- Erik McKinney, ESPN Staff Writer
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NORWALK, Calif. -- With the loaded field of defensive backs at the Los Angeles Nike Football Training Camp, the question wasn't whether a cornerback or safety would be selected to participate in The Opening. It was how many would be chosen.
A total of five players received invitations on Sunday, and three came from the defensive backfield, as safety Tahaan Goodman (Rancho Cucamonga, Calif./Rancho Cucamonga) and cornerbacks Chris Hawkins (Rancho Cucamonga, Calif./Rancho Cucamonga) and Priest Willis (Tempe, Ariz./Marcos De Niza) joined defensive end Joe Mathis (Upland, Calif./Upland) and wide receiver Steven Mitchell (Mission Hills, Calif./Bishop Alemany).
None of the invites registered as a surprise since all five players rank among the most highly recruited prospects on the West Coast. They bring the total number of players invited to The Opening to 15.
The defensive backs won't need any time to familiarize themselves before heading up to Oregon. Goodman and Hawkins are high school teammates and play on the same seven-on-seven team as Willis. All three went into the Nike Camp dreaming about an invite and each was thrilled to receive one.
"The Opening was an experience that some of my friends went through last year, and ever since I saw it on ESPN, it's been something I wanted to go to," Hawkins said. "The chance you get to play with people from across the country and the great coaches and NFL players that are up there is definitely something I want to experience."
It was a big day for Hawkins, who earned defensive back MVP honors in addition the The Opening invitation, and then capped his performance by verbally committing to USC. He said everything he did on Sunday was backed up by the goal of The Opening, but became a little bit nervous when the defensive backs coaches never called him out or mentioned his number.
"I didn't think I was in the running for it," Hawkins said of his awards. "But when we went to the one-on-ones and skeleton drills, I didn't have one ball caught against me. So I felt like I did good enough to get it."
After a stellar showing in last weekend's NLA Elite seven-on-seven tournament in Las Vegas, Goodman backed up his performance this weekend with a physical performance that wowed observers. During half-skeleton, Goodman closed quickly on a corner route and sent the wide receiver flying out of bounds when he initiated contact going for the interception. The ball eventually deflected into the hands of a linebacker. That wasn't the first or last time Goodman's name and number were shouted by Nike Camp coaches.
"This means a lot to me," Goodman said of his Opening invite. "It's going to be super fun. I can't wait to be with all the best players in the country up there just competing."
In addition to the on-field competition, Goodman also specifically mentioned that he was looking forward to the haircuts participants received last year as part of the festivities.
For Willis, one of the country's top defensive backs, earning an Opening invitation was almost a formality. At 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds, Willis has the size of a safety and scouts believe he has got fluid hips of a top-flight cornerback. While he didn't pick up MVP honors on Sunday, he did get his hands around what he wanted most.
"Not a lot of kids get to be invited to this," Willis said of The Opening. "Not a lot of kids get to do the things I'm doing right now. I'm just humble and I'm glad I can be here."
So was everyone who watched Willis perform on Sunday, as he went toe-to-toe with the event's top receivers.
"This was life-changing," Willis said of the camp. "Playing against this competition shows you what you need to work on and with the coaches out here, not a lot of people can get this workout."
While those three will likely be inseparable at The Opening, the trio could turn into a quartet with Mathis, who calls Goodman his best friend and has become close with Hawkins and Willis during the spring.
"It's a dream come true," said Mathis, a 6-foot-4, 250-pound defensive end that holds around 24 offers. "I've wanted to go to The Opening since I first saw it and I've been working hard trying to get to this."
While Mitchell was a late announcement, and wasn't able to take part in the invitation ceremony with the aforementioned four, he was able to celebrate a wide receiver MVP award before hearing about his inclusion in The Opening.
"I kind of felt it early on," Mitchell said of his noteworthy performance. "I felt real loose and a little shifty. Once we got to one-on-ones and seven-on-sevens, I felt good. I didn't win all of them, but I won a majority of them."
Some surprises dot MVP awards
While Hawkins, Mathis and Mitchell doubled up and took home The Opening invites as well as position MVP awards, there were a few surprises as well.
Along the offensive line, the nod went to class of 2014's Viane Talamaivao (Corona, Calif./Centennial), who couldn't hide his shock.
"To be honest with you, I was surprised I was even invited to this camp," Talamaivao said. "It was a big honor to be invited, so I just came in with a mindset to work and get better. Just go out and compete."
Talamaivao said he enjoyed getting the chance to go up against Mathis, his good friend, as well as other standout defensive ends, such as Taco Charlton (Pickerington, Ohio/Pickerington Central). Preparing to head into his junior year, Talamaivoa said he has received early looks from Colorado and Arizona, but doesn't hold any offers yet.
Zachary Green (Ventura, Calif./St. Bonaventure) may have caught some off guard when he was awarded the running back MVP award, but he said it was his plan all along.
"I came here trying to get the MVP," Green said. "I'm trying to get to The Opening, so I can show out for my school and maybe get some more offers."
Green holds one offer as of now, as Arizona stepped forward several weeks ago. But the talented back has been in contact with schools across the country, such as USC, Wisconsin and Oklahoma.
Green said he could feel this was his day from early on. The first competitive drill was picking up the pass rush, which falls right in his wheelhouse. After two impressive stops, ESPNU 150 Watch List linebacker Michael Hutchings (Concord, Calif./De La Salle) stepped forward and called out Green, who rushed into position.
"When he got up, I locked him up, jammed him and he didn't get anywhere," Green said. "After the passing drills, I felt like I just had it. From there, I had to continuously do well and catch every ball that was thrown to me."
Throwing him several passes was Conner Manning (Lake Forest, Calif./El Toro), who shouldn't have surprised anybody with the fact that he was participating in his second Nike Camp in two weeks after flying out to Dallas NFTC last weekend. All Manning does is throw passes.
Last season, he broke Matt Barkley's Orange County record for passing yards, throwing for 4,219 yards and 41 touchdowns. While a heavy wind threw off some of the signal-callers, Manning said he had no such trouble.
"Early on I felt really confident because I did this last weekend," Manning said. "I knew what type of environment I would be in and all the drills. I felt like I was throwing the ball well and it was a good day. It's a great honor to get the MVP out here with a bunch of great guys competing."
Manning has not received an offer as yet.
The linebacker position offered the final surprise of the day, as Hutchings and twins A.J. and Viliami Latu (Rancho Cucamonga, Calif./Rancho Cucamonga) were beaten out by 2014 standout Dwight Williams (Gardena, Calif./Serra). Williams, at 6-0, 190 pounds, said that what he lacked in size against his competition, he made up for in speed.
"It was in coverage and the one-on-ones with the running backs," Williams said. "I knew I had the footwork and was a little faster than the other guys. I just had to use my feet."
Williams doesn't hold any offers, but has jumped into the recruiting scene and is in contact with schools such as USC, Oregon, Washington, UCLA and California.
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