Top 15 Favorites for 2014 Gatorade High School Football Player of the Year
There's nothing quite like your senior season of high school football—surrounded by teammates you've grown up alongside and putting countless hours of tireless work into one final campaign for the chance to chase down a title.
Along with team achievements, individual glory is at stake for many of the country's top college prospects. Productive games and rare talent put a select few in position to earn heralded postseason accolades before they depart for the next phase of their careers.
The Gatorade High School Football Player of the Year award annually recognizes an athlete who's exhibited exemplary success on and off the football field. Past recipients include NFL Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith and quarterback Peyton Manning, while 2013 honors went to Virginia defensive tackle Andrew Brown.
We broke down a list of candidates who could compete for the distinction this year, highlighting players who've piled up statistics and victories throughout their high school careers. Though each of these athletes is headed to a high-level college football program, this list is solely based on their merit for the award rather than future potential.
15. WR Preston Williams (Hampton, Georgia)
Case for No. 1
Preston Williams provides freakish length along the perimeter and possesses enough speed to spring past smaller defensive backs. The 6'4" 191-pound pass-catcher is a field-stretching No. 1 target who is a valuable asset in the red zone.
He uses his wingspan and above-average leaping ability to pull down high, contested passes in the back of the end zone. When offenses are able to utilize Williams in one-on-one coverage settings, quarterbacks will always aim to exploit his physical advantages.
Williams, a Tennessee commit, caught 59 passes for 1,388 yards and 14 touchdowns at Lovejoy High School in 2013.
His track record isn't quite as established as other members of this list. Injuries limited Williams as a sophomore, but he rebounded with a breakout junior campaign.
He routinely flashes rare skills while catching balls along the boundary and can bust open a play with a tremendous after-catch burst. Williams must replicate and improve upon these traits as a senior and prove sustained durability for the second consecutive season.
There's a lot more game film available on Williams then this time last year, so expect defenses to react with varied coverage schemes in an attempt to contain him. Good luck.
"My goal is to be the best player in the country, not just at receiver," Williams said. "People saw what I can do last season, and now I'm trying to take the next step."
14. DT Breiden Fehoko (Honolulu, Hawaii)
Case for No. 1
Hawaii may not be a college football recruiting hotbed when compared to more fertile regions of the county, but overlook Breiden Fehoko at you own risk.
The 6'3", 290-pound Farrington High School standout looked extremely confident competing in the trenches against highly touted prospects from SEC and Big Ten territory at The Opening. In fact, he set the tone early with an aggressiveness that caught some offensive linemen off guard.
"You can't block me!" Fehoko shouted after beating a tandem of Alabama and Notre Dame commits during opening-day drills.
That certainly was the case throughout his junior campaign, when he collected 103 tackles and 24.5 sacks. Fehoko, a Texas Tech pledge, packs one of the mightiest initial punches in this class. He put that power on display with an event-best 42 reps of 185 pounds on bench press.
Hawaiian players can be shortchanged by pundits at times due to a lack of elite competition within the state. However, one look-over of Fehoko's game film should dispel any concerns.
He is a high-motor bulldozer who can play across the line and develop into a dominant interior pass-rusher. It's always a long shot for a lineman to win this award, and it doesn't help he's from an isolated region, but another big season (are 30 sacks a possibility?) should be enough to put Fehoko in the discussion.
"I wanted to come here and represent the island, show everybody what kind of football we play," Fehoko said at The Opening. "People can underrate us sometimes, so I felt like I had a chance to prove them wrong."
13. WR Damarkus Lodge (Cedar Hill, Texas)
Case for No. 1
Once his opportunity arrived, wide receiver Damarkus Lodge didn't waste any time developing into a star for perennial Texas powerhouse Cedar Hill. He rose from reserve to go-to target in 2013, catching 72 passes for 1,255 yards.
The 6'2.5", 190-pound Texas A&M commit was also occasionally used in misdirection rushing efforts and finished his junior season with 25 offensive touchdowns. Lodge saved his best for last, tallying 129 total yards and two touchdowns to take home MVP honors in the Class 5A Division II title game.
Like Preston Williams, Lodge will encounter significantly increased attention from defensive game plans this fall. Opponents will look to drive him toward the sidelines because he is such an explosive yards-after-catch threat on crossing patterns.
