Travis Pulliam has the unpleasant duty of knocking heads everyday in practice with Esperanza defensive tackle Travis Kirschke, one of the top college football recruits in the nation.
But Pulliam, a 6-foot-3, 255-pound tackle, is more than just some practice pushover.
He's also one of the best recruits in a talented Orange County senior class.
"He has a 4.4 grade-point average and a lot of Pac-10 schools are looking at him," said Esperanza Coach Gary Meek, listing Stanford, USC and UCLA.
This year's class has more than 40 potential Division I players, compared to only 14 who signed last season, when county teams won six of 10 Southern Section division titles.
"We had some good high school players last year, but some just didn't meet the eyeball test for some of the colleges," Irvine Coach Terry Henigan said. "Some were a step slow, an inch too short or 20 pounds too light."
Colleges such as Nebraska, Stanford, Colorado, Washington and California showed only slight interest in county players last season. In 1990, those schools signed at least two county players, with Nebraska landing three. Thirty-five players signed that year.
This year appears to be another strong class that features quality and quantity.
"There are more suspects out there than prospects right now," said Dick Lascola of the Scouting Evaluation Assn. of Fallbrook. "Some of those suspects will become prospects, but some of the others won't cut it."
But two players who are guaranteed to cut it are Kirschke and Los Alamitos quarterback Tim Carey.
Kirschke, 6-5, 255 pounds, is being recruited by UCLA, Washington, USC, Colorado, Notre Dame and Miami. UCLA appears to be the early front-runner.
Carey, 6-4, 175 pounds, is choosing from several schools, including USC, Stanford, Washington, UCLA, Texas, Notre Dame, Miami, Colorado and Cal. He's ranked sixth in the nation among quarterbacks by SuperPrep magazine.
"Tim did very well at our scouting combine," Lascola said. "I was impressed with his throwing, as were many coaches. He helped himself tremendously here."
Other top quarterbacks are Trabuco Hills' Pat Barnes and Estancia's Matt Johner. Colorado, Texas and the Pac-10 schools are recruiting Barnes, and Johner has interest from Pac-10 schools and BYU.
Lascola said Barnes rated among the leaders at his position in several categories at the scouting combine last spring.
"Pat's a different type of quarterback than Carey," Lascola said. "Tim is what we call a drop-back power passer because of his size. Pat's quicker and can sprint out of the pocket and challenge the cornerback."
Lascola said he also was impressed with Edison defensive tackle Kyle Murphy, who's being recruited by USC, UCLA, Washington and Miami. Other top linemen include Brea-Olinda's Chris Conrad (6-7, 270 pounds) and Ryan Watkins (6-6, 260) and Mater Dei's defensive tackle Nicky Sualua.
Capistrano Valley tight end Blake Spence, coming off surgery that repaired tendon damage in both shoulders last season, is listed among the top 25 recruits on the West Coast by SuperPrep magazine. Spence is being recruited by Washington, Colorado, Cal, Stanford, Arizona State and Oregon.
Sunny Hills' Brian Willmer is another good tight end, but most colleges are looking at him as a linebacker. Willmer, who was outstanding at Lascola's combine, has drawn interest from Penn State, UCLA, Stanford and Washington.
"He tested very well," Lascola said. "He has great speed and quickness for a linebacker. He's very aggressive."
Other top linebackers include Irvine's Ryan Jones, Mater Dei's Parker Gregg and Rancho Alamitos' Leon Vickers and Cawan Starks.
Arizona State and Oklahoma are among the schools recruiting Jones for football, but Henigan said Jones might decide to play baseball.
Gregg's list includes Colorado, Stanford, Arizona State and Oregon.
Starks and Vickers might be the most highly recruited linebacker tandem in the county. Colorado, Nevada Las Vegas and San Diego State are among the schools recruiting Starks. USC, Arizona State, Cal and Stanford are interested in Vickers.
Running back Jeff Byrd, Starks' and Vickers' teammate at Rancho Alamitos, is being recruited by Nebraska, Cal, Stanford and the military academies.
Mater Dei's Ray Jackson and Brian Barajas lead the list of the county's top defensive backs. Jackson is looking at several Pac-10 schools, and Barajas has drawn interest from Florida, Colorado, Oklahoma, UCLA and Cal. Several schools also are interested in El Toro's Pat McAdam and Servite's A.J. Gass.
Sean O'Brien, Santa Margarita's quarterback/free safety, is perhaps the county's most versatile recruit. USC is recruiting him as a linebacker, Cal as a tight end and Colorado as a quarterback.
"Wherever he decides to go," Santa Margarita Coach Jim Hartigan said, "(it) will depend on what position he wants to play."
