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Thursday, May 2, 2013
Mammoth freshman picking up top offers

By Radi Nabulsi

ATHENS, Ga. -- The youngest student at Stephens County High School in Toccoa, Ga., also happens to be the school's largest student. Freshman offensive tackle Ben Cleveland is only 14 and claims to be the youngest student in the ninth grade. Despite his youth, he already stands 6 feet, 7 inches tall and weighs 315 pounds. Cleveland receives an abundance of slack-jawed stares when he is on the football field, but the real gawping comes when he steps onto the baseball diamond to man first base.

In fact, that was where a college football coach first spotted him.

“We were playing baseball over in Easley, S.C., when Ben was 12 years old, and somebody over there knew Coach [Dabo] Swinney and made a phone call,” said Derek Cleveland, Ben’s father. “On that Sunday when we went back, the next thing I know, I saw Ben leaning up against the fence talking to somebody and it turned out to be Coach Swinney. He said he had gotten a phone call from somebody about this really large kid out here playing baseball and he had to come and check him out. He stayed and watched the game. We are a couple of Georgia boys so we didn’t know who he was.”

Two years later, Ben would have an offer from the Clemson head coach, as well as offers from Florida, Texas and South Carolina. Over the last two weeks, coaches from each of those schools has stopped by to check in on the mammoth offensive tackle.

"It really hasn't set in yet how big a deal this is," Ben Cleveland said. "It has been more of a shock to me than anything else. It is a big honor for me too, knowing there has never been a freshman from our school to get a scholarship, especially form a D-I school."

Derek Cleveland is also stunned at how Ben's recruitment has taken off.

“It has really happened a lot quicker than we anticipated,” Derek said. “We were told when Ben was growing up to expect things like this, but you take it with a grain of salt. He has always had a lot of potential, just because of his size. When he was 11 years old he was 6-3, 250 pounds. And he was lean and agile.”

Size helps, but the agility at that size is what has college coaches interested, like Texas offensive line coach Stacey Searels, who offered Ben a scholarship last week.

“The offer meant a lot to me because growing up I have always been a big fan of Texas,” Ben said. “They are a really good school, and I have always watched them on TV. I never thought they would offer me a scholarship to come and play for them, especially as a freshman. It was kind of mind-blowing more than anything, because my coach told me they hardly ever fly out of state to come and see recruits, especially a ninth-grader. That was really a big honor to me, because they took that much time to come and see me.”

Florida pulled the trigger even earlier.

“They were the first team to offer me, and I really didn't know what to think, to tell you the truth,” Ben said. “One day I was in weightlifting and my head football coach called me into his office and told me, 'Florida is about to call me, and they are going to offer you a scholarship.' I was just blank for about two minutes. When I spoke to Joker Phillips, he said, 'We would love for you to come and visit, and we would like to offer you a scholarship.' ”

Georgia has yet to offer Ben, but he has visited the Bulldogs before and spent time with Mark Richt.

“I went down there to watch some of their spring practice last year,” Ben said. “One of my football coaches [Ronnie Royston] took me down there, because his son plays there. When I went I got to meet most of the coaches except for Coach Richt. He wanted me to come back down there personally and meet him, so I went on a second visit. I got to sit down and talk with him in his office. It wasn't all football talk. It was about what my life is like. I am going to try to come to one or two camps at Georgia and Alabama hopefully.”

Ben’s older brother Ryan Cleveland has signed with Georgia Southern to play baseball. That is, if his .480 batting average doesn't get him drafted first. The Clevelands are a “baseball family” according to Derek, despite some of teasing Ben gets on the road.

“Ben played a lot of travel baseball, and it is has always been a media event when we go somewhere new,” Derek said. “Every time we go to a field we have never been to, there are always people up at the fence taking pictures. You hear a lot of wisecracks, 'Where did he park his car? Where are his wife and kids at?' and stuff like that. Ben does a good job of handling it -- probably better than I do.”

Indeed, Ben appears to be laughing all the way to college.