The Opening 2014: One Player to Watch at Every Position
After a nationwide tour of Nike football camps, the grand finale is nearly here. A collection of America's elite high school football talents will assemble for "The Opening", an annual showcase that continues to gain prestige each summer.
The event takes place July 7-10 at Nike World Headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon. A compelling slate of action includes intense linemen matchups, star-studded seven-on-seven drills and SPARQ testing competitions.
More than 150 of the country's most coveted college football prospects are expected to take part in this year's edition after receiving invitations at past camps. It's the culmination of years of work and presents an opportunity for each player to live up to his billing as one of the nation's best.
The 2014 roster features plenty of future college and NFL standouts, with many still deciding where they'll spend the next phase of their football careers. Based on the list of invitees, we highlight one player to watch at each position because of the skill set and intrigue he brings to the field.
QB: Blake Barnett (Corona, California)
You could certainly go in plenty of directions here, as this class is stockpiled with elite-level prospects at the position. Among Barnett's home state representatives alone, 5-star UCLA commit Josh Rosen has the makings of a true freshman starter, and Brady White built an impressive list of offers before pledging to Arizona State in May.
Instead, we'll focus on a quarterback who's quickly become one of the most compelling recruits of this cycle.
If that storyline remains in place when he arrives in Beaverton for The Opening, expect things to get very interesting during his stay.
Oregon is viewed as a strong contender to land Barnett and hosted him on campus days before he backed off his pact with Notre Dame. The Ducks' home base in Eugene is located less than two hours away from this event, presenting another opportunity for head coach Mark Helfrich to hunt for a pledge from a passer who may also be intrigued by Alabama.
Barnett, rated No. 3 nationally among dual-threat quarterbacks in 247Sports' composite rankings, threw 22 touchdown passes in 2013 and added another 13 scores on the ground. The Opening provides a chance for him to prove himself among elite peers and perhaps nail down his second college commitment.
RB: Nick Brossette (Baton Rouge, Louisiana)
Leonard Fournette stole the spotlight in Louisiana last season, earning accolades as the nation's top prospect and best running back recruit in years. Perhaps slightly lost in the shuffle, Nick Brossette has accomplished some pretty incredible things at University Lab High School.
The 6'0", 207-pound workhorse gained 2,100 yards for the second straight season in 2013. His averaged nearly eight yards per carry and scored 37 touchdowns.
He broke the state's all-time career touchdown record during his junior season, which he capped off with a trip to the state finals. His production is practically unrivaled nationwide, and the way he runs downfield with authority makes him a candidate to compete in college immediately.
He took a different approach to the recruiting process than Fournette, who waited until a senior All-American game to announce his commitment. Instead, Brossette pledged to hometown LSU last summer, essentially shutting down a recruitment that could have easily erupted into a nationwide frenzy.
Les Miles has to love his current backfield situation, with Fournette ready to step in as a true freshman this fall and Brossette on the way. The latter rates No. 6 nationally among running backs in 247Sports' composite rankings.
WR: George Campbell (Tarpon Springs, Florida)
This will be George Campbell's second appearance at The Opening. He turned heads in 2013, running the 40-yard dash in 4.36 seconds at 6'3", 184 pounds.
Teams are enamored with his rare athleticism, which creates a ridiculously high ceiling for a prospect who still has serious strides to make as a pass-catcher. Campbell, who secured 31 receptions for 769 yards and seven scores as a junior at East Lake High School, doesn't always look comfortable at the position.
He has plenty to prove on a big stage in Beaverton after losing his status as a 5-star in 247Sports' rankings. Analyst Barton Simmons broke down the reasoning for a rating downgrade.
"There may not be a better big athlete in the country but right now, as a wide receiver, his ball skills are not there to be a five-star," Simmons wrote in February. "He has consistently struggled catching the football at events."
Campbell, who decommitted from Michigan in December, has an opportunity to retool his image at The Opening while competing against America's premier defensive backs. A strong showing would go a long way toward proving he's not too raw to contribute early and often in college.
Despite questions about his fundamentals, he is still rated No. 2 nationally among receivers in 247Sports' composite rankings. His offers include Clemson, Florida, USC, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Florida State.
TE: Chris Clark (Avon, Connecticut)
We had a firsthand look at Chris Clark the day he earned an invitation to The Opening. He spent an April afternoon at the New York Jets facilities, dominating opponents during a Nike football camp.
