After four full days of competition, the 2017 The Opening Finals didn’t lack in drama or attention. All eyes were on 5-star QB Justin Fields, the highest-rated uncommitted quarterback in the nation. And following a horrific lower left leg injury, top-100 defensive end Greg Emerson grabbed headlines with his surprising commitment to Tennessee on national television.
Now, SEC Country and Land of 10 look back at the seventh annual The Opening Finals, as our team that covered the event in Beaverton, Ore., breaks down the highs, lows and memorable moments from the showcase that ended on Monday.
Going into The Opening Finals, which recruit were you most excited to see?
Chris Kirschner, SEC Country Alabama: I was most excited to see Fields go up against Trevor Lawrence for the race for the nation’s No. 1 quarterback. Fields ended up winning the battle, but I don’t think his performance at a glorified 7-on-7 camp necessarily means he should be the top quarterback. What Lawrence has accomplished in 11-on-11 play should not be understated. He’ll likely go down as the best high school quarterback ever in the state of Georgia. But Fields has gotten better with each and every event I’ve seen him at. It will be interesting to see what he does this upcoming season and if he can make the leap over Lawrence.
Sam Spiegelman, SEC Country LSU: First and foremost, no recruit in the country has garnered more attention this spring than Fields, so without question, he was a must-see prospect for obvious reasons. The one-time Penn State commitment is the most sought-after prospect in the 2018 class, bar none. The crazy part: He lived up to the hype. Fields throws with incredible anticipation. He possesses great arm strength and pinpoint accuracy. He has a tremendous football IQ and is exceedingly calm and cool. And he showed that while leading Mach Speed to a 7-on-7 championship in Oregon. The scary part: He’s the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback, so what he displayed all week at The Opening Finals is only part of what makes Fields so special.
Jeremy Birmingham, Land of 10 Ohio State: I had a few names in my mind but the biggest one was Lindenhurst (N.Y.) tight end Jeremy Ruckert. I realize, of course, that the tight end is hardly a glory position in most settings, but every year there’s a guy at this spot who just lights it up. This year, I was anxious to see if Ruckert and his lofty rankings — based on film against mostly subpar competition — would measure up. Boy did he ever. First of all, Ruckert is physically just very impressive. He’s a true 6 feet, 5 inches and 240 pounds and for a kid that is just 16 years old, he looks college-ready today. He caught everything thrown his way — the challenging catches and the easy ones — and he competed like each rep could be his last.
Jeff Sentell, DawgNation: I wanted to see the competition between Fields and Lawrence for the honor of the Elite 11 MVP. Lawrence has been the start-to-finish top player for the 2018 class, but Fields has elevated his game considerably to the same level. That was even before he basically walked on water out in Oregon for five days.
Zach Abolverdi, SEC Country Florida: I couldn’t wait to see Fields. He dominated at the NFA7v7 national championship in June, but The Opening Finals presented him with tougher competition and a bigger stage. Fields rose to the occasion, leading his 7-on-7 team to a tournament championship and winning the Elite 11 MVP. He did not throw an interception in three days of competition and proved that his arm is every bit as talented as his 4.51-second 40-yard dash speed.
Which recruit surprised you the most at The Opening Finals?
Kirschner: LSU defensive back commit Kelvin Joseph had his best performance at any camp I’ve seen him compete in. He looked leaner and was faster and physical. In a secondary with 5-star prospect BJ Foster and one of the top CBs in the country in Isaac Taylor-Stuart, Joseph was the best in the group.
Spiegelman: Corione Harris. The 4-star corner has been one of the better prospects from Louisiana since he was a freshman, but he continues to fall under the radar entering his senior year at Landry-Walker High School in New Orleans. Harris, a Kansas verbal commitment, was lights out for the entire week. The scary part: He is only a few weeks removed from an appendectomy. While you and I would not have been able to even run drills in that condition, Harris shadowed some of the best wide receivers in the country and played all over the secondary. His coaches had him at corner and safety, and he thrived in both positions. Whether Harris sticks with the Jayhawks or flips to Texas, Mississippi State or LSU, one Power 5 school is going to get a truly elite talent and driven player.
Birmingham: I think that the player who caught my eye immediately and then continued to impress throughout the weekend was Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) American Heritage defensive tackle Nesta Silvera. It was a combination of things, but the biggest thing about Silvera was a size/speed combination that is just very rare to see from a high school defensive tackle. He was nasty — just mean — when the whistle blew and went 100 mph every single time. Somehow, he currently ranks as the No. 23 DT in the country in the 247Sports composite. If there are even two better than him anywhere I’d be surprised, but there’s zero chance there are 22 of them. Beyond Silvera, no player caught me off-guard the way Penn State commitment Justin Shorter did. Wow was he good. This is a future All-Big Ten player if the Nittany Lions offense gives him the chance to succeed, and I think it will.
