December 10, 2007

Shrine Bowl notebook: Early sleeper alert

SPARTANBURG, S.C. - When the stars of the Carolinas show up for the annual Shrine Bowl, you can always count on some big names, such as A.J. Green and DaQuan Bower, coming out and backing up their hype. However, another certainty is that some players will emerge from obscurity to show coaches what they've been missing. After day one of the Shrine Bowl practices, one player has already positioned himself as a strong candidate for this year's sleeper prospect.

Sterling Lucas out of Orangeburg (S.C.) Wilkinson created a buzz early in the first practice of the day on Monday and it only took a few position drills for the name to begin circling around. Lucas is a 6-foot-2, 220-pound inside linebacker for the South Carolina team and is among the more physically ready players on the team. He is big, strong and athletic to boot. He moved well and was active in the several scrimmage periods that his team went through during the day.

Lucas' high intensity level and competitive nature set him apart in the morning session and he made it clear that he was playing with a purpose this week.

"My plan is to keep coming out everyday playing with a lot of intensity tenacity just coming out and being a real competitor," Lucas said.

Though his team only went 4-7 on the year, Lucas played well enough at linebacker to garner some interest from some big-time programs.

"NC State, Michigan State, South Carolina and Kentucky," Lucas said of the schools that are recruiting him. "Michigan State and NC State are on the verge of offering."

The O-W duo: Lucas isn't the only Orangeburg-Wilkinson prospect that has flown under the radar coming into the Shrine Bowl week. Teammate and linebacking sidekick Brian Harrison made some plays in the first session that made it clear he had plans on introducing himself to some college coaches.

The undersized outside linebacker looked good in pass coverage during 7on7 drills and clearly has learned the importance of the re-route by a linebacker. Harrison dropped two different receivers trying to get vertical on him during the drill. At 5-foot-11, 185-pounds, Harrison will need to prove this week that he can be as effective in the run game as he is in the pass game.

"I'm like a diamond in the rough," Harrison said. "Hopefully somebody can scope me out and I can catch a break."

Harrison had 120 tackles on the year at outside linebacker and safety.

Strength vs. strength

Five-star A.J. Green headlines the receiving corps for the South Carolina squad but on Monday morning, four-star Marquan Jones was the show. Jones was making catch after catch and always finding a way to get open. He showed great hands and crisp route-running. Jones is going to make it very difficult to focus any extra attention on Green as he was much more productive on day one.

As a four-star commit heading to Clemson, Brandon Ford provides quite a third option for South Carolina quarterbacks Reid McCollum and Richard Mounce. McCollum and Mounce both looked effective delivering the ball to their several weapons setting up a potentially dangerous passing game.

It's a good thing for the North Carolina squad that its strength is in its secondary.

One of the most physically impressive players on the North Carolina team was Virginia Tech commit Lorenzo Williams. Williams is lining up at cornerback at 6-foot-2 and has looked good in North Carolina's day one drills. He is joined on the first team by Notre Dame commit Robert Blanton. The two will be tested on Saturday but early indications are that they are more than up for the task.

On the first day of practice, the two corners were joined by East Carolina commits Joseph Womack and Justin Venable as the first team defensive backs.

There should also be some good matchups in the trenches. South Carolina is led by defensive end DaQuan Bowers who looked every bit the five-star playing at defensive tackle on Monday. Bowers was making stops in the backfield on several occasions, getting on the edge and pressuring the passer and generally being disruptive.

He was joined on Monday by Florida State commit Everett Dawkins at tackle and South Carolina commit Kenny Davis at nose to form the first team defensive line.

The players charged with containing that defensive line looked up to task. R.J. Mattes was one of the more impressive players for the North Carolina team. He is joined on the left side of the line by Virginia Tech commit Michael Via. The duo definitely looks like a strength for the North.

On the other end of the offensive line, Nick Becton emerged as one of the most intriguing prospects of the day. He is listed on the roster at 6-foot-6, but is at least 6-foot-7 and probably closer to 6-foot-8. Becton has a basketball background and has only been playing football for two years. There are few players in Spartanburg with more raw potential than the massive Becton.

Difference in philosophy

The coaches of both teams came out to Monday's practice with very different approaches. North Carolina coach Sam Story spent the majority of day one running drills on air and taking the players through multiple teach periods. The players rarely hit the ground and never went full-speed/full-contact.

On the other hand, Reggie Kennedy put his South Carolina team through several competitive full contact drills starting with an early "Oklahoma" session that set the tone for the day. He pitted the first team defense against the first team offense in 7 on 7 drills, scrimmages and 8 on 8 run game drills. Consequently, the South Carolina players have had much more of an opportunity to make an impression and standout.

Day One Standouts:

  • Tony Mack did a good job at cornerback for the South Carolina squad. He defended A.J. Green well on multiple occasions, particularly on the deep ball where Green was unable to get much separation on Mack. Mack also had one interception in the morning session where he showed good instincts and hands.

  • Playing as a 3-4 outside linebacker, Devin Taylor was an offensive coordinator's nightmare. Taylor is a long and athletic prospect who will likely be used as a pass rusher in the South Carolina defensive scheme. He claims a 7-foot wingspan and will be a good challenge for the North Carolina offensive linemen on Saturday.

  • At 6-foot-3, 305 pounds, defensive tackle Jonathan Cooper looked good in the defensive line agility drills for North Carolina. He carries his weight well and has the kind of quickness you look for out of a interior defensive lineman.

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