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November 11, 2015

The top 10 high school football players in the region right now

High Schools Football
080415_Quick_stjoes St. Joe's Prep/for PhillyVoice

D’Andre Swift rushed for 217 yards and three touchdowns in St. Joseph’s Prep’s 28-5 Oct. 10, 2015 victory over St. Joseph’s Regional of Montvale (NJ), the then-No. 18 team in the nation according to USA Today

Will Fuller walked out of the Notre Dame dressing room in the bowels of Lincoln Financial Field a few Saturdays ago, his face awash in relief after the Irish survived a major scare from Temple.

The junior wide receiver out of Roman Catholic scored the game-winning touchdown in the Irish’s 24-20 victory. He was being directed toward a waiting media horde when he spotted a familiar face and flashed one of his many Philadelphia tattoos.

“There’s some great football talent coming out of Philly and I think it’s time (colleges) are actually noticing,” Fuller said as he as walked. “When I was coming out of (Roman Catholic), I got a few offers here and there, but I had to go to the camps and sell myself. People see the talent that’s coming out of Philly now and they’re coming here to get these guys. There’s football talent in Philly.”

The possible first-round NFL draft pick couldn’t be more accurate.

Philadelphia and the surrounding area, including South Jersey, are bubbling with some of the best high school talent in the country.

Ask anyone across the United States with a deep knowledge of sports what Philadelphia and the surrounding area is most noted for producing. They’ll most likely tell you basketball players.

Over the last 10 years, that’s been changing. And it’s beginning at the high school level.

Here’s a subjective look, in descending order, of the top 10 high school players in the Philadelphia area this year.

10. Ahmir Mitchell, Cedar Creek, Sr., 6-3, 205 pounds, WR

Mitchell is headed to Michigan, where he could be either a wide receiver or safety. He’s had a tough senior year, with 13 catches for 216 yards and 2 touchdowns against defenses geared to shut him down. But don’t let those figures fool you. The Wolverines rarely waste their time on the East Coast with players that can’t play at their level.

As a junior, Mitchell caught 47 passes for 872 yards, averaging 18.6 yards a catch and 87.2 yards receiving per game. He caught 12 touchdowns last year and scored 20 overall. His older brother, Damon, is a redshirt sophomore receiver at Arkansas. Ahmir’s choices came down to Michigan and Ohio State.

“Ahmir has an NFL body right now and you can say he comes from special genetics,” Cedar Creek coach Tim Watson said. “As a freshman, Ahmir had good size and a great amount of confidence. Some of that you have to credit to his older brother. There was a drive there to be the best, which you don’t always see with younger guys. Take someone with physical gifts and a strong work ethic and usually pretty good things happen.”

9. Cameron Chambers, Timber Creek, Sr., 6-3, 210, WR

A three-year starter, Chambers committed to Michigan State as a junior. This year he’s caught 42 passes for 671 yards and 7 touchdowns, averaging 16 yards a catch and 95.9 yards receiving a game this season. He’s projected to play receiver for the Spartans.

“Cameron went to St. Joe’s Prep his first year and came back over his sophomore year to Timber Creek,” Chargers’ coach Rob Hinson said. “You can tell early though that Cameron had a real good chance to be a special football player.”

8. Kelvin Harmon, Palmyra, Sr., 6-3, 190, WR

Harmon plays for Palmyra, a Group 1 (small school), in South Jersey. He’s such an impactful player that South Carolina called, among many others. G.A. Mangus, South Carolina’s offensive coordinator, has roots in this area having coached at Widener and Ursinus and has traditionally done well mining the Philadelphia area for talent.

He may have found a diamond in Harmon, a four-year starter who is projected to be a receiver at South Carolina. Last year he caught 49 passes for 836 yards, averaging 17.1 yards a catch and 119.4 yards a game. His 18 receiving touchdowns were the second-highest in New Jersey. This year, Harmon has 49 receptions for 336 yards and 10 touchdowns. He’s also returned two punts for touchdowns.

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Clockwise from top left: D'Andre Swift of St. Joseph's Prep, Brandon McIlwain of Council Rock North, Ahmir Mitchell of Cedar Creek, Naseir Upshur of Imhotep Charter, Kelvin Harmon of Palmyra and Cary Angeline of Downingtown East. (Photos courtesy of: St. Joe's Prep, Council Rock North Football, Cedar Creek, Joe Santoliquito, Palmyra Football, Michele Mazza/M3 Digital)

“Kelvin is a hard worker and someone who’s never satisfied, he’s always looking to grow and continue to improve,” Palmyra coach Jack Geisel said. “I think Kelvin’s desire to compete against other players in the summer camps pushed him to work that much harder. We’re a Group 1 school and people make the assumption that players from that level aren’t that good. He wanted to be the dominant player on the field, regardless of who we played.”

