NCF On The Trail: Mississippi State Bulldogs

HOOVER, Ala. – It started with a dream, the dream to play Division I football. Next Wednesday, four high school teammates will become one step closer to turning that goal into a reality when they sign with their respective schools.

The only catch? The quartet from Hoover High School will be choosing four different colleges.

“It was kind of a dream that we’d play together,” ESPN 300 linebacker Darrell Williams said. “I still think that would be cool if we could all four go to the same school, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. You’ve got to go where’s best for you.”

In four years at Hoover, they won three state championships and finished with a record of 42-3. But now Williams (Auburn), Christian Bell (Alabama), Bradrick Shaw (Wisconsin) and Justin Johnson (Mississippi State) are on to the next chapter, and each is paving his own way.

[+] EnlargeDarrell Williams
Greg Ostendorf/ESPNDarrell Williams grew up an Alabama fan, but Auburn turned out to be a better fit for him.
The pretty boy

Off the field, that’s what teammates call Williams -- he’s always fixing his hair, he’s the last to leave the locker room after the game, you get the idea -- but on the field, it’s a different story. He still likes to look good, but he likes to look good making plays.

At 6-foot-3, 226 pounds, Williams has a rare combination of size and speed, and the scary part is he’s not done filling out his frame.

“He can cover a lot of grass,” Hoover coach Josh Niblett said. “He’s a great blitzer, but he’s a great dropper. He can play inside or outside. But he brings something to the table with length and athleticism that you don’t normally see out of a lot of kids.”

Williams grew up an Alabama fan. He always wanted to play for the Crimson Tide. But when it came time to make his college decision, Alabama wasn’t ready to accept his commitment. The coaches wanted to see him in camp first. That didn’t sit well with Williams, especially after seeing one of his teammates commit in April, around the same time he was ready to make a decision.

Two weeks later, Williams gave his verbal pledge to Auburn.

He developed a bond with the Auburn coaches that got stronger with every visit. Though the last two months have been a whirlwind with all the coaching changes, he remains firm to Gus Malzahn and the Tigers.

Finally, he can say he’s 100 percent committed.

“It feels good,” Williams said recently after his official visit to Auburn. “It’s kind of a relief because this whole process has been kind of stressful.”

The freak

Bell is the type of player quarterbacks have nightmares about. He’s 6-foot-4, 216 pounds, has a quick first step and when he gets around the edge, look out.

He’s also the teammate who committed to Alabama in April when the staff told Williams to hold off. It doesn’t necessarily mean Bell is more talented, but maybe he’s a better fit for Nick Saban’s defense. Or maybe the coaches saw a certain edge about him, an attitude that leads to his intense and aggressive demeanor on the field.

His teammates, who have been with him since middle school, still have trouble describing him.

“Christian is Christian,” one said.

“I don’t know what word can describe Christian,” another said.

Shaw probably said it best.

“He’s the freak,” Shaw said. “In practice, he’ll give the offensive lineman a move and just do whatever he wants. He manhandles people.”

Surprisingly, Alabama wasn’t always the choice for Bell. He, too, weighed his options before making his commitment and admits that Mississippi State and UCLA were very much in the mix at that time. Both schools offered a better chance at early playing time.

But that’s not what Bell was interested in. He understands he’s just another name in Alabama’s star-studded recruiting class, and that’s the way he likes it.

“We haven’t really talked about playing time because if they say I’m going to start, I don’t really want to know that,” Bell said. “I want to just go in there and work.”

The quiet one

[+] EnlargeChristian Bell, Bradrick Shaw, Justin Johnson
Greg Ostendorf/ESPNChristian Bell (Alabama), Bradrick Shaw (Wisconsin), and Justin Johnson (Mississippi State) will join Darrell Williams as Hoover (Ala.) players headed to FBS schools.
A week ago, Shaw was the only uncommitted member of the Hoover quartet. The four-star running back didn’t have the luxury of staying in state with both Alabama and Auburn loaded at his position.

“They’re in state, but I guess they got the players who they wanted,” Shaw said. “I can’t do anything about it.”

