HOOVER, Ala. -- In a game when they really needed him Antonio Conner did all he could for South Panola High School. But in the end, he and his Tigers teammates fell short against Hoover (Ala.) 24-13. Conner, a junior standout, had a breakout performance in all three phases of the game and showed why he will potentially be one of the most coveted prospects in the country next season.
"That No. 12 is a heck of a player," Hoover coach Josh Niblett said. "You know he's going to get his. He's something else."
Conner, 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds, tried to put the Tigers on his back. The standout safety had a couple of huge hits in the secondary, on offense he got loose on the perimeter and showcased his terrific speed and he made his presence felt on special teams as well, returning one punt 75 yards for the Tigers' first score. He also scored on a 5-yard run late in the contest.
"It's very disappointing that we lost," Conner said. "We just didn't play well at all. You have to credit Hoover. They came out and played ball. We just have to go back out, work hard, watch film and get better. For me, I feel good with the way I played. I did all I could to help us try and win. It wasn't enough."
There's no denying Conner is a special and unique talent. He is fearless in the secondary, plays well in coverage and is terrific in run support. Offensively, he's a weapon who can score from anywhere on the field.
"Antonio is just a big-play guy," South Panola coach Lance Pogue said. "I mean he's a home run hitter. It's tough on him because right now we need him offensively. To play both ways, every play is hard. We have to give him some breaks."
In fact, in this game, Conner actually played more on defense because the Tigers were having such a difficult time sustaining any kind of offense.
"I just want to win," Conner said. "I just want to get the job done. If they need me more on offense I am fine with that. I prefer defense. I am more comfortable on defense. But I will do what my coaches want me to do."
While this may have been a breakout game for Conner nationally, he has already made quite a name for himself back home and in the South. According to Conner, he already has verbal scholarship offers from Alabama, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Texas A&M.
"I really don't have a favorite or anything," Conner said. "I really just need to start talking to the schools and see what happens with everything."
Hamilton comes up big
In a surprise, St. Thomas Aquinas standout defensive end Jelani Hamilton didn't start for the Raiders because of a knee injury. But he certainly finished strong, coming up with a big sack on fourth down very late in the game in open space against one of the best athletes in the nation in Prattville quarterback Justin Thomas.
"I just didn't let him break away," Hamilton said. "I just came up and made the play."
Hamilton and his St. Thomas Aquinas teammates were challenged against the Rams and not many teams are able to challenge the mighty Raiders.
"They have some very athletic guys with speed and technique," Hamilton said. "Their offensive line was good. No. 74 [Austin Golson] stood out for them. But our defensive line is good. We really feed off each other."
Hamilton has committed to the University of Miami, but with the Hurricanes in turmoil where does he stand with his pledge?
"I am still committed to Miami," Hamilton said. "Right now I am not worried about it. I am just taking things one day at a time. I will sit down with my folks and make a plan for what I want to do. I am still hearing from some schools like Georgia, North Carolina, LSU and Florida State."
Bosa stands out
It was only St. Thomas Aquinas DE Joey Bosa's third start, but he made it count against Prattville and is one to watch.
"That was the biggest game of my life," Bosa said. "I don't think I have ever been more prepared. It was kind of overwhelming but I just tried to stay relaxed and calm and do what I do."
According to Bosa he has scholarship offers from two powers: Alabama and Florida State.
"They have offered and Alabama likes me at their Jack position," Bosa said. "Wisconsin, Michigan State, Illinois and Boston College are other teams looking at me so far."
Harris still waiting
Another St. Thomas Aquinas senior to watch is DB Vernon Harris.
"He's starting to get a lot of looks," St. Thomas Aquinas coach Rocco Casullo said. "He didn't get to play much last season but he had a great spring and it's continued for Vernon."
According to Harris he has no offers but he's hoping that changes soon.
"Maryland, Wisconsin, UConn, Boston College and Wake Forest are some teams recruiting me," Harris said. "I have good cover skills and I try and be physical out there."
A sleeper in Prattville
Alabama commit ATH Justin Thomas from Prattville gets a lot attention, but the Lions have another playmaker in wide receiver Jeremiah Gardner.
"He can really run," Prattville coach Jamey DuBose said. "He's a 4.4 guy for sure. He has great hands and is a physical kid. Air Force has offered him and many more should. He can play."
Baseball for Hoover QB
It's not a hard decision for Hoover quarterback Sam Gillikin. He's going to play college baseball in the SEC.
"I have committed to Auburn to play baseball," Gillikin said. "So I am solid with Auburn baseball. This is probably it for me with football."
Gillikin missed most of last season with an injury. Now he's back and he played very well against a very good South Panola defense in their 24-13 win on Saturday. Perhaps the crucial drive of the game was very late in the first half, where he led his Buc teammates 97 yards for a touchdown with 16.8 seconds left to give Hoover a 10-0 halftime lead.
"That was huge for us," Gillikin said. "It gave us a lot of confidence going into halftime and it carried over to the second half."
Last spring Gillikin played center field, had a .372 batting average and hit six home runs.
• Casullo took over the St. Thomas Aquinas program and got his first win on a national stage against a talented Prattville team. He follows a legend in George Smith, who coached St. Thomas Aquinas for 34 years. Smith's record was 361-66 and he coached the Raiders to six state titles.
• Hoover sophomore cornerback Marlon Humphrey is one prospect to watch. He's the son of a former Alabama great, running back Bobby Humphrey, and he had an interception against South Panola.
Jamie Newberg has been covering recruiting both in the Southeast and nationally for 19 years. He can be reached at email@example.com.