As of now, Harmon says, he’s remaining committed to South Carolina, despite head coach Steve Spurrier resigning on Oct. 12.

7. Ron Johnson, Camden, Sr., 6-4, 240, DE

Michigan fans should be happy that they’re getting someone who can set the edge and collapse a pocket. Most teams Camden faces run away from Johnson.

Who could blame them?

He’s listed at 240 pounds, yet runs like he’s 190. Through the first eight games this season, Johnson led the Panthers with 5 tackles for losses. He’s also had 52 solo tackles and assisted on 28 others to lead Camden with 80 total stops, averaging 10 a game.

Like everyone on this list, the three-year starter possesses that rare blend of size and speed. He is projected to be a defensive end in college, but has the body frame to add enough weight to possibly be switched inside at Michigan.

“Ron is one the leaders on the team and he leads through his work ethic,” Camden coach Dwayne Savage said. “He can play the 1-technique, the 3-technique. He can basically play any position that a school would want on the defensive line.”

6. Johncarlo Valentin, Imhotep Charter, Sr., 6-5, 330, OG

He’s a three-year starter who is large and explosive, a kind of dancing bear with great balance. He’s uncommitted right now, but Temple has its sights on him, as does Rutgers, Virginia Tech, Oklahoma, Auburn, Michigan and Arizona State. He has 37 offers.

He’s projected to play offensive guard in college. Perhaps Valentin’s only drawback was himself. Under head coach Albie Crosby, he’s matured and found discipline. What used to drive Crosby crazy was seeing potential in Valentin that he didn’t see in himself.

Valentin is a team-first guy with an engaging personality—and the best offensive lineman in the area.

“John and I have had our battles, but he is a very unique and special young person,” Crosby said. “Some schools have John at tackle, some at guard and some schools like him at center. John can do it all. He runs well, he’s a very good athlete who’s great in space.”

5. Brad Hawkins, Camden, Sr., 6-1, 205, WR

Hawkins is a four-year starter who is projected to be a wide receiver at Michigan. In eight games this year he’s caught 25 passes for 309 yards, averaging 12.4 yards a catch and 38.6 yards a game. He’s garnered 615 yards of total offense, responsible for 76.9 yards a game. As a junior, he caught 51 passes for 748 yards and 11 touchdowns.

“Every game, no matter what, Brad makes a play,” Savage said. “He does it on offense, on defense; you know that he’s going to do something. Early on, we saw Brad wouldn’t have any problems adjusting to the varsity level, because his dad is a coach. His freshman year he played both safety and wide receiver. He has a very high football IQ. You knew once you saw him that he could play.”

4. Brandon McIlwain, Council Rock North, Sr., 6-1, 205, QB

Call McIlwain the high school version of Seattle Seahawks’ quarterback Russell Wilson.

Some may say he is a little too high on this list, but consider the following: His team is entering the PIAA District 1 Class AAAA playoffs solely because of him. The recruiting website 247 Sports rates him as the No. 7 dual-threat quarterback in the country. He earned a July invitation to the Elite 11, which is a camp for the nation’s top 18 high school quarterbacks.

The South Carolina-bound McIlwain is a four-year starter and the best multi-sport athlete on this list. He’s a hot baseball prospect, too, who could go in the first three rounds of the June 2016 Major League Baseball draft. Some reports have him among the top 20 high school outfielders in the country.

He’s the only high school athlete in the nation to be invited to the Elite 11 for football and the prestigious Area Code Games in baseball.

“Brandon is set with football, but the reason why he likes South Carolina is because he can play both sports,” Indians’ coach Adam Collachi said. “The coaching staff is always talking about what an opportunity it is to coach a once-in-a-lifetime kid like Brandon. We had our share of injuries this year and he had every reason to shut it down. He has his scholarship and he knows where he’s heading. But Brandon was committed to helping this team win —and he’s done just that. The kid is amazing.”

Against undefeated Quakertown, with its season at stake on Oct. 30, McIlwain tallied 430 yards of total offense, completing 17-of-25 passes for 221 yards and one touchdown. He ran 28 times for 209 yards and 5 touchdowns in a 41-31 win. That doesn’t include the 10 tackles he made on defense.

