He is listed among the top football recruits on the Rivals 250 list, but T.J. Dudley thinks of himself more as a basketball player, at least as long as his Catholic basketball team is playing in the postseason.
Dudley and the Knights will take on Dadeville today in the Southeast Regional finals at Garrett Coliseum, with the Knights taking aim on a second consecutive trip to Birmingham and the state tournament.
“Honestly, I feel like we can go all the way this year,” Dudley said. “Last year, literally everybody on the team except JB (Justin Buford) hadn’t been in that position last year, going to Birmingham, so it was a big stage for everybody. With four of the five starters returning, that really helps a lot with maturity and then everybody’s been there before so we know what it takes to get it done.”
And the 6-foot-1, 207-pound linebacker everyone calls “Bull” has worked hard on his game this year, trying to improve his basketball skills in an effort to bring home a state championship.
“Just getting back in the gym and working on my ball handling,” he said. “When I was growing up, I was always one of the shorter kids so I played guard. But when I got to high school, I hit another growth spurt so I moved to forward to help get more rebounds. But it’s still second nature to dribble a little bit.”
Opponents have noticed. While his numbers have dropped because of lopsided wins in recent weeks -- and he missed some time early in the season because of football -- he’s taken on more of a role as a secondary ball handler in addition to his work in the paint on both ends of the floor.
“He’s improved a lot in his offensive skill set,” Trinity coach Matt Arrighi said. “Last year, he was, to me, an offensive rebounder and a post player. (This year, in the area finals), he was the difference in the game. The way they were using him, he was the one bringing the ball in transition a lot and he was running the point while LJ (Green) wasn’t in the game and last year they would have never done that with him.
“I know he’s a great football player, but somewhere along the way he’s worked on his offensive skill set. He’s able to handle the ball and can drive the ball when he wants.”
Catholic coach Mike Curry calls Dudley his “point forward” that complements Green, the point guard, whenever the Knights need a ball handler.
“He’s a versatile basketball player,” Curry said. “Right now, he’s a basketball player and that’s what he talks about. When football comes back, he’s a football player. It took him a little while to get back in the flow, but ‘Bull’s’ been good for us.”
Dudley averages 7.0 points per game and his numbers reflect a player who plays away from the crowd at times (where he has 27 assists) and in the paint at times (where he has 45 offensive rebounds and 44 defensive rebounds). His scoring also takes a hit when he is assigned the best player from the opposing team, which he was when the Knights took on Trinity and forward Parker Hughes.
“Me and Myles (Butler) usually rotate getting the best guy,” Dudley said. “He was taller and that was my job to stop him.
“I take (pride in defense) a lot. I like getting turnovers and being able to push the ball up the floor. And like Coach said, defense always translates into offense. So me playing defense and getting the rebounds and giving it to my teammates just helps a lot.”
When basketball season ends, he will turn his attention back to football, where he will make a decision “sometime around our spring practices” on which college he will attend.
“I think I have narrowed the schools down a little more, especially with picking up (new) offers and seeing how things played out during this basketball season,” he said.
He had narrowed his list to five schools -- Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, Miami and Oregon -- although communication and relationships play a huge role in his decision. That probably doesn’t help Auburn, which made a coaching change recently, and may cause Dudley to substitute Central Florida for Miami.
“Number one, it’s about communication, talking to the coaching staffs a lot, see how they are as people and watching the teams myself, watching the position that I’ll be playing and seeing how I’ll be able to succeed at,” he said. “That also played a role with ‘TWill’ (Travis Williams) moving to Miami and the relationship we have and the relationship we’re going to keep building with him going to Miami. Also with Auburn, it was really just waiting to see who they got as coaches and then me talking to them to see how they are.”
Almost immediately after Dudley put Miami in his list of finalists, Williams took a job as Gus Malzahn’s defensive coordinator at Central Florida, which could affect his recruiting with both schools. Among the four remaining schools, Oregon is appealing but obviously is a long way from home.
“That’s definitely the minus to it, going far,” Dudley said, “but a lot of guys have done it before, going across the country, and it’s all about where you fit at and what you think is best for you.”
Auburn has the most ground to make up in the recruiting process because of the coaching change.
“It literally does make a difference, when you’ve met literally everybody else in person and they come at a certain time when we can’t talk,” Dudley said. “Zoom, it’s really different but it’s just an adjustment we have to make right now.”
One more fact Dudley has to consider is the location of Clemson and Miami in the Atlantic Coast Conference versus Alabama and Auburn in the Southeastern Conference.
“Does it make a difference?” he said. “Kind of. Of course, every kid who grows up in the South wants to play in the SEC, but like I just said, it really just depends on where I feel I can succeed the most at.”
But that decision will come later. Right now, he just wants to play basketball.