The offensive attack remains largely intact from last season, but Lodge will need younger receivers to step up and take the pressure of him after the team lost a few key pass-catchers. Cedar Hill should be deep enough to keep defenses honest.
12. DB Iman Marshall (Long Beach, California)
Case for No. 1
It's difficult for elite cornerbacks to pile up gaudy statistics when they're rarely targeted by wary quarterbacks, so Iman Marshall's greatest efforts don't often show up in the box score. The 6'1" 190-pound defender didn't allow a single pass completion in league competition last season, leading Long Beach Poly to a victory in each matchup.
His coverage technique is based on an ideal blend of athleticism and awareness. Marshall, who is considering offers from the likes of USC, Stanford, UCLA and Texas A&M, makes sure he knows what the opponent is attempting to accomplish long before kickoff.
"Preparation is so important because it helps you react as quickly as possible, and that’s what playing defensive back is all about," he said during a phone conversation in July. "When you study something over and over again, nothing is a surprise anymore. You understand what’s coming—the formations, the schemes, everything."
Marshall also looks to mix it up near the line of scrimmage. He finished his junior season with a career-high 65 tackles, patrolling the perimeter with newfound aggression.
"I learned that you just can’t be afraid of contact," Marshall said. "You have to get your nose in there and get after the ball. That’s not what I always did before, but it's definitely the way I play now."
Based on his performance at summer showcase events, Marshall is playing at the highest level he's reached in high school. However, he must carry that into the season and emerge as an even more complete defensive back.
The departure of 5-star DB John Smith, now a freshman at USC, places added responsibility on Marshall's shoulders.
"It was his team last year; it’s my team now," Marshall said. "I have to be a leader and make sure I show my teammates what to do by setting an example. We want to do big things this season, and it’s my responsibility to make sure we get where we want to be."
11. RB Johnny Frasier (Princeton, North Carolina)
Case for No. 1
Few prospects are as integral to their school's offense as Florida State commit Johnny Frasier, a versatile and explosive backfield weapon who didn't begin playing football until his freshman season. During his short span in the sport, the 5'11", 200-pound playmaker has produced prolific numbers as a rusher and receiver.
Frasier began to build a reputation on 2012, when he rushed for 1,792 yards and 21 touchdowns. He took things to a different level last fall, compiling 2,045 rushing yards and 45 touchdowns while averaging 12.2 yards per carry.
"Johnny can take on that role of workhorse back because he gained a lot of confidence last season and wants the ball in every crucial situation," Princeton High School coach Derrick Minor said. "He has the mindset to carry the ball 20-30 times per game in college if that's what the team needs."
He also torches teams as a pass-catcher. Frasier finished last fall with 555 yards and five touchdowns on 25 receptions.
"We use him in the screen game with a lot of success, flare him out into a high-wide situation and just attempt to create quality opportunities for Johnny in space as a receiver," Minor said. "He shows good hands and great control of body. People overlook that part of his game because he's such a dominant rusher."
With the team's second- and third-leading rushers graduated, Princeton must put together a game plan that keeps Frasier relatively fresh. Even elite running backs need a blow on the sidelines at times.
If he's forced to shoulder a load comparative to the one he had last season, his durability would be tested. The Seminoles certainly hope that isn't the case.
10. QB Torrance Gibson (Fort Lauderdale, Florida)
Case for No. 1
Torrance Gibson is among the most intriguing players in this class, from both a football and personal standpoint. His presence can light up a room, and it's easy to see why teammates gravitated toward him during the journey to a 2013 state title.
He threw for 1,789 yards, 19 touchdowns and just three interceptions last season. Still, Gibson remains more advanced as a rusher, as he's big enough (6'4", 200 pounds) to break tackles and plenty slippery to avoid them.
Gibson gained 1,063 yards and 10 scores on the ground, averaging nearly 10 yards per rushing attempt. He led American Heritage to a state title and put himself on the map
Many place Gibson in the "athlete" category, believing receiver is his best fit, where elite change-of-direction quickness and length provide key raw tools for development. However, he disagrees wholeheartedly.
"I'm a quarterback, no doubt about it," Gibson said at The Opening. "That's where I'll be playing in college, and that's where teams tell me they want me."
His top contenders include Ohio State, Auburn and Tennessee.
Gibson put in plenty of effort at the Elite 11 finals but looked far from a finished product, and concerns about his mechanics remain. Improvement in his ability to deliver the ball downfield with accuracy at all levels can prove doubters wrong and put him in better position to win this award (and a starting quarterback gig).
