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Rivals Rankings Week: Storylines to follow with top 2026 athletes

Derrek Cooper
Derrek Cooper (Nick Lucero/Rivals.com)

The new position rankings for the 2026 class have been released and so it’s time to look at storylines at each spot. We conclude the two-day series with a look at the athlete position.

NEW POSITION RANKINGS: Athlete | Cornerback | Safety | Inside Linebacker | Outside Linebacker | Strongside Defensive End | Weakside Defensive End | Defensive Tackle | Offensive Tackle | Offensive Guard | Offensive Center | Wide Receiver | Tight End | Running Back | All-Purpose Back | Pro-Style QB | Dual-Threat QB

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RIVALS RANKINGS WEEK

Sunday: Who should be No. 1?

Monday: Five-Star Countdown | Meet the new five-star

Tuesday: New Rivals250 unveiled | Position-by-position | Biggest risers

Wednesday: New offensive position rankings | QB rankings breakdown | RB rankings breakdown | WR/TE rankings breakdown | OL rankings breakdown

Thursday: New defensive position rankings | DL rankings breakdown | LB rankings breakdown | DB rankings breakdown | ATH rankings breakdown

Friday: New state rankings | Who is No. 1 in each state

Saturday: Rivals Rankings Roundtable

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A NEW NO. 1

In some evaluation scenarios, there are prospects who force our hand by just impressing or dominating in every setting, every time they are seen. Few encompass that quick path up the rankings like Hollywood (Fla.) Chaminade-Madonna's Derrek Cooper. A transfer into the program who played a lot of running back and special teams at his previous stop, there is no telling what all we may see the four-star do for the national power in 2024.

Cooper is certainly comfortable at running back, where he took home multiple MVP awards this offseason including at the Rivals Camp Series in Miami, as a legitimate three-down type despite a great 6-foot-1, 200-pound frame.

The coaches at Chaminade have bragged about his ability to work other spots, too, anywhere from an H-back role to splitting out wide and winning reps as a wide receiver. Cooper also has a wide open defensive ceiling to consider, though, and he moonlights at safety with great range and physicality upon contact.

As he continues to fill out his impressive frame, it wouldn't surprise to see Cooper eventually project at any of a number of positions at the next level. College sources have considered everything from running back to safety, linebacker or even a compact pass rusher down the line. Cooper can simply do it all, so he becomes a fitting top-ranked athlete projection nationally.

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HOUSTON COUGAR HEADLINER NOW AN ATHLETE

Keisean Henderson
Keisean Henderson (Nick Lucero/Rivals.com)

Rankings updates, especially with the athlete position, are often about confidence at a projected position just as much as they are about moving a prospect up or down the list. Most prospects move from athlete to a singular spot, but sometimes it works the other way around, with the latter something Houston fans should be paying attention to with the release of the Rivals250. Cougar commitment Keisean Henderson is now projected at athlete, moving over from wide receiver, yet bumping up the rankings from No. 32 in the Rivals250 to now sitting at No. 29.

Henderson of course spends most of his Friday night action playing quarterback with his 6-foot-3 frame, and he spun it for more than 2,000 yards and 28 touchdowns through the air as a sophomore. A natural dual-threat with a long stride and good instincts on the move, position questions continue to follow the prized commitment, but it was often contingent on the college program he would end up at.

Houston has sold him on becoming the next great signal-caller in town, but with the great frame and elite projection throughout an offense, Henderson now gets the athlete tag instead of being pushed toward one position in particular.

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS WITH HOUSTON FANS AT COUGARSDEN.COM

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HELLO, JOEY O'BRIEN

There were several newcomers to the revised Rivals250 rankings, with multiple making their debut in the ranking such as Syracuse commitment Demetres Samuel, but no athlete projection splashed up into the rankings quite like Joey O'Brien. The 6-foot-3, 180-pound Pennsylvania native shot all the way into the No. 80 spot overall, sitting as the fifth-ranked prospect at the position to date. Across all positions, only four other rising-junior prospects made as big a run up the rankings as O'Brien did.

Like many on the list, O'Brien has serious collegiate interest on each side of the football. His frame could present a mismatch as a pass-catcher, whether eventually viewed as a jumbo wide receiver or even tight end down the line. On defense, he has secondary experience despite the frame that may be more lenient to the box as he continues to fill out.

O'Brien filled up the stat sheet in true athlete fashion in 2023, accounting for 38 tackles, three interceptions, 18 pass breakups, one sack, 24 catches, 339 receiving yards and three receiving touchdowns.

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STRENGTH IN NUMBERS

The athlete position is both unique in its presentation, where recruits can legitimately project at multiple positions, but also in that it sometimes serves as a holding pattern for younger stars who are talented all over the field and one position -- or even two -- haven't yet solidified from the college angle. Either way it creates groups with different body types and skill sets, but the 2026 group is a big one to continue to sort out. A whopping 18 prospects at the position are in the updated Rivals250.

In comparison, only four athletes made the cut in the 2025 Rivals250 update just last week. While it means the jury is still out on many of the positions the blue-chippers will play in college, it could be a sign of more prep talents playing all over the field before settling and specializing on one at the next level. There is evidence to suggest that path not only creates a steep learning curve at the next level, but it can become the type of late-bloomer route that results in players peaking at the end of college and early on Sundays instead of much sooner.

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