Michigan and State and Louisville are engaged in a head-to-head showdown for the signature of Tampa Catholic High School athlete T.J. Harrell according to his high school coach Michael Gregory.
"I don't really think that anybody else is really in the picture," said Gregory. "He already told Florida State that he is not interested. He took the visit to Georgia this past weekend, but I don't think they are really in the picture."
Gregory expects Harrell to make his selection on the relationships he has forged during the recruiting process. The bond between the Tampa Catholic star and his primary recruiter Harlon Barnett is strong. Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio and defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi have played a key role in the recruitment of Harrell, who is ranked the No. 12 athlete and No. 37 player in Florida in the Class of 2014 by Rivals.com.
"I think Michigan State has the edge there because coach Barnett has been with him throughout this whole process," said Gregory.
"They've really developed a great relationship. He really likes the people at Michigan State, he loves coach Dantonio and coach Narduzzi."
Louisville was running even with Michigan State before Charlie Strong left for Texas. Second-term Louisville coach Bobby Petrino has done a nice job of putting his program back into the mix with Harrell.
"With Louisville, he was really, really interested when coach (Charlie) Strong was there," said Gregory. "He liked that staff there. He likes the rise of that program over the past couple of years. And I think that the prospect of playing sooner, rather than later, really intrigued him with Louisville. After coach Strong left and coach (Bobby) Petrino was hired, he came down immediately and gave his pitch. I know that TJ liked him as well and likes the staff that they built there since the change."
Harrell will announce his decision on signing day from Arlington where he will be preparing for the International Bowl, a competition between all-stars from the United States and Canada on February 7th. Michigan State commitment Enoch Smith Jr. and Spartan recruiting target Craig Evans will also represent the US in the International Bowl.
"He and I have talked about how everything might play out because it is getting close to the end," said Gregory. "I have a feeling that he is going to make a decision before signing day. For all I know, he has his mind made up right now. If he hasn't made his decision already, I think he is probably going to make his decision this week. I think he will let the coaches know who he chooses, and try to keep it a surprise for everybody else until Signing Day. He is done taking official visits. He is leaving for Dallas on Saturday for the International Bowl and he will actually be signing his letter out there as part of their ceremony for signing day."
Low Pressure Pitch
Michigan State has made it clear that Harrell is one of its top recruiting priorities for one of a handful of remaining scholarships for the Class of 2014.
Narduzzi was in Tampa last week to check in with Harrell. Dantonio and Barnett were in town on Tuesday.
The Spartans want Harrell's signature. But they have not tried to coax a commitment with a hard sell.
"I really appreciate Coach Dantonio throughout this whole process because at no point did they ever push for a commitment," said Gregory. "I think that was important for TJ because he has always told me throughout the year that he was probably not going to make his decision until signing day or right around that time. Unfortunately, you find a lot more programs pushing guys to commit with the hard sell, 'if you don't do it now, we aren't going to have a spot for you.'
"I have always respected coach Dantonio as football coach. I have even more respect for him now after seeing how they have handled the recruiting process with TJ.
"When I met with Coach Dantonio for the first time last year, he told me that they were going to recruit TJ until the final hours and let everything play out. I wasn't fortunate enough to sit in on their meeting with TJ on Tuesday, but I did talk with Coach Dantonio. I never had the feeling that they were going to push him to commit or anything like that."
From Start to Finish
Harrell started putting everything together as a sophomore.
"He was a very, very talented athlete when he got here as a freshman," said Gregory. "It says a lot that he started for us his first year. Midway through his sophomore season is when our staff started to see him reaching his potential."
Michigan State began tracking Harrell's development the following spring. The Spartans had a connection to the Tampa Catholic star though his cousin Jeremy Ware, an honorable mention All-Big Ten corner who started 12 games as a senior before he was selected by the Oakland Raiders in the 2010 NFL Draft.
Harrell showing size and 10.8 in the 100 meters as a sophomore, at the time when Michigan State first became interested in him:
"Coach Barnett was in here during the spring making the rounds and that's when they got a look at him," said Gregory. "His cousin being part of the program turned them on to TJ early in the process."
Ware's positive experience at Michigan State gave the Spartans a head start.
"Early on when schools began to realize how good that he was, Michigan State was always his favorite," said Gregory. "I think a lot of that had to do with the ties that he had to program. As the process went on through his junior year, and especially last spring all of these other schools jumped on him and you could tell that he was really starting to enjoy the process."
