Top QB tough to call
Gunner Kiel earns top spot now, but Jameis Winston, Connor Brewer right behind him
Deciphering the top quarterbacks in the Class of 2012 was a challenge, particularly the top five. Last year, Florida's Jeff Driskel was the clear-cut No. 1 with no questions asked. This year, the top three, if not top five, are almost interchangeable as each has a unique set of strengths and weaknesses.
There are nine quarterbacks in the first edition of the ESPNU 150, and there could be as many as 11 come February, if Ford Childress (Houston/Kincaid) and Sean Maguire (West Orange, N.J./Seton Hall Prep) mature and develop like we believe they will as seniors. Perhaps the most glaring difference in this group of QBs as opposed to the past few years is the absence of dual-threat prospects who are accomplished passers. Jameis Winston (Hueytown, Ala./Hueytown), the No. 2-ranked QB, is clearly the best athlete of this group and a legit dual-threat who also happens to possibly have the most upside as a pure passer.
This year's class also showcases a ton of top-flight-yet-under-developed late bloomers we are excited about. It is not a definitive group of difference-makers as a whole, but this class possibly possesses more top-tier talent that lacks national exposure than what we have seen in the past. Guys such as Preston Dewey (Austin, Texas/St. Andrews) and Jake Rodrigues (Rocklin, Calif./Whitney) aren't exactly household names, but their ability and production speaks for itself when you really sit down and study these guys. There are 24 four-star players in this group, but many of those are late bloomers and at the bottom end of the four-star grading scale.
Size, strength, deceptive athleticism, arm strength and a very quick release have placed Kiel at the top of the list. He is not the athlete Winston is, nor is his release as smooth, but he is accurate, gritty and extremely competitive. Plus baseball is not in the picture with Kiel as it is with Winston, and that does play a role. Kiel can really stroke the ball with zip and power, and mechanically he is tight and compact, so the ball comes out nicely. He has a no-nonsense personality and shows command of the scheme. It is also refreshing to see him work from center and out of the shotgun.
If this guy chooses the football route and coaches are convinced of it, he will likely turn out to be the most highly coveted QB in this class. Tall and lean, the sky is the limit with Winston's upside to develop strength and bulk to his frame. He already possesses the arm and, more importantly, the smooth, whip-like delivery capable of making all the throws from within the pocket and on the perimeter. This spring he was more compact and consistent mechanically than any time we have seen him in the past. He is the best blend of natural athleticism and a knack for passing this class has to offer.
On tape, there may not be a better prospect as a pure passer in the Class of 2012 than Brewer, a Texas commit. In person, Brewer does not possess the arm strength he appears to have on film, but it's his knack for anticipation, timing and accuracy that makes him so good. Plus, he has a bit of an "it" factor. There is a quiet confidence and command of the game that you can't teach. He can make all the throws and is extremely sound in just about every area -- especially footwork -- which is why he is so accurate.
You can make a clear and convincing case for why all three deserve to be No.1 -- it was a very tough call -- and this could get shuffled around some by February.
Best of the rest• This may sound nuts, but T.J. Millweard (Fort Worth, Texas/All Saints Episcopal) is very, very similar to former Missouri QB and first-round NFL draft pick Blaine Gabbert. He has size, is a deceptive athlete who can run and has the arm to make all the throws with a powerful over-the-top release. Frank Beamer got a steal with this Virginia Tech commit.
• Chad Kelly (Buffalo, N.Y./Saint Joseph's Collegiate Institute) really impressed as a passer in person, considering most of his film showcases his size and athletic ability. Level of competition is obviously a concern, but skill set and upside are not. The nephew of former Bills QB Jim Kelly, Chad obviously has good genes.
• If Tyler Matthews (McPherson, Kan./McPherson) was two inches taller and maybe playing in another region, he would likely be the most heavily recruited QB in this class. You can't coach the way he gets rid of the ball, and he is extremely accurate. The ball jumps out of his hand, and he possesses intangibles. Credit Gary Patterson and the TCU staff for jumping on him when no one was looking.
• Rodrigues is actually quite reminiscent of Matthews and has many of the same qualities. He shows a gunslinger's mentality. He is very efficient and productive with both his feet and arm and displays a very smooth delivery. Rodrigues, who committed to Oregon last month, was virtually an unknown three months ago, but you watch him and it becomes clear why teams are after him now.
• Of all the prospects we have seen perform live this spring, we would argue Dewey turned in the most impressive performance. Obviously there are concerns about the level of competition, but his feet, fundamentals, arm strength and sense of timing and anticipation really stood out, and he has good measurables as well.
Others to watch
• Seeing Childress in person is going to be very fruitful. His combination of measurables, arm strength and, most importantly, a lightning quick delivery speaks volumes on film, but he has not shown up to any event he has been registered to attend, so we will have to make further assessments. ... Maguire, a Florida State commit, plays in the Wing-T, and that has hindered his exposure, but schools that are paying attention realize there is a diamond in the rough here. ... Chad Voytik (Cleveland, Tenn./Cleveland) lacks prototypical height but has possibly one of the top three deliveries in this class.
Tom Luginbill is ESPN's national director of football recruiting.
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2012 POSITIONAL BREAKDOWNS
ESPN Recruiting will be breaking down every position throughout the month.