NCAA Football

Jake Moretti to Ohio State: Buckeyes Land 4-Star OT Prospect

It's impossible to say whom the Ohio State Buckeyes' starting quarterback will be in 2017, but Urban Meyer can rest a little bit easier knowing pass protection won't be an issue that far into the future. The reigning national champions secured standout offensive tackle Jake Moretti's commitment on Saturday. 

Steve Wiltfong of 247Sports was the first to report Moretti's commitment. Moretti also confirmed the news on Twitter:

According to 247Sports' composite rankings, the Arvada, Colorado, native is the No. 9 offensive tackle and No. 56 player overall in the 2017 recruiting class.

Considering Moretti is still a ways off from hitting the next level, it's a little tougher to evaluate his game.

There's little doubt that he'll need to add a little bit more bulk to reach his ceiling. Moretti shouldn't be considered undersized for the position, but 285 pounds isn't quite as imposing when it's stretched over a 6'5" frame. If anything, though, the fact he's so big at such a young age is only a good thing.

Moretti has the combination of strength and mobility coaches love to see in today's offensive tackles. He can simply overpower and bully defenders at the point of attack just as easily as he can move up to the second level and open up some holes for the ball-carrier.

Buckeyes fans have plenty of reasons to get excited about Moretti's impending arrival. Once he dons the Ohio State uniform, he should be an O-line bellwether for a few years.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Michael Pittman to USC: Trojans Land 4-Star ATH Prospect

An already promising 2016 recruiting class for the USC Trojans got stronger Saturday. Michael Pittman became the 14th player to pledge his allegiance to USC ahead of next year.

Pittman confirmed his commitment on Twitter:

According to 247Sports' composite rankings, Pittman is the No. 14 athlete in the country and No. 207 player overall. With him on board, the Trojans jumped up to ninth in 247Sports' team ranking.

The name should sound familiar. Pittman's father, also named Michael Pittman, played 11 years in the NFL, running for 5,627 yards and 25 touchdowns.

The younger Pittman had originally committed to the UCLA Bruins earlier in the recruiting process but announced in mid-June he had had a change of heart:

As if the sting of losing Pittman by itself wasn't enough for the Bruins, now he's heading just across town. Reign of Troy noted that Trojans head coach Steve Sarkisian is becoming a serious thorn in his rival's side:

Fox Sports' Greg Biggins praised the work by USC assistant Marques Tuiasosopo to secure Pittman's commitment:

Listed as an athlete, Pittman will likely play wide receiver full time when he arrives at USC.

At 6'4" and 205 pounds, he'll provide a big target for Trojan quarterbacks. Because of his impressive height, Pittman isn't a home run threat any time he touches the ball, but he possesses enough speed to create separation from his defender and break out a big play.

Pittman remains a bit raw as a pass-catcher, but you'd expect him to continue honing his skills and smoothing out the edges in his game the more time he works at the position.

While he won't be the most heralded member of the Trojans' 2016 class, Pittman has the potential to be a major difference-maker on the offensive side of the ball in a few years.  

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Michael Pittman to USC: Trojans Land 4-Star ATH Prospect

An already promising 2016 recruiting class for the USC Trojans got stronger Saturday. Michael Pittman became the 14th player to pledge his allegiance to USC ahead of next year...

Read the full article on Bleacher Report...

Meet Jaylon Smith, the 2016 NFL Draft's Top LB Heading into Next Season

Heading into the 2015 college football season, linebacker looks as though it could be one of the 2016 NFL draft’s strongest positions. Even so, there is one linebacker whose game appears to stand out above the rest of the class, and that linebacker is Notre Dame junior Jaylon Smith.

Ranked one of the top three recruits in the high school class of 2013 by 247Sports, Rivals and Scout, Smith has legitimized the hype in his first two seasons with the Fighting Irish. Named a second-team All-American by the Associated Press in 2014, Smith has started all 26 games in his Notre Dame career and has already accumulated 179 total tackles, including 15.5 for loss.

Smith has the size NFL teams look for in a linebacker, at 6’2.5” and 235 pounds, and supplements those measurables with top-of-the-line athleticism. Packaging those physical tools with solid fundamentals and a high football IQ, Smith could be well on his way to being a top-10 overall pick next spring.

 

A Versatile Linebacker Who Can Do It All

One of the first things that stands out about Smith is that he lines up all over the field for Notre Dame. While he most often starts the play at the second level between the hashes, he also sometimes splits out into coverage over a slot receiver or lines up as a blitzing pass-rusher on the edge.

