Grading Top SEC Recruits' Performance at 2014 The Opening

Luke Brietzke@FireEverybodyContributor IIIJuly 15, 2014

Jul 10, 2014; Beaverton, OR, USA; Apocalypse quarterback Blake Barnett (12) passes the ball during Nike Football ' The Opening' at Nike World Headquarters.  Mandatory Credit: Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

SEC football prospects rarely fly under the radar these days with recruiting having long since become its own multimillion-dollar industry.

The Opening now allows future Saturday standouts to take center stage even earlier.

The Oregon-based event hosts many of the nation’s top prospects and pits them against each other in workouts, drills and a seven-on-seven competition.

It should come as no surprise that some of the top performers are bound for SEC programs or potentially bound for SEC programs. Perhaps the best part of The Opening is that unless a prospect wilts, the added exposure generally serves as a positive.

Here is a look at some of the top storylines revolving around SEC-centric players from The Opening.


Tide Rolling at The Opening

Considering the continued success Alabama coach Nick Saban enjoys on the recruiting trail, it would be more of a shock if one of his prospects flopped than flourished on such a scene.

Receiver Calvin Ridley lived up to the considerable expectations that come with being an Alabama commit, bringing home The Opening overall MVP honors.

Saban likely took great pride in watching Ridley team up with fellow Crimson Tide commit Blake Barnett. The dynamic pair led Team Apocalypse to the seven-on-seven competition championship.

Ridley also turned in arguably the highlight of the event with his one-handed catch.

Currently, 247Sports has Ridley listed as a 4-star recruit.

Barnett shined during The Opening, winning the seven-on-seven championship and being named Elite 11 MVP.

Look for a bump to 247Sports’ 5-star rating class as a distinct possibility with Barnett’s superb showing, especially after 247Sports’ Barton Simmons wrote that he “showed the most consistency and one of the weekend’s strongest arms.”

While Barnett and Ridley stole the show, several other Alabama commits made splashes.

Deionte Thompson, for instance, turned in another solid showing after 247Sports wrote that the safety turned in a spectacular performance at the NFTC in Houston.

As a result, he could see a bump to 247Sports’ 5-star class.

Thompson earned an honorable mention spot on 247Sports’ The Opening Dream Team. The site also described his closing speed as “among the most impressive” at The Opening.

A pair of future Crimson Tide offensive linemen also impressed.

Lester Cotton and Richie Petitbon stood out—Lester despite not being allowed to compete in pads because of Alabama high school rules.

Petitbon might not have been as outstanding as Cotton—and possibly missed out on a bump to 5-star status as a result—but he still played well. Earlier in camp, 247Sports detailed Petitbon’s powerful punches off the line.


Big Week for Tennessee

The Opening gave Tennessee fans further hope that coach Butch Jones is in the process of putting the program back on the path to relevance.

Defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie provided the biggest highlight, committing to the Volunteers on Thursday.

As much as McKenzie made big news with his official commitment, his play did just as much talking. McKenzie left as the defensive MVP of The Opening.

Even against some of the best offensive line prospects the country has to offer, McKenzie physically overmatched the competition.

“You’re not going to see an array of swim moves out of the new Tennessee commit, just overwhelming strength that he used to put linemen on their back or take them on a walk back to the quarterback,” 247Sports’ Barton Simmons wrote.

McKenzie showed off his strength on the field and during the SPARQ competition.

Tennessee can expect McKenzie to provide an instant impact once he arrives on campus.

Receiver Preston Williams showed Jones also found a suitable tag team partner for the talented MarQuez North. “The Show” went to The Opening hoping to show out as the No. 1 receiver in the nation.

Not even constant attention prevented Williams from producing.


The Opening Shines Bright Lights on Florida Targets

Two of the biggest standouts remain uncommitted.

Nobody turned in a better showing along the offensive line than Martez Ivey, who entered The Opening as a contender for the nation’s top tackle and erased a lot of doubt.

Ivey left as the offensive line MVP and an even bigger target for SEC programs.

247Sports went from wondering aloud if Ivey was the top tackle to opining that perhaps no prospect at The Opening “can match the upside of Ivey.” It went on to say he “has franchise left tackle potential.”

Florida currently leads for Ivey, but Auburn remains in the race for his services.

Another Gators target, Byron Cowart, established himself as one of the top five defensive linemen at The Opening.

Cowart’s ability to consistently pressure the quarterback allowed him to make 247Sports’ The Opening Dream Team. Even more impressively, he displayed the versatility to generate a pass rush from anywhere along the line.

Florida has a big lead for Cowart, though Oregon and LSU are among the teams that could make a push.

Athlete Ray-Ray McCloud, another recruit for which Florida is considered a heavy favorite, earned a spot on Nike’s all-tournament team.


Something to Prove

Defensive end Terry Beckner entered The Opening with something to prove.

The small-school product developed a name for himself, but limited competition created a perception that perhaps Beckner simply hadn’t been properly tested.

