robbie Toma by a narrow margin.
Campanaro, a Wake Forest recruit, helped River Hill win its second straight Maryland Class 2A title and rushed for 1,848 yards and 29 touchdowns. He also caught three touchdown passes, returned two punts for scores and intercepted seven passes as a safety (three for touchdowns).
Campanaro is excited about playing and said this week's practice was a taste of the future.
"The speed of the game will increase on the college level," he said. "Timing is everything at the next level. The quarterbacks are on the money, the wide receivers can break open a game, but the game is usually won up front."
Zach Martin, a 6-5, 260-pound tackle from Bishop Chatard (Indianapolis), is headed to Notre Dame. He will toil in the trenches.
"Coach White has connected with our team," he said. "Our coaches have stressed technique and pass protection. Most high schools run block, but that's not the case in college or the pros."
Christopher Lawlor has covered high school sports for more than 20 years, most recently with USA Today, where he was the head preps writer responsible for national high school rankings in football, baseball and boys' and girls' basketball. He also worked for Scholastic Coach magazine, where he ran the Gatorade National Player of the Year program for nine years. Lawlor, a New Jersey resident, grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University.
After a week of practices and other festivities, the 80 Under Armour All-Americans are ready to show what they are made of on Sunday at the Citrus Bowl, writes Christopher Lawlor.