The following screenshots, each captured from the first quarter of Draft Breakdown’s cut-up of Smith’s game against Michigan last season, exemplify a number of the different spots where you might see the Notre Dame linebacker lined up at any given time.

The next thing that stands out about Smith is that regardless of where he starts a play, he can finish a play anywhere on the field. Possessing a cheetah-like burst, Smith accelerates with great speed and truly exhibits sideline-to-sideline range.

The following play from 2014 against Florida State was a great example of Smith’s ability to chase down runs in pursuit. Despite starting the play from the right hashmark, then being briefly impeded by Seminoles tight end Nick O’Leary driving teammate Joe Schmidt backward into him, Smith (No. 9) kept his feet moving fast and was able to chase Florida State running back Karlos Williams out to the left sideline for a tackle nine yards downfield.

Smith can be just as dangerous attacking downhill as he is pursuing a play laterally. He displayed that on the following play, from the Michigan game, as he flew right by Wolverines right tackle Ben Braden to go directly at a run going left and catch running back Derrick Green from behind for a three-yard tackle for loss.

Enabled by his athleticism to make plays all over the field, Smith is a fundamentally sound tackler who consistently finishes plays by wrapping up the ball-carrier and sending strength through his body to drive his opponent down to the ground.

Smith still needs to get better at shedding blocks, and he does get driven backward away from runs at times when he allows blockers to get their hands into his pads. But as long as he has a strong defensive line in front of him who can help keep him clean, his athleticism should enable him to immediately begin making plays from inside to outside even against faster NFL offenses.

Dropping back into coverage is another area where Smith puts his athletic ability to great use. Smith is not only a fluid athlete but also an evidently smart player who consistently shows the awareness to get himself into proper coverage positions.

One example of that came in the second half of Notre Dame’s 2013 win against USC. As you can see in the following video, which includes analysis from Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly and NBC broadcast analyst Mike Mayock, Smith exhibited a great “feel” for coverage in making an interception that helped lead his team to a 14-10 victory.

That remains the only interception of Smith's career to this point, but while he does not make big plays on the ball with frequency, he also rarely gets burned. 

Notre Dame does not frequently utilize Smith in man coverage against receivers and tight ends, but when he is put in those positions, he shows capability to handle the responsibility. Because of his movement skills, Smith is able to run with offensive weapons down the field and cover deep when necessary.

Relative to the other areas of his game, Smith is a fairly weak pass-rusher. To this point in his career, he has not shown much in the way of pass-rushing moves that he can use to work his way around blockers when coming off the edge.

Nonetheless, Smith tied for the Notre Dame team lead in 2014 with 3.5 sacks. While he rarely wins off the edge unless he is unblocked, he can be very dangerous as a blitzer between the tackles because of his explosiveness.

An example of that can be seen in the following clip. Smith covered 15 yards in a flash, taking advantage of an open B-gap to bring heavy pressure on Florida State quarterback and 2015 No. 1 overall pick Jameis Winston, forcing Winston to throw the ball away incomplete.

Another responsibility with which Smith excels is spying the quarterback. He shows great discipline and patience in that role, and then once a quarterback decides to try to take off and run, Smith can once again use his acceleration and tackling ability to quickly burst to the runner and finish the play.

On the following example, Smith looked like he was running through an agility drill at the NFL Scouting Combine, as he made it look easy. Initially showing blitz from the line of scrimmage, Smith dropped back into coverage while keeping his eyes on the quarterback, then smoothly shuffled laterally so that he could get himself to an angle from which he could hit the gas and track down Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner for a tackle three yards downfield, two yards short of a 3rd-and-5 conversion.

Another demonstration of Smith’s ability to spy the quarterback can be seen in the following clip from last year’s game against Louisville. Note that Smith, who was able to tackle Cardinals quarterback Reggie Bonnafon just one yard past the line of scrimmage, was wearing No. 38 in that game to honor Schmidt, who suffered a season-ending injury prior to that game.

Smith is a true every-down player at Notre Dame; in four games watched prior to writing this article, Smith was spotted on the field for the Fighting Irish on every defensive play.

Given his ability to impact the game as both a rangy run defender and a versatile pass defender, there’s no reason to think Smith shouldn’t continue to be a mainstay on the field for an NFL defense.

Ideally, Smith would be drafted to play as a weak-side linebacker in a 4-3 defense, which would be his best fit and the position that would most take advantage of his athletic ability and range. That said, Smith’s skill set is well-rounded enough that he could play any linebacker position in a 4-3 front or as an inside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme.

