By Sammy Batten
Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer
August 27, 2005
The "Big Three" may dominate the headlines when it comes to recruiting football talent in North Carolina for the Class of 2006. But beyond the state's most recognizable blue-chippers are dozens of fast, versatile athletes who define what may be one of the deepest classes the state has produced in decades.
Size, talent and national attention have made Shelby Crest linebacker Brandon Spikes, Wendell East Wake defensive tackle Aleric Mullins and Southern Durham offensive tackle Carl Johnson the consensus top three prospects in the state. The nation's elite programs have pursued all three, and Johnson pledged his services to Florida early this summer despite heavy in-state attention.
More than 20 other North Carolina seniors also made early commitments to Division I-A programs, and another 30 reported scholarship offers by late August. Another five to 10 players are expected to receive offers as the season unfolds, which should send the state's total number of I-A signees this year well above 50. If that occurs, it likely will be the largest number from the state since 2001, when 67 seniors signed with I-A programs.
Spikes, Mullins and Johnson are rarities in the class because they specialize at a single position. In Spikes' case, that is by choice.
Although many recruiters would like to see Spikes wind up at end, where he could be a Julius Peppers/Mario Williams clone, the player himself is determined to make it as a linebacker. Spikes has told anybody who will listen that he won't consider any school that suggests he should play on the line.
Crest coach Roy Kirby is sure Spikes can play linebacker at the next level. In fact, Kirby said Spikes is every bit as good as Shamar Finney, who earned Parade All-American honors with the Chargers in 1997 before starting at Penn State and playing briefly in the NFL.
"(Spikes) plays the screen pass better than any high school player I've ever seen," Kirby said. "He's picked off six or seven screen passes in the last two years. He can be physical when he needs to be, he's a very bright kid, and he keeps everyone around him jacked up. He'll do whatever it takes to get the job done. I'm anxious to see what he'll do at the next level, but I'd be surprised if he doesn't have a great career as a linebacker."
Playing linebacker on defense and fullback on offense, Spikes has helped Crest win back-to-back Class 3-AA state championships. He made 93 tackles, two sacks and four interceptions as a junior, capping the season by earning defensive MVP honors in the state title game.
More than 40 I-A programs had offered Spikes a scholarship by late August. He has elected to focus on helping Crest to another state championship before making any decisions about his college choice, but he's expressed special interest in Florida, LSU, Miami, Oklahoma, UNC, N.C. State, Virginia and Virginia Tech. He took unofficial visits to most of those schools this summer.
A similar parade of big-time teams is pursuing Mullins. Thick, powerful and unusually quick for a big man, Mullins was a linebacker in his hometown of Caruthersville, Mo., where he recorded 100 tackles as a sophomore. He moved to North Carolina last season to live with an uncle and shifted to defensive tackle at East Wake, making 70 tackles and six sacks.
Mullins returned to Missouri after the school year and intended to play his final prep season at Caruthersville High. But in mid-summer he decided to return to North Carolina and East Wake, mainly because the competition is better there. Recruiters managed to keep up with Mullins, including Oklahoma, which appears to be the frontrunner for his services.
Florida grabbed a key commitment in June from Johnson, one of the nation's most coveted blocking prospects. Former N.C. State recruiting ace Doc Holliday used his old connections to help land Johnson over an array of other suitors, including Florida State, Miami, Michigan, UNC, NCSU, Oklahoma, USC and Tennessee.
Skill-position athletes, all of whom have 4.5-second speed or better in the 40-yard dash, occupy many of the other top spots in this year's North Carolina rankings.
Two of those, Asheville High teammates Crezdon Butler and Johnny White, parted ways on their college selections this summer.
Butler chose the out-of-state option when he committed to Clemson in early August. Asheville has utilized Butler's super speed (10.75 over 100 meters) at quarterback, where he ran for 1,500 yards and passed for 700 as a junior. But the Tigers, who beat out N.C. State, UNC and Virginia for Butler, are expected to play him at cornerback.
White, a powerful North-South runner who gained 2,184 yards as a junior and scored 39 touchdowns, elected to remain in-state and play for North Carolina.
"It just seemed like a great place to be," White said after announcing for UNC over offers from Arkansas and South Carolina, plus heavy interest from several national powers.
