The class of 2012 looked to be the year of the offensive tackle, but the spotlight shifted toward the opposite side of the trenches after 11 of the 32 five-star spots in the final Rivals100 went to defensive linemen.
Of the six new five-star prospects added in the latest update of the Rivals100, four are defensive linemen - players who earned their new status going head-to-head with several of their five-star offensive tackle brethren in recent all-star games.
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In fact, while Cincinnati (Ohio) Taft defensive end Adolphus Washington's ascendency to the five-star realm was a product of months of dominant performances, the play most associated with his recent upgrade came in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl when the 6-4, 245-pound end beat fellow five-star Zach Banner off the edge for a sack of West quarterback Cyler Miles.
The strength of the offensive tackle position in the class of 2012 has received loads of accolades with six prospects at the position having reached five-star status. But a late surge from the defensive line class has superseded the accomplishments of their offensive counterparts. This group of defensive linemen represents the most five-stars from one position grouping in the modern era of Rivals' rankings (since 2002).
"This is clearly one of the better years along the defensive line since we've been ranking prospects with more than one-third of the five-stars either at tackle or end," Rivals.com national analyst Mike Farrell said. "I first thought it was the year of the offensive tackle because there were so many good ones, but this has clearly been the year of the defensive lineman."
The late surge is led by the defensive tackle position, with five defensive tackles now rated five-stars after Kansas City (Mo.) Park Hill's Ondre Pipkins and Brenham's (Texas) Malcom Brown moved into that territory off all-star game performances, and Denton (Texas) Ryan's Mario Edwards was switched from strongside defensive end to the defensive tackle position. All three reside in Rivals.com Southwest analyst Brian Perroni's region.
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"Usually it is the state of Louisiana that produces a lot of very good interior linemen but this year two of the five-stars were from Texas and the other from Missouri," Perroni noted. "A lot of these guys would likely have been pegged as offensive guards not too long ago, but now, with pass-rushing tackles so valuable, they are seeing their stock take off on the defensive side of the ball."
College coaches have long held that the defensive tackle position is the most difficult to recruit. The position requires a combination of size, strength and agility, and there just are not a lot of 300-pound strong men who can move on the high school circuit.
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Pipkins, one of the recent five-star upgrades, is a rarity on high school fields in the Kansas City area and does not face many his size, let alone with the same strength and athleticism. The 6-3, 330-pound defensive tackle came to the U.S. Army All-American Bowl expecting to see great players, but was shocked by the depth of talent in San Antonio.
"I was surprised," Pipkins said. "These guys were bigger, stronger, faster and much more talented. A strength, as far as our defensive line, was our speed. We were much faster than the East offensive linemen."
While commitment to improvement is a common theme among the top college football prospects annually, this group also features a wide range of athletic abilities. Pipkins and Brown are true interior defensive linemen, but several more are like Edwards in that they could potentially move among the different spots on the defensive line, or adapt to a range of defensive formations.
"The athleticism and versatility is amazing this year," Farrell observed. "Guys like Darius Hamilton, Aziz Shittu, Ellis McCarthy and Jonathan Bullard could all play end or tackle and even massive kids like Eddie Goldman and Mario Edwards could line up at end if they needed to or be comfortable as a three technique in a 3-4 set."
Weakside defensive ends Noah Spence, Dante Fowler Jr. and Washington are true edge rushers who will be counted on at the next level to bring pressure to the quarterback. That skill was on full display in their respective all-star games.
Spence and Fowler took part in the Under Armour All-American Game in Orlando, with Fowler registering a sack and two quarterback hurries, while Spence took over the game with three sacks, four total tackles for loss and a forced fumble. Washington was just as impressive at the Army Bowl, registering a sack and a half sack on back-to-back plays.
With their high school careers now complete, there is no more this group can do to enhance its status. It has cemented itself as the new benchmark for defensive line talent in one class. The question now is, will we be talking about the best collection of defensive line draft prospects in a few years?