As we head down the homestretch toward national signing day, the ESPNU 150 begins to take its final shape. Now that local and national all-star games have been played, we have mulled over several different scenarios for our rankings, but we always came back to one thing: QB Matt Barkley (Santa Ana, Calif./Mater Dei) separated himself from the pack when matched up against great competition and earned the No. 1 spot.
It is no secret that Barkley has seen some adversity this year and has absorbed criticism about his less-than-stellar senior campaign. But we've said all along that playing quarterback is not a one-man job, it's a team effort. Coming off a junior season after which he won the Gatorade Player of the Year and Joe Montana Player of the Year among many other accolades, the expectations were huge. But Barkley did not have the same supporting cast he did a year ago and, in our opinion, tried to do too much during the season.
But we saw a different player during last week's Under Armour All-America Game. Barkley was relaxed, poised and in control. His attention to detail, timing and fundamentals were unmatched by any other quarterback in the national all-star games.
When Barkley was challenged to perform, he did. When he was questioned and all eyes were on him to see whether he was the real deal, he answered, and his teammates took notice. Our staff anxiously watched to see whether he would raise his level of play with stiff competition not only around and in front of him but also alongside him at quarterback with players such as Garrett Gilbert (Austin, Texas/Lake Travis), Richard Brehaut (Rancho Cucamonga, Calif./Los Osos) and others. Barkley earned and commanded respect. He showed the perfect blend of great physical skills and mental toughness, and that combination helps him climb to the top spot from No. 10.
Another change in the top 10 is OLB Manti Te'o (Honolulu/Punahou), who bumps up to the No. 2 spot. Te'o was a man among boys as an Under Armour All-American similar to the way DE Da'Quan Bowers (Clemson) dominated last year. His performance and versatility to play both inside and outside linebacker at the next level justify his rise from the No. 4 spot.
With Barkley and Te'o taking the top two spots, Russell Shepard (Houston/Cy-Ridge) drops from the top spot to No. 3. The elite athlete with exceptional speed and change-of-direction skills is continually out to prove he can remain at quarterback but still has a ways to go in the passing-game department to warrant the No. 1 ranking. He continues to wow us and others with his athleticism. The coaching staff at LSU will have to find a role for him in some capacity next season because he is too good not to see the field, whether at quarterback, slot receiver or wideout.
The new rankings also brought about some big movement in the defensive trenches, including an impressive debut, a jump and one player's inching closer toward the top spot. Several players created a buzz during Under Armour week in Orlando, but Jacobbi McDaniel (Greenville, Fla./Madison County) stood out above the rest.
During practices and the Under Armour game, McDaniel silenced any concerns about his height and proved he is a special player. His quickness off the ball gave offensive linemen fits. He showed excellent strength and won the leverage battles. It's one thing to see McDaniel on film, but it's another to see him in person against this level of competition. McDaniel is very athletic and disruptive and proves you cannot judge a book by its cover. The Florida State commit made a small but significant move from No. 7 to No. 5.
One running back who warranted a jump into the top 10 was Bryce Brown (Wichita, Kan./East), who moved to No. 8 with a good week at the Army All-America Game in San Antonio last week. He reminds us of a faster version of USC running back Stafon Johnson, and his numbers are staggering. Although we haven't been impressed with Brown's level of competition, he has made a considerable impression on us recently.
Tougher year for wide receivers
Wide receiver was a deep and strong position this season, so it has been harder for the wideouts to crack the top 10, especially because there are so many elite defensive prospects this year. WR Rueben Randle (Bastrop, La.) is one who belongs. His slight drop to the No. 10 spot from No. 6 is not because of his performance. Instead, it's a matter of our belief that wide receivers can be found in each and every class, but great defensive players are tough to find. We thus always give the nod to a defensive prospect over a wide receiver prospect.
