NORWALK, Calif. -- For years the annual Southern California stop for the Nike Football Training Camp was near downtown Los Angeles at USC's practice fields, bringing nearly every top prospect in the West to compete against each other and provide a little clarity as to who exactly would be the top prospects for the upcoming class. Things are a bit different with the new NCAA rule prohibiting non-scholastic competition on campuses but despite the locale change to nearby Cerritos College on a windy Sunday afternoon, the 2012 stop in LA had both a USC flavor and an impressive collection of talent.
Rancho Cucamonga (Calif.) cornerback Chris Hawkins was the star of the show both on and off the field, taking home MVP honors for his position group after locking down every wide out that he came across to also turn in the best individual performance at the camp. After pictures were taken and medals handed out, the talented defensive back placed a USC and Stanford hat on a table and pulled the trigger and a commitment.
"I feel really good, really relieved to get this over with," Hawkins said. "I came out here and went against all the best players in California, Utah and Nevada and everywhere else and I accomplished my goal of getting MVP.
"I decided on SC last night, we had a big family discussion. I was going to go to Stanford at first but then we looked at the whole process and I picked USC."
The 5-foot-10, 170-pounder comes from a large family that includes four sisters and three brothers, all of whom proudly screamed 'Fight On' after he committed. Hawkins' father played a bit of an April Fool's joke on everybody by wearing a Stanford hat around all afternoon while his son competed in USC shorts to keep everybody guessing. In the end however, everybody was excited to end the recruiting process somewhat early after being sold on Hawkins playing for the Trojans.
"I know so many players on the team and I've wanted to go there ever since I was a little boy," he said. "I've dreamed about playing in the Coliseum and when (the offer) came, I just had to take it. I had to take this opportunity.
"My family (was a factor). My family couldn't come all the way to Palo Alto every weekend.The academics are almost the same, especially when you want to live in California. USC and Stanford both have a great football program but I feel at home at USC and I didn't feel that way at Stanford."
Hawkins was at track practice when the USC offer finally came in last month, right before he was set to announce his commitment to long-time favorite Stanford the next day. He was thrown for a loop with the sudden interest from the Trojans' coaching staff, which in turn made it difficult to tell the Cardinal coaches that he wouldn't be headed to the Bay Area to play college football.
"It was real tough because you don't want to feel like you let them down," Hawkins said. "But it is about my future. If they were to leave while I'm up there then I would have been stuck."
After donning the cardinal and gold and firmly committing to the Trojans, Hawkins has gone from top target to top recruiter for the staff. He's close with several top prospects in the area through his 7-on-7 travel team B2G on top of getting to know others on the camp circuit.
"My teammate Tahaan (Goodman), I'm going to be on him," Hawkins said. "I want him to play with me in college and he has a USC offer too. That's his dream school also. Su'a Cravens, he's a cool dude and I talk to him all the time. I'd love to play with him too."
Though he needs to add some weight before heading to college, Hawkins proved he was an elite defensive back after outstanding weeks at the New Level 7-on-7 last week in Las Vegas and his MVP performance at the Nike Camp. He shut down wide receiver MVP Stephen Mitchell twice during one-on-ones and didn't allow a ball to be completed against him all afternoon while grabbing a few nifty interceptions. His feet in particular impressed the coaching staff and his ability to play both close to the line and off in zone coverage was notable. The Nike Camp might not have been at USC this year but the Trojans certainly stole the show based on Hawkins' performance and later commitment.
Mathis dominant along the defensive line
The one-on-one drills between the linemen are always the highlight of the Nike camps and this stop was no exception. Although neither group was as deep as it has been in past years, there was still plenty of top talent available to make it quite a show. The most impressive prospect all day was Upland (Calif.) defensive end Joe Mathis, who dominated drills using a variety of pass rush moves that already have college coaches excited about his potential.
"It's a dream come true. Since sophomore year I've wanted to go to the Nike camp and never got invited," Mathis said. "I finally got invited and showed people how good I can be. It's something I've been working on since the sixth grade."
Mathis played linebacker last week in the 7-on-7 tournament in Las Vegas in part to show off his versatility. With a quick first step and a body type that allows him to play everything from defensive tackle to outside linebacker, Mathis' future college position is a bit of an unknown right now so he's going out this spring and summer to prove that he can do it all no matter where you stick him at the next level.
"I've been getting a lot of offers as a standup defensive end," he said. "I want to show off my hips and my athleticism out here. I'm really good at linebacker, I have a nose for the ball and love to hit. My dad bulked me up a little bit too much but I'm trying to get cut right now. I can run a 4.69 40 (yard dash) right now so I think I can be good at the next level at linebacker. But if d-end it is, defensive end it is."
Standing at 6-foot-3, Mathis is playing around 250-pounds right now but is looking to slim down to the 240-245 range by the summer. Already up to an impressive 32 offers at the moment, his most recent was perhaps his biggest since it came from the defending national champions.
"It was really exciting to talk to the head coach of Alabama (Nick Saban), he's a legend," Mathis said. "I really don't know what to think. I'm not the type of dude that just goes to a big name, I want to see how much the coaches want me. I want to see how much they'll talk to me because I just don't want a coach to talk to me once and expect me to come."
