BEAVERTON, Ore. -- For an event that features the top 150 recruits in the country, it's hard to go unnoticed but for a few hours in the early afternoon at The Opening, Plano (Texas) linebacker Mike Mitchell seemed to just blend into the crowd of athletic high school athletes. Fast forward to Friday night and he was well known to folks across the country, having captured the Nike SPARQ National Championship with a record-breaking performance on national television.
“I'll call my mom and dad right away and see what they think of all this," Mitchell said. "I know they were watching on TV and are real proud.”
The SPARQ score records a player's vertical jump, 20-yard shuttle, medicine ball toss distance and 40-yard dash among other things. It was in the 40 that the 6-foot-4, 220-pound linebacker saved his best for and his 4.39 ultimately clinched the title of what the folks at Nike term the "athletic S.A.T."
“I was about to drink from the water bottle but when they said the time I dropped it right on the spot,“ he said.
Mitchell is not a slouch in the recruiting department, holding close to 20 offers. He's narrowing down his list and visiting Ohio State and Florida State in the coming weeks but might end up making a decision quicker than most expect.
“I'll think about committing in about a week or two," he said. "I'm going to talk it over with my dad some more.”
Behind Mitchell, two familiar faces came close to capturing the SPARQ title for a second straight year in Yulee (Fla.) running back Derrick Henry and North Little Rock (Ark.) running back Altee Tenpenny. The pair were among the limited number of underclassmen at the inaugural 'The Opening' last year and returned once again, passing along a few tips and tidbits along the way to their fellow campers.
"I'm out here pumping these guys up, they're all in my class and I appreciate everything they do," Henry, left, said. "I try and watch all these guys' highlights. This is very special, especially at running back. I can't wait to compete in 7-on-7 and the finals."
This year three players from the class of 2014 are competing: Cedar Falls (Iowa) tackle Ross Pierschbacher, Woodbridge (Va.) defensive lineman Da'Shawn Hand and Virginia Beach (Va.) safety Quin Blanding. Although all three have not yet connected with Henry or Tenpenny to hear about competing as 'the young guys' yet, the 2013 backs had no problem searching for advice to offer up.
"I was in that position last year so I'm going to make sure they're comfortable and understand the moment," said Henry. "My advice to them is to just have fun, this is a once in a lifetime experience. Have fun this time and then next time get busy. Last year I had fun being the underclassmen but this year I'm all business."
"Any questions they have, I'll answer them as honestly as I can." Tenpenny said, then echoed his good friend, "My advice is to just have fun and enjoy it.
"It's Nike though so sometimes there are surprises. Some of the stuff they're doing, we didn't do last year.
Tenpenny and Henry may be doing more than giving advice out to rising juniors in the future. Henry recently decommitted from Georgia and rumors have been swirling that he'll eventually wind up at Alabama with Tenpenny to form a vicious one-two punch for the Crimson Tide.
"It will be great because every time Derrick and I are together, we bring out the best in each other," Tenpenny said. "I feel like if he goes there, it will be a [Mark Ingram], Trent Richardson type of thing. It would be the best of two worlds and we could bring some more national championships."
Henry surprised many by initially committing to Georgia last year. He had grown close with head coach Mark Richt and was excited at the prospect of playing running back in Athens. After taking a multi-day visit to Tuscaloosa over one weekend earlier this summer though, the writing seemed to be on the wall that he was opening his recruitment back up and he proceeded to tell the Bulldogs coaching staff just that.
"It was very difficult," he said. "I respect Coach Richt a lot, he's a God-first man and I committed because of him. But I kind of thought I committed kind of fast, instead of going to colleges and coming back 100% committed [to Georgia]. I respect them and I didn't want to be lying to them. I wanted to make sure they could recruit more running backs just in case I go somewhere else.
"Coach Richt said he respects that. He wished me the best and asked if I still wanted him to recruit me. I told him yes. They said they were still going to recruit me and to get ready for the season and good luck."