This class of wide receivers does not feature the speedy prospects you typically would like to see, with the exception of a handful of guys. In reality, this is a wide receiver class of size, long arms, physicality and excellent hands. Randle is speedy, as is WR Andre Debose (Sanford, Fla./Seminole), who climbs to 17th in the latest rankings from No. 30. Debose is a scary prospect, and his recent commitment to Florida allows Gators fans to breathe a sigh of relief should wide receiver Percy Harvin turn pro in the spring.
Because other players have better speed, Marlon Brown (Memphis, Tenn./Harding Academy) drops slightly from No. 17 to No. 24. He possesses great size and athleticism and reminds us of DeAndre Brown, who plays at Southern Miss. WR Duron Carter (Fort Lauderdale, Fla./St. Thomas Aquinas), who also can run quickly, showed some flashes during Under Armour All-America Game week and saw a slight bump to No. 130 in the 150.
Overall, this is an impressive but somewhat inconsistent group of wide receivers. They still must mature and develop a lot more and their best production likely will come down the road. Very few guys in the group will make an immediate impact.
RBs show enough to climb in rankings
Although all-star games are not always the most conducive environments for running backs, particularly carry-the-load types, we thought a few backs separated themselves from the pack this postseason. We saw enough of Trent Richardson's (Pensacola, Fla./Escambia) downhill power and burst in Orlando for him to maintain the top running back spot.
Jaamal Berry (Miami/Palmetto) and Jarvis Giles (Tampa, Fla./Gaither) showed flashes in Orlando and deserve their No. 12 and No. 43 overall rankings, respectively, but both slid a little bit in the rankings, and we wanted to see a bit more production and consistency out of the Sunshine State duo. Berry still raises questions about future durability and inline running strength, and we would like to see more polished receiving skills from Giles as a future multipurpose back. With Giles dropping slightly, RB Christine Michael (Beaumont, Texas/West Brook), who showed he a little more of the complete package as a runner in San Antonio, moves into the No. 4 running back spot.
After an excellent senior season rushing the football, Gatorade Player of the Year David Wilson (Danville, Va./George Washington) jumps ahead of Under Armour All-American Washaun Ealey (Twin City, Ga./ECI) as the No. 5 running back. Ealey, Georgia's all-time touchdown leader, did not demonstrate the same downhill burst and explosiveness we saw on film throughout a great prep career. He might have been tired after some solid late-season production, as he certainly carried the load for his district-champion ECI squad (2,825 yards, 41 touchdowns).
Te'o is at the head of the inside linebacker class, but another physical presence inside is Vontaze Burfict (Corona, Calif./Centennial). Burfict, who rises to No. 16 in the ESPNU 150, proved to be superior at the point of attack and one of the hardest hitters in Texas. Fellow inside linebacker Nico Johnson (Andalusia, Ala.) moves into the top 20 coming off a solid performance as an Army All-American. Their bumps dropped down Dorian Bell (Monroeville, Pa./Gateway); we have some concerns about his lack of height on the perimeter.
Although he has played eight-man football for much of his high school career, linebacker Ronnell Lewis (Dewar, Okla.) proved on a national stage that he belonged in elite company. He's still a bit raw, but his great blend of size, strength, athleticism and toughness validate his climb into the 150. Undersized OLB Frankie Telfort, who is in the top 30, reminded us and the former NFL coaches on staff for the 2008 UA All-America Game of Sean Spence, who played in the game last year and went on to become ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year at Miami. Both lack similar measurables.
With the rising stock at linebacker comes some inevitable drops. Outside linebacker and Georgia commit Dexter Moody (Twin City, Ga./ECI) flashed good sideline-to-sideline range, but his lack of strength at the point of attack and slighter frame showed us he is a few years away from making an impact in Athens.
One of our biggest positional jumps comes in the defensive secondary. CB Greg Reid (Valdosta, Ga./Lowndes) arguably made the most significant impact this postseason with his outstanding play. Reid, who recently decommitted from Florida, moved into the top 20 and showed he is one of the quickest perimeter defenders in the country. While Reid rose in the rankings, Miami-bound corner Prince Kent (Norcross, Ga.) fell a bit after surrendering two scores in the UA game. Although we love his size and long arms to press as a corner, Kent may have trouble flipping his hips and transitioning at the next level.