Instead, his choice came down to Vanderbilt and Wisconsin. Many predicted that he would sign with the Commodores given the proximity to home and the opportunity to play in the SEC. But it wasn’t meant to be. Shaw chose the road less traveled.

“I’m OK to go out of the SEC,” he said. “The Big Ten is nice, too. They produce great running backs every year. Of course, Ohio State won this year. It’s elite talent just competing. SEC is one of the best conferences, but the Big Ten is pretty nice, too.”

It fits his personality. Go to a school where nobody knows you, keep your head down, work hard, and maybe become the next Melvin Gordon.

It’s the same attitude that helped Shaw get on the field at Hoover as a freshman. It’s what made him better every season and what ultimately turned him into a star. But you would never hear that from him.

“I’m not quiet,” Shaw said. “But I’m kind of like the most normal guy. All the other guys are crazy.”

The underdog

There was a time when Johnson didn’t know if he’d be part of the group. He didn’t know if he’d have the same opportunity as the others. They all had received Division I scholarship offers by the beginning of last year, but he was still waiting on his.

“It was pretty tough,” Johnson said. “Thinking about it really does upset me sometimes, but you get over it. You don’t realize it, but it makes you go harder.”

“Of course everybody wants to be ranked high and stuff like that. That’s every kid’s dream. Sometimes things just don’t work out as you expect they would. I’m not upset about it or anything. It’s just one of those things that sticks in the back of your head and drives you.”

Eventually, the offers came. The three-star wide receiver was offered by Kentucky, Mississippi State, and a handful of smaller schools.

When it was time to make a decision, the choice was easy. Johnson committed to Mississippi State because it’s a program that reflects his attitude. Since Dan Mullen arrived, they have exceeded expectations just like he has done throughout his career at Hoover and just like he plans to do when he arrives in Starkville.

“I see that underdog mentality,” he said. “You never know what to expect.”

Dak Prescott was a three-star recruit and Josh Robinson a two-star prospect who both became stars with the Bulldogs. Johnson is hoping to become the latest in that line of under-the-radar stars.

Weekend recruiting wrap: SEC 

January, 27, 2015
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This was one of two remaining weekends for recruits to take visits until national signing day. The weekend was full of news including over 10 commitments in the SEC. Here’s a closer look at some of the top news from around the conference this weekend.

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It’s not often a recruit commits to the same school twice, but that’s what happened with ESPN 300 receiver John Burt on Monday.


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Daily Social Roundup: UCLA checks in with Iman Marshall 

January, 22, 2015
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Wednesday marked the two-week point until national signing day and coaches were out in force on the recruiting trail, with UCLA's visit to No. 4 overall prospect Iman Marshall leading the headlines.


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Weekend recruiting wrap: SEC 

January, 20, 2015
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National signing day is less than three weeks away and it’s coming down to crunch time. This past weekend was one of three remaining weekends for recruits to take official visits before signing day and some of the top prospects took full advantage of the available weekend. Auburn had a monster recruiting weekend and, though not to the same extent, so did Alabama, Texas A&M, Florida, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and others. Here’s a closer look at the top news from this past weekend.


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Best of the visits: SEC

January, 18, 2015
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Auburn hosted an incredible seven five-star prospects over the weekend, while Alabama, Tennessee, Florida, Texas A&M and other SEC schools also had big recruiting weekends. Here’s a closer look at some of the top sights and sounds from the weekend visitors.

Three-star linebacker Dwaine Thomas flipped his commitment from Louisiana-Lafayette to Texas A&M on Saturday afternoon. Thomas tweeted out a photo of himself wearing an Aggies jersey and helmet.


Auburn had a huge recruiting weekend. Here are several photos prospects tweeted out over the course of the weekend:

Georgia commit Terry Godwin posing with Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn.


Five-star defensive end CeCe Jefferson posing with a young fan after Auburn’s basketball game Saturday night.

Byron Cowart posted an Instagram photo of himself along with Jefferson and four-star linebacker Jeffery Holland on Auburn’s field.

#wareagle @holland_jeff @cecejeferson7

A photo posted by Byron Cowart (@byroncowart99) on


Auburn commit Jordan Colbert posted several pictures of other targets wearing Auburn jerseys in the Tigers locker room.