Michigan State appeared to lose ground to programs from the SEC and ACC with strong roots in Hillsborough County after Harrell emerged as a four-star talent coming off a breakout junior year.
"TJ is a great kid, and he is a great character kid," said Gregory. "He also likes attention and he enjoyed having 32 schools coming in here and basically begging for him to come play for them. He enjoyed making phone calls to all of these coaches and talking to the head coaches. For a while there, it kind of seemed like Michigan State had fallen off when Georgia and Florida State, and some of those other schools came in and started to recruit him hard."
Michigan State stayed the course with Harrell.
"Really from the spring before his junior year until today, Michigan State has pretty much stayed on him steady throughout the whole process and really developed a relationship with him. I know that he really likes that a lot about them."
A 13-1 season that included an outright Big Ten Championship and a victory over Stanford in the Rose Bowl strengthened Michigan State's pull with Harrell.
"When coach Dantonio was down here yesterday, we were talking to him about how awesome a year it was for them," said Gregory. "I think that definitely helped. It opened TJ's eyes to where he could say, these guys can play big time ball. They can play at that level with anyone."
Harrell's official visit to Michigan State also made a strong impression.
"He took his official visit the weekend that they played Michigan up there," said Gregory. "That was the first time that he had had a chance to see the campus, meet all of the coaches, and be around all of the players. That weekend kind of catapulted Michigan State right back into the picture."
Gregory estimates that Harrell has accumulated more than two dozen scholarship offers from major conference programs representing the Big Ten, SEC, ACC, Pac-12, Big 12, and the American Athletic Conference.
Michigan State, Louisville, Georgia, Florida, Florida State, Boston College, Cincinnati, Duke, Houston, Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota, Mississippi, Mississippi State, NC State, Purdue, Syracuse, Tennessee, Central Florida, UCLA, Vanderbilt, Wake Forest, and West Virginia are among the schools that have offered the Tampa Catholic standout.
Both Michigan State and Louisville are recruiting Harrell as a strong safety.
"They are looking at him as a safety," said Gregory. "Coach Dantonio likes him an awful lot as a running back, but coach Narduzzi and coach Barnett appear to be winning that battle right now. The same thing with Louisville. They want him to play safety or outside linebacker. As far as some of the other schools that were recruiting him, Florida State wanted him real bad as a running back. I think that Georgia was also looking at him as a running back as well. At this point, the two schools that seem to be his favorites both want him as a safety-outside linebacker type."
Harrell's multi-position versatility is prized by Michigan State.
"The number one thing they like about him is his versatility," said Gregory. "He is big-bodied guy for a safety who tackles well and can play outside linebacker and has good speed and he has high football IQ. When coach Narduzzi was down here last week we had a chance to chat about TJ and he said that they love him because he has the speed to play safety and that he is big enough and strong enough to play near the line of scrimmage as a linebacker if they needed him to."
Harrell's route-matching ability will serve him well if he sticks at safety, or if develops into an outside linebacker.
"There was a transition period between his sophomore year and his junior and senior years when he was in coverage quite a bit," said Gregory. "Once we moved him off the line of scrimmage and he got comfortable with the safety position, he got very good at coverage. One of the things that coach Narduzzi pointed out in the conversation that I had with him last week is the speed that TJ has to cover slot receivers vertically the length of the field. He runs a legit 4.5 40 now, and he is only going to get faster with work in a college weight room. He is thick enough and tackles well enough to stop the run, but he has the speed to cover seam routes and crossing routes."
Harrell began his high school career at outside linebacker.
"When he first started out we had him playing a lot near the line of scrimmage," said Gregory. "Our base defense is 3-4 and he was kind of that outside linebacker coming off the edge. He was rushing the passer quite a bit. We played him in that role most of the time during his freshman and sophomore year."
Harrell became a factor on offense as a junior. That same year, he began to playing more snaps at safety.
"We didn't realize how talented he was with the ball in his hands until he was a junior," said Gregory. "We started bringing him over to that side of the ball and doing some different things. We had him return some kicks a little bit. He started to move back on defense and play safety a little bit.
"We did the same thing with him this year. He was on just about every special team for us. If we needed a big play, we would him back there to return a kick. He had the second most carries on offense, and for not being a full time offensive guy that is pretty impressive. Whenever we needed him, we found a way to get the ball in his hands. By the same token, he still played defense and he was one of our most impactful players."