In San Antonio at the Army all-star game, Cliff Harris (Fresno, Calif./Edison) showed good cover corner skills with his great foot-quickness and provided a spark in the return game. We still question his size when it comes to pressing and setting the edge on run support but thought his play warranted a bump. UA All-American corner Steve Williams (Dallas/Skyline) backed our assessment that he's one of the better off-man cover guys in the country that no one is talking about. The same can be said about speedy CB and Georgia commit Branden Smith (Atlanta/Booker T. Washington), on whom it was extremely difficult to create separation all week in Orlando. Both received improved grades.
O-linemen power their way up rankings
This year's offensive line class has plenty of size but lacks the overall athleticism to be one of the strongest position groups. But there was some significant movement both in terms of rankings and position changes for specific players as the regular season came to a close and the all-star games took place.
D.J. Fluker (Foley, Ala) is the top- ranked offensive lineman and sits just outside the overall top 10. He should develop into a big-time player as he progresses through his collegiate career. Like many of the linemen in the class, he has tremendous strength and size but lacks the foot quickness to be considered a complete offensive tackle. He replaces C Mason Walters (Wolfforth, Texas/Frenship) as the best tackle, but Walters moves to the No. 1 center position, where he has played most of his career. Walters is much more consistent in both run and pass blocking in the middle than in space at the tackle position.
Offensive tackle Paden Kelley (Austin, Texas/Lake Travis) remains in the top 30 overall and is just two spots behind Walters for offensive linemen. Kelley proved to be one of the most agile and athletic of all linemen in Orlando. His long arms, quick feet and excellent lateral movement make him a skillful pass protector, and he displayed those traits during Under Armour week.
One of the true stars in Orlando was Xavier Su'a-Filo (Pleasant Grove, Utah/Timpview). Su'a-Filo moved up 20 spots and established himself as a premier offensive tackle. We knew he could play guard, but he stole the show by displaying his ability to play on the edge. He has active hands and does a super job of controlling athletic defensive ends. Rarely does Su'a-Filo get beaten underneath or to the outside by quicker pass-rushers. He gives great effort and is a real fighter in the trenches.
John Martinez (Salt Lake City, Utah/Cottonwood) retains his position as the top guard in the country. Even though the USC commit was relatively quiet during Under Armour practices, he can transition from guard to center without skipping a beat. He seems a natural at center, which gives the Trojans some flexibility in terms of where to line him up. Without a doubt, Martinez is one of the most versatile linemen in the class.
Another Trojan-to-be, Kevin Graf (Agoura, Calif.), remains in the top 50. After a slow start in Orlando, Graf really picked things up as the week progressed. He became much more consistent in pass protection and played with the aggressiveness we saw all season long. Graf has excellent fundamentals and is best suited to play right tackle or guard at the next level.
Guard Stavion Lowe (Brownwood, Texas) was touted as an offensive tackle all season, but his body build and skills make him an offensive guard candidate. After watching him for a week in live drills, we think he would be a better inside player than an offensive tackle for LSU.
A late bloomer at the offensive tackle position this season is converted defensive lineman Taylor Lewan (Scottsdale, Ariz/Chaparral). Lewan, who wasn't initially on the radar, debuted in the ESPNU 150 at No. 147 thanks to his raw athletic talent and consistency in winning the vast majority of individual battles. He should be a very productive offensive lineman as he matures and his fundamentals sharpen.
D-linemen make their presence felt
McDaniel was not the only Florida State defensive line commit to make a jump, as Demonte McAllister (Tampa, Fla./Alonso) rose from No. 50 to No. 45. McAllister continued to wreak havoc in his senior season from the three technique position. Projected more as a defensive end in college, McAllister played really well on the edge. As one of the most explosive linemen in this class, McAllister's burst off the edge made him tough to block, and he supplied good pressure in the UA game. McAllister and McDaniel both deserved a bump in the rankings and could form one heck of a disruptive duo in Tallahassee.
