If the initial ESPN 300 football recruiting rankings for the Class of 2017 are any indication, it’s going to be a good year for offensive tackles – and college programs in need of elite players at that position.
Offensive tackles hold the top two spots – Trey Smith from Jackson, Tenn., and Isaiah “Zay” Wilson from Brooklyn, N.Y. – and seven of the top 25 positions.
RELATED: ESPN 300 for 2017
The two tackles are followed by outside linebacker Jaelan Phillips from Redlands, Calif.; running back Najee Harris from Antioch, Calif.; and defensive end Robert Beal from Norcross, Ga.
Of the 300 players, 10 already have committed to Ohio State, eight to Oklahoma and seven to Alabama.
USA TODAY High School Sports spoke to ESPN national recruiting analyst Craig Haubert about the new rankings, players on the rise and more.
Q: Let’s start at the top. Why was Smith the No. 1 player?
A: “Early on in the process, it looked like it was shaping up as strong offensive tackle class, one of the best we’ve seen in a few years so I figured an offensive tackle would be in play. Ultimately, Tre smith landed at No. 1. He has great length, great feet, all the tools you’d want in a prototypical left tackle. He’s able to protect the quarterback, but he’s also a phenomenal run blocker.
“Often it helps to make comparisons and when I look at him, I think of him as two previous No. 1 tackles — one being Laremy Tunsil in 2013 and Greg Little this past year. I don’t know if he’s quite as big as Tunsil at this stage in terms of carrying his size, but being such a well-rounded player and being pretty strong technically along with the tenaciousness and extra dimension to his game ultimately put him ahead of the pack at No. 1.”
Q: What defines this offensive tackle group more generally?
A: “This stuff seems cyclical. The last two years have had outstanding defensive line classes. This offensive tackle group is from all across the country with Smith in Tennessee, Wilson in New York, (No. 9 overall) Alex Leatherwood in Florida, Wyatt Davis in California. This is a group with outstanding size, athleticism, a lot of guys with a physical edge and toughness at the tackle position. …
“The defensive line might be a little easier to be successful earlier on to pin your ears back and get after the football and less in terms of technique, but we’ve always treated the offensive tackle and defensive lineman as premium positions. There is a lot of upside this year at the offensive tackle.”
Q: The top quarterback is Dylan McCaffrey at No. 19 who is committed to Michigan and is the son of Ed McCaffrey and brother of Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey. Then there is a gap back to Lowell Narcisse from Louisiana at No. 38. What do you see in this QB group?
A: “It’s an interesting group. McCaffrey came on the scene a little later and the reason he was able to ascend was because he’s a really polished player. That helped him edge out someone like Kellen Mond (No. 48 from IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.), who has a great physical upside.
“I saw Lowell Narcisse a few weeks ago at the Nike Opening Regional in New Orleans. There are very few guys who can get rid of the football like he can. He missed some time with a knee injury so he has some work to do. We think a player like Sean Clifford (No. 98 overall from St. Xavier in Cincinnati) is really underrated. He can work from the shotgun and under center and has a great feel for the position. He moves really well.
“It’s not the strongest quarterback class we’ve seen, but it’s not weakest either. It’s an eclectic group that’s more middle of the pack; a good, solid bunch of players. It also has balance between pocket passers and dual threat. The last few years, they were all in one or the other group. When we say that, dual threat quarterback doesn’t mean the player is incapable of throwing and pocket passer doesn’t mean he’s a statue but more set into that type of system. This year, it’s a good group of both.
Q: Dylan Moses was the No. 1 junior and comes in at No. 6. Why did he drop a bit and what impact will his transfer to IMG have?
A: “He’s been on the scene for a while. He was early on seen as a running back. We think he’s a very talented running and there was some debate as to whether he was as good or better than (No. 4 overall and top running back) Najee Harris at the position.
“But he made the transition to linebacker last year. On film, he didn’t look really comfortable at linebacker. He’s looked like a good athlete trying to get a feel at the position. He showed flashes and glimpses of the type of ability he’s shown in past and other times didn’t look as comfortable. With the offseason at IMG and a year under his belt at the position, I’m excited to see how he develops.
Q: Who are some players you’ll be watching closely as potential risers for the next rankings?
A: Among players a little bit out of the top 50, Akial Byers from Fayetteville, Ark., is a defensive tackle who opened some eyes. He has a big frame, is a good athlete and redirects well. We didn’t know much about him and he really impressed us as we learned more about him. Another defensive tackle, Greg Rogers out of Arbor View in Las Vegas, is another player who didn’t get a lot of publicity. It’s almost like he’s in the huddle with the offense with outstanding first step quickness. Wide receiver Jalen Reagor from Waxahachie, Texas, really impressed us as we got together. Nice size, big playmaking ability, an explosive player. Among that receiver group, he’s a name to watch as well.