As I have said and written repeatedly in recent years, the most important year for high school football players who aspire to compete in Division I in college is their junior year, the time when college recruiters become aware of their skills and potential. If they haven't made a statement prior to their senior year, it's often too late.
So I already have begun evaluating and identifying the most promising prospects in the Class of 2012, this year's juniors. I have made one trip to Alabama and the Deep South and I will leave on Dec. 26 on a month-long trip to Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, North Carolina and Georgia. The annual highlight of the January trip, of course, is the U.S. Army All-American Bowl and combine in San Antonio, Texas.
I have begun to evaluate the junior class in the Chicago area. It is very good, better than this year's senior class, with several players boasting enough size, speed, skills, productivity and potential to be Division I standouts, good enough to earn All-American recognition.
Some players leap off the board, of course. They appear to be no-doubters. Players such as Simeon quarterback Robert Gregory, Glenbard West defensive end Tommy Schutt, Montini wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp, Barrington offensive tackle Dan Voltz and Lake Forest Academy defensive end Faith Ekakitie.
Schutt could be the best of all. He recorded 32 sacks in two years. He already has emerged as one of the most recruited defensive tackles in the country. He has lost weight, from 305 pounds to 285, which puts him in the mold of mobile and athletic defensive tackles that separates the SEC from other college conferences.
Ekakitie, who hails from Canada, is a big-timer. Like Schutt, he will be heavily recruited as a defensive end. He is big and quick and aggressive and explosive. Playing at Lake Forest Academy, a small and private boarding school, won't keep recruiters away.
After seeing Westerkamp in the Class 5A state championship game, I am convinced that he is a big-play receiver with 4.5 speed and big-time moves with great ability to catch the ball and run with it.
Other juniors who have made an early impression are running back Malin Jones of Joliet Catholic, who already has committed to Northwestern; running back Michael Panico of Carmel, a 5-8, 175-pounder who has 4.4 speed and averaged 13 yards per carry despite being slowed by a shoulder injury that required surgery; and 6-3, 230-pound linebacker Prentiss Brooks of Palatine.
Also tackles Jordan Diamond of Simeon, Ryan Glasgow of Marmion and Ryan Ward of Providence, quarterback Anthony Maddie of Aurora Christian, 6-4, 334-pound guard Calvin King of Proviso West and offensive lineman David Meyerhoff of Naperville Central.
That's only the beginning. Many of the top juniors in the Chicago area have been invited to attend the San Antonio combine so I will get an opportunity to evaluate them in person, not only on film. The list promises to get longer and longer.