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The regional portion of the Rivals Camp Series presented by Under Armour is over, wrapping up in Chicago and totaling 15 events around the country. There were many things we expected heading into the camps, but there were also numerous surprises, including the standout performance of defensive lineman Justin Jones, who showed up late to RCS Atlanta and took home honors. Here are the defensive surprises.
1. When Jones showed up at the RCS Atlanta stop, registration and warm-ups were already over and players were with their position groups. Once he got signed up and changed into his Under Armour gear, Jones proved that he very much belonged alongside some of the top defensive linemen at the event. He showed tremendous burst off the line, blowing by offensive linemen with his quickness. He came into the event with one offer and since has added seven more.
2. After watching film of Jackson (Miss.) Callaway defender Breeland Speaks playing middle linebacker, we were intrigued when he checked in to RCS Birmingham as a defensive lineman. Speaks stole the show from some of the other top defensive players in attendance with a superb performance. He dominated Jordan Sims in one-on-ones with a series of inside rip moves to go with an excellent first step off the ball. His versatility to line up on the strong side or slide down to tackle will make him a coveted prospect in this year's class. Upon seeing him at the RCS, we have no question that he belongs along the front four after spending his junior season at the second level.
3. Going into RCS Houston, Plaquemine (La.) defensive end Davon Godchaux was considered one of the best in the country as a Rivals250 prospect, but he surpassed the high expectations as soon as he walked in. He measured in at 6-4, 270 pounds and was rock solid with little bad weight. Then he went to work in drills, showing off his quick feet, and in one-on-ones his explosiveness was too much for anyone to handle. He made quick work of any and all opponents to take home the defensive line MVP and a Rivals100 Five-Star Challenge invitation.
4. When Needham (Mass.) St. Sebastian's Country Day linebacker Connor Strachan showed up at the Newark RCS, he was arguably one of the strongest-looking prospects we had seen all spring. At a shade under 6-foot and 240 pounds, his upper body was massive and his legs were like tree trunks. It was clear he hadn't missed much time in the weight room, but he also looked like he would be amazingly stiff. However, looks can be deceiving. Not only did Strachan show he changed direction well and had quick-twitch ability to go with impressive instincts, he had one of the best linebacker performances we have seen all spring and the best at any RCS event. He may be a little sawed off, but he's a baller who proved he is a four-star prospect.
5. Cornerback Zach Muniz from St. Louis (Mo.) Christian Brothers College wasn't the favorite to win the defensive skill MVP at RCS St. Louis and, being a bit undersized, he didn't grab the attention of many when he walked through the gate at the facility. Then, one-on-ones started. Muniz was, by far, the most effective defensive back at the event and stole the show by breaking on the football with overwhelming quickness. He walked away with the MVP trophy and, in the process, tossed his standing as a relative unknown to the wayside.
6. Mesquite (Texas) Poteet athlete Verkedric Vaughns held an offer from Northwestern going into the camp but was still very much an unknown heading into RCS Dallas. Vaughns spent the day working at defensive back, and when one-on-ones began he took his game up a notch. He was a ball hawk, grabbing several interceptions. His ball skills and his hips and footwork put him at the top of an impressive group of defensive backs at the event, and when it was all said and done he walked away with defensive skill MVP honors.
7. El Cerrito (Calif.) cornerback Adarius Pickett was in the Rivals250 and he had a big reputation and a nice list of offers, but his performance at the Los Angeles RCS was one of the best we've seen at defensive back. In one-on-one drills the cornerback is always at a disadvantage, but that's not the way it seemed for Pickett. He did not lose one rep. He knocked down passes, stayed with receivers, picked off a few passes and looked like one of the better corners in the 2014 class. Since that performance, his offer list has taken off. Pickett did everything possible during the LA camp. He has great size and great ability, and he proved it over and over again.
8. Wideouts at RCS Atlanta probably had nightmares of Malkom Parrish when they got home. The ultra-quick defensive back stuck like Velcro to receivers in one-on-ones. Parrish collected four interceptions during the competition portion of camp. On one play, he appeared beat on an out pattern but he undercut the pass perfectly to make the pick and return it for a score. His instincts are excellent, and he understands playing with technique to go with proper leverage. He turned in one of the most memorable performances of the inaugural RCS tour and set the standard for all of the top performers in the secondary.
9. Clarkston, Mich., CB Tim Cason attended not one, not two, but three Rivals Camp Series events, and he ended up among the defensive top performers at all of them. To be a top performer in three straight camps is impressive for any prospect, let alone one who has yet to land his first BCS offer. The 6-foot, 186-pound Cason wanted to test himself against Southern talent, so he attended the Atlanta RCS on April 7. He came back for the Cincinnati RCS on April 20 and the Chicago RCS on May 4, never finishing lower than eighth in the defensive top performer rankings.
10. Remember this name, Rashan Gary. Soon, he will be dominating headlines just like he did offensive linemen at the Newark RCS. The massive 6-foot-4, 278-pound freshman came into the camp with an offer from Rutgers, and it looks like the Scarlet Knights got the jump on this prospect with seemingly limitless potential. The soft-spoken Gary was anything but timid when the ball was snapped. He exploded off the line and was unexpectedly aggressive with his hands. The most surprising things about Gary were how strong he was and how aggressive and physical he was with his hands. Just days after the camp, Gary pulled in an offer, his second, from the Florida Gators.
11. Memphis linebacker Petera Wilson came into the RCS Birmingham stop ranked in the Rivals250, but his performance ranked right up there with some of the Rivals100 prospects in attendance. He plays much bigger than the 6-foot-1 he's listed at, and he can really move in open space. In pads he's a punishing hitter, so it was good to see him hold his own against running backs and tight ends in coverage. There's a reason he has offers from several elite programs, and whichever school lands him might have a guy who is ready to contribute early in his career.
12. The linebacker group at the Pittsburgh RCS was loaded with big names such as Michael Ferns and Chase Winovich, but it was Cleveland (Ohio) St. Ignatius' Dameon Willis who stood tallest at day's end, winning the defensive skill MVP. Willis was playing linebacker after lining up at safety his entire junior season. We expected him to run with the defensive backs before he arrived in Pittsburgh as well, but Willis showed up almost 20 pounds heavier than where he ended his junior season and was physically and technically impressive in his MVP performance.
13. Going into the Newark RCS we all knew Minkah Fitzpatrick was good, but we didn't know he was this good. The quality and depth of the wide receivers at this camp were well documented, and Fitzpatrick rose to the challenge. The quality of competition Fitzpatrick faced at other camps and combines this offseason couldn't hold a candle to what he went up against in Newark, yet he was just as dominant. His footwork, speed, instincts and technique made it virtually impossible for receivers to come up with a catch. Fitzpatrick played so well that he was one of few underclassmen in the nation to earn an invitation to the Rivals100 Five-Star Challenge in Chicago.
14. Linebacker Tyler Cook from Murrieta (Calif.) Vista Murrieta played his junior season about 25 pounds underweight because of an illness last offseason, but he has bulked up a lot -- and he has not lost speed or agility. Cook had a tough calling going against some outstanding running backs at the Los Angeles RCS, but he did phenomenally well in one-on-one drills. He added a lot of power and toughness at the line to jam the running backs and still had the light feet to be excellent in coverage. The added weight has only benefited him and could help with even more offers in the coming months.
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