9. DT Trent Thompson (Alabany, Georgia)
Case for No. 1
Could a defensive tackle claim honors for the second straight year? Westover High School phenom Trent Thompson certainly warrants consideration.
He's the top-ranked player at a position that may be deeper than it's been at any other time this decade. Thompson, a 6'4", 292-pound run-stuffer, spends plenty of time in the offensive backfield, violently shedding blockers and finishing off his pursuit with the closing speed of a linebacker.
The Georgia commit recorded 148 tackles during the past two seasons.
His candidacy for Player of the Year would receive a boost with continued progress as a pass-rusher. Thompson took his efforts to another level in that department last fall, increasing his sack total from five to 12.
Aside from the double- and triple-team blocking schemes specifically designed to eradicate him from the equation, Thompson must also deal with the fact that he's a defensive lineman. Much like the Heisman Trophy, this award typically comes down to an offensive playmaker.
Andrew Brown, the defensive tackle who won last year, erupted for 98 tackles and 18 sacks as a senior. It may take that kind of monster season (and then some) for Thompson to surge past some special offensive players.
8. RB Jacques Patrick (Orlando, Florida)
Case for No. 1
Jacques Patrick enters his senior season in search of a third consecutive 2,000-yard rushing campaign at Timber Creek High School. He tallied 30 rushing touchdowns and may be primed to exceed that total after a year of maturation.
He impressed in several elements at The Opening, including the intermediate passing game. Though, in non-contact action, Patrick couldn't showcase his strongest asset.
The young man runs angry and dishes out punishment as he picks up yards.
"I like being physical," he said during a break at The Opening. "If I'm getting it done, that opens things up for other players."
Florida State, Notre Dame, Michigan, Florida and Alabama are among his top suitors.
Patrick will compete with a rather inexperienced supporting cast this season. The team graduated its starting quarterback and three leading receivers.
The carries will clearly keep coming his way, perhaps in greater volume than ever, but the offensive attack could undergo some growing pains that often accompany vast roster turnover.
7. WR Christian Kirk (Saguaro, Arizona)
Case for No. 1
Christian Kirk isn't the biggest, strongest or fastest wide receiver in this class, but the 5'10", 191-pound Saguaro High School prospect presents matchup nightmares with his versatility and is a relentless competitor. He exceeded 1,000 yards receiving during each of the past two seasons, exhibiting tremendous burst after the catch that creates opportunities for game-changing plays.
His aggressive rushing style served him well during a state championship run in 2013. Kirk gained 832 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground. That success and a formidable physique present opportunities for him to occasionally wreak havoc out of a collegiate backfield.
Though he looks like a prototypical slot receiver, Kirk continues to prove his role shouldn't be pigeonholed.
Ohio State, Arizona State, Texas A&M, USC, UCLA and Auburn are his top six schools.
You wonder if Kirk can continue to carry the brunt of catching more than 70 passes and receiving handoffs on a regular basis. He is a well-conditioned—clearly one of the most refined athletes at The Opening—but it's a taxing role to take on for two straight years.
Kirk must also adjust to life without quarterback Luke Rubenzer, who signed with Cal. The duo displayed outstanding chemistry together.
6. RB Nick Brossette (Baton Rouge, Louisiana)
Case for No. 1
Nick Brossette is a three-year starter at University Lab High School who already holds the all-time career touchdown record in Louisiana. He rumbled for at least 2,100 yards during the past two seasons and notched 37 touchdowns.
After a trip to the state title game in 2013, he'll look to build on those gaudy stats and cement his legacy as one of the most accomplished players in state history. Brossette committed to nearby LSU before his sophomore season.
He has a lot of tread on his tires for a teenager after carrying the ball 760 times during the past three seasons. Brossette registered a career-high 279 carries in 2013, which tells you he's in extremely impressive condition.
It's not a safe bet to doubt he'll duplicate earlier success, but Brossette will be tested physically.
5. QB Jake Browning (Folsom, California)
Case for No. 1
Jake Browning has posted video game numbers during his career at Folsom High School. The 6'2", 185-pound passer set a new California state record in 2013 with 75 scoring strikes in 15 games.
He threw for a career-high 5,737 yards as a junior, pushing his career total past 11,000 yards. The Washington commit owns a high school completion percentage of 70 percent, highlighted by a 76 completion success rate last fall.
