Without fall football, some DMV student-athletes garnered exposure elsewhere

How DMV student-athletes found exposure without fall football originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

In the absence of a fall season, DMV student-athletes have utilized myriad avenues to garner exposure and scholarship opportunities for themselves.

When the coronavirus pandemic sidelined high school sports and subsequently threatened to stop college recruiting in its tracks, student athletes who had not yet secured all the college offers they’d hoped for were left with two options: sit back and wait for a season that may never be played, or begin creating their own opportunities. Many have chosen the latter.

“I realized the pandemic isn’t going to end soon; it’s probably not going to end for a very long time,” former St. John’s offensive lineman Colin Henrich said. “I wasn’t going to sit around and watch opportunities and people get film and get ahead of me, because me being a competitive person, I can’t let that happen.”

Henrich, a three-star recruit, who spent his first three seasons anchoring SJC’s offensive line and competing for WCAC championships, entered his senior year with Div. I offers, though most of them were non-committable, placing Henrich in a position he’d “seen happen to others, but never imagined it’d happen to me.” A non-committable offer is presented when a school expresses interest, but a player’s ability to make good on the scholarship is contingent upon the decisions of other student-athletes whom the school has rated higher on their board.

In essence, more scholarships are offered than there are spots available.

Henrich took decisions into his own hands, transferring to perennial powerhouse IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. Three other DMV student-athletes decided to do the same, including  seniors DeMarco Cuffey (North Point High School) and Jared Behrens (Woodgrove High School), and sophomore Jordan Hall (Chancellor High School).

Joining the Ascenders lent Henrich the opportunity to secure senior film and increase his chances of landing an opportunity more to his liking. There was a personal element to his decision though; leaving St. John’s meant walking away from a group he admired. According to Henrich, the SJC coaching staff is like family and he has been close with many members of the Cadets team since the fifth grade. However, once he was able to get beyond the emotion of the moment, he knew he’d made the right decision.

“They say treat football like a business, and that’s what I had to do. The first two to three days were hard. It definitely was like leaving family, but sometimes you have to leave family to get better,” Henrich said.

“I support those guys 110% in everything they do. I wish coach Pat [Ward] the best; that’s like my brother, so it was hard at first and it really messed with my mind and my heart. But once I got the emotions out of the way, I saw this is what I needed to do to propel myself forward for the next 10-15 years, so it was just a business decision.”

IMG completed an 8-0 season, winning the GEICO Nationals championship series, and Henrich was able to compete against some of the top talent in the country both in games as well as in practice. It was an opportunity he says has improved his game and helped prepare him for the next four years.

“In terms of technique, I’ve progressed into a college-level lineman instead of a high school lineman,” Henrich said. “Our practices are structured like a Power 5 school or NFL team. We’re competing hard in practice every day — it’s not like we have a mutual agreement with our teammates — it’s like, we’re just going out there and we’re going to ball. We’re competing for spots every day.

“I had great teammates on the offensive line who have great knowledge. You can use the ‘Bruce Lee technique’ here and take little parts of your teammates game and combine it with your game and just be this overly dominant lineman when you get to the next level, which we all are going to be. It’s just a matter of getting to a place to showcase that.”

Though he’s not ready to discuss where he may ultimately land, Henrich believes his newfound knowledge on the recruitment process and the relationships he’s built while at IMG will help him get to where he wants to go.

“I have a ton of options because of IMG. I have a ton of open doors because of IMG, and really, St. John’s as well,” Henrich said. “IMG has helped me see the business side of college and helped me see how recruiting is actually done as opposed to how you think it’s done. There are processes to this, and if you’re not on top of that, you’re going to get left in the dust. What they’ve helped me do is get my foot in the door in so many places, and they’ve opened so many doors. It’s just a blessing from above.”

For those not inclined to transfer schools and move south, social media, showcase camps and 7-on-7s have proven to be viable options for generating recruiting buzz. Bullis junior defensive back Oliver Bridges entered the offseason a virtual unknown, but after impressive camp performances helped him earn an offer from Maryland, he is now among the top recruits in the region.

“Going into this offseason, I had a big chip on my shoulder,” Bridges said. “Every time I went to a camp, I always wanted to prove to everybody who I was and show people that I’m the real deal.

“Because I was so big, people thought I was slow and I couldn’t move, so I’ve wanted to show my short area quickness, how I get in and out of breaks, my speed, different things like my ball skills, and if you look at tape, I’m a pretty good tackler. So, if you piece it all together, I’m a pretty good football player.”

The 6-2 cornerback caught the attention of Rivals’ east coast recruiting analyst Adam Friedman, while competing in a 7-on-7 tournament in October. Bridges’ length, fluidity and coverage skills helped him earn his third star with the recruiting company thereafter. 

In November’s Nike Opening Football regional camp, held in Virginia Beach, Bridges opened eyes when he ran a 4.47 40-yard dash, a feat overly impressive for a student-athlete of his size. Additionally, his shuttle time was 4.34 and his vertical jump 33.8, all of which are top testing results of the camp series to date. His showing led to the call from the Terps, as well as other Power 5 programs.

“I feel like I wasn’t heavily recruited coming into this offseason,” Bridges said. “But after my big performance at The Opening, more schools started reaching out, and that’s when Maryland offered me. I was confident going in, but I feel more confident in myself now, especially after performing like that on the big stage.

“Before these camps, my coach used to tell me, if you continue to work and continue to do what you do, you could be one of the top defensive prospects in the nation. At the time, I thought it was just all hype, but now, I know it’s possible for me.”

Bridges’ impressive camp season began in July, when he earned top performer honors at FBU Top Gun, in Naples, Fla. His staunchest competition for the honor came from fellow DMV junior defensive back Shomari Stone Jr. of St. John’s. Top Gun showcased nearly 1,000 student-athletes from around the country, ranging from sixth-graders to rising seniors, yet the performances of Bridges and Stone stood out amongst the crowd. Stone, who too entered the pandemic under-recruited, is making the most of his time.

“With the season not being 100% on right now, I really think it’s important to take advantage of every opportunity given, and that’s what I looked to do,” Stone said. “I discussed it with my family, and going to Naples for Top Gun, and we wanted to make sure I could go out there and perform and compete and show what I’ve been working on this offseason.”

Stone’s performance earned him an invite to the National Combine at the All-America Bowl in San Antonio and opened the door for him to compete at Under Armour Elite Underclassmen Camp powered by ESPN300. His work ethic and training regimen has garnered tens of thousands of views on social media and the attention of influencers in the recruiting world.

After seeing Stone in action, Under Armour All-America Game defensive back coach Don Cox said: “Shomari Stone is definitely going to be an outstanding catch for any D1 program. He is already starting to catch attention.”

Stone’s online presence has allowed him to display his work ethic and development to potential suitors across the country. His athletic and academic prowess has earned him interest from multiple schools; likely placing his first offer on the horizon. Though Stone is pleased with how far he’s come this offseason, he acknowledges this is only the beginning.

“I feel like I haven’t worked up to my full potential yet,” Stone said. “I’m thankful to be on the radar [of college coaches], but these are just the building blocks. I’m working to get better every day so that I can make plays and help my home school [St. John’s].”

High School sports are scheduled to reconvene in January, if the pandemic allows. If it does not, anticipate DMV student-athletes continuing to find ways to generate exposure and create opportunities for themselves.

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