-By Braden Gall (follow at @BradenGall)
There is no better time of the year for recruiting fans than January. National Signing Day is less than a month away and the nation’s best are doing battle in San Antonio and St. Petersburg, Fla.
This week, recruitniks everywhere get the first real glimpse of the nation’s top prep athletes going head-to-head against equivalent talent at all-star events across the fruited plain. While inter- and intra-state all-star games can feature a state’s or region’s best prospects, the national all-star competitions clearly raise the bar.
Nowhere else in college football recruiting can you watch the nation’s No. 1 defensive end battle with the nation’s No. 1 offensive tackle in practice for a full week. And this season’s Under Armour All-American Game and U.S. Army All-American Bowl are no exception.
The story in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., where the Under Armour practices have been taking place all week, began with the defensive lines. The big uglies up front on defense have been dominant, and rightly so, as the nation’s No. 1 defensive end Mario Edwards (AC100 No. 2) and the nation’s No. 1 defensive tackle Eddie Goldman (AC100 No. 13) will spearhead the D-lines. In fact, six of the top nine defensive end prospects in the Athlon Consensus 100 (and three of the top five nose tackles) will be competing in the Under Armour All-American Bowl on Thursday night (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).
And Florida State Seminoles fans should be grinning from ear to ear Thursday night. AC100 defensive ends Chris Casher and Dante Fowler Jr., along with Edwards, are all committed to Jimbo Fisher and Florida State. The Noles boast the No. 6 class in the nation due in large part to the defensive line haul. Fisher has three of the nation’s top six defensive ends. However, Fisher and newly paid defensive coordinator Mark Stoops will have to do some work to keep Fowler, who has been linked to the Florida Gators of late, in the Seminole fold.
End Channing Ward (No. 9 DE, AC100 No. 56) and future Georgia Bulldog tackle Jonathan Taylor (No. 5 DT, AC100 No. 36) each had solid starts to practice as well. Ward is set to announce during the UA Game Thursday night.
The offensive lines have the tallest order of the week. Trying to jell five to ten individuals together in one week all while facing what is easily the toughest competition of their young careers is virtually impossible. However, one name has stood out above the rest along the offensive line. Oregon State Beavers commitment Isaac Seumalo (AC100 No. 77) has been praised repeatedly by Edwards, Casher and Fowler.
The Offenses Return to Form
The offenses bounced back as the week of practice went along. Five of the nation’s top nine quarterback prospects, including the No. 1 passing prospect in the nation Jameis Winston (AC100 No. 10), will be chucking the football around on Thursday night. Winston, who is also an elite level baseball prospect, is also committed to Florida State and will likely start for the White Team. The White Team will also feature the nation’s No. 5 signal caller in Cal commit Zach Kline and the No. 9-rated quarterback Tanner Magnum, who is verballed to BYU. Kline has been drawing rave reviews in practice and could push Winston for the start. Keep an eye on both No. 8 and No. 5 in white Thursday night.
The Black Team will feature future Texas gunslinger Connor Brewer (No. 3 QB, AC100 No. 64), Clemson Tigers commitment Chad Kelly (No. 8 QB and Jim Kelly's nephew) and future Miami Hurricane Preston Dewey (No. 17 QB). Head coach Steve Mariucci is still looking for his starter, however, as he reported to ESPN on Wednesday that none of the three players has truly separated himself as the starter.
The quarterback is the most important position on the field and will be easily the most scrutinized group during the week of practice. It appears that the White Team, led by Winston and Kline, will have a distinct advantage at the position for the game Thursday night.
It won’t just be quarterbacks exciting the fans at Tropicana Field, however. There are plenty of talented skill names to keep an eye on, especially in a year highlighted by a deep running back class. The Miami Hurricanes’ Randy “Duke” Johnson (No. 7 RB, AC100 No. 49) is a big play waiting to happen and has been playing well all week long — as has fellow future Hurricane wideout Angelo Jean-Louis (No. 10 WR, AC100 No. 75). Al Golden has to be pleased with what he has seen from these two this week. Both will suit up for the Black Team, along with the nation’s No. 2 running back Jonathan Gray. Expect Johnson (jersey No. 1) and Gray (jersey No. 32) to play major roles on Thursday night. Texas’ Thomas Johnson, the nation’s No. 2 wide receiver prospect, is another name to keep an eye on (jersey No. 8).
Meanwhile, the White Team features the nation’s No. 1 runner in Keith Marshall. He is the sixth-rated player in the nation overall and will be wearing No. 4. The future Georgia Bulldog will share carries with future Sooner Alex Ross (No. 8 RB, No. 60) and Our Lady of Good Counsel product Wes Brown.
The fireworks for the White Team could come through the air, however. Future SEC star wide receivers Chris Black (No. 3 WR, AC100 No. 27), who is committed to Alabama, Shaq Roland (No. 5 WR, AC100 No. 46), who is committed to South Carolina, and Avery Johnson (No. 8 WR, AC100 No. 68), who is committed to LSU and is Patrick Peterson’s little brother, will likely shine as Winston and Kline sling passes all over The Trop.
You can bet Cal’s Jett Tedford will be watching as well. The future stars of his passing game, Kline and Lakewood (Calif.) standout Darius Powe (jersey No. 10), have both reportedly performed very well in practice thus far and will be on full display Thursday night.
Landon Collins, DB (AC100 No. 20)
Geismar (La.) Dutchtown
Finalists: Alabama, LSU
Collins is easily the biggest name to announce at the Under Armour event this year. He is the No. 3-rated defensive back in the nation and is the No. 20 overall player in the nation. His 6-foot, 205-pound frame and physical brand of football make him an ideal fit at safety. Alabama and LSU are his two finalists and were his only two official visits. Reports on Tuesday indicated that Collins was "80%" sure on which school he would be choosing after speaking to both the Tide and Tigers' coaching staffs. The slight edge goes to the former defensive back, Nick Saban.
Channing Ward, DE (AC100 No. 56)
Aberdeen (Miss.) Aberdeen
Finalists: Alabama, LSU, Mississippi State, Ole Miss
The big 6-foot-4, 250-pounder has had an excellent week of practice down in Florida. All accounts are he is ready to take his game to the next level; however, where that might be remains to be seen. Auburn had been considered a finalist as well but appears to have fallen behind his top four. He took official visits to each of his four finalists, and the in-state Ole Miss Rebels look like the team to beat.
Prediction: Ole Miss
Cyrus Jones, ATH (AC100 No. 63)
Baltimore (Md.) Gilman
Finalists: Virginia Tech, Alabama
This do-everything talent states that he made his decision about where he will be playing his college ball over a month ago. And apparently he can keep his mouth shut as his secret has yet to get out. After eliminating Ohio State, Auburn and Maryland, the Tide and Hokies are the only two to remain. Alabama assistant Sal Suneri has recruited the Baltimore-DC area incredibly well for Nick Saban and deserves plenty of credit for making Jones a priority. Despite the many connections to Virginia Tech, it looks like the Tide is the team to beat.
Other potential commitments to watch for:
Wes Brown, RB (AC100 No. 168)
Olney (Md.) Good Counsel
Finalists: Colorado, Florida, Maryland, Miami, Vanderbilt, Virginia Tech
Lucas Thompson, DB (AC100 No. 271)
Winter Garden (Fla.) West Orange
Finalists: East Carolina, South Carolina, Miami
Chaz Elder, DB (unranked)
College Park (Ga.) Banneker
Finalists: South Carolina, Georgia, Vanderbilt