ESPN 300 defensive end Arden Key took an official visit to LSU with his family. Here are a few photos of his time in Baton Rouge.


Alabama also had a big recruiting weekend. Here is a photo of Arkansas wide receiver commit K.J. Hill, Miami receiver commit Lawrence Cager and Alabama safety commit Rico McGraw.


Here's Alabama commit Adonis Thomas in a Crimson Tide uniform.


Tennessee commit Kyle Phillips tweeted a photo of several Tennessee commits goofing around.


Mississippi State wide receiver commit Farrod Green tweeted a photo of himself in a Bulldogs uniform.


Virginia Tech commit Houshun Gaines poses for a picture with Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason.


Kentucky commit Jeremiah Dinson poses with uncommitted cornerback Rashad Fenton at the University of Florida.


Florida commit Tyler Jordan and South Carolina commit Christian Pellage pose for a picture while at Florida.


Another Florida commit, Mike Horton, tweeted out a photo of him in a Gators jersey.

SEC's top recruiting visits 

January, 16, 2015
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With national signing day less than three weeks away, it is officially crunch time. There are only three recruiting weekends left for visits, and most schools plan to take full advantage of those available weekends. Here are a closer look at some of the top visits around the SEC this weekend.

Auburn


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No. 1 ranked inside linebacker Leo Lewis of Brookhaven (Mississippi) High School changed his commitment once from Alabama to Ole Miss and all indications are the four-star linebacker is about to have another change of heart.


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LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Most coaches at AFCA agree an early signing period is a good thing, but when to have it will be a hot topic at Tuesday’s NCAA recruiting seminar.


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No. 2 running back Damien Harris announces at 1:15 p.m. ET Friday between Alabama, Kentucky and Ohio State, but this has always been a Crimson Tide-Wildcat recruiting battle.


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Head coach Dan Mullen has put together arguably his best recruiting class since he has been at Mississippi State. The on-field success has certainly translated into recruiting success as well. The Bulldogs have the 12th-ranked recruiting class in the Recruiting Nation class rankings. The class consists of 29 commitments, including six ranked in the ESPN 300. The class is filled with players who could add depth almost immediately.


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Midterm junior college signing day winners are headlined by Ole Miss and Oklahoma, but they weren’t the only programs that improved Wednesday.

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Midyear additions: Mississippi State

December, 17, 2014
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Mississippi State has announced the signing of five early enrollees, according to the program's official blog HailStateBeat:

Johnathan Calvin, DE
HT: 6-3 WT: 265
Positional Rank: #5 DE (JC)
Stars: 3
ESPN JC50 (#50)

Malik Dear, ATH
HT: 5-9 WT: 217
Positional Rank: #19 ATH
Stars: 4
ESPN 300 (#202)

Donald Gray, WR
HT: 5-10 WT: 180
Positional Rank: #2 WR (JC)
Stars: 4
ESPN JC50 (#6)

Martinas Rankin, OT
HT: 6-5 WT: 300
Positional Rank: #1 OT (JC)
Stars: 4
ESPN JC50 (#7)

Deddrick Thomas, ATH
HT: 5-9 WT: 170
Positional Rank: #56 ATH
Stars: 3

Weekend recruiting wrap: SEC 

December, 9, 2014
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With Alabama winning the SEC championship on Saturday and the college football playoff now set, SEC schools can now turn their focus to recruiting. Despite there being only one game this weekend, there was still a bunch of recruiting news from around the SEC. There was a couple of big commitments, a few decommitments, a big decision date was announced and some important in-home visits. Here’s a closer look at the top recruiting news from around the conference.


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Top juco prospect comparisons 

December, 3, 2014
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For every recruiting class that includes junior college signees, there is a high-risk, high-reward proposition because most juco prospects are expected to provide immediate help while not having much time to prepare for such a role. Some are up to the task and become immediate difference-makers such as Auburn’s D’haquille Williams. Here are three prospects in the ESPN JC 50, as well as current college stars we feel they resemble with their skillsets.


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