My preseason list of the top 100 players in the nation has been published. Historically, it is the first list of its kind to be released, before Rivals or Scout or ESPN or anyone else.
My top 100 list is based on three things: (1) production; (2) the size at your position and your projection to be a No. 1 choice in the NFL draft; and (3) my sitdown, eyeball-to-eyeball meeting with each kid. Does he have heart? What does he have to say about the game football? What are his intanglibles?
As the season goes along, I will track how well each player progresses or digresses and will change my list accordingly. Historically, it changes drastically. Some kids don't have great years. A lot of Chicago players could break into the top 100. At this time, the only Illinois product is running back/linebacker Rodney Coe of Edwardsville.
However, most of the time, the No. 1 player doesn't lose his spot. My choice, running back/linebacker James Wilder Jr. of Tampa, Fla., is a perfect size (6-2, 220) for the two positions. Rivals recently released its top 100 list and rated my No. 2 choice, defensive end Jadaveon Clowney of Rock Hill, S.C., as its top pick. Clowney looks like Alonzo Spellman but he has issues.
The class of 2011 lacks the talented quarterbacks of the past but it is loaded with offensive linemen. In fact, I rank three of them among the top seven players in the nation, a rarity. Two of the top four players in Illinois are offensive linemen. Interestingly, this is the first telling year of the spread quarterback, when more of the top-rated quarterbacks in the nation operate out of spread offenses instead of a pro-style attack.
My top 100 list was published on May 15, two weeks after I completed my last trip around the country. I traveled 60,000 miles and visited 2,000 players in all 50 states. Along the way, I rented 21 cars, took five plane trips (in 2001, I took 53 flights), had a flat tire in Albany, N.Y., encountered one blizzard in western Maryland and didn't have a single speeding ticket. And I endured a 22-mile hike in Alaska with a hot dog, bag of chips and a bottle of water.
How do I evalute kids? How do I come to my conclusions?
I talked to Michael Oher for an hour and he didn't say a word. But I was knocked out by his enormous size. Now he's an All-Pro.
I dropped Myron Rolle from the No. 1 spot to No. 26 after he didn't look good in the San Antonio combine. He got mad about it. I was proven right. Rolle was the No. 199 pick in the draft, the last pick of the sixth round. Chris "Beanie" Wells was my No. 1 choice at the end of the year. And he was a first-round pick in the NFL draft.
In that high school season, Andre Smith was No. 2 on my final top 100 list and Percy Harvin No. 3. Then Mitch Mustain and Tim Tebow. It shows what can happen if a kid is ranked No. 1. Rolle couldn't make plays in space. Mustain made a poor decision. He was a starter as a true freshman at Arkansas but transferred to USC because he felt they were going to run the ball more.
What about this year's list?
I was so impressed while watching the film of linebacker Stephone Anthony of Wadesboro, N.C., my No. 4 choice. He has intercepted 18 passes in three years. I never saw a linebacker with so many interceptions. No one else has him rated that high.
Quarterback Braxton Miller was my toughest decision this year. It isn't a knockout year for quarterbacks. But Miller, who committed to Ohio State after I rated him as the No. 1 quarterback in the class, had a great interview in which he demonstrated so much confidence and coolness.
The biggest surprise was quarterback Bubba Starling of Gardner, Kan., my No. 21 pick. He is an outstanding baseball and football player, this year's version of Joe Mauer.
I also was impressed by No. 36, Cody Kessler of Bakersfield, Calif., who is the best quarterback in California. At 6-2 and 225 pounds, he looks like a high school versity of Joe Kapp.
After talking to him, I ranked linebacker Curtis Grant of Richmond, Va., higher (39) than I thought I would. He was born to play linebacker.
My No. 60 choice, defensive end Aaron Lynch of Cape Coral, Fla., only had one offer when I talked to him. But he has an NFL body (6-6, 240) and has the enthusiasm to be a better player. Lynch and No. 79, defensive back Ron Tanner of Columbus, Ohio, rank higher than others based on their personal interviews.