There was a time, during the basketball season, when Catholic linebacker TJ Dudley pointed to the beginning of spring football practice as a good time for making a decision about where he wanted to play college football.
ESPN had inquired about sending cameras down to film the start of spring practice Monday with Dudley, Kyron Griffin and Jourdan Thomas considering Power Five football programs and a fourth recruit, tailback Jeremiah Cobb, still a year away but gaining major interest among college recruiters.
Just as quickly, that idea was squashed as Griffin and Thomas both committed to Mississippi State and Dudley decided to put off his decision.
“It might not be during spring,” Dudley said. “It depends on some things.”
Dudley won’t elaborate, but his tale, like many highly recruited football players, takes a lot of twists and turns throughout the journey. Last year, he was playing outside linebacker when Catholic defensive coordinator Kirk Johnson elected to move him inside. His ability to shed would-be blockers to get to the opposing ball carrier certainly helped among recruiters viewing his film.
“At the beginning of the season, we were running a 4-3 and we had to put him at ‘will’ because Pat (Ryan) is more of a ‘sam,’” said Johnson, now the Knights’ head coach. “We were trying to let (Zach) Underwood play ‘mike.’ Midway through the season, we went to a 3-4 and so that allowed ‘Bull’ and Pat to be in the middle and that really was a changing point for our defense. You can’t run from both of them.”
Dudley zoomed up the recruiting charts, moving from the No. 163 on the Rivals chart a few months ago to No. 133. The offseason workouts also have helped as the 6-foot-2, 205-pound Dudley now tips the scales at 221 pounds.
But as he narrowed his 27 offers to Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, Miami and Oregon, he discovered that recruiting was a two-way street and he had to make changes again.
“I’ve just replaced a couple of schools,” he said. “It’s still the in-state schools, Alabama and Auburn, then Oregon, UCF and Texas.”
Clemson, who was reportedly once at the top of the recruiting list, has apparently fallen off the list as the Tigers have veered their recruiting interests in another direction. Assistant coach Todd Bates continues to recruit Dudley, but the message has apparently changed.
“It’s really kind of ‘out’ right now,” Dudley said. “That’s depending on them right now. They had some things happen so it’s really me waiting on them right now.”
Miami, which jumped into the mix as former Auburn recruiter Travis Williams moved to the Hurricanes, fell out of favor when Williams followed Gud Malzahn to Orlando and is now Central Florida’s defensive coordinator.
“I had built a relationship with both those guys,” Dudley said. “I’m really just carrying on (that relationship) with UCF. It’s really about the coaching staff with UCF. That’s what made me consider them, the coaches.”
The team with the most ground to make up is Auburn as new head coach Brian Harsen and linebacker coach Jeff Schmedding attempt to build a relationship with Dudley.
“As soon as the coaches got there, even before they finalized all the other coaches, the linebacker coach, the defensive coordinator and the head coach all reached out to me as soon as they got there, like the first night,” Dudley said. “That really played a part, to see if they were going to recruit me.”
Another team that jumped into the recruiting war is Texas. Former head coach Tom Herman never considered Dudley, but new coach Steve Sarkisian made him a priority.
“When he went to Texas, it made me look at them a little more in-depth,” Dudley said. “But it was always a consideration. I talk to the coaches often. I was actually looking at them before Coach ‘Sark’ went there but the coach (Herman) never reached out to me and Coach ‘Sark’ hit me up as soon as he got there.”
The two teams that have remained near the top of any Dudley list are Alabama and Oregon. For Dudley, there are obstacles with the Ducks such as Oregon’s distance from home and the fact that the Pac-12 doesn’t have the same reputation as the Southeastern Conference, but the coaching staff has overcome a lot of the limitations.
“I love everybody on their coaching staff,” he said. “I talk to their whole coaching staff a lot. They’re always energetic and all smiles when I talk to them. They seem excited every time I get on the phone with them.”
Alabama, thought to be the obvious destination once Clemson fell aside, isn’t so obvious now for reasons that neither Johnson nor Dudley can explain.
“They’ve always been good to me, since my ninth-grade year, and I’ve been there multiple times,” Dudley said. “I’ve already been there and talked to the coaches, so that definitely plays a big part.”
Charles Kelly is recruiting Dudley for the Crimson Tide.
“They really want you to take your time with your decision,” Dudley said. “And this decision really isn’t easy, but they do want you to wait a little bit.”
So as Dudley considers his options, he now wants to schedule visits to the programs recruiting him that he hasn’t had a chance to see, such as Texas, UCF, Auburn and Oregon. Those visits were prohibited last year as a result of COVID-19 protocols.
“That’s another thing with Auburn,” he observed. “I haven’t visited there yet, so I really haven’t met those coaches yet.
“It’s really important, especially for the schools that I haven’t visited before that are really recruiting me hard. Because you can say a lot of things through the phone and everything on the phone sounds good. When you go out there, you’ll get that feeling as to whether that’s the place for you or not.”