Including White, the Tar Heels already had received pledges from 12 in-state prospects by late August and 22 players (including 2005 holdovers) overall. Ten of those 12 in-staters are rated among the state's top 25 prospects by at least one recruiting service.
Deunta Williams, a 6-3, 195-pounder with 4.4 speed who could play tailback, wide receiver, safety or linebacker in Chapel Hill, typically is the highest-rated of the UNC commitments. Playing quarterback, wide receiver and safety last season at Jacksonville White Oak, Williams caught 16 passes for 400 yards and 11 touchdowns, and he had 250 yards rushing and 200 passing. He also made seven interceptions on defense.
UNC benefited from the departure for Florida of the aforementioned Holliday, a former N.C. State assistant who originally was Williams' primary contact with the Wolfpack.
"I was a State fan for a little while," Williams said. "I went to all the football games. I had the (Wolfpack) hat and jersey. I was really into one of the coaches up there, but it was a live-and-learn type thing. I loved Coach Holliday."
Another prep quarterback, Bruce Carter from Havelock High, also made an early pledge to the Tar Heels. The 6-2, 205-pounder ran for 700 yards and passed for 500 as a junior, after taking over the starting quarterback duties in the third game. But Carter's college future likely will be at tailback, linebacker or safety.
"Bruce is a stud," Havelock coach Charlie Smith said. "He's so versatile, and that's what makes him attractive."
Other UNC commitments from among the state's top 20 prospects include defensive tackle Greg "The Beast" Elleby of Tabor City South Columbus, defensive back Kendric Burney of Jacksonville White Oak and athlete Tavorris Jolly of Shelby High.
Jolly and Elleby were the first two members of the Class of 2006 to make pledges to UNC. Jolly gained 1,400 yards rushing as a tailback last season at Shelby, while Elleby had 65 tackles (16 for loss) and five sacks.
Another committed player in the top 25 is defensive tackle Ricardo Crawford from Cerro Gordo West Columbus. He wasn't really on the recruiting radar until April, when he attended a Nike Combine in Blacksburg. His performance there caught the attention of a Georgia assistant, who promptly requested game film.
"They offered him soon after that," West Columbus coach Vernon Brigman said. "I think they were surprised to see what kind of athlete he was for a big man."
Crawford is impressive. He runs a legit 4.9 in the 40, can bench press 450 pounds and can dunk a basketball from a flat-footed jump. Those talents helped him make 71 tackles (12 for loss) and two sacks as a junior. The Bulldogs gained Crawford's commitment on his birthday, June 13.
Cary High running back Josh Adams may have been the state's most well-known prospect (along with Johnson) last spring. The 6-0, 170-pounder caught the attention of many by posting the third-highest rushing total in the state with 2,884 yards. He isn't the flashiest runner, but his balance and cutback abilities are impressive enough that Georgia, LSU, Oklahoma and Tennessee all have offered. LSU may be the team to beat, with Maryland, UNC, N.C. State and Tennessee also in contention.
Raeshon McNeil of Mocksville Davie racked up 60 tackles and five interceptions as a junior, and he also returned two kickoffs for touchdowns. His raw skills are so intriguing that Notre Dame offered early, and he recently pledged to the Fighting Irish over UNC, Virginia and Virginia Tech.
The latest in a long line of talented athletes from Rockingham Richmond is Norman Whitley, a 5-8, 180-pound running back who churned out 2,566 yards and 33 touchdowns a year ago against some of the state's toughest competition. His height may be keeping some recruiters at bay he had offers from only ECU and UNC in August but that doesn't bother Whitley.
"I just have to keep doing what I've been doing, and all that (recruiting) will work out," Whitley said. "I feel like if a college doesn't offer me they're the loser."
Whitley's Richmond teammate, defensive end Tavares Brown, collected 192 tackles and 21 sacks in his first two varsity seasons as the Raiders went 28-2. As with Whitley, however, offers have been slow to come. Maryland and N.C. State were Brown's lone offers entering August, but expect that interest to rise significantly as 2005 progresses.
Lamarcus Bond, a Tramain Hall clone from Ahoskie Hertford County, and O.C. Wardlow of traditional Class 4A power Winston-Salem Mount Tabor both are capable of turning a run or a catch into a touchdown in an instant.