The local schools are showing Mathis attention as well, with UCLA's new staff heavily pursuing him. While he's still trying to sort out a recruiting situation that is in flux just about every day, Mathis is staying focused on going to a school that gets him to the next level while he earns a good degree.
"I'm still thinking, I have a top 10 or 15 or so," said Mathis. "With visits, Nebraska and Michigan for sure. I'm going up to Michigan for the Adidas Invitational this weekend and hope to get my name out there some more. I'll visit Michigan then come back and go to Cal. I think I'll go to Arizona State too."
Safety Redfield looks smooth, talks smooth
Although Chris Hawkins stole most of the attention on Sunday, highly regarded junior safety Max Redfield out of Mission Viejo (Calif.) was another player who impressed and also happened to be wearing red shorts.
Part of the reason Redfield wanted to come out and compete at the camp this week was to get back to playing football after weeks of working only on the track. A little stiff from time-to-time, there was no still question that he could flip the switch and turn into a fluid, roaming center fielder who won't let a ball or defender get by him based on his play at the Nike camp.
"I picked up on how to get a lot better on my footwork," said Redfield. "I need to practice that a little bit more. I just need to start getting back into the swing of football."
The 6-foot-2, 200-pounder was supposed to head over to USC for their mini-Junior Day with the top prospects on their board but couldn't make it because he was helping his team nearly take first place in the 4x100 meter relay among other events. The Trojans are one of several favorites to land Redfield but it's clear that he remains wide open regarding his recruitment and is looking to get to know several of the schools that have offered better.
"Once track starts to die down, I definitely want to go up to USC and talk to all the coaches on an unofficial visit," he said. "Over the summer I'm going to try and get out to a bunch of different colleges farther East. I'm not really trying to focus on West Coast schools but it's more convenient right now. Definitely going to try and take a bunch of unofficial visits this summer."
Distance isn't a factor for Redfield, who was born in Connecticut and has family such as his father living back East. As one of the most highly recruited players on the West Coast, the situation isn't so much what schools see in him but what he sees in the numerous schools who have extended an offer.
"I'm looking for a college with really good academics and someplace where I feel really comfortable for four years," he said. "I want to develop good relationships with the people around me and get to know the campus, players, coaches. I also want to play for a college that has a good program, good tradition, good sense of how to win and someone on the rise."
News and Notes
Lake Forest (Calif.) quarterback Connor Manning was the top signal-caller on a very windy day that forced everybody to throw a tight spiral. He beat out several other highly recruited QB's for the honor by showing off good footwork on drops with a solid arm and accuracy. While it was a close competition, the consistency that Manning showed gave him the nod. He does not hold any offers but could be close to picking up one from Colorado.
Ventura (Calif.) running back Zach Green came in as one of the top names to the camp and left with a medal around his neck after a good day, especially against the linebackers during drills. He is a compact player who impresses you at first glance but his all-around game is what should force college coaches to give him another look on film before his stock starts to take off.
Mission Hills (Calif.) wide receiver Steven Mitchell followed up his big performance in Las Vegas with a better one in Cerritos. While it felt like B2G teammate John Ross was slightly better last week, Mitchell came out looking to prove he was a better player and did. Though he was shut down by Chris Hawkins - and that's not surprising considering he shut everybody down - Mitchell still was able to create separation against the defensive backs and use his speed and burst to get open and make catches.
Centennial (Calif.) offensive lineman Viane Talamaivao beat out several other highly regarded upperclassmen for MVP honors after coming into his own with several impressive reps. He was one of the best at handling Joe Mathis in one-on-ones and showed off very good feet during drops. Likely a guard at the next level unless he keeps growing, he'll be one to keep an eye on after this performance.
Gardena (Calif.) linebacker Dwight Williams edged out several top recruits in a very tough group to determine MVP. The rising junior has good size and the frame to add more weight but looked good in coverage drills.
Defensive back MVP Chris Hawkins and defensive lineman MVP Joe 'JoJo' Mathis looked like the top two players at the event but both had competition for their awards with Pickerington (Ohio) defensive end Taco Charlton and Long Beach (Calif.) cornerback Iman Marshall pushing for honors as well. Mathis flashed the ability to play inside or out along the line based on his quickness but he tended to get too high at times. It's hard to have a better day in a camp setting than what Hawkins had.
- Several of the top players at the camp stopped by USC for an unofficial Junior Day on Saturday. All said the experience, which included taking in the Trojans scrimmage, was a great one and there was more than casual talk about several committing to the program as a group.
- The Opening invites were extended to Hawkins, Mathis, Mitchell, Priest Willis and Tahaan Goodman.
- Others who had a good day: quarterbacks Brandon Cox, Kelly Hilinski and Johnny Stanton; wide receivers John Ross and Demorea Stringfellow; tight ends Thomas Duarte and Marcus Baugh; offensive linemen Nico Falah, John Lopez, Ben Simonds and Alex Redmond; defensive lineman Taco Charlton, linebackers Kevin Palma, Michael Hutchings, Alani and Villami Latu; defensive backs Tahaan Goodman, Priest Willis, Iman Marshall, Dashon Hunt and Adoree Jackson.