The selection committee believed this position group to be the deepest and, maybe, best pool of talented football players in the Class of 2021. It was really hard to narrow down the nominees. There were several nominees who didn’t make this year’s edition who would have in any other. We have already shared our committee’s impression of both the 2020 & 2021 classes as football players go. In our Linebacker selections, we were looking for players who exhibited good speed, flexibility, and agility, as best as that could be determined from the film we watched and what other pertinent information we could obtain. Some of the nominees, particularly on the outside, were asked to be pass rushers first and foremost in the schemes in which they were deployed which requires the player to be strong, fast, and smart enough to read and react to play-action. Most of these nominees were deployed in 4-3 schemes where strong-side and week-side linebackers were asked to do different things within the defense. The committee believed an All-State linebacker should possess the quickness to play in coverage but, more importantly, he should possess and exhibit the strength and frame to get down hill in run defense and attack the RB and the agility to get to the quarterback, where called upon. As a committee, we thought this might be our strongest position group in the Class of 2021. As we have done with position groups healthy in members, we are breaking the linebackers down and featuring the respective classes separately beginning with the Class of 2021. So, here are the AFI-KPG Freshman All-State Linebackers…
Justice Thompson, 6’0” 225, Louisville Ballard High School
I first wrote about Justice Thompson on April 2, 2017 in an article entitled Justice Thompson Lays Down the Law. In that article, I said that Justice would probably log significant PT for Ballard next year as a freshman if he doesn’t start. Emphasis Added. Well, he started all year long. Justice logged 120 tackles, this year, as Louisville Ballard’s top tackler, with 69 of the tackles being solo. For the record, having stood eye ball to eye ball with Justice on numerous occasions, I believe him to be both taller and heavier than Ballard lists him on their roster. Without anything else on which to go, I guess we will stick with the listed 6’0″ 225, but I would be willing to wager 6’1″ 235 is probably more accurate. Regardless, Justice is just a monster. Justice started at the Mike (MLB) for Louisville Ballard High School. The Bears compete in Kentucky’s highest classification of football, 6A, and count Louisville Male and Trinity as teams it consistently plays. Prior to his stellar Freshman year at Ballard, Justice anchored the Kentucky FBU team which traveled to Naples, FA and finished 6th in the FBU National Championship Tournament. Afterward, he came home to Kentucky and took over the defensive side of the ball in the Tennessee-Kentucky Future Stars Classic, culminating in his being selected the Defensive MVP. His HC at Future Stars was his Defensive Coordinator at Ballard this season, LaKunta Farmer. Farmer had this to say about his freshman, 6A, starter in the middle…Justice will be one of the best LB’s I’ve coached before he graduates. He is very strong and knowledgeable on the field. Uses great technique and fundamentals on every play. The thing that sets him apart from others is his natural instinct to find the ball carrier and bring him down. I was able to share with the committee that I have enjoyed the benefit of watching Thompson play, both live and on film, and have been most impressed with his incredible speed, agility, and explosion as defining athletic attributes. There is a running argument about whom is the best freshman linebacker in Kentucky and most believe it is either Justice Thompson or, our next player featured, Austin Gough. The argument is akin to the old Magic Johnson/Larry Bird debate. In the end, who cares? They are both incredible. Justice is not quite as fast as Gough but he has been consistently timed in the 4.9s in the 40, which is really fast for his size and at his age. I don’t know what his strength numbers are but the way he passes the eye-ball test, they have to be considerable. I can tell you there just can’t be a stronger or more explosive freshman Linebacker in Kentucky than Austin Gough but we also didn’t see a freshman linebacker, especially in Class 6A, who rivaled Justice’s production. There wasn’t a question from anyone on the selection committee that Gough and Justice both were going to be included on this team as linebackers.
Austin Gough, 6’1” 215, Owensboro Senior High School
What can be said about Austin which hasn’t already been said? As for speed and agility, Austin played running back this summer in the Bret Cooper All-American Game in Dallas, Texas and helped lead the East team to the victory behind his 150 yards rushing from scrimmage. Austin was denied the Offensive MVP by its being awarded to QB Shane Hamm from Youngstown, Ohio. Shane played very well too and was deserving as he is listed, consistently, among the top 5 dual threat QBs in the Country by recruiting services; however, the award could just as easily been awarded Austin. As for strength, Austin is bench pressing over 275 and back squatting in the neighborhood of 400 pounds. I have referred to Austin’s speed, power, strength, explosion, agility, athleticism, and quickness are Beowulfian. Something you have difficulty measuring, though, is Football IQ, and very few freshmen have any, at all, but that is something Austin has in abundance. Austin also played OLB (perhaps a bit of foreshadowing) in the All-American game in Dallas and his play stood out there as did his play at RB. Austin was the Offensive MVP of the Tennessee-Kentucky Future Stars Classic this past Summer in Clarksville, Tennessee for his play at RB. Austin has been hand timed in the 40 between 4.7 and 4.8, is a triple-jumper in Track & Field, together with being the Turbo-javelin State Champion, and is a standout in basketball and baseball. Austin is quite an athlete. For the Red Devils defense this year, Austin led Owensboro with 82 tackles, 58 of which were solo, which led the entire Owensboro defense. When one leads the Owensboro defense in tackles as a freshman, it is significant, as OHS has lots of young talent in the Sophomore class at LB in Trace Grenier, the 6’0″ 215 pound LB, a 2020 kid who nearly made this team. Grenier’s numbers where impressive as he will remain a player going forward to closely monitor. This year, Trace Grenier had 70 tackles, 44 of which were solos. Gough is not only putting up numbers like that but he did it at one of Kentucky’s winningest, all-time, football programs in Owensboro Senior. Hard for those numbers to not, somewhat, sway one’s opinion. So who’s Kentucky’s best linebacker? In an article I published on this site August 30, 2017, I asked that same question and analyzed it after the two of them had played just two or so games. Now that the season is over, I still feel Gough is the number one and, perhaps, Thomson is number one-A. I can tell you another member of the committee believed it was diametrically different than how I saw it. I likened it, in the piece about Justice, to the Magic Johnson/Larry Bird debate from the early 80s concerning which one of those marquee stars was the greatest player in professional basketball. Maybe this debate resolves similarly to the one about Johnson/Bird, perhaps the answer is who the Hell cares? After all, Johnson/Bird are both enshrined and Gough/Justice are both selected.
