We released our ESPN 300 for college football’s 2023 recruiting class. There has already been ample opportunity through the late winter and early spring to evaluate prospects from all over.
While we prioritize our rankings off game tape, our supplemental spring evaluations are instrumental in showing physical and athletic development from the fall.
Two quarterbacks reign at the top of the class: Arch Manning, the nephew of Super Bowl champions Peyton and Eli, and Malachi Nelson, who is committed to USC.
But while they headline the class, several other prospects climbed up the rankings, either earning a fifth star or skyrocketing from unranked to the top 100.
We break down the battle between No. 1 and No. 2 and highlight the prospects you need to keep an eye on.
Quarterbacks are oftentimes the most difficult projection to make for a variety of reasons — usually, it’s related to unknown variables.
Since our initial ranking in 2006, only eleven has a pair of quarterbacks occupied the top two slots in the ESPN 300. The 2018 class featured No. 1 overall player Justin Fields and No. 2 overall prospect Trevor Lawrence. Safe to say, those two panned out.
It’s going to be fun to watch both Manning and Nelson develop as they open our first edition of the ESPN 300 for the 2023 class. Can they go wire to wire? We take a look at how they compare to each other and whom they currently resemble at the college level.
QB Arch Manning
Isidore Newman High School (La.)
2023 ESPN 300 ranking: 1
Player comparison: Kenny Pickett
Most of this comparison is due to the impressive, underrated speed both Manning and Pickett possess. The 6-foot-3, 204-pound Manning is by far the best athlete of his family, and while he might look like a prototypical pocket passer, his ability to extend plays and make off-platform throws is one of his greatest assets. the. This is an area that Pickett revealed this past fall. Plain and simple, Manning can run — and a lot better than he gets credit for.
As passers, we see similar styles and mechanics between them. They are not overly loose, but when necessary, both players can change arm angles to suit the throw.
Neither player is dynamic or dangerous as a pure runner, but what we like are their skills as a passer coupled with their functional mobility on the move, meaning opposing defenses need to account for both the throw and the run in every situation.
QB Malachi Nelson
Los Alamitos High School (Calif.)
2023 ESPN 300 ranking: 2
Player comparison: Spencer Rattler
This comparison is largely due to Nelson’s and Rattler’s passing styles. In fact, they look a lot like the same player when comparing Nelson’s high school tape to Rattler’s film.
Nelson (6-4, 184) has about three inches on Rattler (6-1, 200), and Rattler has much more bulk on his frame, so from a measurable standpoint there are differences.
However, the ability to get rid of the ball in a smooth, loose, compact manner is uncanny. They both possess whip-like deliveries, and the ball jumps off their hands with velocity and quickness. When necessary, both guys can change arm angles — from over the top to three-quarters to sidearm to a flick of the wrist — to suit the throw and get the ball out.
In doing so, neither player seems to lose arm power when having to change arm angles, which makes them dangerous on the run because they can make difficult throws off balance or across the body look effortless.
How do they compare?
From a measurable standpoint, both Manning and Nelson are very similar in stature, with Manning having a slight edge weight-wise, though that should even out over time.
Their arm strengths are very comparable. Both prospects can make all the necessary throws at the next level. Nelson has a bit more natural wrist velocity and has more RPM on his throws than Manning. Arch is more like Peyton in this regard.
While both quarterbacks are passers first, runners second, Manning and Nelson are both excellent on the move. On the run, off platform, off balance and under duress, both players thrive at extending plays and moving the chains with the arm or their feet when it appears a negative play is imminent.
As far as polish is concerned, Manning has a slight edge here. He is a little more consistent and efficient in his methods than him – more structured than sandlot. However, this is where Nelson has upside to gain ground and improve. Nelson is so gifted but more of a freelancer. Both like to take calculated risks knowing they have a talent advantage at the high school level.
From a grooming perspective, Manning has, of course, had some advantages in his development. That said, Nelson might have a higher ceiling in this area. Nelson, who flipped his commitment from Oklahoma to USC after Lincoln Riley changed jobs, is going into an offensive system that could not be a better fit for his skill set from him. Wherever Manning ends up, time will tell, but his skill set from him will fit into any system.
Big movers from the Jr. 300
OL Francis Mauigoa
2023 ESPN 300 ranking: 5
Old Jr. 300 rank: 8
Mauigoa earned his fifth star in this release. Since 2019, IMG Academy has produced three five-star offensive linemen in Evan Neal, JC Latham and Tyler Booker. Mauigoa looks to be the next elite offensive big man to come out of Bradenton, Florida. Amongst that group, he might best compare to Latham with better explosiveness and agility. With his massive size (6-6, 325), he can certainly control and push defenders around, but his mobility and range as a blocker have helped slot him atop the O-line rankings in the initial ESPN 300. Alabama, Oregon and USC are at the top of the list looking for their services.