 

Garnering High Praise

Off-ball linebackers are typically not valued as highly as defensive linemen and pass-rushing specialists in the NFL draft. But while it has become unusual to see off-ball linebackers selected as top-10 draft picks, there are numerous well-reputed draft analysts who believe Smith has the talent to supersede that trend and be one of the first players off the board in 2016, assuming he declares.

Matt Miller, Bleacher Report’s NFL Draft Lead Writer, currently considers Smith to be the best draft-eligible prospect in the nation, regardless of position, going into the 2015 season.

NFL Media’s Daniel Jeremiah, a former NFL scout, is another big believer in Smith’s game. Jeremiah recently told FoxSports.com’s Bruce Feldman that Smith reminds him of former San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis, a five-time NFL All-Pro, “just in terms of sheer explosiveness.”

"I don't know if there's a better talent in the country," Jeremiah told Feldman. “I don't know what he'll run (in the 40), but it's really impressive when you watch him in a game against Florida State with Dalvin Cook and all the athletes they have and (Smith) looks like the fastest guy on the field."

Like Miller, Jeremiah has also taken to Twitter to share his love for the Notre Dame linebacker.

Media draft analysts are not the only ones who have publicly expressed praise for Smith’s skill set. Feldman also shared a quote from an anonymous coach whose team played Notre Dame last season who was reportedly “wowed by Smith” and thinks the rising junior is a significantly better talent than former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, who was a unanimous All-American in 2012 but only a second-round pick (No. 38 overall) in the 2013 NFL draft.

"(Smith) is a legit sideline-to-sideline guy and twice the athlete Te'o was," the coach told Feldman. "He looks like an SEC linebacker."

If NFL teams don’t have similar views to Miller, Jeremiah and college football coaches on Smith, it would be a big surprise. So long as Smith continues to perform at a high level and progress forward this upcoming season, he should certainly be a Round 1 pick—and perhaps a very high one—even though his competition at the linebacker position is no joke.

 

Can Another Linebacker Move Ahead of Smith?

While Smith has a skill set that should universally appeal to every team interested in adding a linebacker through the 2016 NFL draft, there are a number of other standout prospects at the position who could challenge Smith’s standing as the top LB in the class.

Ohio State’s Darron Lee is only a redshirt sophomore, but he is already well on his way to being a first-round pick should he enter the draft with two years of eligibility remaining. Coming off an excellent breakout season last year, Lee—like Smith—is an outstanding athlete who can make plays all over the gridiron.

Arizona junior Scooby Wright III was the Football Bowl Subdivision’s most productive defensive player in 2014, and he took home virtually every major award for college football defenders last season as a result. He is a strong block-shedder who has a relentless motor. But because he is a limited athlete by NFL standards, it is questionable how well his production will translate to the next level, and his upside is significantly lower than that of Smith and Lee.

Going back to tremendous athletes with huge upside, UCLA junior Myles Jack is an explosive, versatile linebacker who also sees playing time at running back. He’s not quite the all-around player that Smith is, and he has a smaller frame with less growth potential, but he is another linebacker firmly within the first-round equation.

Jack is not the only smallish but tremendously athletic linebacker in Los Angeles with a first-round NFL draft future. But while USC junior Su’a Cravens has performed well at linebacker collegiately, and he could be utilized there situationally at the next level, his NFL future is likely to be at strong safety, where he started his Trojans career as a freshman.

Those four underclassmen look to be the most likely linebackers to legitimately push Smith for position at the top end of the 2016 draft. That said, additional linebackers who could garner Round 1 consideration include Alabama’s Reggie Ragland, Georgia’s Leonard Floyd and Jordan Jenkins and Auburn's Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy.

Teams in the market for a linebacker next spring will have no shortage of options available to them. But that shouldn't stop a team from investing a pick very early in Smith, who projects to be a star for an NFL defense for years to come. 

 

This article is part of a series on the projected top prospects at each position for the 2016 NFL draft. Also read:

Meet Jared Goff, the 2016 NFL Draft's Top QB Heading into Next Season

Meet Ezekiel Elliott, the 2016 NFL Draft's Top RB Heading into Next Season

Meet Tyler Boyd, the 2016 NFL Draft's Top WR Heading into Next Season

Meet Evan Engram, the 2016 NFL Draft's Top TE Heading into Next Season

Meet Ronnie Stanley, the 2016 NFL Draft's Top OL Heading into Next Season

Meet Joey Bosa, the 2016 NFL Draft's Top DE Heading into Next Season

Meet A'Shawn Robinson, the 2016 NFL Draft's Top DT Heading into Next Season

 

All GIFs were made at Gfycat using videos from Draft Breakdown and YouTube.

Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

NFL Counterparts for SEC's Top 10 Players in 2015

Back in early May, Bleacher Report colleague Barrett Sallee ranked the top 15 SEC football players, but if you had to compare each of the top 10 to an NFL star, who would it be?

From the league's stable of elite runners to a slew of defensive linemen who'll outfit the NFL soon enough with future stars, their games all resemble a current pro stud. So, even though they all will eventually carve their own niche in the league, it's fun to project ceilings.

When the versatile Robert Nkemdiche gets after the quarterback or clogs up the middle, does he resemble a former top pick such as Mario Williams? Are the comparisons to Jadeveon Clowney legit?

Though Nick Chubb's phenomenal freshman campaign hearkens back to the halcyon days of Herschel Walker, which active star does he look like when he takes a handoff and looks to lower his head?

That's the end game of this exercise. So, while a re-ranking is unnecessary since Sallee already has that covered, let's take it a step forward.

With the SEC season not that far away, and their NFL careers a little further down the line, let's examine an NFL counterpart for the top 10 players in Sallee's rankings.

As always, make your thoughts public and let the discussions begin.

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Ranking the Top 10 Elite 11 Alumni of Last Decade

The annual Elite 11 national finals takes center stage July 5-10 at Nike's World Headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon. The event features 18 golden-armed high school stars from across the country, continuing a tradition that dates back to 1999.

Elite 11 alumni continue to make a major impact on the global football landscape. It's a group that includes Heisman Trophy winners, national champions and No. 1 draft picks. 

We reviewed competitors from the past 10 years, ranking them based on their accomplishments at quarterback.

Begin Slideshow

Notre Dame Football: Breaking Down Irish's Newest Commitments

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — In just two short weeks, Notre Dame football nearly doubled the size of its recruiting class of 2016.

The Irish landed five commitments in 14 days, building up a class that once held just a half-dozen members to an 11-player group. Notre Dame added defensive back Jalen Elliott and wide receiver Kevin Stepherson on June 19 during the Irish Invasion camp on campus, and defensive end Jamir Jones pledged four days later during a midweek visit. Safety Spencer Perry, who decommitted from Florida following the Irish Invasion, gave his verbal to Notre Dame on Monday.

And how could Irish fans forget offensive lineman Parker Boudreaux, who committed to Notre Dame on Thursday during a video in which he hauled a 16,000-pound bus.

VIDEO: 2016 recruit Parker Boudreaux pulls a 16,000-lb bus to announce his commitment http://t.co/iBvGagwffjpic.twitter.com/FwXrTSLdzw

— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) July 2, 2015

Notre Dame is riding a summer surge much like it did in 2014, when the Irish hauled in seven commitments in June, as well as one at the end of May and one at the beginning of July.

“It’s been a nice run, especially in June,” Irish247’s Tom Loy said. “It was a big month for them.”

Elliott is slotted as the No. 40 athlete and No. 577 overall player in the class of 2016. Though he’s been used elsewhere at Lloyd C. Bird High School in Richmond, Virginia, Elliott profiles as a versatile defensive back with the Irish, who think Elliott could play safety and/or cornerback, per Loy.

“Notre Dame was in it early,” Loy said. “But having parents who both attended Virginia Tech and a dad who played ball for the Hokies, that was a tough battle.”

Across the line of scrimmage, Stepherson is the No. 102 wide receiver in the country and a 3-star prospect from Jacksonville, Florida. The 6’0”, 180-pounder tallied 33 receptions for 756 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2014. The Irish believe Stepherson could play in the slot or on the outside, according to Loy.

“After seeing all these kids live, Stepherson was probably the biggest pickup,” Loy said. “In terms of his overall talent, he was the top player at the Irish Invasion. He was dominant.”

Jones, the brother of Irish nose tackle Jarron Jones, earned his Notre Dame offer and responded with a commitment on June 23.

“You could tell that he really appreciates what Notre Dame can do for him,” Loy said. “He came all the way out here and camped.”

Six days after Jones committed, Perry pledged to the Irish, as well. The No. 29 safety in the country, Perry hails from Bradenton, Florida, and is teammates at IMG Academy with Irish running back commit Tony Jones Jr. Perry decommitted from Florida three days after the Irish Invasion camp.

“Notre Dame loves his size. They see him playing safety, not cornerback,” Loy said. “He’s a guy that could come and really make an impact in run support, especially for his size and physicality.”

Boudreaux, meanwhile, joins offensive line commits Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg, combining to form a strong haul for offensive line coach Harry Hiestand. Boudreaux, an Orlando, Florida, native, is slotted as the No. 13 guard in the country. While Kraemer and Eichenberg have the potential to fit at tackle, Boudreaux profiles nicely as an interior lineman.

