GILMER, Texas - It's easy to spot blue-chip recruits at Texas powerhouse high schools like Longview, Tyler Lee and Lufkin. However, it's the smaller towns that truly make East Texas one of the most fertile hunting grounds for college coaches looking for talent.
In fact, if you were to travel the U.S. Highway 59 corridor, you'll find three of the nation's best recruits at their positions at schools that are definitely off the beaten path.
Not too many people have ever heard of Gilmer, Texas, before, but college coaches are making it a regular stop this season when traveling through East Texas. Before this football season, Gilmer was known as "a prosperous, inviting place with warm friend and hospitable people," according to the city's chamber of commerce website.
Johnson racked up 79 receptions for 1,168 yards and 13 touchdowns as a junior. That helped him earn offensive player of the year honors in his district, along with earn rave reviews from college coaches. He already has scholarship offers from Oklahoma, Houston, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and several others. TCU, Texas A&M, Duke and countless others have already also been by the school.
Oklahoma currently leads for Johnson, he said, but he's also not going to rush the process in hopes helping a few of his other teammates earn Division I attention. There might be a few of those guys that end up getting recruited, but it is Johnson that all the coaches are coming to see.
"He had 79 receptions last year, so that tells you that when we throw it to him, he catches it," Gilmer coach Jeff Traylor said. "I've been around some highly recruited players in my time, including the McGown brothers when they were at Jacksonville, but nobody has been recruited like the way Manuel has. He's such a great kid, too. He's one of those kids that you get the ball to and let him go do his thing."
Johnson doesn't have the blazing speed that a few others nationally have, but he'll consistently run a 4.5-second time in the 40-yard dash. But what's most impressive about Johnson is that he makes a ton of plays and nobody seems to be able to stop him.
"They all know that we're going to throw the ball to him, but they still can't stop him," Traylor said.
One college coach compared Johnson to Oklahoma receiver Mark Clayton, and another saw visions of former Oklahoma State star and NFL first-round pick Rashaun Woods in him, because he's able to catch everything thrown to him and he's got a body that's able to bend and shape into good receiving positions.
Down Texas Highway 43 in tiny Tatum, Texas, coaches are flocking to see athlete Stephen Hodge. The 5-foot-11, 180-pound Hodge plays quarterback for his team, but can project at receiver, cornerback and maybe even quarterback in the right system.
"I want to have the ball in my hands," Hodge said. "I want to play somewhere on the offense. I would like to play quarterback, but I would play anywhere that I could help out the offense."
The day Rivals100 was there to watch him in athletic period, Husker assistant coach Turner Gill was there evaluating him. With offers already on the table from Baylor, Houston, SMU and Texas A&M, Hodge is quietly making a move up the charts in the Lone Star State.
Nebraska, Texas A&M, North Texas, Houston and Oklahoma have already been at school to evaluate him in person, and at least three college coaches have called Hodge a lock for the top 10 in the Lone Star State.
"He's able to play so many different positions," one coach said. "You just recruit him and then figure out where he'll play when he gets on campus."
Further down the road, just South of Lufkin, heading toward Houston is Diboll, Texas. For years and years, the town of about 5,000 people has been known for its economic focus on the logging industry with products such as lumber, plywood, flooring, treated timber and resins leading the way.
But there is a new product the town has produced and his name to locals is simply - J-Mike.
J-Mike, also known as Jermichael Finley, is the town's football and basketball star. While those other products have brought big booms to Diboll, nothing quite like J-Mike Mania has swept the town.
"He's incredible," Diboll coach Finis Vanover said. "I've never coached a guy like him. You ask him to do something, and he goes out there and does it. Plus, does it with three or four defenders draped on him. There is nobody else out there like J-Mike. He's something special."
Indeed he is.
Finley is a 6-foot-4, 210-pound receiver slash tight end slash linebacker slash small forward that has hops and body control only usually reserved for only the elite players in either football or basketball. Yet not many of those elite players have the combination of both like Finley does.
It's no surprise that Finley wants to attempt to play both sports in college, yet, Vanover believes that Finley could be an NFL caliber tight end or receiver some day. And his prospect video proves that.
On the video, Finley is often seen out-jumping, out-muscling or out-hustling everybody around him to make big play after big play. And he also has some amazingly soft hands that he must get from catching bullet bounce passes in basketball.
"He can make some amazing catches in traffic," Vanover said. "If it's thrown to him, he's going to come down with it."
Finley lists Arizona, Arkansas and Texas as his top teams at this point, with scholarship offers coming early from Arizona, Oklahoma, Texas A&M and Texas Tech. He'll be sure to have plenty more by the time the spring evaluation period is over, because once coaches see Finley in person they'll become believers of Diboll's latest export.
Most will put Finley in the top 10 in the state of Texas, and there is little doubt now that Rivals100 will, too.