By BRAD KEITH
For three days amongst elite football prospects handpicked by past NFL players and coaches, Zane Walker and Blu Caylor of Stephenville turned heads and made names for themselves as top tier linebackers in the Class of 2019.
The campus of South Pointe High School in the legendary football town of Rock Hill, South Carolina is transformed each July into one of high school football’s most sacred proven grounds. It’s the Top Gun Showcase, where only the best Football University performers from 2o camps around the country were gathered July 8-10 to determine the brightest recruits in each class.
Walker and Caylor earned spots on the prestigious All-FBU Top Gun High School Team, and will be documented nationwide as 2019 FBU top 50 linebackers. They are also among 600 underclassmen selected for a national combine that determines some of the selections for the annual US Army All-American Bowl.
The January 5 national combine – modeled after the NFL Draft Combine but less exhaustive – includes two attempts in the 40-yard dash, one each way in the short shuttle and three tries in the vertical jump. There is also a seminar followed by 1-on-1 competitions, all watched closely by the selection committee charged with finding the brightest stars for the next Army game in 2019.
It’s a chance for boys like Caylor and Walker to make childhoods come true.
“I’ve been watching football since my eyes opened, and I’ve always wanted to play in one of the two big alls-tar games, the Army or the Under Armour,” Caylor said. “Just knowing that I’ll be at the combine in front of (the selection committee) is such a blessing. I don’t even know where to start to describe it, it’s awesome.”
Walker called the FBU camps, specifically the Top Gun Showcase, the most complete football camps he’s ever attended or even imagined, with everything from leadership to education stressed off the field just as much as tackling was for linebackers on the field.
“They just have the most unbelievable coaches, and they’re not just out there because they’re being paid to do it, they’re out there because they like seeing kids succeed and they want to help with that,” Walker said. “I know they did a great job with us, because I know I got better and Blu got better just in the little time we were there.”
Caylor and Walker did much of their work under the tutelage of Quentin Coryatt, FBU linebackers coach at Southwest Region camps and the Top Gun Showcase, as well retired coach and defensive guru Steve Szabo, head coach over linebackers at the showcase.
“(Szabo) preached on leadership, telling us linebackers have to take charge, and I think that’s something were really needed to hear and take back to Stephenville with us,” Walker said.
“Hearing the coaches say it’s the linebackers’ job to take control of the defense was big for us,” Caylor agreed. “Hearing that’s what we need to do kind of encouraged us to come out of our shells a little bit and be the ones firing the guys up and communicate, helping everyone on the defense, not just us, to get in the best position to make plays.”
Coryatt, a 1991 second-team All-America selection Southwest Conference Defensive Player of the Year and the No. 2 overall selection in the 1992 NFL Draft, cited the performances of Walker and Caylor at camps in San Antonio and Austin, issuing both double invites to Top Gun.
He also made sure they understand the importance of things off the field and of prioritizing them correctly.
“He’s so big on education. He reminded us we won’t go anywhere on the field if we aren’t also doing big things in the classroom,” Walker said.
The linebacker prospects found first-hand knowledge from Coryatt’s NFL experience invaluable.
“He just has so much knowledge that you only get playing in the NFL,” said Walker. “He talked about technique to get you moving downhill faster and the way you have to change your angles to the ball depending on how fast somebody is each week.”
By the time the boys were done at the Top Gun Showcase, they had 1-on-1 athlete-to-mentor relationships with Coryatt, who was with the Indianapolis Colts from 1992 through 1998 and the Dallas Cowboys in 1999. Their fathers now consider him a friend.
“My dad, Kyle, and Asher, Zane’s step dad, they love Coach Coryatt,” Blu said. “It was cool seeing them get along with him and be able to talk to him and hear how he thinks we’re doing.”
Szabo coached in NCAA Division I 30 of his 42 years in the business and was an assistant coach at Ohio State in the 1980 national championship game. The other 12 years were spent in the NFL, where he was an assistant coach in the 2003 Super Bowl with the New England Patriots. And after all that he went to work for the national leader in skill enhancement among serious prep prospects. To say Szabo has recruiting connections is like saying Zane and Blu enjoy football.
Szabo believes Walker and Caylor will benefit from one another’s success, saying its’s easy to point coaches toward Stephenville because he knows they can evaluate and recruit two for the price of one. That may not mean the same to college coaches as running the 40 in 4.3 seconds, but with the solid reputation of Football University and Szabo himself, it’s a stamp of approval that certainly can’t hurt.
The Division I track record with recruits from from Stephenville is beneficial, too, with guys such as Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham, a 2014 5-star whose name is included on Heisman Trophy watch lists. Then there’s Tyler Jones, the starting QB during a transition from FCS to FBS at Texas State, and Aiavion Edwards, the leading tackler last fall at Baylor. In defensive back Cody Davis, Stephenville even has an alumnus in the NFL. Davis graduated from Texas Tech and is entering his fifth season with the Los Angeles Rams.
Media exposure is a perk of standing out at the Top Gun Showcase, particularly from 24/7 Sports and Next College Student Athlete (NCSA).The official online selection partner of the US Army All-american Bowl, 24/7 sports will publish online recruiting profiles for Walker, Caylor and other Top Gun standouts. NCSA uses its network, which FBU says reaches “99 percent of American college coaches,” to place students in schools that fit their needs.
Awards and exposure are important for recruits, but not as much as developing further and enhancing their skills.
Nobody has a successful 3-day plan for producing 5-star athletes. That’s why FBU targets only serious players they believe will take home the unique position-specific training experience with NFL coaches and continue to practice what they’ve learned until it becomes instinctual.
“They teach on the fly so there is so much you learn about technique and angles and dropping into pass coverage,” said Caylor. “But you can’t just work on it for three days. You have to keep working and trying to master your craft.”
Speed is often the biggest difference maker in the level of college programs recruiting a prospects.
“I think speed is something both of us have to improve. We’re big and strong, but speed is where it’s at,” said Walker. “And, of course, tackling. I know I myself expect to be a much better tackler this year, and some of the techniques and angle adjustments we learned should help with that.”
Walker and Caylor have vowed to hold each other accountable for making the most of their FBU instruction, and for making their Division I football dreams come true.
“I think me being with Zane is perfect because we’re two guys who like to push each other,” said Caylor. “The coaches would watch us work together and could tell right away how we were communicating with each other and just how comfortable we were playing together.”
Walker feels the same.
“Being there with someone who’s like a brother helped me and I’m sure it helped Blu, too,” he said. “We were excited with how we performed and just feel blessed to have experienced it. There is no other camp like Top Gun. It was an experience that I know will make me a better football player.”
An experience that increased their excitement for the upcoming season.
“When you get around all that crazy talent and those awesome coaches you can’t help but get excited,” Walker said. “I can’t wait to get out there and be a leader on our team and make the defense better. That will make it easier on the offense, which will make us a better overall team.
Caylor is just as fired up.
I don’t know if it’s possible for me to get any more excited,” said Caylor. “The time is now because this is our junior year and we have a small window left to make a name for ourselves. The best way to do that is to get the team winning and get back to the top.”