The 6'6", 247-pound beast bullied overmatched defensive backs and blew by linebackers to find open space all day long. He routinely shined as a favorite pass target for a plethora of passers and didn't drop the ball once.
His performance mirrored his game film and confirmed he belongs in any discussion about the country's best tight end prospect. His physical frame, combined with polished footwork and coordination, creates an ideal candidate to command attention for playing time as a true freshman in college.
Rated No. 2 nationally among tight ends in 247Sports' composite rankings, Clark caught 39 passes for 417 yards and six touchdowns as a junior at Avon Old Farms. He also obliterated defenders as a blocker throughout an impressive campaign.
Aside from his superb skill set, there's another obvious reason to keep tabs on Clark at The Opening.
He will announce his commitment in Beaverton, four months after creating a short-lived verbal pact with North Carolina. The Tar Heels are still under consideration but face stiff competition from Michigan, Ohio State, Georgia, Tennessee and Notre Dame, among others.
OG: Tommy Hatton (Montvale, New Jersey)
Tommy Hatton is another prospect who stood out among a star-studded crowd at Nike camp in New Jersey this spring. He exhibited the characteristics of a vocal leader while competing with dozens of offensive linemen and backed up the bravado plenty of times.
He handily won every trench battle he encountered, aside from splitting an excellent set of showdowns with 2016 5-star Rashan Gary. He was visibly fired up to encounter the challenge and has the makings of a fiery leader in college at either guard or center, where he's rated No. 4 nationally in 247Sports' rankings.
The 4-star prospect spearheads a potent rushing attack at perennial state title contender St. Joe Regional. Expect him to rise to the occasion again in Oregon as the spotlight shines even brighter.
He continued to collect offers in late May, adding North Carolina and Virginia Tech to a list that already included Louisville, Rutgers, South Carolina and Wisconsin.
OT: Mitch Hyatt (Suwannee, Georgia)
Mitch Hyatt will have plenty of elite company at tackle in Beaverton, including fellow Peach State product and USC pledge Chuma Edoga. There's a legitimate debate to be made about who deserves to be labeled the best offensive lineman in Georgia—and perhaps the entire country—when you measure them up against each other.
However, Hyatt gains the edge because he is so advanced from a developmental standpoint. The 6'5", 270-pound North Gwinnett High School star surges off the snap and drives defenders 20 yards downfield on run plays, plowing anything that stands in his way through the whistle.
He's equally effective against pass-rushers, providing a formidable barrier between opposing blitzers and his quarterback in the pocket. Hyatt, rated No. 2 nationally among offensive tackles in 247Sports' composite rankings, exhibits extraordinary footwork for a player his age and won't take long to crack the starting lineup as a college bookend.
Clemson landed a commitment from him in February. He spurned several offers, including Auburn, Georgia and Florida, in the process.
DT: Daron Payne (Birmingham, Alabama)
Defensive tackle Daron Payne remains a top priority for several programs at this stage of his recruitment. The 5-star interior disruptor is uncommitted and commands constant attention from in-state coaching staffs at Auburn and Alabama.
He provides a massive presence at 6'2", 316 pounds, but he's far more than just a guy who clogs rushing lanes. He is clocked at 4.80 seconds in the 40-yard dash, providing a clear indication of the kind of athleticism he brings to the trenches.
His dominant performance at Crimson Tide camp last summer helped secure his spot as a top prospect, and he currently rates No. 4 nationally among defensive tackles in 247Sports' rankings. Payne wreaked havoc for Shades Valley High School in 2013, tallying 65 tackles and two sacks, per AL.com.
Aside from in-state powerhouses, Texas, Clemson and Florida State are among those in pursuit of his commitment. It will be thrilling to watch him go toe-to-toe with some of the country's most impressive offensive linemen.
DE: Byron Cowart (Seffner, Florida)
Byron Cowart owns the defensive edge with authority and can provide a defense coordinator with an opportunity to implement his skills in a variety of ways. The 6'4", 250-pound Armwood High School star runs the 40-yard dash in 4.60 seconds.
He's best suited at strong-side end, where he can become an immediate asset against the run and in pass-rushing situations. His strength enables him to set the edge, and he doesn't allow himself to get behind the flow of a play, stringing things along toward the sideline as ball-carriers run out of real estate.
Cowart, rated No. 2 nationally at the position in 247Sports' composite rankings, is coming off a dominant junior campaign. He collected 72 tackles, including 15 for loss, and 13 sacks.