Zach Yates, 5’9″ 200, Logan County High School
On April the 2nd, 2017 we published an article on Kentucky Prep Gridiron entitled, Zach Yates…Some kids are just Football Players. In that article, when Zach was leaving 8th grade and entering 9th, we wrote…Zach Yates is a big LB at 180 pounds (He now is listed at an even 200), but there are bigger; He’s fast, but there’s probably faster. Zach Yates is strong, but there are probably stronger. What there may not be is a football player in the 2021 class who is any more of a baller. Not to toot our own horn, but we also predicted way back in April that…Zach…will likely start for Logan County High School from day one. They just don’t get ballers like this everyday in Logan County. Better days ahead for LCHS as they have a lot of well-coached talent on the way. I am not sure, when I predicted [b]etter days ahead for LCHS, I meant immediately; as the team finished 11-1, as opposed to the 1-9 worksheet it turned in 2016. Oh well, even a blind hog will find him an acorn now and then. How has young Mr. Yates done as a freshman this year? How does 67 total tackles, 40 of which were solos, sound to you? Like I tried to tell you way back in April, Yates is just a football player, end of dictation. What makes Zach so good? Well, Zach always takes the proper angle to the ball carrier and explodes into the backfield with reckless abandon like his rear’s on fire. He sinks, coils and explodes, low to high, through the ball carrier very well and scrapes down the line of scrimmage to put himself in position to make plays. He is a sure tackler and rarely runs by plays as he has a very high football IQ. Whether by Coach Adler, Adler’s defensive staff, the staff in Middle School, or even the boy’s father, this is a kid who has been excellently coached and has responded very well to that coaching. Zach Yates, who wears number 15 and played, in addition to LB, QB for his Middle School Cougar Squad, has lengthened since the All-State, East-West Game, to 5’10” and now weighs an even 200 pounds. He has a vertical leap of 28 inches and a Powerball toss of 35 feet. Zack bench presses 225 pounds and reps the high school rep weight (185) 10 times, while back squatting an even 400 pounds. Analyzing these numbers, Yates, who doesn’t have a registered 40 time on record, would probably run in the 4.9s or low 5s and shuttle in the mid 4s, but I am guessing. Regardless, these numbers tell me Zach has been putting in the work to make himself physically capable of playing Class 4A, Varsity football in Kentucky and his tackle totals indicate he has been playing it like a senior, as opposed to his being a freshman. Zach Yates was an easy selection to our All-State football team.
Preston Spurlock, 5’10” 190, Leslie County High School
Of all the kids I met traveling around the FBU, Team Kentucky circuit with my son William, Preston Spurlock is definitely one of my favorites. On April 2, 2017, I published an article entitled Preston Spurlock…Leslie County’s Tough Man! I said in that article, and reiterate today, that there are just kids who look the part. I don’t know if it is the scowl on Preston Spurlock’s face, his Mohawk, or his penchant for contact but if you were to draw a defensive football player you might even draw his picture. Preston has played nothing but MLB for much of his football life, and at 5’10” and 190 pounds (slimmed down from 225), he is built for it, and he has the hips and explosion for it. He plays with really good pad level, sinks his hips well, and plays with his head up, shoulders back and chest proud. There are questions about his speed, spacial quickness, and coverage skills. He is tailor made to patrol from tackle to tackle, but coaches question whether Preston can fill, pursue, and tackle the cut-back in space? Can he make a drop and cover the TE or Slot slanting or curling into the middle zone? Can he cover the back on the middle screen out of the backfield? Can Preston close out on outside running plays consistently? Well, that is why Preston dropped the weight to attempt to exhibit more speed and demonstrate more phases to his game than playing the run, would be my guess. How did the experiment of a trimmer Preston fare for Leslie County this season? Well, Preston’s high school didn’t report its numbers to the KHSAA, so I called on one of Preston’s coaches in Leslie County and was told Spurlock had 123 solo tackles for the Class 2A, District 8 team which I shared with the selection committee. Something else I shared with the committee was that, according to one of the coaches consulted, Preston registered a whopping 37 tackles for loss together with an interception and a caused fumble. Preston doesn’t have the frame or length of a Gough or Thompson, but no one can question his toughness, desire, or metal. The kid is strong, explosive, powerful, heady, and an absolute joy to coach. Spurlock hits like a ton of bricks, an attribute commonly produced in Kentucky’s coal country, and, in the mind of the committee, Preston was someone whose production alone entitled him to inclusion on the All-State team.
Well, these are the Class of 2021 linebackers for the AFI/KPG Freshman All-State Football Team and why they were selected. Next up, we will break down the Sophomore LB selections, so keep checking the site. Until then, this is Fletcher Long, for Kentucky Prep Gridiron, reminding all those playing football at Kroger Field this next week-end to PLAY THROUGH THE WHISTLE!