Michigan, Oregon, USC, Vanderbilt, and Florida State are in the hunt for Leon McQuay III, who has been garnering praise as one of the nation’s best safeties since early in his junior season. (Sam Webb/Scout.com)
With Michigan's 2013 football recruiting class having been near completion since the spring, coach Brady Hoke and company have had the luxury of focusing much of their recruiting attention on a handful of elite targets. Seffner (Fla.) Armwood safety Leon McQuay III is one such prospect, and he will take his second trip to Michigan this weekend for a pivotal official visit.
The Wolverines surely plan on rolling out the proverbial red carpet for the 6-foot-2, 190-pounder in hopes of distinguishing themselves from four other finalists. Oregon, USC, Vanderbilt, and Florida State also remain in the mix for McQuay III, who has been garnering praise as one of the nation's best since early in his junior season.
"Not many look better at safety than McQuay," said Scout.com South Regional manager Chad Simmons. "He is a very long defensive back, he can easily carry another 20 pounds, and he is a very intelligent player. He plays for a top program and he knows the game. He has shown good instincts at safety and he has great range on the back end of the defense."
Scout.com Florida analyst Geoff Vogt added: "McQuay has a powerful build and can run like the wind. He projects to (free) safety, where he can make plays in the passing game because of great range. He is not afraid to step up into the box and hit against the run. He was a player that was out there early on the recruiting trail and has continued to improve the past two years."
Based on how much of a priority he has become for the Wolverines, it's clear that they concur resoundingly with those assessments.
"They've been calling me almost every week," McQuay III said regarding his recent contact with Michigan. "I talk a lot to Coach (Greg) Mattison (defensive coordinator). He is a real cool coach. He is real energetic. I like him. All the time he says, 'You're going to be the next Ed Reed.'"
That those comparisons to a future hall of famer came from the former defensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens has made them resonate even more. Mattison's strong pitch is but one of the factors that helped Michigan go from an also-ran in the race for Scout.com's No. 7 safety prospect to one of the favorites for his services.
After jumping into the fray a bit after many of their contemporaries, the Wolverines had considerable ground to make up. They did just that thanks to the recruiting persistence of assistant coach Jerry Montgomery, who convinced McQuay III in May to visit Ann Arbor unofficially. It was at that point Michigan's fortunes in his recruitment took a significant turn for the better.
"I was surprised," McQuay III said. "I didn't expect it at all -- the campus, the coaching staff, everything. The stadium and the recording studio that they have for the students -- we made a beat at one of the players named Jack's (Kennedy's) house."
Since McQuay III is an aspiring music major, the connection he forged with Kennedy was particularly significant. The chance to connect with a potential teammate with similar interests struck a major chord. So, too, did his growing rapport with Montgomery.
"He's really cool," said McQuay III. "It's crazy because I barely know him, but it seems like he's family already."
On the heels of that positive experience Michigan appeared to have earned a place at or near the top of the leaderboard. That abruptly changed in July. When the Wolverines' torrid recruiting pace caused a potential scholarship crunch, they informed McQuay III there may not be room for him if he waited much longer to make a decision. While his feelings for Michigan at the time were strong, they weren't strong enough to compel him to move up his timetable. As a result the Wolverines dropped precipitously down his list.
"I can respect that because at the end of the day it's a business," McQuay's father said after receiving the news. "If Leon is not ready I can't expect him to hold up the progress of the university and what they're trying to do as far as closing out their class.
"I'm kind of giving some leeway (to Michigan) because if I was one of the coaches and we've got (another) kid we really, really like, and we don't know if we are going to end up being (Leon's) choice in November, (I'd take the other kid). That's why I'm not salty or mad about it. Am I a little uncomfortable? Maybe. But that's just part of recruiting. You don't know what's going to happen."
