Preps Talk

Edgy recruiting: 5 underclassmen to watch

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Edgy recruiting: 5 underclassmen to watch

As the recruiting calendar and recruiting in general keeps getting pushed back earlier and earlier, keeping tabs, finding and "discovering" the next big name has never been as important for college coaches.

Here are five underclassmen names to watch this fall and a few more thrown in as a bonus:

Edwardsville junior defensive end AJ Epenesa (6-foot-5, 259 pounds) - Ranked as a four-star recruit and the 23rd-best player in the nation in the Class of 2017 according to Rivals.com, Epenesa already is holding 20-plus verbal scholarship offers and growing by the day. Epenesa is the son of former Iowa Hawkeyes defensive linemen Eppy Epenesa and the family has deep ties to the Hawkeyes program and coaching staff. Epenesa hasn't named any favorites, but Iowa will no question be a major player.

East St. Louis junior  wide receiver Jeff Thomas (5-foot-10, 165 pounds) - Another four-star ranked recruit and the 63rd-best player in the nation according to Rivals.com, Thomas just makes play after play and has a rare mix of speed, exceptional hands and body control. Thomas is also as effective as a defensive back and kick/punt returner for the Flyers and head coach Darren Sunkett. Thomas has offers from schools across the country but for now is looking into Alabama, Missouri and Florida State. He has already made an unofficial visit to Missouri, who also landed his teammate from a season ago - five-star ranked defensive tackle Terry Beckner Jr., who is already in the defensive linemen rotation this season.

[RELATED - The five top undecided recruits in the Class of 2016]

Neuqua Valley junior wide receiver Isaiah Robertson (6-foot-2, 190 pounds) - Also a four-star ranked recruit according to Rivals.com, Robertson has a handful of offers so far, including Illinois, Iowa, Maryland and Wisconsin and I fully expect that list to grow sooner rather than later. Robertson - who also showed exceptional tools playing both receiver and safety for the Wildcats this season - has a great frame, terrific speed and hands and will get bigger and strong at the next level. 

St. Viator junior tight end Cole Kmet (6-foot-4, 230 pounds) - Kmet, who is the son of former Hersey and Purdue defensive end Frank Kmet has all the tools to develop into an elite level player. Kmet - who will add more size at the next level - already possesses exceptional ball skills, body control and speed. Kmet already has several major offers and is looking hard these days at both Notre Dame and Ohio State. He camped with both the Fighting Irish and the Buckeyes and has offers from both schools. 

Brother Rice junior wide receiver Ricky Smalling (6-foot-1, 200 pounds) - Rival high school coaches are already raving about Smalling this season. Smalling, who is a three-star ranked recruit according to Rivals.com has a handful of offers this fall, including Illinois, Virginia and Wisconsin. This past summer, Smalling worked with former Illinois wide receiver and HeroH founder Chris James and saw his game take off. Smalling has taken that hard work to the field in helping the Crusaders to a 2-0 start. Much like the others listed here, Smalling can play multiple positions at the next level.

Four more underclassmen to watch

Mount Carmel sophomore athlete Houston Griffith (6-foot-0, 189 pounds)
Warren Township sophomore wide receiver Micah Jones (6-foot-4, 189 pounds)
Rockford Auburn junior offensive tackle Verderian Lowe (6-foot-5, 330 pounds)
Jacobs junior quarterback Chris Katernick (6-foot-2, 195 pounds)

63 Days to Kickoff: Shepard

63 Days to Kickoff: Shepard

NBCSportsChicago.com preps reporter "Edgy" Tim O’Halloran spotlights 100 high school football teams in 100 days. The first 75 team profiles will focus on teams making strides across Chicagoland and elsewhere in the state. Starting July 30, we’ll unveil the @NBCSPrepsTop 25 Power Rankings, leading up to kickoff on Friday, Aug. 24.

School: Shepard

Head coach: John Rone

Assistant coaches: Andrew Porter, Ron Rivera, Chris Lewis, Ryan McGuire and Clint Connelly

How they fared in 2017: 8-2 (5-1 South Suburban Red Conference). Shepard made the Class 6A state football playoff field. The Astros lost to Marmion Academy in opening round action. 

2018 Regular Season Schedule:

Aug. 24 @ Leyden

Sept. 1 @ Stagg

Sept 7 vs Hillcrest

Sept. 14 vs Eisenhower

Sept. 21 @ Richards

Sept. 28 @ Oak Lawn

Oct. 5 vs Reavis

Oct. 12 vs Evergreen Park

Oct. 19 @ Argo

Biggest storyline: First-year head coach John Rone. Can the Astros challenge once again for the South Suburban Red conference title under a new head coach?

Names to watch this season: RB/LB Chris Harrison and TE/DE Kevin Graham

Biggest holes to fill: The Astros bring back 10 returning starters (five offense, five defense). Overall depth could also be a concern.  

EDGY's Early Take: Shepard will be led by former Eisenhower assistant Rone, who was able to retain an experienced staff at Shepard. It will help ease the transition from former head coach Dominic Passolano this summer. If the Astros can get off to a good early start they have the overall talent to again make a state playoff appearance in 2018. Can they challenge conference power Richards in the South Suburban Red race?

64 Days to Kickoff: T.F. South

64 Days to Kickoff: T.F. South

Head coach: Bob Padjen

Assistant coaches: Trent Jensen, Jesse Kikkert, Jonathan Hill, Doug Smith, Mike Tisza, Rob Shell and Tim Russell

How they fared in 2017: 6-4 (3-3 South Suburban Blue Conference), T.F. South made the Class 6A state football playoff field. The Rebels lost to Danville in opening round action. 

2018 Regular Season Schedule:

Aug. 24 @ Thornwood

Sept. 1 vs Julian

Sept. 7 vs Oak Forest

Sept. 14 @ TF North

Sept. 21 vs Bremen

Sept. 28 @ Reavis

Oct. 5 vs Hillcrest

Oct. 12 @ Lemont

Oct. 19 @ Tinley Park

[MORE: 86 Days to Kickoff - Reavis]

Biggest storyline: T.F. South has advanced to the playoffs 20 times in the past 24 seasons. Can the Rebels get back to the IHSA state playoff field and make more noise this fall?

Names to watch this season: QB Kamron Clayton LB Michael Smith

Biggest holes to fill: The Rebels will need to replace seven starters on each side of the football this fall. 

EDGY's Early Take: T.F. South head coach Bob Padjen was able to keep the Rebels on a winning path in his first season as Rebels head coach after several years serving in an assistant role. South always has talent. If the underclassmen can step up this summer, look for the Rebels to challenge for the top half of the South Suburban Blue conference race.