“Boudreaux is a true guard. He’s an inside guy,” Loy said. “He’s a mauler. If you’re looking for physicality on the offensive line, then you don’t need to look much further than Boudreaux.”

For good measure, Notre Dame added a commitment from class-of-2017 tight end Brock Wright, the top-ranked player at his position, last Friday.

And while June was fruitful for the Irish, Loy said July could be a major month in Notre Dame recruiting, as well. Loy said he’s keeping tabs on wide receiver Chase Claypool, all-purpose back Damian Alloway and defensive end Adetokunbo Ogundeji this month.

  

Unless otherwise noted, all recruiting stats and information courtesy of 247Sports.com and all quotes obtained firsthand. Star ratings reflect 247Sports composite rankings.

Mike Monaco is the lead Notre Dame writer for Bleacher Report. Follow @MikeMonaco_ on Twitter.

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Brad Hawkins to Michigan: Wolverines Land 4-Star WR Prospect

Brad Hawkins, a 4-star wide receiver prospect from Camden, New Jersey, announced his commitment to play college football at Michigan on Friday, according to Brian Dohn of Scout.com.

“He gelled really well with the coaches and he liked the vibe with the coaches,” Camden coach Dwayne Savage said, per Dohn. “He felt like (coach Jim) Harbaugh was down to earth, and with all the former NFL coaches, he feels that might be his best chance to get to the next level.”

Although Hawkins is rated a rather modest No. 38 overall in the Class of 2016 among receivers, per 247Sports' composite rankings, he has the upside to be a major playmaker for Michigan. A 6'1", 202-pound frame makes him ready to chip in right away.

Whatever he lacks in speed, Hawkins makes up for with a huge catch radius and unique versatility. He carried the ball 39 times for 255 yards (6.54 average) in 2014 to go with 11 receiving touchdowns and three pick-sixes as a safety.

To achieve such gaudy statistics, a combination of ball skills and instincts in the open field has allowed Hawkins to shine in all sorts of diverse, situational football. The Wolverines can really get creative with how to use him.

The vast majority of catches Hawkins makes on the following highlight reel show his knack for snatching the ball with his hands:

Especially for young wideouts used to dominating the competition, it can be easy to lose focus or let the ball come into one's body. The combination of Hawkins' plucking and size makes him a recruit to watch with a close eye in the future.

Hawkins also plays faster than he might time on a stopwatch, with better explosiveness and lateral cutting ability than one might expect. The competitive atmosphere of a game situation seems to give him a big boost, allowing him to thrive with an undeniable nose for the football.

Michigan has to be eagerly anticipating Hawkins' arrival given his ability to line up in a number of different places. His future seems to ultimately be at receiver, and if he works on his acceleration and burst in college, he has the prototypical body and physical tools to become a star.

The prominence of uptempo offenses in college—and across all of football, for that matter—should only benefit Hawkins. Should he emulate his current style in college, opponents trying to stop Michigan from lighting up the scoreboard will have to account for him in hurry-up situations, when he could line up at any receiver spot or in the backfield.  

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

The Opening 2015: Ranking the Top 25 Recruits in Attendance

More than 160 of America's most accomplished high school football players are expected to compete at The Opening, held July 6-10 at Nike's world headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon.

This annual showcase is considered the country's premier event for coveted college prospects and continually produces eventual college and NFL stars. From Elite 11 finals action featuring top-tier quarterback recruits to one-on-one battles between dominant big men in the trenches, there's no better place for a young player to show he's worthy of the hype.

The field is rife with sensational talents. Through film and in-person assessments, we ranked the 25 best athletes who are expected to attend.

Some are certain to rise or fall on this list based on the way they perform in Beaverton, but each enters with a big target on his back.

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Will 'Johnny Manziel Clone' Tate Martell Be Next 2017 QB Domino to Fall?

The 2016 recruiting cycle is in full swing, but the top 2017 quarterbacks are starting to announce their commitments as well. Shawn Robinson, the No. 1 QB of the 2017 class, per 247Sports, is committed to the TCU Horned Frogs. Which 2017 QB will be the next to commit?

Watch as Stephen Nelson and Bleacher Report Recruiting Analyst Damon Sayles break down the latest QB domino effect of the 2017 class.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

The 5-Star Target Notre Dame Commits Need to Recruit at The Opening

The Notre Dame Fighting Irish have done a tremendous job on the recruiting trail. With The Opening in Beaverton, Oregon, a week away, who will they target? 