This season, McIlwain has completed 141-of-240 passes for 1,646 yards and 17 touchdowns. He’s rushed for a team-best 1,341 yards and 27 touchdowns. He’s produced an insane 2,987 yards of total offense — against teams designed to stop him. He’ll leave Council Rock North owning every important offensive record in school history.

Despite the sudden resignation of Spurrier, McIlwain has said he still plans on honoring his commitment.

3. Naseir Upshur, Imhotep Charter, Sr., 6-3, 240, TE

The Florida State-bound Upshur is a four-year starter who received 52 offers. In eight games this season, he’s caught 17 passes for 435 yards, averaging 25.6 yards a catch and 54.4 yards a game, with 3 touchdowns.

According to 247 Sports, Upshur was rated as the No. 5 tight end in the country, after catching 11 touchdowns for 600 yards last year. He spurned offers from Alabama, Auburn, and Ohio State for Tallahassee.

Upshur, an Under Armour All-American game invitee, is large with good hands, gets down the field well and has good body control in space.

“Naseir is very aggressive and he always wants to be the best,” Crosby said. “Naseir has it all, size, speed, and at times we’ve used him on defense in certain situations.”

2. Cary Angeline, Downingtown East, Sr., 6-7, 240, TE

Southern Cal doesn’t come across the country to just pluck anyone. You have to be elite for the Trojans to even take a look. That’s exactly what Angeline is. He received over 35 offers, choosing USC over Ohio State, Florida State, Alabama, Oregon, Michigan and Florida, among others. The website 247 Sports rates him as the No. 4 tight end in the nation.

Why?

It’s easy. He’s large and has great footwork. This season he has 40 receptions for 670 yards, averaging 16.8 yards a catch, with 10 TDs. His rare combination of size and speed has enabled him to amass over 1,000 points for the Downingtown East basketball team and over 2,000 yards receiving in football. On defense, Angeline has two interceptions, one on the final play of the Cougars’ crucial 28-24 victory over powerhouse North Penn on Sept. 18.

He’s projected to be a tight end at USC and as of now is holding strong to his verbal commitment, despite the program’s coaching quandary.

“What makes Cary special is he wants to be a great teammate,” Cougars’ coach Mike Matta said. “He’s 6-7 and can run and catch. He understands spacing, but the best thing is he accepts coaching and wants to be a good teammate."

1. D’Andre Swift, St. Joseph’s Prep, Jr., 5-10, 210, RB

He’s considered the nation’s best junior all-purpose tailback by a number of respected national recruiting outlets, and was named the running back MVP at the choice Nike Opening in mid-July, in Beaverton, Oregon. Swift was one of five juniors nationally that was invited.

As a sophomore on a loaded, senior-laden Prep team, he rushed for 1,051 yards and 13 touchdowns. Not to mention a game-high 226 yards on 23 carries, averaging 9.8 yards a carry, in clinching the Hawks’ second-straight state PIAA Class AAAA championship. Swift finished with four touchdowns that game — two in the fourth quarter, including the game-winner.

This year, he’s carried the bulk of the Prep offense, always the focal point of opposing defenses. Still, behind a revamped offensive line, he’s rushed for 915 yards on 149 carries, averaging 6.1 yards. As for his penchant to excel in big-time games, that hasn’t changed either.

In the Hawks’ surprising 28-5 thumping on Oct. 10 of St. Joseph Regional of Montvale (NJ), at the time ranked No. 18 in the nation by USA Today, Swift carried 23 times for 217 yards and three touchdowns.

What’s more, Prep plays the most ambitious schedule of any team in the area. The only “soft touches” on the Hawks schedule are the local teams that they play as part of the Philadelphia Catholic League Class AAAA. And La Salle is far from a “soft touch.”

He’s a high school Barry Sanders who can go anywhere he wants. Though some are predicting a lean toward Penn State, Swift himself says the recruiting door is completely open.

“D’Andre has had to carry the lion’s share this year, which is a little different than what he had to do the last two years,” Prep coach Gabe Infante said. “This year we’ve featured him more and every team has focused on him, and he still has close to 1,000 yards in eight games. Look at his stats against St. Joe’s Regional. That says it all.”

LSU, Alabama, Clemson, Florida State, Notre Dame and myriad others have already made offers. It’s a list of over 70 schools. When he does commit, it will be national news.


Follow Joe on Twitter @jsantoliquito

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