Browning's success is about more than just statistics. He's led Folsom to 18 victories since 2012 and was named California's Gatorade Player of the Year in 2013.
Browning must move on without top receivers Will McClure and Troy Knox, who both registered 1,000-yard seasons in 2013. It's imperative for him to come out of the gates in cohesion with a new crop of contributors.
4. RB Damien Harris (Berea, Kentucky)
Case for No. 1
Damien Harris has been a bell-cow back for Madison Southern High School, spiking to 220 carries in 2013. The 5'11", 205-pound playmaker enjoyed a career-best campaign as a junior, rushing for 2,621 yards and 42 touchdowns.
The top-rated running back in America looked mostly comfortable as a pass-catcher in seven-on-seven action at The Opening and excelled during positional drills. His recruitment process comes down to Texas A&M, Kentucky, Alabama, Ohio State and Florida.
"I've definitely worked hard to get where I'm at right now," Harris said at The Opening. "I try not to pay too much attention to the rankings and stuff like that, but it's nice to see that people appreciate the way I play."
Harris has decided to extend his recruitment process into his senior season and anticipates visiting his five finalists before national signing day. High school action is draining enough for most workhorse running backs, but with trips to line up across the country, it's imperative for Harris to maintain his conditioning and mindset.
It's not always easy to maintain that balance at his age.
3. DE Josh Sweat (Chesapeake, Virginia)
Case for No. 1
Josh Sweat took over the top spot in 247Sports' composite rankings after an eye-opening performance at The Opening, where he completed the 40-yard dash in 4.46 seconds. The 6'4.5", 240-pound beast bullied some of the country's premier offensive linemen and displayed a mature demeanor throughout the event.
He was downright menacing in 2013, racking up 94 tackles and 22 sacks. Sweat has official visits planned to Florida State, Oregon, Virginia Tech, Ohio State and Georgia.
Sweat formed one of the country's most sensational defensive tandems last season, blowing up the backfield with top-ranked 2014 defensive tackle Andrew Brown. Both clearly benefited from playing alongside each other, but Brown is now a freshman at Virginia.
Keep an early eye on how Sweat handles the extra attention without his dominant partner in the picture.
2. QB Josh Rosen (Bellflower, California)
Case for No. 1
Josh Rosen enjoyed a dream season at St. John Bosco High School in 2013, leading the team to a state title. He threw for 3,200 yards and 39 touchdowns, dicing up defenses early and often in resounding victories.
It was a statistical jump from his sophomore season, when Rosen tossed 2,087 yards and 22 scores. Judging by the way he was slinging the ball at The Opening and Elite 11 finals, a career-best year could be coming this fall.
The UCLA commit could challenge to start for the Bruins as a true freshman.
"I'd love to take snaps on opening day," Rosen said at The Opening. "I'm going to work as hard as I can to make that happen."
Life is tough when you have a target on your back, and that's the case for Rosen and Bosco. He becomes entrenched as a Player of the Year candidate if his team repeats as state champion, but the 6'4", 205-pound prospect will face several tests along the way.
The squad also has a difficult out-of-state schedule, including a nationally televised September matchup with Nevada powerhouse Bishop Gorman High School, which is widely considered the country's No. 1 team.
1. QB Kyler Murray (Allen, Texas)
Case for No. 1
When you add up all the factors, Kyler Murray is the favorite for National Player of the Year entering the fall. He is 27-0 as a varsity starter, winning two state titles along the way.
The 5'10", 180-pound Texas A&M commit is the son of former Aggies star quarterback Kevin Murray, a Cotton Bowl Hall of Fame inductee. He is a dual-threat weapon capable of shredding defense with his legs and arms.
His production as a rusher and passer adds up to more than 8,000 total yards and 107 touchdowns in 27 contests. Murray has proved to be poised under pressure since his sophomore season and shined in drills at Elite 11 finals.
You could actually call this one the "most bizarre challenge." Allen High School will play every game on the road this fall, as if defending a title wasn't already treacherous.
Eagle Stadium, a $60 million facility, is shut down for unexpected repairs this season. It's the kind of adversity that can make or break a team, testing Murray's leadership.
All quotes obtained firsthand by B/R national recruiting analyst Tyler Donohue unless otherwise noted.
Statistics and ratings courtesy of 247Sports.