Bleacher Report College Football Analyst Michael Felder answers that question and more in the video above. 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Unsigned Preps Bus Tour Preparing Recruits for College, NFL and Beyond

As Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh addressed the campers at the University of South Florida’s summer camp, a large group of Tampa-area prospects were soaking in the gravity of the moment.

“It was great to get to work with them [Michigan coaches] up close,” said 2017 tight end Tre McKitty. “We got to talk to them out there. They were energetic and were teaching. So it was cool that they came to watch us. I think everyone was excited to see them.”

For most of the 80 kids from the Unsigned Preps Bus Tour, this was their first time on a college campus. If it weren't for the tour, many of them might never get the chance.

Former Texas Tech defensive back and Tampa native Ricky Sailor and his partner, Romey Battle, founded Unsigned Preps in 2010 with the intent of providing high school football players guidance and assistance along the path toward a college scholarship.

While football is the vehicle that brought them to this setting, the ambition of the founders goes well beyond the gridiron.

“We want them to see what it’s like to be a student at college,” Battle said. “It’s the first time some of these kids have even set foot on a college campus even though they live in a city with a college campus. There’s a lot of things we want to do in helping them broaden their minds and not just take them to one campus, but several universities.”

Sailor laughs cathartically when he recalls the humble beginnings of the bus tour, when things didn’t run as smoothly. 

He and Battle came up with the vision for the tour out of frustration. 

Sailor was the defensive coordinator at Jefferson High School in Tampa at the time, and he became agitated when his star linebacker, Ramik Wilson, failed to land a scholarship offer from the University of Georgia when its coaches dropped by the school in the spring.

“I got so upset that I said, ‘we’re going to their camp.’” Sailor told Bleacher Report. “So I got two vans and took seven kids and went to the University of Georgia’s camp. Ramik got offered on the spot. The biggest thing about the camp that I noticed was that there were other colleges present at this camp. So I said to myself, we need to get the biggest bus possible so we can take more kids to colleges so they can get the same experience Ramik had.” 

Wilson, who went on to star at Georgia, is currently playing in the NFL for the Kansas City Chiefs. 

A year after the ordeal in helping Wilson get the offer he wanted, the first bus tour took 23 kids in one bus to North Carolina, NC State and South Carolina.

Five years later, this year’s tour featured 80 kids on two different buses—each with separate routes—heading to multiple schools over the span of a week.

The first bus, which Bleacher Report was given access to accompany on its journey, canvassed the six schools in a five-day span.

Among the first batch of parents to arrive as the buses prepared to take off was NFL Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Brooks—whose son, Decalon, is a 2017 linebacker who is included in this year’s group of campers.

The former Tampa Bay Bucs legend began to observe the work that Unsigned Preps was doing in the community, and he decided to lend his support to them a few years ago.

“These guys take the time to sacrifice their time for a greater need with these kids,” Brooks said. “To me, that is more my attraction to want to be involved with Unsigned Preps. You see somebody that has the heart for these kids, it’s the same as mine. I’m big on education, and now they have an athletic component to bring with that education, it’s truly special.”

The Bulls' joint camp with Michigan's staff gave the homegrown products a chance to shine in front of coaches from two schools right in their backyard. 

One of the stars of the day was 2017 4-star wide receiver Daquon Green—who is one of a small handful of bus one’s campers who are already known quantities in recruiting circles.

Green drew oohs and ahhs from the crowd after snatching a pair of touchdown passes in one-on-one drills, and an animated reaction from Harbaugh—who sprinted toward him after one particular catch to show his appreciation for Green’s efforts.

“It feels great,” Green said after his performance. “I just wanted to go out there and make sure to catch their attention so they will look at me.”

His goal was accomplished, as he received word from offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch that he had an offer from the Wolverines one day later.

Similar highs for various players would play out on the visits over the next four days. Class-of-2016 3-star corner KJ Sails had Clemson coaches buzzing after a strong day. Similarly, 2016 3-star corner Jayvaughn Myers and 2018 defensive backs Timarcus Simpson and Montrae Braswell were among the top performers at North Carolina and Georgia.

However, the moments away from football, such as a visit for lunch at Buffalo Wild Wings in Durham, North Carolina, are likely to be the visuals forever etched into the minds of those in attendance.

Class-of-2017 corner Rodney Higdon—an emerging prospect from Tampa’s Jesuit High school whom Battle nicknamed “Denzel,” for his resemblance to actor Denzel Washington—caused a hilarious scene when he scarfed 30 of the chain’s spiciest wings down in less than four minutes as his new friends razzed him and cheered him on.

At Clemson, players engaged in battles at various games, such as pool, ping-pong and Pop-A-Shot basketball in the Tigers game room.