Justin Fields to Justin Shorter for the TD. These two have a pretty solid connection pic.twitter.com/PlTCXZf5KQ
— Chris Kirschner (@ChrisKirschner) July 3, 2017
Abolverdi: Channing Tindall, a 4-star linebacker from Columbia, S.C. Most of his film shows him playing defensive line, so I was curious to see how he would handle guarding the nation’s best offensive skill players. Tindall not only answered the bell, but he performed as well as any linebacker who competed in The Opening Finals. He has the athleticism and size to cover in space and came up with several pass breakups during the 7-on-7 tournament.
Which recruit disappointed you the most at The Opening Finals?
Kirschner: Tyreke Johnson didn’t perform well in 1-on-1 drills. The problem, in my opinion, with the 5-star defensive back is he is hellbent on playing cornerback. He’d be better suited at safety. Johnson is a press corner, which is fine. But when he didn’t lock down the receiver at the line of scrimmage, we saw the receiver get by with ease.
Spiegelman: For one, NFL Network. I know that network isn’t a recruit, but what went down with Ja’Marr Chase was absolutely atrocious. Chase, a 4-star wide receiver from New Orleans, was supposed to commit on July 2. That’s his recently deceased grandmother’s birthday, so his commitment was a way to honor her. NFL Network officials convinced Chase to hold off on announcing his commitment to either LSU or TCU until July 3 so that the network could broadcast it live. That also allowed Chase’s family back in Louisiana to tune in. However, when it was Chase’s time to shine, NFL Network spent extra time with Emerson after he surprisingly committed to Tennessee. They squeezed out Chase and took away his moment, a cold-hearted move done to a bright young man.
From a football standpoint, it was Harold Joiner. The 6-foot-3, 218-pound running back from Alabama was among the most-discussed players in the country this spring, yet nothing the 4-star recruit did in Oregon showed what all the buzz was about. Even more disappointing were some of his comments about his top schools. Joiner dropped LSU and UGA from contention because they added running backs to their respective classes. He said he didn’t want to compete at Alabama and was afraid it could be too cold at Michigan State — while naming the Spartans his new leader. For one of the best running backs in the country, his play and comments did not add up.
Birmingham: I will be careful here in how I say this, because I don’t think it’s really fair to be “disappointed” in high school athletes I don’t know after just one or two days at a camp of this magnitude. Everyone has a bad day once in a while, and that’s part of life and sports.
I will, however, say this: I was not entirely impressed by the quarterback play at The Opening Finals on the whole. Fields was phenomenal. Lawrence was good, so too was Tanner McKee, Dorian Thompson-Robinson, Matt Corral and Justin Rogers. But this group wasn’t as consistent as I would have liked and the rest of the group was just OK.
I think that some recruits come into this event with such high expectations, guys such as Palaie Gaoteote for example, but then we don’t see them do much and people say, “Oh, I didn’t hear his name.” But in reality he wasn’t doing much. Linebackers are virtually invisible in 7-on-7 play and there was less of a chance for linebackers, running backs, etc., to shine this year than in the past when the Nike Football Ratings Championships (SPARQ testing) celebrated that kind of powerhouse player.
Sentell: I think the entire offensive tackle class as a whole was really disappointing. There really isn’t an elite tackle this year. Jackson Carman, the highest-rated tackle, looks more like an elite guard to me. He even lined up at guard and tackle out in Oregon. He’s a good tackle, don’t get me wrong there. But he might have barely been a top-5 tackle in the 2017 class.
Abolverdi: Johnson. Most recruiting services have the 5-star defensive back from Jacksonville, Fla., rated as a safety, but Johnson insists that he will play cornerback in college. His performance at The Opening Finals left a lot to be desired. Johnson was able to jam some receivers at the line scrimmage, but had trouble consistently covering the wideouts who were able to get into their routes.
What was your top moment at The Opening Finals?
Kirschner: New Tennessee commit Emerson getting a standing ovation at the awards show. Emerson went down with what looked like a major left leg injury during competition. It turned out that he has a dislocated ankle and fractured fibula and is expected to be out 4-6 weeks. After seeing the injury, it looked like he’d miss all of his senior season. Thankfully, his injury wasn’t too serious.
