Scouting the Florida standout

From the beginning, receivers have been a high priority for this year's Alabama signing class. And Will Oakley of St. Augustine, Florida looks like he can help.

A highlight tape is just that, a compilation of good-to-excellent plays made by a given prospect during the year. But after watching catch after catch and run after run, most of which ended in the endzone, I came away impressed with the youngster.

Oakley's database numbers (6-1 and 190 pounds) are accurate. I know because I met him in person and specifically sized him up. His reported time in the 40-yard dash of 4.45 is harder to verify, but there is no question he runs very well. And Will Oakley did make it to the state finals last season running the hurdles. Plus, at Alabama's mini-camp this summer he recorded a 36-inch vertical jump.

He's an athlete.

Will Oakley committed relatively early to Alabama and has held firm ever since. His father, Bill, played baseball for the Tide.

Nease High School was blessed with a left-handed, down-the-field passer this year, and the two combined to put up some impressive numbers. Oakley finished with 67 receptions for almost 1,300 yards. He averaged 19.1 yards per catch and took it to the house 14 times as a receiver.

Included in his stats is a notation for 500+ YAKs. Otherwise known as "yards after catch," I definitely don't dispute that stat, after watching his tape. Time after time Oakley would catch the ball a few yards in front of the cornerback, make a slight adjustment to let the would-be tackler go by, then immediately turn upfield for more yardage.

After making the catch, for Oakley the play had only just begun. A side-step here, a dead-leg there, and before you knew it he had added 15 yards on the end of the reception.

Most receivers will make that sideline catch and either go down or out of bounds. Not Oakley. His favorite technique was to catch the ball in front of his man, then side-step him and head to the middle of the field, essentially turning a simple pass route into a fire-break punt return.

A lot of high school receivers are good going deep, but when the route calls for them to catch the ball in traffic they mysteriously disappear. The 10-15 yard slant was one of Oakley's favorite routes. Of course he'll face bigger DBs in college, but as a senior he often simply shielded the defender from the ball and used his strength to make the play. When smaller defensive backs did manage to latch on, Oakley's very good lower-body strength often allowed him to break the tackle.

Nease's coaches liked to stretch the defense vertically, and often Oakley was their man. On the middle post or a deep-sideline, if the defender lost concentration for a moment Oakley was by him and open deep. That knack plus his soft hands made for a deadly combination. 67 catches is one thing, but still averaging almost 20 yards per reception proves his ability as a deep threat.

Oakley was just as impressive on underneath routes. He has a feel for finding the open spot in a zone, always giving his quarterback a good target. On sideline routes he showed a good awareness for the sideline, dragging a foot in-bounds. And on the occasional off-target pass, Oakley showed no fear in laying out to make the grab.

Note Oakley's distinctive, low-to-the-ground running style, which provides excellent balance in the open field.

The Nease quarterback liked to roll out, which played (literally) right into Oakley's hands. Time after time the two would look for each other, invariably hooking up for a 15-yard-plus gain.

And best of all, when his quarterback was flushed from the pocket, Oakley instinctively knew to come back for the football--a quarterback's best friend.

Oakley also returned punts and kickoffs for his team, which allowed him to use his talent for running in traffic. For a relatively tall athlete, he runs low to the ground, keeping his balance. Oakley has quick feet and a knack for moving just enough one way or another to cause the defender to miss.

On kickoffs he showed patience, following his blocks well. A move here, a broken tackle there, and pretty soon he's at midfield.

On punt returns, he played very close, which meant that often the ball ended up being kicked over his head. But he actually seemed to like it when that happened, running the punt down and fielding it over his shoulder like a pass. Then with the coverage invariably disorganized, he'd turn upfield looking to score. In the open field Oakley has the ability to stop, start and then rapidly accelerate through traffic.

Not surprisingly, the Nease coaches also used him on the end-around, both the slow-developing, long-yardage type, and a quick hitter that had him going in motion and taking the hand off from the quarterback at the snap. The highlight tape also showed one bubble screen in which Oakley's size seemed to be an almost unfair advantage over smaller prep DBs.

Oakley hauls in one of his 14 touchdown receptions this year.

Oakley projects as a full qualifier and will report this summer to get a head start on college and conditioning.

Along with Oakley, the Tide coaches have garnered pledges from five other talented wideouts, including Nikita Stover, Ezekiel Knight, Keith Brown, D.J. Hall and Marcel Stamps. Also, Aaron McDaniel could project at either receiver or defensive back.

RECRUITING NOTES: Alabama is allowed to bring in 19 new scholarshipped players this fall. The Tide is expected to sign as many as 25-26 players in February, anticipating that several will not become qualified. It's also possible that one or more players may be asked to delay entry into The University until the following January, counting against 2005 scholarship numbers, depending on how qualifying issues play out.

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