Mark Bradford saw the magazine when it circulated at the end of summer. There was the most heralded prospect on the cover, flashing an All-American smile, representing the one player everyone was going to talk about during this high school football season.
Bradford was looking at Woodland Hills Taft senior receiver Steve Smith, and he had no problem with that call.
“I’m happy for him,” said Bradford, a star receiver himself for Fremont High. “I’ve known him since we were 13 or 14. He works hard. He deserves everything he gets.”
Any conversation about the best wide receivers in California usually begins with the immensely talented Smith. With 211 receptions in his three-year varsity career before Friday, he will go down as one of the state’s finest athletes in recent memory.
“I like him,” Franklin Coach Armando Gonzalez said of Smith. “I wish I had him.”
But Smith is only one of many talented senior receivers coming out of Southern California this year. Whitney Lewis of Ventura St. Bonaventure, Quintin Daniels of L.A. Loyola and Devin Stearns of Gardena Serra are other top-level recruits drawing attention from major college programs.
The others reside in the City Section. In what is the year of the receiver, the section is home to Smith, Bradford, B.J. Vickers of Venice, Brandon Powers of Franklin, Gary White of Jefferson and Greg Chatman of Carson.
Recruiting expert Allen Wallace said the depth of talent sets the position apart in what he called a down year overall in Southern California.
“They all can be super talents at the college level,” Wallace said. “These guys aren’t just good prospects. Smith, Bradford and Lewis are guys that have been identified as ones that will play in the NFL.”
Taft Coach Troy Starr thinks the intangibles of the position and pure football knowledge are what set Smith, the reigning City Section player of the year, apart.
“Steve’s definitely in a class by himself,” Starr said. “Superior eye-hand coordination. Terrific leaping ability. He’s got pure football skills, some things you can’t measure with a stopwatch.”
But Smith is only one of a number of prolific receivers on his own team. Paul Pratt, the Toreadors’ No. 3 receiver, led the team with 38 catches for 639 yards and 12 touchdowns going into Friday’s game. Noah Smith is drawing Division I attention with his blazing speed.
Another prize catch is the 6-3, 200-pound Vickers. Often using his imposing frame to fend off smaller players, the senior was averaging 24.4 yards on 36 receptions and had 13 touchdowns going into Friday’s game. Venice also has 6-2 Antwuan Giddens (30 receptions, 584 yards) on the other side to keep defenses honest.
“B.J. has great vision,” Venice Coach Angelo Gasca said. “And he’s better after the catch. With his size and speed, he’s what everybody is looking for in a receiver.”
Vickers said the recruiting process has been more intense than he thought it would be. That doesn’t keep him from eyeing his future.
“Coach [Gasca] tells me that I’ll be great at the high school level but that I’ve also got to look past that,” said the senior, who is being recruited by Oregon, Washington, Michigan State, Tennessee and others. "[Steve’s] at a school that wins championships. But I know that [winning at] this level doesn’t matter anyway. I want to play in the NFL one day.”
Fremont Coach Pete Duffy said the 6-1, 185-pound Bradford is the most level-headed player he has coached.
“He’s the type of guy that kids just rally around,” Duffy said. “It doesn’t matter if he’s catching a touchdown pass or running a decoy for us. He only catches five or six balls a game. We could get him the ball nine or 10 times a game and he’d have amazing stats, but he doesn’t need that.”
Jefferson’s White doesn’t have the big numbers either, but his coach, Doi Johnson, is his biggest fan. White engineered the Democrats’ upset of Gardena earlier this year with a game-winning 35-yard reception in the final minute and a game-saving interception at the goal line.
“No disrespect to anybody, but Gary White is one of the best receivers in the City,” Johnson said. “He deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Steve Smith. He’s that good.”
One player putting up big numbers is Powers. The 6-2 senior from Franklin entered play this week among Southland leaders with 50 receptions for 980 yards and 15 touchdowns. Powers, who wasn’t on the recruiters’ radar this summer, said Arizona State and Washington State have shown some interest.
“I’m trying hard to put up numbers,” he said. “It makes me work that much harder to get my name out there.”
The common thread with all of them is an affinity for the big play that electrifies a crowd. It’s why Bradford wants to be a receiver in college.
“Just the excitement of playing with the game on the line and catching an end zone pass in between two defenders,” he said. “The thrill of that is what makes me want to play there.”
Wallace said Southern California is getting a big thrill out of watching all of these athletes in action.
“I can’t remember a time where there’s been such a conglomerate of players at that particular position,” he said.
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A statistical look at some of the highly recruited senior receivers in the Southland before games Friday night:
*--* Player School Rec Yds Avg TDs Mark Bradford Fremont 28 482 17.2 6 Greg Chatman Carson 20 407 20.4 3 Whitney Lewis St. Bonaventure 33 716 21.7 19 Brian Paysinger Long Beach Wilson 46 760 16.5 8 Brandon Powers Franklin 50 980 19.6 15 Steve Smith Taft 26 457 17.5 6 Devin Stearns Serra 16 461 28.8 7 B.J. Vickers Venice 36 877 24.4 13 Gary White Jefferson 42 609 14.5 8