Spiegelman: I mentioned Emerson’s decision to commit to Tennessee on NFL Network earlier. That was a wise, carefully thought out decision that the 4-star defensive end made without much time to really do so. Emerson sustained his injury on Sunday during linemen 1-on-1 drills. Though it appears Emerson will not miss as much time as initially feared, when the injury occurred he realized just how delicate the recruiting process can be. He committed to Tennessee and saved his spot in the class. Normally, a top-100 prospect doesn’t need to worry about spots like that, but after sustaining what could have been a serious injury while competing in a camp drill, Emerson showed a ton of maturity in a rather short period of time.
Birmingham: Unfortunately the majority of the media doesn’t get a lot of opportunity to see the behind-the-scenes stuff in Oregon, so we’re picking a moment from the drills, the big plays, etc. For me, it was the very competitive — and surprisingly intense — 1-on-1 drills between the wide receivers and cornerbacks on the first night of real competition. The battle that included California 5-star wideout Amon-Ra St. Brown and Texas 5-star CB Anthony Cook were especially awesome to watch. If you want to see why these kids are the best of the best, watching them try to prove they belong while on that kind of stage is a great place to do it.
Sentell: If we’re talking moments, then that would be the total highlight reel authored by Fields. But the one singular moment for me was the long ball Corral unleashed. The 77 yards it flew through the air was one thing, but the fact he did that off two steps was the big exclamation point for me.
— Zach Abolverdi (@ZachAbolverdi) July 2, 2017
Abolverdi: The 7-on-7 game between Fields and Lawrence, a pair of top-5 overall recruits. It was the nation’s top dual-threat quarterback vs. the top pro-style passer, and the matchup didn’t disappoint. Fields and Lawrence both made some incredible plays, seemingly trying to outshine one another. Fields came out on top and made a case to be the No. 1 recruit in the country over Lawrence, who’s held that ranking for the majority of the 2018 cycle.
After The Opening Finals, who is in your Class of 2018 top 5?
Spiegelman: In trying to be completely fair, there is a chance that some of the better prospects in the nation were not in Oregon last week. Standout recruits such as newly minted UGA running back commit Zamir White, LSU defensive end commit Adam Anderson and 4-star athlete Justin Watkins were just some of the notable names that were not in attendance.
Of the recruits that did participate, here are my top five: Fields, WR Terrace Marshall Jr., Surtain Jr., Thomas and Cook. Fields, in my opinion, is deserving of being the No. 1 overall prospect in the class because of his performance on the biggest stage. We only saw what he can do as a passer — which was impressive — and didn’t get to see what he can do to opposing defenses with his legs. Marshall was the best of an elite group of receivers. It’s unfortunate he was injured on Sunday evening because he could have been a difference-maker for Vapor Speed if he suited up for the championship. Surtain is as technically sound a corner at this level as I have ever seen. Obviously, football runs in his blood, but with his size and his already finely tuned skill set, he’s a Day 1 impact player when he steps on the field next fall. Thomas was a major mismatch during linemen 1-on-1s. No tackle could come close to containing him; Clemson is getting a truly athletic big man. Cook is always intriguing to watch, but he impressed me by showing his fight during 1-on-1s on Saturday. As quiet and reserved as he comes off in conversation, he is a true fighter when he steps onto the field. That kind of Type-A personality will be a driving force when he arrives at college.
Birmingham: I am not a talent evaluator by any means, but I think sometimes you see a guy and you just know.
“This dude is the real deal.”
I will try to do one better, based on who was in attendance at The Opening Finals. I will offer a pick for the best player from every position group. Where they fall among each other, I think that’s kind of irrelevant because what matters is how you stack up against the dudes at your position.
Here is the best player I saw at every position from the 2018 class in Oregon.
QB – Justin Fields, uncommitted.
RB – Jaelen Gill, committed to Ohio State.
WR – Justin Shorter, committed to Penn State.
TE – Jeremy Ruckert, uncommitted.
OT – Jackson Carman, uncommitted.
OG – Jamaree Salyer, uncommitted.
C – Justin Dedich, committed to USC.
DE – Xavier Thomas, committed to Clemson.
DT – Taron Vincent, committed to Ohio State.
LB – Solomon Tuliaupupu, uncommitted.
CB – Patrick Surtain, Jr., uncommitted.
S – Jaiden Woodbey, committed to Ohio State.
Sentell: Lawrence and Fields. Those are the 1A and 1B. You have to remember what Lawrence has done on the field winning two straight state titles and losing only one game in high school. Fields had been primed to excel during 7-on-7 play with his spring work with Cam Newton’s team. The next-best player is Thomas, followed by 5-star OL Jamaree Salyer and then White. White wasn’t at The Opening Finals, but that does not matter. Surtain Jr. is also right in that elite group, too.
Abolverdi: 1. Fields 2. Thomas 3. Salyer 4. St. Brown 5. Surtain Jr.