DE Da’Shawn Womack
2023 ESPN 300 ranking: 93
Old Jr. 300 ranking: 250
Playing opposite Derrick Moore, a top-five defensive end in the 2022 class, Womack was overshadowed a bit last season. However, we had opportunities to see him several times in game action on ESPN, and he proved to be just as disruptive as Moore. A prospect with similar size (6-4, 255) and great physical upside, Womack is a more explosive and faster overall player than Moore. Posting NFL combine-like results at Saint Frances Academy’s (Md.) recent pro day, Womack will continue to climb our rankings. Penn State and Michigan are pushing the hardest at this early stage.
RB Cedric Baxter Jr.
2023 ESPN 300 ranking: 51
Old Jr. 300 rank: 138
The 6-1, 210-pound Baxter is a big, tall, physical indoor runner. A one-cut slasher, Baxter bobs and weaves through inside traffic with an explosive burst to bounce outside. Baxter is not a sudden darter or jump-cut guy, but he can push the pile with power, like a Wisconsin-style back. He has posted sub-4.6 40-yard laser times, which is outstanding given his size. We’ve been able to see his development of him over the past two years on the camp and combine circuits, and his game tape of him now mirrors those performances. Alabama, Ohio State and Florida are making the strongest push for Baxter.
C.B. Dijon Johnson
2023 ESPN 300 ranking: 216
Old Jr. 300 rank: 113
Johnson could also be in the athlete category, as his ball skills, hands and ability to make plays in space are terrific. However, cornerback is the money position, and he could also move inside at nickel or even safety given his frame from him. He’s long and lean with good coordination, agility and body control. At 6-1, 187 pounds, he posted a 1.65 10-yard split and 30-inch vertical jump at the Miami Under Armor camp this spring, showcasing his excellent explosiveness. Oklahoma seems to be the early favorite, with USC and Miami making a push.
New to the ESPN 300
RB Jeremiyah Love
2023 ESPN 300 ranking: 90
We really like Love as a prospect because he’s still a bit raw but so naturally explosive. He’s a high-cut running back with outstanding verified track speed. His top-end speed is much better than his initial burst and quickness, but he still flashes good lateral agility and open-field running instincts. At 6-1, 195 pounds, Love posted a 10.76 100-meter in 2021, garnering lots of recent recruiting attention. Love is still flying somewhat under the radar nationally and could explode this fall. Notre Dame seems to be the early leader with his emphasis on academics and football.
R.B. Cole Cabana
2023 ESPN 300 ranking: 108
Committed to: Michigan
This Michigan commit is really exciting. He reminds us of Clemson’s Will Shipley, but he might have better top-end long speed. He posted times of 6.85 seconds in the 60-meter and 10.69 seconds in the 100-meter in 2021. He has exceptional burst, can shift gears, exploit the cutback and has polished ball skills out of the backfield. A 5-11, 180-pound prospect who is only going to get bigger and stronger, Cabana has good physical upside. In the open field, he is a dangerous player capable of taking plays to the house, which should bring excitement to Ann Arbor.
ATH Eugene Wilson III
2023 ESPN 300 ranking: 150
Wilson earned top performer at Under Armor Miami camp this spring, posting an explosive 1.68 10-yard split and a laser-timed 4.49 40. He’s a really instinctive and competitive prospect with Power 5 talent. Though he lacks ideal height (5-11, 170), he has the speed and quickness to cover top-level prospects and lock down fast receivers. He exhibits impressive change-of-direction skills and short-area burst to close separation. Wilson has great ball skills to make plays as well. Look for Florida to be a major contender.
DE Collins Acheampong
2023 ESPN 300 ranking: 165
The most intriguing prospect in this class is unquestionably Acheampong, a rangy edge defender with limited experience but tremendous upside. Originally from Ghana, he came to the United States to pursue basketball but has developed into a sought-after gridiron prospect despite having just one year of high school football experience. Able to play only his freshman season due to Fairmont Prep (Calif.)’S COVID restrictions, Acheampong elicits excitement with his raw potential skill from him. At 6-7, 235 pounds, and with an 83-inch wingspan and a 7.33 L-drill, he has a Jadeveon Clowney-esque blend of length and agility, and combines that with the raw upside of 2013 late riser Chris Jones, who now stars with the Kansas City Chiefs. Look for Acheampong to stay out west with Oregon, USC, UCLA and Washington recruiting him the hardest.
OL Tosin Babalade
2023 ESPN 300 ranking: 284
Initially, the big man out of Maryland was not slated to be in the ESPN 300, but an MVP performance at a Baltimore Under Armor camp brought us back to his film and propelled him into this ranking. He is a thickly built, powerful 6-4, 300-pounder with an aggressive style and good feet. He moved well in drills and was a wall in one-on-one drills, not only winning reps but quickly setting, getting into position and barely giving any ground. He’s a rare big body with good flexibility and balance. He’s really tough to shake once he gets locked on and is a nasty finisher. Amongst a good offensive line class, Babalade is proving he should not be overlooked. Virginia Tech and Rutgers are recruiting him the hardest early on.