Before the event, 247Sports wrote that Beckner was worth watching because he was “highly ranked, highly regarded but limited in how much he’s been evaluated against top end competition.”

Just a few days in, Beckner had won over skeptics.

247Sports finished the week with a far different impression of Beckner, who earned a spot on the site’s The Opening Dream Team.

Missouri leads for Beckner, though USC, Ohio State and LSU could make a push—especially after his performance.


QB or Not QB?

247Sports 5-star prospect Torrance Gibson says he’s a quarterback.

The Opening, however, refused to follow along, listing Gibson as an athlete.

An ankle injury precluded Gibson from participating much in receiver drills, though he might not be overly upset to primarily showcase his skill set under center.

Gibson made clear again he wants to be a quarterback, whether he ultimately chooses Auburn, Tennessee, Ohio State or any other of the litany of teams pursuing him. Currently, 247Sports thinks Auburn leads.

Two things became clear at the Elite 11 camp: Gibson is a freakish athlete (who ran a 4.46 40), and he has plenty of work to do.

Inconsistent footwork and overall mechanics don’t disqualify Gibson as a quarterback, but they likely mean he’s more of a project at the position than polished product.


Texas A&M Getting Defensive

Texas A&M already has a few high-profile prospects in defensive lineman Daylon Mack, cornerback Kendall Sheffield and safety Justin Dunning.

Coach Kevin Sumlin’s intentions to add linebacker Malik Jefferson to the mix were long established before The Opening.

Jefferson became an even bigger recruiting target with a sensational showing.

Consider this report from 247Sports in naming Jefferson to its The Opening Dream Team:

“It’s tough for a linebacker to shine in a 7on7 setting but Jefferson managed to stand out anyway,” Simmons wrote. “He had a pair of pick-6 plays on Wednesday and his athleticism and speed to the football was scary.”

Jefferson showcased phenomenal speed, clocking a 4.39 in the 40-yard dash.

That speed teamed with Jefferson’s strength and athleticism made the 247Sport 5-star prospect one of the biggest freaks at The Opening.

Jefferson entered as 247Sports’ No. 3 linebacker. However, the site recognized that a remarkable week could help him jump to the top spot.

It will be interesting to watch how 247Sports responds after Jefferson lived up to the challenge.

Dunning joined Jefferson on 247Sports’ The Opening Dream Team with the site calling him the breakout star of the event.


LSU Set to Continue Recent Run as Defensive Back U

Finding defensive backs hasn’t been a struggle for LSU coach Les Miles since he arrived in Baton Rouge.

He appears to have at least a couple of more talented prospects lined up to continue the tradition.

Xavier Lewis and Kevin Toliver both drew recognition for their solid showings during the seven-on-seven competition, each earning spots on Nike’s all-tournament team. Toliver also earned a spot on the 247Sports The Opening Dream Team.

Toliver entered The Opening in the discussion of the nation’s top cornerback prospects and did nothing to hurt his stock.

The Tigers might not be done in the secondary, either.

Justin Reid, who is currently uncommitted, made a splash early in camp with his ability to cover ground from his safety position.

247Sports' Luke Stampini reported Reid turned in one of the plays of the event.

As the defensive backs were doing a drill that worked on coming off the hash to make a play along the sidelines on corner routes, Justin Reid, one of the top overall performers, flashed his bouncy athleticism. Breaking towards the sidelines a pass was thrown high over his inside shoulder when he leaped high in the air, contorting his body enough to make an impressive one-handed catch.

247Sports has Reid rated a 3-star recruit, but he could see his stock rise after a strong performance.

Oklahoma and LSU are battling for Reid’s services.

The Tigers also have a commitment from athlete Kirk Merritt, who showed out as a freak athlete in winning the SPARQ National Championship.


SEC East Targets Stand Out

Jeremy Pruitt could have a couple of new weapons on his defense starting next fall if Georgia finishes strong on a couple of potential commits.

Athlete Donte Jackson and linebacker Roquan Smith both performed well at The Opening, earning spots on both the Nike all-tournament team and the 247Sports The Opening Dream Team.

Jackson played both ways during the seven-on-seven tournament and, according to 247Sports, was a candidate for overall MVP. He shined brightest in the defensive backfield, though.

Smith showed the versatility and skills to play linebacker, safety or a blend of the two positions.

Vanderbilt commit Josh Smith earned a spot on the Nike all-tournament team as well, also earning an honorable mention spot on the 247Sports Dream Team.

247Sports described the linebacker’s performance thusly: “Every year there is a linebacker that has the length and athleticism to totally disrupt an offense in the middle of the field. This year it was Smith, a recent commitment to Vanderbilt.”

Like Smith, South Carolina linebacker commit Sherrod Pittman placed on the honorable mention Dream Team for 247Sports, where the site reported he “was all over the field, creating havoc.”

Kentucky tight end commit C.J. Conrad showed out as the top tight end in the group, according to 247Sports.


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