With over 150 of the nation's top players in attendance at Nike's The Opening in Beaverton, Ore., last week, it can be hard for any one player to truly separate himself from the pack, but inevitably players rise to the top and garner universal praise from scouts, coaches, and players alike.
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Prattville, Ala., tight end O.J. Howard was one of those players. The Alabama Crimson Tide commitment showed off a blend of size, skill, and raw athleticism that was at times astonishing. Howard began the weekend with an impressive performance at the combine on Friday, clocking a 4.49-second 40-yard dash at 6-foot-5 1/2 and 220 pounds. His time placed him in the top 10 of all the participants at The Opening.
There's a difference between combine warriors and football players though, and as it turns out, Howard is comfortable in either setting. Howard became a favorite red zone target of Michigan commitment Shane Morris, and his catches included several twisting one-handed grabs in the end zone for either a touchdown or a PAT. Maybe the most awe-inspiring play was watching Howard take an outlet pass from Morris, turn upfield and out-race a cornerback to the end zone 80 yards later.
It's hard to get two scouts to agree on anything, but at the end of the weekend, six national analysts for Scout.com came to the same conclusion regarding Howard -- "That's the best tight end in the country."
Now his ranking shows it.
Howard wasn't the only Alabama commitment to impress over the weekend. His future teammate Cooper Bateman led his team to the 7on7 Championship. Bateman got better every game. National Analyst Greg Biggins was particularly impressed with how quickly the Salt Lake City (Utah) Cottonwood quarterback progressed from one day to the next.
"Bateman started off a little slow at The Opening last weekend," said Biggins, "but the improvement he showed from pool play to the championship round is a big reason for his bump all the way to five-star status. Bateman admitted he was overwhelmed the first day of competition and said the difference in athleticism in the players from his home state of Utah to what he saw in Oregon was dramatic.
Alabama commit Cooper Bateman is now a five-star QB.
"To his credit, Bateman adjusted very well, made quicker decisions with the ball, didn't force anything and made several clutch throws when it counted most. He scanned the field like a veteran, showed off his live arm when needed and most importantly, he led his team to the championship. Quarterbacks are always measured by wins and losses and Bateman's improvement was a huge reason his No. 6-seeded Super Bad squad took home the 7on7 championship."
A promotion that wasn't quite as unanimous as some of the others was athletic but raw defensive end Taco Charlton. Midwestern-based National Analyst Allen Trieu has seen the good and the bad with Charlton, but the good outweighed the concerns at The Opening.
"I've wanted to wait to see Taco Charlton this season with pads on, in-game, before we made any decisions about moving him into the four-star range," said Trieu, "but after the entire national team had a chance to see him at The Opening, they felt he was too talented to keep out for now. He has a big frame, length, and athleticism to go with it. Right now, he relies a lot on his straight speed rush, but clearly he's a guy with upside who is going to only continue to get better with his technique and get stronger."
Howard wasn't the only player from the South to find a fifth star by his name after The Opening. Jacksonville, Fla., product Demarcus Walker has been the talk of spring and summer camps all year as he continues to grow.
After The Opening, O.J. Howard looks like the best tight end in the country.
"Walker makes the move to defensive tackle and he adds a fifth star," said South-based National Analyst Chad Simmons. "He has added about 25-30 pounds over the last year but still moves very well, and could still play end in a 3-4 scheme or tackle in a 4-3 scheme. He is very athletic, his pad level is good, he is strong at the point of attack, and he was one of the top defensive linemen at The Opening."
Ironically, it was the loss of roughly 30 pounds that has made a new man out of Madison, Fla., offensive lineman Ira Denson.
"Denson had a lot of momentum entering The Opening," said Simmons. "He impressed everyone at the Orlando NIKE Football Training Camp. He picked up offers after that camp, and he committed to Florida State. He showed he belonged in the Scout300 over the weekend. He has good knee-bend, he was very strong in run blocking and pass blocking at The Opening, and he is only going to get better."
While it wasn't a big jump, it was still a significant move as Ricky Seals-Jones of Sealy, Texas, moved from the No. 2 to the No. 1 position at wide receiver. Seals-Jones is a standout basketball player, and his size and athleticism was only matched by Howard at The Opening.
"The No. 1 wide receiver debate will likely be one that rages on well into the All-American contests in January and beyond," said Texas-based National Analyst Greg Powers. There seems to be no clear-cut player who has put a stranglehold on the top spot like Dorial Green-Beckham had on it a year ago. When in doubt go with a 6-foot-6, 220-pound monster like Seals-Jones, who is not only a deep ball threat, but he has the ability to break a cornerback's ankle in the open field."
The talented Taco Charlton saw his ranking improve.
Seals-Jones was not the only Texas prospect to elevate his stock last weekend. Defensive tackle A'Shawn Robinson of Fort Worth, Texas, manhandled the competition.
"No player turned more heads at The Opening than A'Shawn Robinson, who looked more like one of the NFL coaches in attendance than one of the other high school prospects," added Powers. "He had the strength and size to manhandle offensive linemen but also used good techniques. He uses his hands well and stays low. His best attribute may be his explosion off the ball. He redirects well and gets in the backfield often. He will command a double team opening up things for other players on his defense."
If Robinson wasn't the best defensive lineman in attendance, that title would likely go to new USC commitment Eddie Vanderdoes of Auburn, Calif. Vanderdoes is also a standout at baseball, but at 6-foot-3 1/2 and 305 pounds, he has a bright future on the gridiron.
"After Vanderdoes' performance at the Oregon NFTC in June, we were confident that he was still the premier defensive tackle in the West," said West-based National Analyst Brandon Huffman. "Then, in pads, at The Opening, he was the top defensive lineman there.
What makes Vanderdoes stand out is his quickness, strength, and the way he fires off the ball. No defensive tackle uses his hands better than Vanderdoes. After spending much of the spring focusing on baseball (he hit a 400-plus-foot home run the day USC came by his school in the spring), when he turned his focus to football, he showed why he's elite."