As the tour got into its final stages and after the players and coaches had spent a few days together, the rides on the bus itself became a haven for pranks. 

Players such as 2016 athlete Antonio Nunn would tweet pictures of those who fell asleep on the long rides between schools. 

However, as McCloud and Brooks echoed, it’s the relationships that have been built during the tour that are what makes the tour truly a successful endeavor.

“The fun jokes and laughs we have on the bus as well as the competitiveness that we have out here on the field, those are the things I will remember the most” said 2017 quarterback Alec Cromie. “Messing around in Clemson’s game room is something I’ll never forget.”

Overall, Sailor notes that 13 offers were handed out on this year's tour. However, with younger players such as Higdon, Braswell and Simpson flashing their talents in front of various coaches, their recruitments could also take off in the near future. 

Getting support from people like Brooks and the coaches in the high school community in Tampa wasn’t always a slam dunk for Unsigned Preps.

However, the detractors are slowly diminishing as more people and kids get exposed to the tour. 

Frank LaRosa is the head coach at East Bay High School in Gibsonton, Florida—just outside of Tampa. 

He accompanied Sailor, Battle and McCloud for the second year in a row, bringing Sails and teammate Brandon Frazier along for the ride. 

After doing his homework on Sailor and the people involved with Unsigned Preps, he volunteered his services to help out on the chaperone end—which he admits makes him somewhat of a rarity in the high school coaching community. 

“One thing I think about a lot of high school coaches, if not all of them, is all of us have that standoffish, don’t-want-people-around-our-kids attitude,” LaRosa said. “To some extent, I think that is warranted. However, I think a lot of that is fear of the unknown. I really tried to dive in and get to know Ricky. I asked people about Ricky and some of the things he’s done, where he’s been, some of the people he’s been around. I just formulated my own opinion instead of going on the opinion of others. It just kind of took off from there.” 

In his research about Sailor and the work Unsigned Preps does, he learned that they are also very selective in the people that they choose to get involved with the tour. Ideally, their desire to want to build up the kids on and off the field is a primary component that is non-negotiable from Sailor’s standpoint. 

For counselors on the tour, every moment—whether it be on the field or at various stops at restaurants or hotels—can and will be used as a teaching tool.

“I just think there is an authenticity to Ricky doing the tour specifically,” LaRosa said. “I think it's powerful. There are kids on the tour that are not Division I football players. But that is not the end all, be all. Ricky doesn’t talk about ability. He talks about character and integrity. Kids saying thank you, etiquette, behavior, keeping a tight circle and a lot of qualities that young men need to be taught, but I don’t know if they are being taught to this point in life.” 

It’s something not lost on the players as they followed along the trip. 

“It will teach them a lot,” Green—who was also making his second consecutive trip—said of the first-year campers. “It will teach these guys about life and football. It has taught us how to be around these schools and learn what it's like at this level on and off the field.” 

In Sailor’s view, those who believe that the bus tour is strictly used as a vehicle to enhance recruiting opportunities are mistaken.

Instead, he points out that it is simply a component used to bridge the gap between schools and kids who feel that the dream of playing college football is out of reach. 

“[Recruiting is] just a part of it,” Sailor said. “That’s the Jedi mind trick I use to get the kids on the bus. When we get them on the bus, the real mission is happening in mentoring the kids, showing them something different in life, bringing them around positive people, showing love to them, sharing and networking. These are the pillars of what makes this bus tour successful.” 

Only four recruits—Myers, Sails, Green and 2017 running back Makel Young—of the 38 kids on the first bus have offers from Power Five schools.

For those who are unlikely to receive a scholarship to a Power Five school, Sailor and Battle made sure to target camps in which other coaches at smaller schools would be present. 

Aside from the Wolverines' presence at the USF camp, coaches from Central Michigan, Charleston Southern, Eastern Kentucky, Elon and Savannah State were among the schools represented at various stops along this year's tour.

However, due to the bond that Sailor and Battle have been able to develop with coaches at various schools over the years, the other 34 prospects on the bus were able to have a similar experience to those of their peers who are already on the radar of the power programs.

At three of the stops on this year’s tour, all of the kids were able to take tours of each campus, stadium and athletic facilities and be addressed by coaches on all of those staffs. 

"[Their hospitality] shows you the passion that a lot of these college football coaches understand and care about kids and not just football either," Battle said. "I think it’s a testament to the universities that we visit that they open their doors to us to let kids come in and live out their dreams. While some of these kids won’t get to play at these schools, they can still be inspired to want to reach higher in their goals. [The college coaches] have compassion and want to be great role models and help young men become productive citizens in society."