Although the thought was that Henry could quickly flip to Alabama after visiting, he said he'll actually commit to a school - the Crimson Tide or otherwise - around December.
"Alabama is still the leader," said Henry. "Two national championships in three years, my position -- running back -- has had success there and stuff like that [are some reasons why]. I've been down there with Coach [Nick] Saban and visited with all the coaches and all of the players to see what they had to say. Right now I have Alabama first, Georgia second, Tennessee third and USC fourth.
"I'm sure during the season the recruiting process will pick up and other schools [will get involved] but that's it right now."
Alabama's history of success at the running back position is a key factor in Henry having the program at the top of his list to land his signature once Signing Day rolls around.
"It's a great influence. You've got a top program and the players that go with it," he said. "Right now Alabama is superior at the running back position with Mark [Ingram] winning the Heisman and Trent [Richardson] winning the Doak Walker," he said. "It's a big eye-catcher for me."
The 6-foot-3, 240-pounder plans to take four (and possibly five) official visits during the fall to Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and USC but has not set any dates yet. As open as the talented back talks about his recruitment over the past few months, he's even more excited about what battles could happen if, as many expect, he winds up at Alabama with Tenpenny.
"If me and Altee go to Alabama together we'll be a good duo," said Henry. "It will be a good competition. I lot of people think that because they have Tyren [Jones] and Altee committed that I'm going to shy away from competition. At Georgia they had [Todd] Gurley and [Keith] Marshall. That's the fun of the game, competing for one spot."
Tenpenny's commitment, however, doesn't seem to be on completely firm ground so the talk of a five-star one-two punch is a tad premature. The 5-foot-11, 200-pounder mentioned that he would take official visits to Arkansas, Alabama, Tennessee, Notre Dame and a fifth "toss up" visit but remains a verbal for the Crimson Tide.
"As of now, in the recruiting process, I'm committed to Alabama," he said. "I'm just trying to stay focused on them and stay focused on helping my team when a championship."
Ranked 46th overall in the class of 2013, Tenpenny even competing at The Opening as well has he had during Day One is a testament to modern medicine and sheer determination to get back to 100 percent following a fractured ankle right before his junior season. The injury, which happened in late August, woke him up to the realities of playing the running back position and was part of the reason he was driven to come back healthy for his senior campaign.
"It was a scary thought, thinking you're at the peak of your game and you got it taken away from you like that," he said with a snap of the fingers. "I was running and then I dipped my shoulder away from my teammate, then I raised it back up to pick up speed and [the defender] dove for me and horse-collared me and broke my ankle."
Tenpenny did as much as he could on the sidelines but is anxious to be toting the ball in game action in close to two months. A highly regarded recruit based on his film as a sophomore, the support Alabama gave him during his injury was a big factor in eventually choosing the program.
"The main person I talked to about it was the running backs coach, Coach Burton Burns," Tenpenny said. "The only thing that he said was don't rush it, it will come back. I pushed myself but once it felt like I couldn't go anymore, I gave it a rest. Then the next day I'd go even harder."
Higher, faster, stronger and harder were a few of the buzz terms thrown around during day one of The Opening and certainly Mitchell, Henry and Tenpenny epitomized them.
Da'Shawn Hand calm, cool and collected
Scared? No, not at all. Far from it actually.
Woodbridge (Va.) defensive lineman Da'Shawn Hand may have been the calmest player as action kicked off at The Opening, never looking overwhelmed despite being the youngest player at the event.
"It was very fun and entertaining, I'm having a good time out here. It's been a great experience," Hand said.
The 6-foot-5, 260-pounder rising junior is one of three such players in Oregon this weekend and some consider Hand to be the best of the trio and a candidate for the top overall player in the class of 2014. Despite expectations being as big as the Ronaldo Fields in the middle of the Nike campus, the defensive end is taking things as they come and trying to blend in with the rest of his fellow recruits.