The forthright way
That uncertainty explains why Michigan's pursuit never waned. Meanwhile it became evident to the McQuays that having a class close to capacity long before signing day wasn't a scenario unique to the Wolverines. What was unique was how they chose to handle it.
"Me and Jerry hit it off from Day 1, and with the little situation with them possibly running out of room he was straightforward about it," the elder McQuay said. "Honesty goes a long way. That's what I try to teach my kids. When a man can tell you honestly (what's going on) knowing that it could go left or right, it says something about him. (Montgomery) did that. Other coaches that had been in the same situation haven't done that. I'm not going to say the schools, but you can tell when someone is basically dealing with you on the up-and-up.
"That's what kept Jerry and Michigan in good graces with me -- because he didn't have to tell me that. He didn't have to give me the opportunity to tell my kid the truth. That could have changed Leon's whole way of thinking, but it didn't."
While Montgomery's forthrightness was largely responsible for keeping Michigan in the hunt, the musical opportunity in Ann Arbor and the clear vibe McQuay developed with Kennedy were major factors also.
"We're doing this for the music, we're not doing it for the football," Mr. McQuay insisted. "Football is the vehicle to get him where he's trying to get, and that's something that myself and Jerry have always kept in mind. I think that may be the difference. (The Michigan coaches) know that it's not just football."
"When we went through that little mishap (regarding running out of room), remembering his time with Jack kind of got (McQuay III) through it. That's all he talked about after the visit -- Jack Kennedy -- 'the President.' That's what they call him. They spent like 4 1/2 hours at Jack's crib just bouncing off tracks. So to see Jack have more success -- they sent me the last YouTube video -- it's wild, man. What those guys are doing is impressive. Leon is one of those kids like them that just likes music. He digs music and that's the biggest thing."
Kennedy's musical collaborations with teammate Joe Reynolds have earned a great deal of fan and media interest. That has made the opportunity to reconnect with them all the more exciting.
"I haven't seen the latest (video) yet, but the ones I did see were pretty good," McQuay III said. "I've seen two of them and I like them a lot. I'm looking forward to seeing him again. I'm looking to see the game there, too, because I heard it's crazy. A lot people show up. I also want to meet with the academic people at the music school."
Seeking cold comfort
The non-football aspect of the trip will again loom large. It may carry even more weight this time thanks to the attendance of his mom, India Bedford.
"The most important thing to me is the academics -- like what he would get out of the school itself as far as obtaining a degree from there," Mrs. Bedford said. "Second would be his comfort. The school he likes (best) just depends on how comfortable he feels with them."
One of the biggest determiners of that comfort could be the thermometer. McQuay III keeps most of his feelings close to the vest, but his views on weather are definite exceptions.
"He doesn't like the cold," Mr. McQuay said, laughing. "He did say at first that if he were to go anywhere cold that it would be Oregon, but when we went on that trip to Michigan that whole thing changed. Then I told him, 'You know it gets real cold in Michigan. It's not that play cold. It's that real cold.'"
That begs the question; do his reservations about frigid temperatures make the idea of adjusting to Michigan winters a non-starter?
"No," the younger McQuay responded. "I could if I had to."
"It's just where I feel comfortable at," he later added. "It's (a matter of) whichever school makes me feel the most comfortable with the situation going in, is the best for me, and where I feel I can spend the next four years of my life at."
With visits to Oregon and Vanderbilt already taken, and trips to Florida State and USC to follow Michigan, McQuay III can finally see the finish line. Upon concluding his tour he will take a few weeks to mull over his options before announcing his decision at the Under Armour All-America Game on Jan 4. Shortly after that he will begin his college career as a midyear enrollee.
For now, though, the ball is in Michigan's court and it will be all hands on deck for the Wolverines.
Even Mother Nature appears to be on call. Temperatures this weekend will reportedly be in the 60s.
Sam Webb is managing editor of GoBlueWolverine.com and co-host of the "Michigan Insider" morning show weekdays on Sports Talk 1050 WTKA.