Even for parents such as Brooks and Ray Ray McCloud Jr.—who served as one of the chaperones on the first bus—who can take their kids to schools on an individual basis, they see the value in the experience of letting their sons embark on this journey with other kids who they may not know, but have the same goals and aspirations.

“Whether you have an offer or not, you get to walk through and meet all of these big-time coaches, see what type of workouts the kids at these schools do, and experience college life,” McCloud said. “You may not be able to play at this college, but you may be good enough to play at another one. It gives the kids an idea of what the highest level is like and I think that’s a valuable thing. If you get reps against an elite player in settings like this, it’s like a measuring stick where a kid can say, ‘I’m almost there.’”

A majority of the campers on this year’s tour will never play college football, and even fewer will do so at a Power Five conference.

While that dream may not come true for those kids, just getting to these universities represents the first step toward formulating a plan for success in the future for all of them.

For Sailor and his associates, that in and of itself is an accomplishment that stimulates the mind and motivates kids to find a way to get back there.

“To be honest, I never thought I’d get the chance to see some of these schools,” Sails said. “I finally got the opportunity to come and show what I can do. A lot of people in Tampa don’t get this chance to come out-of-state and see these programs like we do. It’s really an unforgettable experience.”

 

Sanjay Kirpalani is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand and all recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports. 

 

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The Opening 2015: Predicting Where All Uncommitted Recruits Will Land

Part of the magic of the upcoming Elite 11 and The Opening national competitions is they feature some of the best uncommitted players announcing their plans for where they will play college football.

Next week will be no different, as four 4-star athletes—cornerback Jared Mayden, safety C.J. Pollard and linebackers Camilo Eifler and LaMar Winston—all are scheduled to make their decisions during the week of football activities, according to Brian Stumpf, who is vice president of football events for Student Sports and a lead spokesperson for both the Elite 11 and The Opening.

The big question: Where will each athlete end up? Bleacher Report offers its individual predictions for the quartet. The following predictions are in alphabetical order.

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The Opening: LSU Recruits Have Opportunity to Continue Their Reign as 'DBU'

The LSU Tigers have always had a solid defensive unit. Les Miles will add to the defense with his stacked 2016 recruiting class. 

Bleacher Report's College Football Analyst Michael Felder breaks down which LSU defensive commits will be at The Opening in Oregon. 

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Michigan Will Continue Recruiting Momentum with Strong Showing at The Opening

The Michigan Wolverines have done a tremendous job on the recruiting trail, locking up some real talent. But are they done?

Who are some uncommitted recruits they should target after The Opening? 

Bleacher Report's Michael Felder answers those questions and more in the video above. 

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Top 5 Players to Break Out at The Opening 2015

The Opening is a great platform for young football players to shine. It gives them the ultimate stage to showcase their talent as well as raise their stocks. 

Bleacher Report's Michael Felder breaks down which players will break out at the event on July 5-10. 

Who will emerge at The Opening? Check out the video and let us know! 

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Auburn Commit Stephen Davis Jr. Has Skills to Be Top Safety at The Opening

Auburn is looking to rebound after a subpar 2015 season, but the Tigers have a strong recruiting foundation that can allow for a quick rebuild. 

Watch as Bleacher Report College Football Analyst Michael Felder discusses which Auburn commits will stand out at The Opening in the video above.

How good will the Tigers' 2016 recruiting class be? Check out the video and let us know!

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Penn State Fans Will Get a Glimpse of Hackenberg's Replacement at The Opening

Penn State is looking to return to the top of the Big Ten, but it is a crowded group. The Nittany Lions will have to ride on the shoulders of star quarterback Christian Hackenberg. 

Watch as Bleacher Report College Football Analyst Michael Felder discusses which Penn State commits will stand out at The Opening in the video above.

How good will Penn State's 2016 recruiting class be? Check out the video and let us know!

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Ole Miss Fans Get a Glimpse of the Future at The Opening 2015

Ole Miss is one of the most exciting football teams in the country, and Hugh Freeze and Co. are looking to use their talented roster to get back to the top of the SEC.

Bleacher Report College Football Analyst Michael Felder discusses who he thinks can step up for Ole Miss at The Opening.

How good will Ole Miss' 2016 recruiting class be? Check out the video and let us know!

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Michigan State QB Commit Will Continue Spartans' Strong Showings at Elite 11

The Michigan State Spartans have a long history of great quarterbacks. The tradition continues with Messiah DeWeaver. The signal-caller will be at The Opening in Oregon.

Bleacher Report's College Football Analyst Michael Felder breaks down DeWeaver's game in the video above.

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