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December 18, 2010

Recruiting forecast: Banner year in 2012

At some point, Zach Banner is going to make one college football coach a very happy man.

If you've seen the movie, "The Blind Side," it's clear the value college coaches place on imposing offensive tackles.

And if you've seen Zach Banner, it's clear why he is creating a stir across the country.

Banner has a grizzly bear-like appearance, standing 6 feet 9 and 300 pounds, with a warm smile and bright personality that lights up a room.

He's powerful on the field, smart in the classroom and athletic, possessing both NFL bloodlines and size 18 shoes.

It is for those reasons and more that the friendly giant from Lakes High School in Lakewood, Wash., is considered by one national recruiting expert as the best high school offensive lineman in the country - never mind that he's only a junior.

"He probably handles it better than most kids his age would," Lakes football coach Dave Miller said of the recruiting attention. "I think he's enjoying it. Sometimes, I have to remind him not to enjoy it too much."

Banner has a strong drive to be the best. It is his aspiration not only to be a high school All-American in football but in basketball, too.

His parents, Ron and Vanessa Banner, are middle school administrators who have instilled in their son the values of education and the importance of character.

At Lakes, he's been a class president since his freshman year, sports a 3.6 grade point average and is both comfortable and engaging while speaking in front of the student body.

"He is always positive and reaching out to people," Lakes principal Karen Mauer-Smith said. "He's very natural at it. That's who he is. He's had role models in his life also who've taught him to be very humble about the good things that he has. And to appreciate them and understand that they come with responsibility."

Banner is aware that his genes play a role in his elite recruiting status.

His biological father is former Washington Huskies All-American offensive tackle Lincoln Kennedy, who was a first-round pick by the Atlanta Falcons in the 1993 NFL draft.

Banner barely knows Kennedy, meeting him for the first time last summer. Banner was hit hard with the discovery four years ago but has accepted it now.

He's always known Ron Banner to be his dad since he was 2, and the news didn't change their tight father-son relationship.

"There's nothing really to say about it," Banner said. "The man is my biological father. I've accepted it. I think that was the only thing that was left to it, whether I would be OK with it or not. And I am. I'm perfectly OK with it. They say I look like him. They say I have his size and all this stuff. You can't argue with that. That man was an NFL offensive tackle. He was all this stuff but all that is still not the thing that has made me the athlete that I am today. Everything I have done is because of how hard I worked."

Banner, who turns 17 on Christmas Day, made big strides this season to help Lakes reach the Class 3A state semifinals for the third year in a row.

"When he gets his hands on you, it's over," said Miller, adding that Banner had an "all-state caliber" type of season yet still needs to work on his lateral quickness.

Adam Gorney, West Coast recruiting analyst from Rivals.com, said he sees Banner ranked as "an absolutely, sure-fire, mid-to-high four-star prospect" when the Rivals national rankings come out in February but didn't want to speculate on Banner's overall ranking.

"What's so impressive about him is he's definitely a football player who plays two sports," Gorney said. "It's not like a basketball player who tries to play football. He has great feet. And he's so aggressive and tough. That's what I think people like most about him."

Recruiters certainly like what they see.

Miller has lost track of Banner's scholarship offers but figures the number is approaching 50.

Alabama, LSU, Michigan, Ohio State, Notre Dame and Auburn have all rendered offers. Others in hot pursuit are Southern California, Oregon, Washington and UCLA, though there's still more than a year remaining in the recruiting of current juniors.

Miller is no stranger to heavy recruiting at Lakes, which has produced several top prospects in recent years, including current and former Washington Huskies Jermaine Kearse, Sione Potoa'e, Reggie Williams and Kavario Middleton.

In the past, famous visitors included Penn State's Joe Paterno and former USC coach Pete Carroll.

In recent weeks, the visits have picked up again. UCLA's Rick Neuheisel and USC's Lane Kiffin stopped by campus, followed by Washington coach Steve Sarkisian, who came by the school last week and also attended a basketball game to get a closer look at Banner as well as watch fellow junior Cedric Dozier, whom the Huskies also have offered a scholarship.

"It never settles down at Lakes High School," said Miller, adding that junior Mane Manaea also is drawing interest from larger schools.

And Miller knows it won't be settling down any time soon with the scale of Banner pursuers.

In his bedroom at home, Banner has eight size 18 shoe boxes full of letters from colleges, including the first one he received in the eighth grade from Cal basketball.

He said he gets about 15 emails each day from colleges trying to stay in touch. He said he feels obligated to respond.

"I'll holler back at a coach," Banner said. "I'm keeping all of my options open. I'm not shutting any college out."

Banner wants to carefully choose his college based not only on football, but also the experiences he'll have there as a student.

So far, he's taken unofficial visits to Washington, Oregon and USC.

He said his relation to Kennedy won't affect his recruitment to Washington.

"One thing that kids make mistakes on is they don't ever take the time to go look at other schools," Banner said. "Sometimes, they just commit right off the bat to a big college or their favorite school but they don't ever take time to go out and go see other places. When I went to all these different campuses, they're all good in their certain way. Whether it's U-Dub, which is close to home; or whether it's Oregon, which has nice facilities; or whether it's USC, which has the sun shining every single day of the year.

"Then you think about other places like LSU, Alabama, Florida, Florida State, all these places around the country," Banner added. "You've got to think about that. I still have to take my visits. That's why I have not put any colleges in front of the others because I don't want to regret my college decision. I know there are some kids who go through this and they hate college life. I want to be able to like college."


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