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June 10, 2012

Power Positions: Formidable front

At some schools, defensive linemen believe they've done their job well if they've clogged things up enough to allow their linebackers to make plays.

Not at Bradenton (Fla.) Manatee.

"If (ball carriers) get to the linebackers, we feel like we messed up," said Manatee defensive end Blake Keller.

In that case, Manatee's defensive line doesn't mess up very often.

Manatee returns all four starting defensive linemen from a team that won the Florida Class 7A state title last year and finished 11th in the RivalsHigh 100 national rankings. Manatee yielded seven points or less in seven games last season, including a 40-0 shutout of Jacksonville First Coast in the state final.

Position: Defensive tackle
Height/Weight: 6-foot-1/310
Rating: Four stars (No. 16 defensive tackle in 2013 class)
College: Undecided

Notable: Calloway indicated before spring practice that Arkansas, Miami, Ohio State, Texas A&M and USC were his leading schools. He is visiting USC this week. Calloway used to live in California before moving to Bradenton in his sophomore year of high school. Other schools to offer Calloway include Arizona, Florida, Iowa State, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, North Carolina, UCF, USF and West Virginia.

Quotable: "He's got good quick feet and plays with leverage. He's very strong in the upper body and does a good job of firing off the line. He has pretty much everything you really want in a defensive tackle. He's going to disrupt off the middle, attack in a straight line. He's a very talented kid, excellent at finishing plays. He does a good job of playing off the strength of his teammates. He's on a loaded defensive line. He understands he's going to get opportunities to get one-on-one, and he's going to win that in most cases."
- Rivals.com Florida recruiting analyst Chris Nee

Position: Defensive tackle
Height/Weight: 6-foot-3/285
Rating: NA
College: Undecided

Notable: Although he will only be a junior in high school this fall, Christmas already has offers from Florida State, Miami, North Carolina, South Carolina and USF. He moved into Manatee's starting lineup late in his sophomore season and immediately made a major impression.

Quotable: "In my opinion, after watching him in the state title game last year, he's going to be an absolutely huge prospect. He's a massive kid -- really, really big. And he's only getting bigger. One of his coaches said during the spring the thing they're most impressed with him about is he is working to get better. He's continually improving from a technique standpoint and getting better at using his hands. He's 6-3 and weighed 285 pounds when I saw him last year, but I think he's packed on about 15 more pounds, so he's hovering right around 300 pounds. Watching him in the state title game, I walked away thinking this is an SEC-style defensive tackle. He's dominant at the point of attack. He's excellent at finishing plays. And he's surprisingly quick laterally."
- Rivals.com Florida recruiting analyst Chris Nee

Position: Defensive end
Height/Weight: 6-foot-2/215
Rating: Three stars
College: UCF

Notable: Keller verbally committed to UCF last weekend after also receiving offers from Iowa State, Pittsburgh, USF, West Virginia and Western Kentucky. He recorded 75 tackles and 14 sacks in his junior season at Manatee.

Quotable: "He's a real high-engine kid. He could end up being an outside linebacker in some schemes. I think UCF may intend to use him that way. He's very quick off the snap. He has a quick first step. He does a good job of using his length to get to the quarterback as quickly as possible. He's a very strong kind already. One thing Manatee does a great job of is developing their kids from a physical standpoint at the high school level, and Blake's definitely a guy who's bought into that and done a good job of improving. He's quick to the point of attack and does a good job of getting off the initial block and finishes plays well. He's a solid tackler in space too."
- Rivals.com Florida recruiting analyst Chris Nee

Defensive tackle Derrick Calloway is a four-star prospect with offers from USC, Ohio State and Miami. The other starting tackle is Demarcus Christmas, who already has fielded offers from Florida State, Miami, North Carolina, South Carolina and USF before the start of his junior year. Keller, a three-star recruit, has verbally committed to UCF. The only starting lineman without an FBS offer is Marquis Dawsey, a four-year starter and playmaker whose lack of size is keeping him from getting more attention.

Just try to find a more star-studded defensive line on any high school campus across the nation.

"It's a big help having all those guys there," Keller said. "They take all the pressure off me, and I take the pressure off them. They can't double-team us all."

Manatee's defensive linemen thrive in a system that showcases their talents.

Rather than relying on tackles to eat up space and clog holes in the running lanes, the Hurricanes want to make sure Calloway and Christmas get in the backfield as often as possible. And, of course, they also want Keller and Dawsey to wreak havoc on the edges.

"I think what sets us apart up front is that if you watch any type of video or coach speech, they always talk about 'playing the block,'" Manatee defensive line coach Steve Gulash said. "We don't consider the block a factor and never have since I've been here. We consider how fast we can get off the ball and disrupt what they do. I don't teach the kids to play any block. I teach them to beat the block.'

"We react faster than the offensive line, or we get beat. It's that simple."

That plan has worked quite well for Manatee, one of Florida's most consistently successful programs.

Manatee has won five state titles under head coach Joe Kinnan, who owns a career record of 269-68. The return of the outstanding defensive line gives the Hurricanes an excellent shot at a second straight championship.

"We have high expectations," Kinnan said. "We think we'll be better (than last year). Now, whether we'll be as successful, that remains to be seen."

Dawsey and Keller each recorded 14 sacks for the Hurricanes last season. Calloway delivered 55 tackles and eight sacks. Christmas collected 42 tackles, even though he didn't move into the starting lineup until midway through the season.

Although he is only now entering his first full year as a starter, Christmas might be the best prospect in the entire front four. He admits he surprised himself with his quick adjustment to a featured role last year.

"(The coaches) told me I had the size and stuff, that all I needed to do is put in the work and I'd be successful," Christmas said.

