Morrell Presley did not stand out at first. In the spring of 2006, he was a 6-foot-2, 178-pound freshman waiting his turn for varsity minutes at Carson High.
That was coach Mike Christensen's introduction when he took over the struggling program during spring drills. Christensen did not know Presley; he'd never heard of him. Christensen was attempting to piece together a team from leftover scraps.
The Colts had recorded a pair of dismal 3-8 seasons when Christensen was hired away from nearby Lakewood.
After sizing up Presley, he finally asked: "What grade are you in, Morrell?"
Presley responded quietly, "Ninth."
"I thought, 'Oh, geez. This is great'," Christensen said.
Great is too tame a description for Presley, who enters his senior year as the nation's top-ranked tight end prospect and No. 47 overall player in the ESPNU 150.
For Presley, the road to greatness never ends. It was plotted during his sophomore year by his parents and Christensen.
Following his sophomore season, Presley attended the Southern California Skills Camp in June. Before departing campus, he gave the Trojans a verbal commitment, securing a key building block for their 2009 recruiting class.
He also considered Pac-10 schools such as Arizona, Washington State and Oregon. But USC offered something none of the alternatives could: It was 20 minutes from Carson.
"I'm really close with my family; it's a big family," Presley said. "I have relatives on both parents' side, plus stepparents. Growing up here, it was a dream to play for USC."
Many consider Presley an ethereal player, created through poetic imagination. He's a hybrid offensive weapon -- part tight end, part wide receiver -- in a 6-4, 220-pound frame bulging with potential.
His speed, a 4.5 in the 40-yard dash, is above the norm for a player his size.
His strength has taken a super-spike: Since beginning a daily weight-room regimen more than two years ago, Presley has added 42 pounds of muscle.
Presley's still honing his abilities as a blocker, but he's made great strides.
"Coach Christensen told me colleges are looking for tight ends that can block exceptionally," he said.
Christensen said: "Morrell may not have bought into some of the things I stressed, like blocking, at first. But to his credit, he never questioned me or the coaches. At first we told him that he might not understand what we were doing. One thing we knew: Morrell could run routes."
The Colts operate from a pro-style offense, in which Presley lines up in tight formations or is flexed out like a traditional wide receiver. Last season, Presley had 31 receptions for nearly 500 yards and six touchdowns. This season, he'll lead a young team which includes promising junior quarterback Daniel Torres, who started three games in 2007.
Carson lost in the CIF Los Angeles City Section Championship Division final to Birmingham (Lake Balboa), 41-6, last December. With that game in the rearview mirror, it's time to look ahead.
A Kickoff Classic
The future of USC will be on display Wednesday night; Presley and his soon-to-be Trojan teammate, quarterback Matt Barkley of Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.), open the season at Veterans Stadium in Long Beach (ESPN2/ESPN360 9 p.m. ET).
Barkley, the No. 1 prospect in the ESPNU 150, is a gifted passer. He does not possess dual-threat capabilities, and that's how Carson will likely defend the cerebral Barkley.
"Matt's a big dude who's mobile and has a great arm," Presley said. "We have a few things to move him around the pocket; it'll be tough."
Devising a defense to stop Barkley is a challenge. As a junior, he passed for an Orange County-record 3,560 yards and 35 TDs, completing 213 of 340 passes (63 percent accuracy), with only nine interceptions. The Monarchs lost in the CIF Southern Section Pac-5 quarterfinals and achieved a national ranking for most of the season.
In three seasons, Barkley has thrown for 6,594 yards and 57 TDs. But it's the intangibles that separate Barkley from the rest.
"He'll go to the line calling his own pass protections and with two or three plays ready to call," said Tom Luginbill, a former quarterback at Georgia Tech and the National Recruiting Coordinator for Scouts, Inc. "No high school quarterbacks are doing this; he's the exception to the norm, and that's why he's way ahead of the curve."
Barkley will spray the ball around the field, eyeing seniors Christian Maldonado and Ario Winston, juniors Derrick Campbell and Andrew Roth and sophomores Victor Blackwell and Sean Sierra as targets.
"There's a target on my back based on what happened last year," said Barkley, named Gatorade's National Player of the Year in 2007.
Barkley may feel the heat from Presley, who will see reps at rush end on defense.
"Carson players have speed and athleticism; there's no room for error," Barkley said.
The next time Barkley and Presley will see the same field is Jan. 4, 2009 at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Fla., when they suit up for the Under Armour All-America Game.
This spring the two worked at the Steve Clarkson QB Academy.
"Morell is a big target; he snatches everything out of the air," Barkley said. "He runs crisp routes. We'll develop good chemistry [at USC]."
All the hoopla
If you spoke with Presley as a 10-year-old in 2001 during his first year of organized football with the Carson Colts' Pop Warner team, the notion of becoming the nation's top player at his position was nearly squashed.
"I didn't like football," Presley said.
So he quit football, concentrating on basketball and dabbling in skateboarding. Presley thought his slight frame was more suited for the hardwood. He never gave much thought to football for three years.
Funny thing, though -- during his time away from football, Presley improved his footwork, vertical leap and increased his stamina.
Presley was coaxed back to the gridiron in eighth grade and met Christensen as a freshman. He developed an instant respect for the mentor who saw his untapped potential.
His transition back to football was nearly complete when Christensen handed down one edict.
"I needed to keep my grades up; he looked at my transcript and felt by attending summer school, I could graduate early [in December 2008] and get a jump on the rest of my future classmates," Presley said.
For the past three summers, Presley took two classes, including economics and government. In the springtime, he attended night school following his regular classes, repeating biology. Presley is quick to point out that he earned an A, erasing the previous D.
"It looks better on my transcript," said Presley, who has a 3.1 grade-point average in core classes.
Once Barkley and Presley enroll at USC in January, they'll work on timing and digesting the Trojans' voluminous playbook.
"I'm excited," Presley said. "I need to work out with the trainer, get situated academically and [play] spring ball. I want to be ahead of the rest and play next fall; that's my goal."
Christopher Lawlor has covered high school sports for more than 20 years, most recently with USA TODAY, where he was the head preps writer responsible for national high school rankings in football, baseball and boys and girls basketball.