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Wednesday, March 13, 2013
DT Holley takes unique path to the top

By Josh Moyer

Thomas Holley (Brooklyn, N.Y./Abraham Lincoln) grew tired of the questions after every basketball game.

Thomas Holley
Brooklyn (N.Y.) Lincoln DT Thomas Holley has an impressive list of offers, even though he has only played eight varsity football games.
Inevitably, someone would stroll up to him on the hardwood and ask if he played football. Underclassmen weren't supposed to be so big, they'd say. And at about 250 pounds, they sure weren't supposed to move that fast.

"I kept saying no, that I didn't play football, and they'd just look at me funny," Holley said with a laugh. "They're like, 'Stop playing with me.' That's always how it's been for me, everywhere I go. So when I started thinking about it, people were all like, 'You should play football.' "

Football was always a lingering curiosity for the ESPN Watch List prospect, who took up the sport less than a year ago. The defensive tackle played basketball since third grade, and he always wondered about the sport. But his mother wasn't a fan of him playing such a rough-and-tumble game.

Holley didn't press the issue because he was over the league's weight limit in middle school anyway. He couldn't play football if he was over 185 pounds -- and he towered over most of his classmates at 6-foot, 230. But when fan after fan kept approaching him after those high school games, Holley couldn't resist.

He had to try it out. He wasn't even sure if he'd like it -- but what did he have to lose? He recruited his uncle to help persuade his mother into allowing him to play toward the end of his sophomore year. Scholarship offers weren't on his mind at that point, so he just focused on maintaining his weight by shedding fat and adding muscle.

The 290-pound lineman had no clue that, in less than eight months, he would become one of the top prospects in the state, that he would garner 17 offers from the likes of Alabama, Florida, Florida State, Ohio State and Penn State.

"If you told me that, I would've thought you were joking with me, to be honest," Holley said. "When all those offers started coming in, it amazed me. My coach sent my film out to a couple coaches, and the more coaches started contacting me, and it just blew up."

The Brooklyn native held no offers in January. By the end of February, he surpassed double digits. College coaches marveled at the same thing those spectators at the basketball games did -- how he moved, how his athleticism betrayed his large frame and how he pursued ball-carriers.

Lincoln coach Shawn O'Connor knew he had a special player early on, but he even he couldn't foresee the impact Holley would have. The defensive tackle didn't even play for a handful of the first few games because O'Connor wanted to make sure he got in at least 15 practices first. He transferred to Lincoln in Week 2.

"Not at first. No, not at first," O'Connor said. "But as the season went forward, I was impressed with how fast he was learning and excelling. Some of the things he was doing, some of them couldn't do it after four years of coaching. He picks up things real fast; he's like a sponge."

During his first game, on his very first play, Holley lined up on defense as the opposing team set up for a quick punt on its own 2-yard line. The mammoth lineman twitched as soon as the ball moved, beat his blocker to the gap, and the punter panicked once he saw Holley rush toward him. He dropped the ball, and Holley recovered.

On his first football play, he had just recovered a fumble for a touchdown. O'Connor patted him on the back when he walked over to the sideline: "Welcome to football!" His mother, sitting in the stands, had no idea what happened. O'Connor explained after the game.

College coaches have filed through Abraham Lincoln seemingly every day since O'Connor put Holley's highlight film together. They, too, clamor over how he moves and how they can mold him. They talk about how he hasn't formed any bad habits, and they toss around words like "potential" and "high ceiling" as often as Holley tosses around opposing linemen.

Holley has a lot of college visits to make before narrowing down his list, which might come as early as the summer. He's already been to Rutgers and Penn State -- and he hopes to see Alabama, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Ole Miss and some Florida schools.

But, despite all the new attention, he and O'Connor say the defensive tackle is more focused than ever. He's aiming for a spot in the Under Armour Game, and he's hitting the weight room as hard as he's hitting the books. He even recently cut soda out of his diet -- "Just water now," his coach added -- to improve his physique.

As for Holley's mother, she's pretty happy she allowed her son to listen to those basketball fans and play on the gridiron. But she's not about to let Holley get a big ego either.

"She's happy about not having to pay for school," he said with a laugh, "but she's always on my butt about academics. She's pretty much why I'm the way I am, and she's keeping me grounded -- even if I do have all those offers."