A big mover among the defensive linemen was defensive end Donte Moss (Jacksonville, N.C./Northside), who jumped from No. 146 to No. 87. On film, Moss displayed a good frame as well as good athleticism, but he came across a little raw and looked more like an athlete than a football player at this stage. But the North Carolina commit seized the opportunity in two all-star games to prove that he is a good football player and worthy of a big jump. He played very well in the Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas and in San Antonio, where he held his own versus D.J. Fluker.
Missouri commit Sheldon Richardson (St Louis/Gateway) debuts in the ESPNU 150 at No. 107. Richardson is a big guy with very good athleticism. His film was limited, and entering the all-star period, he sat just outside the 150. His play in San Antonio gave us the additional evaluation needed to add him to the 150. He is a versatile player and moves well for a big guy. He originally was projected as a tight end, and although he still could play that position, he was switched to defensive tackle. His size and quickness may be better used in college on the defensive line.
Richardson and Moss made impressive moves, but the biggest move was made by Gary Brown (Quincy, Fla./West Gadsden), who jumped 62 spots from No. 85 to No. 23. Brown impressed us with his combination of size and athleticism, but he came across as a much more polished player than we first thought. He was very impressive all week in Orlando as both a pass-rusher and a run-defender. His quickness allowed him to rush the passer and be disruptive against the run. He took on double-teams well and showed good versatility by looking comfortable rushing off the edge from the end position. Brown is now the No. 2-rated defensive tackle, and Florida looks to have landed a good one.
Joshua Downs (Bastrop, La.) also impressed enough throughout the week in Orlando to climb from No. 82 to No. 40. Playing mostly in the shadow of Randle, his talented high school teammate, Downs seized the chance on a national stage to show recruiting fans that he is a great prospect in his own right. An undersized defensive tackle, Downs is very unassuming in street clothes, but on the field he is a very disruptive presence. He has a great burst off the ball and is active with his hands. Downs is tough to block and looks to be the next fine LSU defensive lineman.
Michigan commit Craig Roh (Scottsdale, Ariz./Chaparral) had a great week in Orlando and proved to be a dangerous pass-rusher. He is smart and possesses a wonderful motor. He will need to add bulk to his frame once he hits Ann Arbor, but he is still tough versus the run. He is very good with his hands, and his spin and counter moves will make him a handful as a pass-rusher. Roh rose from No. 87 to No. 48.
DE Malliciah Goodman (Florence, S.C./West) improved his ranking thanks to a fine performance in the Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas. He possesses a good frame and nice upside. Another defensive end who climbed in the rankings was Craig Drummond (Chicago/Morgan Park), who played well in the Army All-America Game, resting any doubts about the effects of the injury that ended his senior season.
A few players fell some in the rankings, including Jamarkus McFarland (Lufkin, Texas) and Antwan Lowery (Miami/Columbus). Lowery struggled with weight issues as a sophomore. He then shed weight heading into his junior year and had an outstanding season, displaying great quickness for a big man. Lowery seems to have once again added un-needed bulk and did not look as quick in Orlando as we had hoped he would. He is still a good presence versus the run, but when he plays at a more suitable weight, he is a much more disruptive player. Lowery also could end up as an offensive lineman in college.
Presley creates separation at tight end
Only two tight ends were in the ESPNU 150 before this recent shake-up, and there still are only two now. But the gap between the two has grown. Morrell Presley (Carson, Calif.) had a great week in Orlando. He mostly worked with the wide receivers and blended right in. In fact, he was one of the best of the group. A big kid with a good frame, Presley ran excellent routes and displayed good ball skills. He is a versatile player that UCLA could use in a variety of ways. Presley moved from No. 48 to No. 38. Barrett Matthews (Houston/North Shore), on the other hand, dropped from No. 59 to No. 93. Matthews was quiet during the all-star game practices, and we never got a chance to see the big-play ability he displayed on film. He did a nice job blocking, but we were hoping to see more from him in the passing game.
