Spread offenses put on warning

The spread has ruled college football lately, but the 2014 class could change that

Updated: April 18, 2013, 6:16 PM ET
By Mitch Sherman | ESPN RecruitingNation

When Adoree' Jackson arrived at Gardena (Calif.) Junipero Serra High School in the summer of 2011 before his sophomore year, the coaches quickly realized they had stumbled upon a special caliber of athlete.

[+] EnlargeAdoree' Jackson
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsAdoree' Jackson is an overall athlete, starring both ways on the football field and on the track.
Jackson wasn't boastful or demanding. He didn't move to Los Angeles County from Illinois with expectations of where he best fit on the field.

He had played running back. But after watching Jackson run, Serra coach Scott Altenberg stuck Jackson at receiver.

"He reminded us of Marqise Lee," said Altenberg, who coached Lee and fellow USC star wideout Robert Woods in high school.

Soon, Jackson was playing offense and defense in practice. Not long after, he intercepted a pass against Redondo Union. And that was the moment.

"I just felt it," Jackson said. "I got that swagger. I realized the difference I could make in a game on the defensive side."

Jackson never looked back. He was hooked. Less than two years later, he's a leader in the movement that has seen top athletes shift to the secondary. In this era of innovative, spread-based offense, college recruiters have placed a premium on standouts in the secondary.

"The whole concept of the spread is to create space," Altenberg said. "You need guys on defense who can run and tackle."

The Class of 2014 reflects a surge of speed and skill to the secondary.

In the newly released ESPN 150, two members of the top 30 are classified at wide receiver, two at quarterback, four at running back, four at defensive end and eight as defensive backs.

"It's a coach's dream to have his best 11 athletes on the field," said Michael Fletcher, a former four-year starter in the secondary at Oregon. "You've got to adjust to what offenses are doing. Defenses are tired of being embarrassed.

"The only way you can make it work is to try to match athlete for athlete."

Jackson, the No. 5 overall prospect in the ESPN 150 and the top recruit in California, is a prolific long jumper and runs the anchor leg of the state's top-rated 400-meter relay squad.

He takes a backseat to no one athletically. Last year at Serra, he played multiple spots in the secondary, receiver, running back and Wildcat QB and filled in at punter.

"His ability and the way he attacks everything, you can't get him off the field if you try," Altenberg said. "His learning aptitude is amazing, and he has a great engine. He's a freak of nature."

Say hello to the new breed of defensive back.

Cornerback Jabrill Peppers (Paramus, N.J./Paramus Catholic) ranks No. 2 overall behind running back Leonard Fournette of New Orleans Saint Augustine. Cornerback Marlon Humphrey of Hoover, Ala., is No. 9 overall.

No state, though, features the secondary versatility and depth of Texas.

At the Nike Football Training Camp in Allen, Texas, this month, corners Tony Brown of Beaumont (Texas) Ozen and Arrion Springs (San Antonio/Theodore Roosevelt) and safeties Jamal Adams (Lewisville, Texas/Hebron) and Edward Paris Jr. of Arlington (Texas) Mansfield Timberview put on something of a clinic during one-on-one drills.

All four rank among the top 53 prospects nationally and the top seven in Texas. They could form a fearsome four-man unit.

Brown and Springs, in particular, play angry.

"Guys just started following them," said Eugene Jackson, who coaches defensive backs on the NFTC circuit. "We've been seeing a lot of that this year, but those guys in Texas were really on another level -- talentwise, sizewise and athletically."

Jackson said he marvels at the versatility of the new-age defensive back.

[+] EnlargeJamal Adams
Miller Safrit/ESPNJamal Adams, the top DB in the stacked state of Texas, said his cover skills make him special.
"No one is looking for the 5-9 corner anymore," he said. "They want that 6-foot, long, rangy type with big wingspans. College coaches want the guy who can cover everyone on the field, whether it's a small, quick receiver, a running back or a big, athletic tight end."

Adams, the top-rated Texas DB at No. 23 overall in the ESPN 150, said he strives to be that player.

"My cover skills, I think, set me apart," Adams said. "But I can see myself playing anywhere. Corner or safety, it doesn't matter."

Said Paris: "It's personal to us. We're all hungry. We don't want to lose a rep to anyone."

Athlete J.C. Jackson of Immokalee, Fla., the No. 48-rated prospect, learned cornerback in part from his neighbor, Clemson-bound five-star signee Mackensie Alexander.

Like so many of the top defensive backs nationally, J.C. Jackson said he primarily played receiver in years past. He still hears occasionally that he's better at receiver than at defensive back.

"I'm a corner," said Jackson, committed to Florida State. "There's no other spot for me."

Two years ago, when Lee graduated from Altenberg's program at Serra one season after Woods, kids wanted to play offense.

Adoree' Jackson once thought he did too. Then he got a taste of defense. Instead of Lee and Woods, he said he wants to follow the path blazed by Deion Sanders and Darrelle Revis.

"I feel like it comes natural now," Jackson said. "I always want to stick that guy. As a corner, you've got to make plays. You've got to have the athleticism and the mindset to do it. You've got to be the best athlete on the field."

Mitch Sherman

ESPN Staff Writer