"I feel like I'm just like everybody else and I have to compete like everybody else so I don't want to be treated like somebody different," he said. "I don't really worry about [rankings], all I worry about is just having fun and focusing on the season. That's all I'm really focusing on. After this I'm done with combines and stuff so I'm going to focus on getting with my team and staying home and getting back to the basics."
Hand did not connect with some of the players who attended last year but is still having a blast with a fellow underclass Virginian.
"I came out here with Quin Blanding and we're real cool," said Hand. "We talk a lot. We see each other at different camps and combines so we're pretty cool."
Already holding over 25 offers, USC, Washington, Arizona and, "basically the entire Pac-12," recently offered Hand over the past two weeks. His stock has taken off in the eyes of colleges while the savvy defensive end is keeping his recruitment at arm's length with well over a year before putting pen to paper.
"Every school is the same," he said. "I don't talk about schools at all because I don't want any confusion or anything so every school is the same."
Still, the letters and messages will only steadily increase over the coming weeks, months and year so the calm and collected defensive end wants others to understand that he is very much in charge of his recruitment and not the other way around when dealing with college coaches.
"I'm managing (my time) now, I don't worry about it at all. I'm my own person so if I don't want to talk to schools then they can try and call me but it's easy to hit the ignore button," Hand said. "Or I can just tell them straight up, 'I'll call you when I want to talk to you.' That's how it is now and that's how I like it and how I want to keep it under control."
Hand will suit up during day two of The Opening for the Lineman Challenge.
News and Notes
- Running back Derrick Green recently narrowed his list down to 13 and said he'll probably cut it even further at the beginning of the season to the five schools he'll take official visits to.
- Cornerback Chris Hawkins was one of the top cover guys on Friday but remarkably was able to be effective with his press technique despite a broken thumb suffered at USC's Rising Stars Camp a few weeks ago.
- The much anticipated showdown between Florida State commitment Ira Denson and Florid-bound defensive tackle Caleb Brantley had plenty of build up but only limited reps on Friday. Brantley definitely got the better of his opponent on one rep after Denson lunged too far and allowed Brantley a path to the quarterback for a sack. The competition will definitely be turned up over the coming days with the future FSU offensive lineman saying he is prepared to handle Brantley's power move.
- Honolulu (Hawaii) linebacker Isaac Savaiinaea was a player many listed as a decommitment from Stanford but the big, rangy recruit from the islands clarified his status on Friday.
“I'm just opening it up, this isn't a decommitment,” he said. “I'm still committed to Stanford. They're still my No. 1 school, but now that I'm visiting other schools, I'm just opening up my options.
“They e-mailed me right away. I was surprised. But I told them I didn't decommit – like [a recruiting site] messed up my words – but [Stanford] was like any other school makes you an offer we'll match it. Now I see how much they want me and that means a lot.”
- Notre Dame commit James Onwualu didn't have anything to prove. Not by anyone else's standards. The 6-1, 203-pound receiver from St. Paul (Minn.) already has a scholarship secured and is highly regarded by many. Combine that with the fact he broke his jaw in a 7-on-7 game a couple weeks ago and no one would have blinked had he skipped The Opening this week.
Not a chance said Onwualu, who had little trouble annunciated despite the fact his mouth was wired shut. He even accepted an invitation to be interviewed on camera.
“It's an opportunity to come out and get better and that's something I'm always looking to do," he said. "On top of that, I think that I'm under-rated. I'm trying to prove to a lot of people and to myself that I'm one of the best players and being out with the top 150 I think proves that.
“I've been taught – especially by my older brother – to never be satisfied. I'm always shooting for the highest bar and out here is where I can get that.”
- Action really gets started tomorrow as players start pool 7-on-7 play and the Lineman Challenge begins.
Mitchell photo (top left) courtesy Nike Football. MaxPreps' Mitch Stephens contributed to this report.