There is no doubt this class has physically impressive and athletic safeties. Four safeties are in the top 21 prospects. All four are taller than 6 feet and extremely mobile. This year's safeties are physical and play with extreme confidence. Leading the way is top-ranked safety Craig Loston (Houston/Eisenhower) who even was more impressive during the Under Armour practice sessions and during the game. Loston proved he has both the run support and pass-defense skills it takes to excel at the position. He's truly an all-around safety.
The safety who made one of the biggest jumps in our rankings was Mr. South Carolina Football, Stephon Gilmore (Rock Hill, S.C./South Pointe). We didn't know whether he could make the transition from a quarterback who tallied more than 3,000 yards and 30 touchdowns, but the fact that he climbed 68 spots in the rankings speaks for itself. Not only does he display the ability to be an excellent field general as a free safety, he also has tremendous instincts and breaks instantly on intermediate and deep passes. Gilmore is athletic enough to play man-to-man coverage and could end up playing any position in the secondary for the Gamecocks.
Devonte Holloman (Rock Hill, S.C./South Pointe) is the third of the top 20 safeties. It's easy to see how South Pointe High won the South Carolina state championship with the likes of Holloman and Gilmore on the team. Holloman displays the range and lateral movement it takes to make plays from sideline to sideline. He is a smart defensive back who takes great angles to the football.
This magnificent trio of safeties was intimidating and extremely productive during the week of practices in Orlando preceding the Under Armour All-America Game. They played well as a unit, and their coverage skills were exceptional, especially during 7-on-7 drills.
Although Ray Ray Armstrong (Sanford, Fla./Seminole) didn't make the same splash as the trio, he was solid all week. He is a smooth and fluid safety who looks more like an outside linebacker, but when you see him run, you see why he is so special. He moves better than any other safety whose size is similar.
Throughout his high school career, Darren Myles Jr. (Atlanta/Carver) has showed he can transition in the open field without losing speed or balance. He also proved during practices in Orlando that he can provide run support and be a real hitter. Although Myles caught our attention with his run support, Isaiah Bell opened up everyone's eyes with his coverage ability. Bell could end up an outside linebacker for the Michigan Wolverines, but he has solid pass-defense skills.
Despite season-ending injuries, teammates Damario Jeffery and Chris Payne (Columbia, S.C.) remain in the top 150 because of their consistency and play-making ability. There is little doubt the University of South Carolina will field one of the strongest secondaries in the country with recruits Gilmore, Holloman, Jeffery and Payne.
Athletes shine, and some players change positions
In the athlete category, our biggest surprise was Jamal Reid (Mayo, Fla./Lafayette). The Miami commit has a bright future ahead of him with whichever position he ends up playing. He really stood out as a polished, consistent wideout down in Orlando, but he also has the skills to play corner or safety, and his return skills are awesome. Reid has climbed from No. 99 to No. 80. ATH Denard Robinson (Deerfield Beach, Fla.) will be a good corner or wide receiver. And although he's not tall, Robinson is a pretty darn good quarterback, too. He is at No. 101 on the list.
Finally, we have moved WR Willie Downs (Tallahassee, Fla./Godby) into the athlete category because he was able to display his versatility on defense at safety. He could play this position at Florida State. Although he does not run great, he is an instinctive athlete who can hit you. He enters the 150 at No. 150.
A few position changes took place for guys such as Branden Smith (Atlanta/Booker T. Washington), who moved from athlete to cornerback, and Gilmore, who moved from athlete to safety. Other notable moves include Stavion Lowe (Brownwood, Texas) to offensive guard, Tom Wort (New Braunfels, Texas) to inside linebacker, Richardson to defensive tackle, Walters to center and Su'a-Filo to offensive tackle.
Scouts Inc.'s Billy Tucker, Craig Haubert and Bill Conley contributed to this story.
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).