TJ Dudley returned home from a visit to Texas Sunday evening and liked what he saw in Austin. But during the trip he made the decision to trim his list of schools to three.
The finalists are Alabama, Oregon, and UCF. One of those three schools will receive a commitment from the 4-star linebacker from Montgomery, Alabama on Monday.
"Throughout the whole COVID process it was just about getting out there to see the schools. Taking the visits, meeting the coaches and seeing the places in person would help my decision."
Dudley's mindset is one many recruits share, as they finally have the chance to visit the schools recruiting them in person after the NCAA imposed a recruiting dead period that lasted 15 months amid the Coronavirus pandemic.
I caught up with Dudley following his visit to Texas to preview his college commitment.
I started off with Alabama, the home-state school that many on the outside view as the overwhelming favorite.
"It's just a winning culture," he said of the Crimson Tide program. "It's not bad to be around at all. The whole mentality the coaches and players have each and every day is amazing."
"I love everything about it. Alabama is in a great standing with me."
The 6-foot-3, 225-pound prep prioritized getting out to Eugene for his first official visit at the beginning of June, but in the time since has taken an official visit to Central Florida, and followed that up with a short trip south of home to Tuscaloosa, for an unofficial visit to Alabama.
"It was good," Dudley said of the trip. "One thing that stands out, I have good relationships with players that are there and the coaching staff."
There's one coach that Dudley feels closest with on the Crimson Tide staff, and it isn't Nick Saban.
"Coach (Charles) Kelly was the one who reached out to me first, he told Ducks Digest. "I built a relationship with him first and it continued to grow."
What stands out about his relationship with the associate defensive coordinator?
"He’s a great guy and he’s gonna be straight up with you. That’s one thing I love about him."
Being so close to home, Dudley already has a relationship with another Montgomery native who will suit up for the defending national champions for the first time this season.
"Anquin Barnes, he's a defensive lineman that just got there. He's like a big brother to me. We were close even before he committed."
Since making the cross-country journey to Eugene at the beginning of the month, the communication from the Oregon coaching staff has remained constant, sometimes in the form of weekly Zoom calls with the entire Ducks' coaching staff.
"It’s been the same even before the visit," Dudley said. "Before the visit it was every day and it’s still every day."
With nearly 30 scholarship offers, it's not crazy to think that the linebacker has heard just about every pitch in the book up to this point. So what makes the Ducks different?
It all starts with Mario Cristobal.
"He’s definitely the most interactive head coach I’ve been around," he said. "Everywhere I went he was there during the visit. He’s a great guy."
The possibility of lining up next to high-profile linebackers Noah Sewell and Justin Flowe is another factor aiding the Ducks in their pursuit of Dudley. But the relationships with Oregon run past the coaching staff, down to the 2022 commits he'd be playing with.
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"It’s a good thing," Dudley said of having relationships with Oregon commits.
Perhaps the best part of the connections he's made with the Duck commits is the ability to talk about the recruiting process, as athletes mull over what may be the biggest decision they've made in their lives.
"Sometimes you can’t talk to your parents or coaches. You can ask them (recruits) questions and get knowledge from them. They’re in the same position as you."
The chance to play at Oregon is clearly something Dudley holds in high regard, as he'd join a growing movement of players coming from the Southeast to play football in Eugene.
"It means everything," Dudley said. "It’s a different movement that I’d be a part of. Kids coming behind me would take the time to consider going out of their comfort zone. Other places might have the best opportunity for you, you never know."
And then there's UCF, a Group of Five team that welcomes first-year Head Coach Gus Malzahn, who takes over the Knights' program after being fired by Auburn.
"I love everybody on the coaching staff. I like what they’re building," he said of what stands out about UCF. "I'd be a part of something great and leave my own legacy there. If I committed there a lot of other guys would come there. It would be a movement."
Dudley said he was one of Malzahn's first calls when he took the new job.
"Gus is a great guy. I had a relationship with him when he was at Auburn. The fact he continued it at UCF--as soon as he got there he hit me up. It shows a lot about him as a person."
I don't think many would be shocked if Dudley committed to Alabama, but I'm going in a different direction. I think he'll be putting on an Oregon hat when he makes his college commitment.
He'll announce his decision Monday on CBS Sports HQ and is ready to be finished with the recruiting process.
"It’s gonna feel great," he said of how he'll feel after making his decision. "One because of the pandemic and it’s been crazy. It's been a long ride communicating with coaches every day. It’s gonna be a big relief off my back. Knowing I got somewhere I can call home."
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