He has a dream, and in that dream he’s sure of only one thing.
“A baby blue suit. Always a baby blue suit. No idea, but that’s what it is.”
Da’Shawn Hand has had this dream for years, and while he doesn’t know where he’s headed, he knows in the dream that he’s in his high school, in the baby blue suit, announcing that he’ll go play big-time college football.
“I first had the dream when I was little. I put the hat on and people cheer, and people ask ‘How do you feel?’ and I tell them that the coaches are cool and that I want to play in the NFL one day.”
To make sure the dream becomes a reality, Hand promises he’ll be sporting a baby blue suit on National Signing Day in 2014, a fashion creation he’ll have tailored for the event. But while his outfit might feel lucky, it’s Hand’s ascension as the next great defensive end prospect and the popularity of his chosen position that are responsible for making his dream a reality.
At 6'4", 248 pounds and boasting a 40 time that’s been marked in the 4.8 range, Hand is the consensus No. 1 overall defensive end prospect for the 2014 college football recruiting class. At any other position, he’d be considered a coveted get for any major program, but at the position of defensive end, he and signees like Robert Nkemdiche and Jadeveon Clowney before him are now considered quarterback-crushing program saviors.
“I just think right now it’s about how the game has come around, the era we’re in. You have a lot of 7-on-7 guys now, and quarterbacks and receivers are better than ever. You need to make plays to stop them, and you need athletes to do it,” Hand says.
Hand’s assessment is a consensus among college coaches and scouts. Even as innovations in play-calling have trended upward from high school to the professional levels in recent years, the old NFL adage that stopping a quarterback is the surest path to victory has been embraced as the best way to stop high-scoring spread offenses. Hence the rise of the monster defensive end.
Barton Simmons, a national recruiting analyst for 247Sports, admits that the valuation of defensive ends has increased noticeably in recent seasons because of the premium placed on the pass rush, from the pro level on down.
“It’s been intentional on our part in grading prospects, because you see that the guys being valued highly right now in the NFL in addition to quarterbacks are defensive ends and offensive tackles,” Simmons says.
“It’s an easy position to evaluate because often it’s the position where you see the most athleticism on the entire field.”
In this instance, “athleticism” is defined by raw power plus size moving very, very quickly. Scouts and coaches aren’t just looking for big bodies at the position, but big bodies with exceptional footwork, straight-line speed and enough power to shed — or attack — blockers.
“That’s the one thing I’ve worked on the most this summer is my explosiveness,” Hand says. “Just that ‘Wow’ factor when you make a big play that shows off your ability. This year I’m about to make more of those plays that make you go, ‘Wow!’”
The inevitable comparison for Hand or Nkemdiche before him is, of course, Clowney, a rising junior at South Carolina. Clowney’s rise as a true game-changer — remember the Michigan game? — has been so sharp that he likely would have been the No. 1 pick in the 2013 NFL Draft had he been eligible.
The hysteria reached such levels that many in the national media speculated that Clowney should simply sit out South Carolina’s 2013 season to avoid injury. That kind of hype has trickled down, as Hand and players like him are targeted as the “next Clowney.”
“It’s become a position where you can take a great piece of clay and mold him into a great player under the right conditions. It’s not like quarterback where you have to have a certain kind of mentality or maturity. Defensive ends can pin their ears back and go,” Simmons says.
But that doesn’t mean that the right stat line will automatically deliver another Clowney, a player most analysts and coaches consider the peak of the defensive position, a “freak.”
“These guys (Clowney, Nkemdiche, Hand) are all pretty unique,” Simmons says. “Clowney to me is the only one of the group that’s just no doubt a freak athlete. Nkemdiche is close to that, but he’s a little different body type. He’s not a long, rangy pass-rusher like Clowney, but he’s so physically gifted that he could move inside if need be and you wouldn’t lose anything.
“I don’t think we see (Hand) as quite the no-brainer, no-doubt prospect. He might not have that high of an athletic ceiling, but we’re very bullish on him because of his high character mentality off the field. He’s a ‘talent maximizer,’ a guy who will work, a guy who isn’t afraid to do what it takes to get better.”
“Da’Shawn doesn’t carry himself like a blue-chipper. He doesn’t really act like he’s got this attention on him right now,” says John Harris, Hand’s defensive line coach at Woodbridge (Va.) High School.
Harris knew Hand was destined for greatness three years ago when he saw Hand’s unnatural size for a freshman, but his endorsement is stronger than ever after working with what he calls one of the fastest-learning players he’s ever seen.
“Maybe the best part of his game is actually how fast he is mentally. When he gets to that next level he’s going to take in coaching so fast that it’s going to blow the college players away,” Harris says.
“The thing that’s exciting to me is to see him leading. I saw the fact that he was leading without even trying to. He practices and works out so hard that he’ll stop other players from goofing off around him.”
Endorsements like Harris’ have countless programs clamoring for Hand’s services. The combination of size, power and speed is unique in its own right, but adding work ethic and “coachability” could eventually make Hand stand above even the best blue-chip defensive ends in the college game.
Not that he’s lost in the hype.
“Oh, I know how to control it,” Hand says, laughing. “It’s hectic for sure, but I’m lucky to have the right people around me, people that influence me positively. It’s about not making this process your whole entire life. I know it’s a serious decision, but I’m still a kid. I still go out and have fun.
“Well, hang on,” he says, interrupting himself. “You have to cut out things when the time comes, having fun with friends and things like that. When there’s serious training to be done, you do it.”
Hand is “just” a kid, except that unlike the garden-variety pressure facing a high school senior, Hand also contends with phone calls, texts, emails and virtually every other form of digital communication from the best (and most diligent) college coaches in the nation.