His speed was on display as he returned two fumbles for touchdowns. It will be interesting to see how he handles himself in pass-coverage situations at The Opening, particularly when paired with a taller tight end.
Cowart's recruitment seemingly remains wide open. Campus visits this year include Florida State, Florida and Alabama, while Oregon, Auburn and UCLA are also in the picture.
OLB: Malik Jefferson (Mesquite, Texas)
Malik Jefferson is the top-ranked prospect in talent-laden Texas. The prodigious Poteet High School linebacker lights opponents up when he dishes out hits and spends significant time in the offensive backfield, making life miserable for quarterbacks.
Jefferson, rated No. 9 nationally among all rising seniors in 247Sports' composite rankings, racked up 12 sacks last season. He's relentless off the edge, staying low and exhibiting unwavering ferocity against overmatched offensive linemen.
The 6'2", 225-pound defender is an ideal fit at outside linebacker and could be featured prevalently in pass-rushing packages depending on where he ends up at the next level. He tallied 188 tackles during the past two seasons and forced eight fumbles.
Expect him to routinely overmatch highly skilled offensive players at The Opening and cement his status as the country's most coveted linebacker prospect. He brings plenty of swagger to the football field, and that should be on full display in Beaverton.
Jefferson remains uncommitted. With in-state schools Texas, Baylor and Texas A&M jockeying for position. He has plenty of options beyond state borders, as Alabama, Oklahoma and Ohio State are also giving chase.
ILB: Cameron Smith (Granite Bay, California)
Cameron Smith is a prototypical middle linebacker who handles himself well in the trenches and can also dart from sideline to sideline. The explosive 6'3", 225-pound prospect doesn't shy away from competition and should be fun to watch as he matches up against a slew of top-tier playmakers in Beaverton.
He is arguably the top linebacker prospect in Pac-12 territory and received offers accordingly. After weighing scholarships from Oregon, Arizona State, UCLA and others, he committed to USC in May.
The Trojans landed a defender who can carve out a substantial role as an underclassman. His aggressiveness and instincts ensure he'll put himself in position to play early.
Smith secured 113 tackles as a junior while also showing he has a knack for forcing turnovers. His season featured three interceptions and two forced fumbles, legitimizing a No. 3 national rating in 247Sports' composite rankings.
CB Iman Marshall (Long Beach, California)
Iman Marshall was the definition of a shutdown cornerback last fall. Sure, it's an overused label, but just look at the facts.
The 6'1", 190-pound defender didn't surrender a single pass completion in six Moore League games last season as Long Beach Poly High School captured a league title. He earned area defensive player of the year honors after sharing a starring role in the secondary with 5-star 2014 USC signee John Smith.
High school pass coverage doesn't get much smoother than the way Marshall operates. His length and quickness allow him to match up against all types of receivers and play physical near the line of scrimmage.
Marshall's anticipation is what sets him apart. Once he identifies what the offense is sending in his direction, he uses elite change-of-direction speed to make up ground in a hurry and takes appropriate angles.
He isn't the kind of defensive back who's content to cover the pass and linger downfield as run plays develop. He surges toward the football and finishes with fundamental tackling.
Rated No. 2 nationally among cornerbacks in 247Sports' composite rankings, he finished his junior campaign with 64 tackles and an interception. USC, Notre Dame, Michigan, Stanford and LSU are just a few schools on his expansive list.
He'll have a chance to showcase his skills at The Opening. If he can take care of business against the country's top receivers, that shutdown label will stick.
S: Derwin James (Auburndale, Florida)
Hard-hitting safety Derwin James has been on the national radar for a while now. He committed to Florida State as a freshman and hasn't failed to live up to the hype since that early pledge.
The 6'2", 201-pound Haines City Senior High School star provides an intimidating presence in the defensive backfield. His coverage skills are excellent, and he possesses deceptive closing speed that eliminates space that quarterbacks thought they could exploit.
What stands out on game tape is the way he consistently delivers jarring hits. He patrols the perimeter against the run and takes running backs by surprise with devastating blows as they look to burst upfield.
His penchant for powerful strikes makes receivers think twice before extending to bring down the ball when he's roaming nearby. Look for him to assert his physicality at The Opening to see how marquee receivers respond to the challenge.
James, rated No. 1 among safeties in 247Sports' composite rankings, continues to receive substantial college interest despite his longtime pact with Florida State. LSU, Florida and Ohio State are among those hoping he has a change of heart before national signing day.
All recruit ratings and statistics courtesy of 247Sports unless otherwise noted.
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