Rashan Gary and the emergence of the most sought-after defensive end recruit in the 2016 college football recruiting class.
PARAMUS, N.J.—It’s a clear May afternoon at Paramus Catholic High, and Rashan Gary is taking part in a cardiovascular workout with his teammates.
The routine is unremarkable, but the manner in which Gary progresses through it is not. Light on his feet and sporting a white T-shirt with gray shorts and bright green tights, Gary gracefully dashes up and down part of the track encircling the school’s football field. The 6’5,’’ 295-pounder easily outpaces the shorter, lighter players beside him, his enormous strides swallowing swaths of space. Onlookers are struck by the fluidity of his movements. “I don’t want to see that f-----,” one high-major FBS assistant jokes of the prospect of Gary signing with a rival in his league.
This is a common sentiment. Most of the coaches who have seen Gary, either on or off the football field, want him in their program. They do not want to consider the possibility of devising a plan to stop him. Gary is considered one of the top recruits in the country; depending on which site you consult, he is ranked anywhere from first overall to sixth. Quarterback prospects typically command more attention than any other position because of their importance to a team’s success. But with nine of this year’s top-10 ranked passers having already committed, few players in the class of 2016 will be monitored more closely than Gary leading into Signing Day.
Until then, fans, coaches and media members will try to forecast his destination, digging for anything that might lend insight into his thinking. The problem? As his list of scholarship offers eclipses 50, Gary isn’t tipping his hand. Indeed, given his blend of physical tools, talent and the uncertainty surrounding his intentions, it’s not a stretch to suggest Gary's is the most intriguing recruitment in the country.
It wasn’t so long ago that Gary wasn’t allowed to play football. His mother, Jennifer Coney, who describes herself as her son’s best fan and biggest critic, says Gary was too big for his age group to play in Pop Warner. His size and strength helped him excel in other sports, such as basketball, track and swimming. When he finally began playing football as a seventh-grader in the Scotch Plains-Fanwood Police Athletic League, Gary was too big to touch the ball. To make proper use of his size, he was asked to line up in the trenches.
Gary hinted at his potential before reaching high school. He was named the Overall MVP of the National Underclassmen Combine Ultimate 100 camp as an eighth-grader in 2012. Gary was then invited to a camp at Rutgers, the Big Man Academy, and held his own against players who were multiple years older than him. The Scarlet Knights were so impressed that they extended Gary a scholarship offer. More programs followed suit when Gary subsequently attended other camps.
“He was a big kid that had a lot of potential,” Todderick Hunt, a recruiting analyst for NJ.com, says of Gary during the period before he became known as one of the top recruits in the country. “At the time, had a little bit of baby fat on him, which he has since cut off, and now he’s lean and mean and ready to go. But he definitely flashed potential. You could see the size and you could also see that he was coachable and he was a kid that wanted more.” By the summer following Gary’s freshman year in 2013, his list of offers included blue bloods like Alabama, Ohio State and Florida.
Gary’s stature continued to rise even though he didn’t play for a powerhouse high school program in New Jersey. He had been attending Scotch Plains-Fanwood High while living with his father in Scotch Plains. When his dad relocated in the spring of his sophomore year, Gary moved in with his mom in Plainfield. Coney started considering the next school Gary would attend. She wanted one that would challenge him academically and athletically, assessing several places accordingly.
Coney said she received calls from a number of schools interested in Gary, some of which are not located in New Jersey. After evaluating numerous options, Coney and Gary settled on Paramus Catholic. They believed it would be a good fit. Yet before Gary ever played a down for the Paladins, he became the center of a controversy about the legality of his transfer that reignited a heated debate in New Jersey over the division between parochial and public schools.
Gary and his mother were alleged to have received calls from people associated with Paramus Catholic and former football standout (and current Michigan safety) Jabrill Peppers, and Scotch Plains-Fanwood coach Jon Stack said a man wearing Paramus Catholic apparel spoke to Gary at a track meet in the spring of 2013. Scotch Plains-Fanwood athletic director Ryan Miller said he checked a box on Gary’s transfer form to indicate Gary had been recruited. New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association rules prohibit schools from recruiting players.
Coney and Paramus Catholic denied the allegations and Gary was cleared to play at the start of his junior season after the association held a hearing to determine his eligibility. At the hearing in September 2014, an appeals committee unanimously voted (5-0) in favor of Paramus Catholic, with an NJSIAA attorney saying there was “simply insufficient evidence” to prove Gary had been recruited. While Gary says he was able to block out the firestorm swirling around him, Coney says she was dismayed by the ordeal and the potential repercussions for Gary.
