Kirk Merritt toed the line with 40 cone-bordered yards lying between him and a dream accomplishment. Surrounded by more than 100 of his premier peers, a star-studded coaching staff and national media, the Louisiana native delivered the most impressive sprint of his life.
By the time he slowed to a halt, the 5'11", 206-pound athlete was swarmed by fellow college prospects, as cameras broadcast the celebration on national television. Merritt capped off an incredible Tuesday with a SPARQ national championship at "The Opening," an elite invite-only camp held at Nike's world headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon.
"It's a great feeling to get to this point and know all your hard work is paying off," he said.
The Destrehan High School standout emerged as the top athlete at a camp that includes future college and NFL stars. That accomplishment wasn't lost on him in the immediate aftermath.
"This is the best of the best competing here," Merritt said. "To be able to perform like this and come out on top is an amazing feeling. It's incredible."
SPARQ testing takes several aspects of a player's skill set into account.
Prospects earn a final score based on their performance in four drills. Competitors take on a vertical leap, shuttle run, kneeling power ball toss and 40-yard dash.
The cumulative results of their efforts combine to create a total SPARQ rating.
Attendees at The Opening partook in each drill during a morning session. Those who registered a top-10 score advanced to the national finals later Tuesday, which were broadcast live on ESPNU.
Merritt entered the evening session as the top-ranked performer. A blistering 40-yard dash (4.43 seconds) helped set the tone early and earn him a spot in the finals.
"My 40-yard dash performance was huge," he said. "My main focus while training for this was to improve that time. I ran a 4.60 at the New Orleans Nike camp and knew I'd need to improve on that, so I focused on getting faster for this competition and it paid off."
He nearly duplicated that success on his final burst of a busy day. Merritt capped of an impressive effort with a 4.46-second 40-yard dash, holding off a sensational group of contenders during the final stretch of action.
The uncommitted rising senior admitted he was looking over his shoulder at uncommitted Virginia defensive end Josh Sweat. The 6'5", 237-pound defensive end challenged early and often dung SPARQ testing, including a 40-yard dash of 4.46 seconds during morning tests.
Simply put, the athletic specimen validated every indication of stardom during his performance. Merritt would eventually earn top honors but knew it wouldn't be easy with a player like Sweat nipping at his heels.
"Josh is just a freak athlete," he said. "I knew it would be tough to beat him. He's the kind of athlete you never really see and I thought he was pretty amazing."
Sweat could've stolen the victory with a sub-4.5 in his final 40-yard dash but fell shy while dealing with a slight hip injury. Merritt reigned supreme among a national finalist group that also included Alabama cornerback commit Minkah Fitzpatrick and Oregon running back pledge Taj Griffin.
Rated third nationally among all-purpose backs, Merritt sees himself as a multi-dimensional offensive threat in college. His blend of versatility and sheer athleticism could combine to create a potent playmaker for whichever program he chooses.
"I want to play receiver but that's not the only thing I'm trying to do on offense in college," Merritt said. "I'd like to do running back things and be able to help out the offense in different ways."
The 4-star prospect has quickly proven he's capable of contributing in a variety of facets and compares himself to former Florida star Percy Harvin. Several teams remain in the mix for his commitment.
"I'm still considering my options, here in Oregon and in the SEC," he said.
Merritt mentioned Texas A&M, Auburn, Alabama, Oregon and LSU as programs that top his list of collegiate opportunities. Expect his recruitment to reach a frenzied stage following his performance among elite company Tuesday night.
Recruit information and ratings courtesy of 247Sports unless otherwise noted.
All quotes obtained by B/R national recruiting columnist Tyler Donohue.