Christmas learned from watching his older teammates, which continued a Manatee tradition.

Manatee has produced so many quality defensive linemen that each standout passes lessons on to his successor. For example, Manatee's 2011 class featured three-star defensive tackle Quinton Pompey (now at Iowa State), two-star tackle Drakkar Wilson (now at Carson-Newman) and two-star defensive end Chris Pompey (now at Eastern Kentucky). Gulash himself played defensive line on Manatee's 1992 state championship team before moving on to Eastern Kentucky.

"The biggest thing with Manatee is they have an excellent coaching staff from Joe Kinnan down," Rivals.com Florida recruiting analyst Chris Nee said. "They really do a great job of developing kids. I'm not just talking about the D-line. I'm talking in general. They do a great job developing kids. They have a standard set with guys who have come before in recent years, guys like Quinton Pompey. He's a D-tackle who never really got a ton of press in recruiting, but was an excellent player in the high school ranks.

"Guys like that have established what's expected of guys on the defensive front, and it's continued. You've got Calloway coming up this year and Christmas next year, so it's like there's almost a staircase of continual progression at the defensive line spots."

That system often means defensive linemen have to wait their turn. Dawsey will enter his fourth year as a starter this fall, but he's the exception. Most other defensive linemen spend their first couple of years in part-time roles before moving into the starting lineup.

Keller believes that eventually works to their benefit. He remembers how Pompey and Wilson helped make him a better player.

"We watched them and learned from them and also learned from Coach Gulash," Keller said. "That makes us prepared when we come out to play. It's just like a cycle. Everybody watches who's in front of them, and when it's their turn, they take advantage of it."

When they watch their older teammates, they immediately learn the aggressive philosophy that has become a trademark of Manatee defensive linemen.

Why wait for a linebacker to deliver the tackle you can make yourself?

"We talk every day about not letting the linebackers make a play," Gulash said. "Be selfish and want to make that play."

That selfishness has rubbed off on his players, in a good way. Every single lineman on this team savors the opportunity to beat his man and reach the backfield with ruthless intensity.

"Our goal is just to get to the ball and destroy whoever has the ball," Keller said.

Manatee's 2013 opponents should consider themselves warned.

As we head into the summer, we've decided to look ahead to the 2012 fall football season by rating which high schools have the best prospects at each position unit. Here is the series schedule:

Wednesday: Offensive Backfields (QB/RB)
Thursday: Pass-Catch Duo (QB to Ind. WR)
Friday: Receiving Corps (Entire Group)
Saturday: Offensive Line
Sunday: Defensive Line
Monday: Linebackers
Tuesday: Secondary

OTHERS OF NOTE (in alphabetical order)

East Point (Ga.) Tri Cities: DT Marcus Adams (three-star prospect, 5.6 rating), DT Dominique Threatt (three-star prospect, 5.6 rating)

Elkton (Md.) Eastern Christian Academy: DE Kenny Bigelow (five-star prospect, 6.1 rating, No. 2 strong-side DE and No. 6 overall prospect in 2013 class, committed to USC), DE Danair Hardrick (two-star prospect, 5.3 rating), DT Isaiah Johnson (two-star prospect, 5.4 rating), DE Manny Serrano (listed in Rivals.com database, though he doesn't have a rating or any reported offers)

Forestville (Md.) Bishop McNamara: DT Darius Commissiong (three-star prospect, 5.6 rating, No. 39 defensive tackle in 2013 class, committed to Georgia Tech), DE Kevin Robbins (three-star prospect, 5.6 rating, No. 34 weak-side defensive end in 2013 class, committed to Georgia Tech)

Houston (Texas) Alief Taylor: DE Ogbonnia Okoronkwo (three-star prospect, 5.6 rating, No. 32 weak-side defensive end in 2013 class), DE Torrodney Prevot (four-star prospect, No. 5 weak-side defensive end and No. 74 overall prospect in 2013 class)

Jackson (Ga.): DE Justin Akins (three-star prospect, 5.6 rating), DT Jay Woods (three-star prospect, 5.7 rating, No. 24 defensive tackle in 2013 class)

Lawton (Okla.): DT Ivan Thomas (2014 prospect with offer from Kansas State), D.J. Ward (four-star prospect, No. 6 weak-side defensive end and No. 121 overall prospect in 2013 class, committed to Oklahoma)

Newnan (Ga.) Northgate: DT DeAndre Johnson (three-star prospect, 5.7 rating, No. 23 defensive tackle in 2013 class, committed to Georgia), DE Sean Spencer (three-star prospect, 5.6 rating, No. 3 strong-side defensive end in 2013 class)

Orlando (Fla.) Jones: DE Kendrick Hair (three-star prospect, 5.6 rating), DE Devin Washington (three-star prospect, 5.7 rating, No. 17 weak-side defensive end in 2013 class, committed to South Carolina)

Sicklerville (N.J.) Timber Creek: DE Dajaun Drennon (three-star prospect, 5.7 rating, No. 22 weak-side defensive end in 2013 class), DT Greg Webb (four-star prospect, No. 7 defensive tackle and No. 106 overall recruit in 2013 class, committed to Penn State)

Trotwood (Ohio) Trotwood-Madison: DE Jarrod Clements (three-star prospect, 5.7 rating, No. 19 strong-side defensive end in 2013 class, committed to Illinois), DT Ryan Reese (2014 prospect with an offer from Illinois), DE Verondtae Wilkinson (2014 prospect with offers from Illinois and Toledo), DE Trey Williams-Brown (three-star prospect, 5.6 rating)

Steve Megargee is the national college columnist for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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