“What hurt me so bad is that, you know, they gave him their blessing, they [said] they understood, they want the best for Rashan,” Coney says of the allegations. “The school, who they claimed they cared so much about Rashan, ‘You’re trying to not only punish Rashan … Why are you punishing him?’”
Miller says he regrets any turmoil Gary and his family endured, but adds there is a division between the human side of what transpired and his obligation to adhere to specific rules. “There was a process that I had to follow, and I followed it,” Miller says. “However, it’s disconnected from my hope that Rashan gets to a college that he really thrives at, that will support his academic interests as well as his playing interests, and that eventually I’m watching him on Thursday, Sunday or Monday.”
The eligibility ruling was good news for Gary and bad news for the schools Paramus Catholic was set to face in the 2014 season. He went on to record 55 tackles, including 14 sacks, in leading the Paladins to a 9-2 record and the NJSIAA Non-Public Group 4 title game. Gary says he felt he was improving game by game, but had a mental breakthrough of sorts during Paramus Catholic’s Oct. 4 win over Bergen Catholic. Bergen is led by one of the top-ranked dual-threat quarterbacks in the country, Tennessee commit Jarrett Guarantano.
Gary registered six sacks, blocked a punt and recovered it in the end zone for a touchdown in the 44-7 rout. “From there, I had to think about nothing,” Gary says. “Because the other games before then, I was thinking about [what] I needed to do. I just reacted and then did it.” The 2014 campaign cemented Gary’s status as one of the top prospects in the country. By April, Rivals.com was the lone recruiting service that did not rank him No. 1 overall in the nation. It should come as no surprise, then, that college coaches are constantly trying to contact him.
Coney jokingly boasts that her contact list amounts to a “who’s who” of high-profile coaches, and a stack of cardboard boxes stuffed with written correspondence from various programs rests against a wall in her home. While many blue-chip recruits often use Twitter to either proclaim their affinity for a certain school or troll fan bases in the interest of gaining followers, Gary’s feed consists solely of retweets. That doesn’t mean he lacks anything to say. Those close to him vouch for his sense of humor, and Michael Dwumfour—Gary’s best friend who also attended Scotch Plains-Fanwood before transferring to DePaul Catholic (N.J.) High and who verbally committed to Penn State in June 2015—likens Gary to a “big teddy bear.”
On the field Gary can use physical tools to overpower opponents, but recognizes that approach won’t always work against bigger linemen. He has spent hours this off-season honing his technique. One of his trainers, Peter Kafaf, instructs Gary on the proper ways to use his hands when engaging with offensive lineman. The training is rooted in martial arts, with an emphasis on using simple, powerful movements to defeat the opposition. Kafaf has required his pupils to watch The Karate Kid, wherein the main character learns from Mr. Miyagi through repetition.
During a recent session, Gary repetitively deployed a sharp, downward swipe to dislodge the arm of the lineman—which, in this case, was Dwumfour.
Kafaf says last year Gary showed flashes of his potential but only used about “50%” of what he’s capable of. This season, Kafaf says, he expects Gary to reach 90% and has been impressed by his hand speed. “We found out what worked for Rashan, and now we’re just going to do a ton of repetitions so it’s so automatic for him that no one is going to come close to being able to defeat him,” Kafaf says. “He’ll be able to recognize where the lineman sets their hands and how to defeat him in an instant.” Paramus Catholic assistant Greg Russo says he saw Gary make strides over the course of last season and expects him to make a significant leap in 2015. “He was already real good last year,” Russo says. “I think this year you’re going to see way, way, far and away better.”
Gary has begun to visit schools. Last month he took trips to Ohio State, Michigan, Alabama, Auburn and Ole Miss. In April he traveled to Clemson, Georgia and South Carolina. He has also been on Rutgers’ campus, which sits less than 30 minutes from his home, on numerous occasions. Gary has said he’d like to form a top-five list before the start of his senior season—Paramus opens at Holy Spirit (N.J.) High Aug. 21—but plans to take official visits before announcing his decision either at the Under Armour All-America Game in January or on Signing Day Feb. 3.
Some observers think the Wolverines may have the inside track on Gary after the program hired former Paramus Catholic coach Chris Partridge to a recruiting operations position in January. In addition, Michigan landed Paramus Catholic’s last five-star recruit, defensive back Peppers, in 2014. But it’d be misguided to assume Gary would pick Michigan based solely on his relationship with a coach he played under for one season, or a former top prospect with whom he never played.
One thing is clear: As Gary nears the end of his recruitment, he will continue to garner attention from programs across the country. Gary’s eventual decision will be the subject of endless speculation—both from coaches trying to secure his signature and curious outsiders trying to guess where he’ll play.