Orange County's Top Football Recruits
Player Pos. School Ht. Wt. Aaron Anderson OT El Toro 6-4 240 Brian Barajas DB Mater Dei 5-11 170 Pat Barnes QB Trabuco Hills 6-4 207 Scott Bogdan OL Corona del Mar 6-2 230 Jeff Brizic RB El Toro 5-9 185 Marshall Brown QB-WR Rancho Alamitos 6-0 175 Jeff Byrd RB Rancho Alamitos 5-10 160 Tim Carey QB Los Alamitos 6-4 175 Cody Charley DB Estancia 6-1 175 Chris Conrad OL-DL Brea-Olinda 6-7 270 Mike Coppola LB Servite 6-2 210 Brian Davies OT Irvine 6-3 235 A.J. Gass DB Servite 6-3 185 Cordell Graham WR Trabuco Hills 5-9 165 Parker Gregg LB Mater Dei 6-1 228 Sean Gully OT Irvine 6-5 245 Tom Hess DB Corona del Mar 6-2 200 Ryan Holmes LB El Modena 6-3 235 Ray Jackson DB Mater Dei 6-2 197 Matt Johner QB Estancia 6-2 180 Julian Jones WR Servite 6-2 175 Ryan Jones LB Irvine 6-2 225 Travis Kirschke OG-DT Esperanza 6-5 255 J.J. Lynch OT Los Alamitos 6-3 275 Jeff Malone OT Servite 6-3 235 Pat McAdam DB El Toro 6-1 185 Bill McMullen OT Los Alamitos 6-3 245 Robert Meeker LB Dana Hills 6-3 220 Kyle Murphy DT Edison 6-4 245 Brent Noonan OT Santa Margarita 6-2 220 Sean O'Brien QB-DB Santa Margarita 6-4 220 Chad Peare LB Trabuco Hills 6-0 230 Travis Pulliam OT Esperanza 6-2 252 Beau Ralphs DT Newport Harbor 6-4 245 George Roberts DT Edison 6-4 245 George Sagen WR Los Alamitos 6-0 180 Scott Seal RB Irvine 6-1 205 Bennie Smith DT Dana Hills 6-3 240 Blake Spence TE Capistrano Valley 6-4 230 Cawan Starks LB Rancho Alamitos 6-0 205 Nicky Sualua RB-DT Mater Dei 5-11 225 Leon Vickers RB-LB Rancho Alamitos 6-1 205 Ryan Watkins OT-DT Brea-Olinda 6-6 260 Brian Willmer TE-LB Sunny Hills 6-3 225 Jon Wimbish QB-DB Huntington Beach 6-1 185 Marchant Wright RB Los Alamitos 5-11 175
Player Where They Might Go Aaron Anderson Pac-10, Purdue, Kansas, Texas, Texas A&M; Brian Barajas Florida, UCLA, Cal, Colorado, Oklahoma Pat Barnes Colorado, Texas, Pac-10 schools Scott Bogdan Army, Arizona, Oregon Jeff Brizic Military academies, Big West schools Marshall Brown Pac-10, Big Eight schools Jeff Byrd Nebraska, Cal, Stanford, military academies Tim Carey USC, Stanford, Washington, UCLA, Texas, Notre Dame, Miami, Colorado, Cal Cody Charley Fresno St., UNLV, Pacific, Nevada Chris Conrad USC, Oregon, Washington St., Washington Mike Coppola Cal, San Diego St., UCLA, Colorado St. Brian Davies Pacific, Utah St. A.J. Gass UCLA, San Diego St., Tennessee Cordell Graham Arizona State, Kansas, Washington State Parker Gregg Arizona St., Texas A&M;, Colorado, Washington St., Oregon, Stanford, UCLA Sean Gully Pac-10, Pacific, Fresno St., San Diego St. Tom Hess Army, Arizona, Oregon Ryan Holmes USC, UCLA, Cal, Nebraska, Colorado Arizona St. Ray Jackson UCLA, USC, Colorado, Washington, Cal, Arizona St. Matt Johner Cal, USC, Washington St., Army, Navy, UCLA, BYU, Fresno St. Julian Jones Military academies Ryan Jones Arizona St., Oklahoma Travis Kirschke UCLA, Washington, USC, Colorado, Notre Dame, Miami J.J. Lynch Big West, Pac-10 schools Jeff Malone Cal, San Diego St., UCLA, Colorado St. Pat McAdam Cal, Stanford, Kansas, Purdue, Texas, Texas A&M; Bill McMullen Nebraska, Arizona St., Washington, Cal, USC, Colorado Robert Meeker Cal, Arizona, Arizona St. Kyle Murphy USC, UCLA, Washington, Miami Brent Noonan USD, Utah St., Washington St., New Mexico Sean O'Brien Colorado, Cal, USC, Washington Chad Peare Arizona, Fresno State, Navy, UNLV Washington State Travis Pulliam Stanford, USC, UCLA Beau Ralphs Cal, Fresno State, Nevada George Roberts USC, UCLA, Washington, Miami George Sagen Several Big West, Pac-10 schools Scott Seal Army, Navy, other Division I schools Bennie Smith Cal, UCLA, USC, Washington Blake Spence Washington, Colorado, Cal, Stanford, Arizona St., Oregon Cawan Starks Colorado, UNLV, San Diego St. Nicky Sualua Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado, UNLV Leon Vickers USC, UCLA, Arizona St., Cal, Stanford Ryan Watkins USC, Oregon, Washington St., Washington Brian Willmer Penn St., UCLA, Stanford, Washington Jon Wimbish Colorado, Stanford, Washington State San Diego State Marchant Wright Nevada, Northern Arizona
Note: Colleges listed are only a few notables recruiting each player. Signing period is Feb. 3-April 1.
Sources: County coaches, players, scouts and SuperPrep magazine.