The 5-8, 175-pound Bond rushed for 922 yards on 100 carries, had 394 yards receiving and 28 total touchdowns (18 rushing, five receiving, five returns) as a junior. He may even get a turn at playing quarterback as a senior, but college scouts regard him as a wide receiver prospect.
Wardlow's last name should be familiar to prep fans in North Carolina and Tennessee. He's a cousin of 2005 Tennessee signee Antonio Wardlow, a defensive back. O.C. is the quarterback at Mount Tabor, where he's amassed 5,400 career passing yards. When he committed to Virginia in August, over Duke, South Carolina, Tennessee and others, he said the Cavaliers' promise to give him a shot at QB was a major factor in his decision.
NORTH CAROLINA'S TOP 30
|No. Name||Pos.||Ht./Wt.||High School||College Favorites|
|1. Brandon Spikes||LB||6-4/235||Shelby Crest||Miami, Fla., UNC, UVa, VT*|
|2. Carl Johnson||OL||6-6/350||Durham Southern||FLORIDA|
|3. Aleric Mullins||DT||6-3/285||Wendell East Wake||Okla., Tenn., UNC, NCSU, VT*|
|4. Deunta Williams||DB||6-3/195||Jacksonville White Oak||NORTH CAROLINA|
|5. Crezdon Butler||DB||6-0/175||Asheville High||CLEMSON|
|6. Josh Adams||RB||6-0/170||Cary High||LSU, NCSU, UNC, Tenn., Md.*|
|7. Johnny White||RB||5-10/190||Asheville High||NORTH CAROLINA|
|8. Raeshon McNeil||DB||5-11/175||Mocksville Davie||NOTRE DAME|
|9. Bruce Carter||LB/DB||6-2/205||Havelock High||NORTH CAROLINA|
|10. O.C. Wardlow||QB/DB||5-11/180||Winston-Salem Mt. Tabor||VIRGINIA|
|11. Shaun Draughn||RB/DB||5-11/190||Tarboro High||NORTH CAROLINA|
|12. Kendric Burney||DB||5-9/175||Jacksonville Southwest Onslow||NORTH CAROLINA|
|13. Rico Bell||DB||5-10/180||Charlotte Vance||Tenn., NCSU, Md., UVa, VT*|
|14. Greg Elleby||DT||6-4/280||Tabor City South Columbus||NORTH CAROLINA|
|15. Tavares Brown||DE||6-0/250||Rockingham Richmond||NCSU, Md., UNC, Clem., Ga.*|
|16. Wesley Flagg||LB||5-11/225||Fayetteville Britt||NORTH CAROLINA|
|17. Tarvorris Jolly||RB/DB||5-10/180||Shelby High||NORTH CAROLINA|
|18. Norman Whitley||RB||5-8/180||Rockingham Richmond||UNC, Tenn., Clem., UVa, ECU*|
|19. Dennis Godfrey||TE||6-3/255||Sanford Lee County||WAKE FOREST|
|20. Vince Jacobs||TE||6-6/220||Charlotte Providence Day||NORTH CAROLINA|
|21. Ricardo Crawford||DT||6-1/305||Cerro Gordo West Columbus||GEORGIA|
|22. Hutch Eckerson||OL||6-5/260||Lumberton High||UVa, NCSU, Tenn., UNC, VT*|
|23. Ryan Taylor||FB/TE||6-4/210||Winston-Salem Mt. Tabor||NORTH CAROLINA|
|24. Gavin Smith||DT||6-4/275||Raleigh Wakefield||N.C. STATE|
|25. Chris Dalton||WR||6-1/170||Statesville West Iredell||VIRGINIA|
|26. Nathan Franklin||PK/P||5-11/165||Wilmington Hoggard||N.C. STATE|
|27. LaMarcus Bond||WR/DB||5-8/175||Ahoskie Hertford County||NCSU, UNC, VT, UVa*|
|28. Logan Buchanan||LB||6-2/205||Mocksville Davie||NORTH CAROLINA|
|29. Devin Radford||RB/DB||5-8/175||Fayetteville Smith||VIRGINIA TECH|
|30. Marshall Williams||WR||6-1/165||Durham Riverside||WAKE FOREST|
NOTE: Preseason player rankings by the ACC Sports Journal.
* also considering other schools