In June, Hand narrowed a long list of schools down to Michigan, Florida and Alabama (though don’t be surprised if Virginia Tech remains in the hunt).
“I love the campus visits I’ve been on. It’s great — the people you meet, the food, seeing new places. … When you meet current players, the natural conversation is about the pressure and the decision you have to make. (Current college players) are great to talk with. They’ve already been in my shoes, been through the process and understand the pressure. They always wish me well.”
Hand is in the midst of visiting a variety of campuses nationwide, a vacation that always comes with a hard and sometimes uncomfortable sell at the end of each trip.
“The worst part is the next morning, when you wake up. Before you leave you have to go in and talk to the coaches about stuff. Sometimes chilling with the coaches is boring and I’m just like ‘Ughh.’ You have to, though; it’s part of the job.”
Certainly every coaching staff is a little different, and Hand already has his favorites.
“The Michigan coaching staff. That is the staff,” he enthuses. “They’re great. That staff is so cool, so easy to talk to. Also I’d say the one coach is (Virginia Tech defensive coordinator) Bud Foster.”
Hand shies away from questions about leans or leaders, but his comments about staff personalities reflect what’s considered to be the real race, according to Simmons.
“It opened up as a very national recruitment,” Simmons says. “He got 50-something offers and he was open to all of them at first. His is a different scenario because he’s a high academic kid, and schools that wouldn’t normally have a shot because of admissions do.”
About that baby blue suit and his childhood dream, Hand is repeatedly clear about one thing: His dream isn’t a “hat ceremony.” He doesn’t want a national press conference, despite the fact that it seems unavoidable. He wants to make the announcement at his high school, with his friends and family.
“I’m going to have one hat, that’s all. The hat of the school I’m attending. That’s me, and I just want to be myself,” Hand says.
Despite the fact that he has yet to enter the truly crazy months of recruitment as the nation’s top defensive end prospect, Hand already seems a little exhausted by the weirder and more deceptive aspects that come with the territory. He famously told CBS’ Bruce Feldman about a coach promising him that he’d meet Michael Jackson, despite the fact that the pop star has been dead for years.
“Honestly, I don’t know who I really would want to meet,” he says, laughing.
“If it was a girl, I’d say the goalie from the U.S. Soccer team… what’s her name? Hope Solo. If it was a guy, I would have to say … Justin Tuck.”
It’s no small coincidence that despite being born near Philadelphia, and living in the suburbs of Washington D.C., that Hand goes against local NFC East loyalties as a diehard New York Giants fan. He doesn’t mention Clowney or Nkemdiche when talking about players he models himself after, but rather the Big Blue trio of Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul and Lawrence Taylor.
“That’s the main reason I grew up a Giants fan, because of all those great defensive players. That’s the kind of player I want to be.”
But what about that three- or four-year stint before the NFL?
“Ah … wait and see, man,” he says, laughing. “Wait and see.”
Here's a look at the top-rated defensive ends from previous signing classes, and how they've fared.
Robert Nkemdiche, Loganville, Ga. (Grayson)
Rating: No. 1 overall
Signed With: Ole Miss
A game-changing pass-rusher who has been compared to former North Carolina All-American Julius Peppers. He’ll join his older brother, linebacker Denzel, on the Rebels’ defense this fall.
Jonathan Bullard, Shelby, N.C. (Crest)
Rating: No. 6 overall
Signed With: Florida
Saw increased action in his freshman season due to an injury to Ronald Powell (see below) and made the most of it. Bullard played in all 13 games, racking up 27 tackles (five for a loss) and earning SEC All-Freshman honors.
Jadeveon Clowney, Rock Hill, S.C. (South Pointe)
Rating: No. 1 overall
Signed With: South Carolina
With 21 sacks and counting, he’s considered the best player in college football entering the 2013 season. He’s also already regarded as the consensus No. 1 pick in the 2014 NFL Draft.
Ronald Powell, Moreno Valley, Calif. (Rancho Verde)
Rating: No. 1 overall
Signed With: Florida
As a hybrid LB/DE, he led the Gators in sacks in 2011, but attitude issues and two ACL tears in his left knee sidelined him before the start of the 2012 season. Currently rehabbing for a full return in 2013.
Devon Kennard, Phoenix, Ariz. (Desert Vista)
Rating: No. 8 overall
Signed With: USC
Played three seasons for the Trojans, bouncing between end and linebacker (135 tackles, 13 sacks and 1 INT) before a chest injury forced him to redshirt in 2012. He’ll return this season as a starting hybrid LB/DE in Clancy Pendergast’s 3-4 scheme.
Da’Quan Bowers, Bamberg, S.C. (Bamberg-Erhardt)
Rating: No. 2 overall
Signed With: Clemson
A unanimous All-American in 2010 for the Tigers, Bowers led the nation in sacks (15.5) his junior year before concerns about his knees caused him to drop to the second round of the 2011 NFL Draft, where Tampa Bay took him with the 51st overall pick. Through two NFL seasons, he’s recorded 38 tackles and 4.5 sacks.
Carlos Dunlap, North Charleston, S.C. (Fort Dorchester)
Rating: No. 5 overall
Signed With: Florida
In three seasons with the Gators, he recorded 84 tackles, 19.5 sacks and three blocked kicks, as well as being named Defensive MVP of the Gators’ national title win over Oklahoma in 2009. Drafted 54th overall by the Cincinnati Bengals in 2010, he has 87 tackles and 20 sacks in three seasons.
by Steven Godfrey
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