PAWTUCKET — You attend one-day showcase events not because you hope to get noticed. You want to get your name out there and understand that in this particular era of recruiting, it’s about showing that you belong as much as flashing your talent.
In Devin Ward, we’re talking about a man-child of a lineman who’s preparing for his junior season with the Tolman High football team. On Friday, July 24, Ward was the only Rhode Island native present for the invitation-only ESPN 300 Elite Underclassmen Showcase. The setting for this gathering of promising talent was the DE Turf Sports Complex in Federica, Delaware.
In terms of garnering attention, the path that Ward elected to take doesn’t get much bigger.
“It was a really big opportunity,” said Ward while standing outside Tolman’s Coutu Memorial Practice Field one day last week. “I think I showed what I can do.”
Just how big? For starters, we’re talking about a teenage boy who stands at 6-foot-5, 315 pounds. Those are measurables that tend to grab the attention of potential recruiters.
“Football-wise, he’s very impressive to look at. That makes him easy to promote,” said Tolman head coach Jason DeLawrence, who was Ward’s chaperone for the six-hour drive to Delaware.
The true perk of the Underclassmen Showcase is a level of exposure that holds much promise. The folks in-charge of organizing and running the camp sent a video of Ward to every Power 5 college football program. That means the coaching staffs at Alabama, Michigan, and Clemson now have in their possession a highlight reel of an individual who could end up as a highly sought-after commodity.
As you’re reading this, a coach from the ACC or Big Ten could be dissecting his every move. In the near future, perhaps Ward will field a call from Alabama’s Nick Saban or Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh. Maybe if we’re in a better situation in relation to the current pandemic, the interest in a student with a 3.5 grade-point-average may include a head coach or two flying to Rhode Island, driving to Exchange Street, and seeing Ward in-person.
Bring on the onslaught of attention, says the youngster, who in less than two years has gone from not knowing how to properly put on football gear, to now standing on the verge of becoming an in-demand recruit where everyone knows his name.
“It’s only going to be a matter of time,” said Ward, enrolled at the Jacqueline M. Walsh School for the Arts and has been a student of the piano since age seven.
The path to an ESPN-sanctioned event came together rather quickly. On a recent Tuesday night, Ward worked out for Mike Foley, a longtime college offensive line coach with stops at UMass and UConn. Foley was so impressed that he was willing to make a call to his connections in Delaware on Ward’s behalf.
As DeLawrence and Ward drove through Connecticut and crossed the George Washington Bridge, the coach relayed that time was still on Ward’s side. Don’t apply unnecessary pressure to yourself. Don’t attach a “make it or break it” label. Don’t get wide-eyed because the caliber of player is in a much higher class than what you typically come across in R.I. high school football.
“As long as he could show what he could do, I told him he would be fine,” said DeLawrence. “He’s only a junior. He still has time.”
Ward’s preference is to be recruited as an offensive lineman. For the Underclassmen Showcase, DeLawrence felt it would behoove Ward to be labeled as a D-lineman. That way, he would be in a better position to show off the full extent of his speed, power, and strength.
There were no 1-on-1 drills, nor did Ward put on a helmet and shoulder pads. All told, he spent two hours at the Delaware athletic complex. He was clocked in the 40-yard dash, participated in several drills, and had his height and weight taken. Before he knew it, he was back in the car with DeLawrence.
“There were a lot of kids from different states. Some of them were even my size,” said Ward.
“Five-star caliber kids,” noted DeLawrence.
One day, we might be looking back and pointing to Ward’s brief visit to Delaware as the most important development to his still-to-be-completely-fleshed-out recruiting odyssey. Originally, he was lined up to attend summer football camps at Boston College, UConn, and UMass. Those best-laid plans were nixed due to the coronavirus.
“There’s not a doubt in my mind that if he went to those camps, he would have offers already,” said DeLawrence.
Turns out that Ward had a solid backup – the kind that more often than not tends to open up a lot of doors. Thanks to the chance he was afforded in Delaware, he’s now in a position where he can enhance his recruiting portfolio as a Class of 2022 prospect.
“Getting the ball rolling early is the best thing I can do,” said Ward, who now benches 305 pounds after barely benching 200 as a ninth grader.
The first time DeLawrence saw Ward, he thought the then-eighth grader at Jenks Middle School was a teacher.
“Now, he’s like a fish to water when it comes to football,” said the Tolman coach.
“I want to continue to get stronger and faster,” said Ward.
With the one-day showcase now in the rear-view mirror, it figures to be interesting to see where Ward goes from here as far as the amount of notice he receives.
Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03