June 17, 2013 at 11:03 am

Sam Webb

Michigan scores well in academics with No. 1 DE Da'Shawn Hand

Da'Shawn Hand: 'My goal is try to make a decision before December.' (Photo courtesy of Sam Webb)

And then there were three.

That’s the number of favorites still standing in the race for the nation’s No. 1 defensive end, Woodbridge, Va., star Da’Shawn Hand. One week removed from paring his list down to Michigan, Alabama and Florida, and the reverberations are still being felt. South Carolina’s place among the cuts wasn’t all that surprising. Virginia Tech’s definitely was.

“This is all about academics,” Hand explained. “Virginia Tech -- they don’t have a Sports Marketing program. South Carolina -- their professor really didn’t wow me. (South Carolina) was an all right visit, and (South Carolina assistant) Coach Deke (Adams) is a great coach, but the professor really didn’t get to me.”

“(Cutting) Virginia Tech -- it was hard, man. (Virginia Tech defensive coordinator) Bud Foster is my favorite coach.”

While football relationships will certainly be instrumental in helping Hand determine which school fits him best, they won’t dictate where he winds up. That’s because of a criterion his father has long maintained holds greater significance.

“It is really about the degree,” Sharif Hand said. “With me being out here in the job market I understand how hard it is. I really stress to Shawn academically getting to where he can see longevity outside of football. Longevity is that degree, and that is what we always talk about. Don’t pick a school because of the football program. Look at the school, look at that alumni system, and look at guys from the football team (that came) before you that have graduated. See if they are presidents or bankers. (See if) if they’ve got major positions in what they majored in.

“Of course he is going to look at (football) first, but I’m like that little voice on the side telling him make sure that you think about (academics) too because football is not long term. You take football as far as it is going to take you, but then you’ve still got the rest of your life after that.”

The elder Hand still sometimes can’t believe his son is the one in need such advice. It was only five years ago that Da’Shawn took to the gridiron for the first time. The then-seventh grader’s inexperience was abundantly clear, but so too was his potential to be special.

“He was in Elkton, Maryland, and I went to one of his games there,” recalled Sharif. “It was the first game I went to and I was making fun of him. He made a tackle and I was like, ‘Come on man, that was a soft tackle! We didn’t come all the way down here for that.’ He looked up at me and said, ‘Alright, I’ve got something for you.’ The very next play he went out there and just leveled this kid. I was like, ‘Oh my god!’ Our family is competitive so I always challenge him and make him try and play a lot (harder). But when he went out there and did that, I was like, ‘Wow!’”

The local buzz grew steadily in subsequent years, but it wasn’t until the Army National Combine in January 2012 that the magnitude of his son’s talent truly came into focus. Many of the country’s top juniors descended upon San Antonio, Texas, to participate in talent-laden event, but the then-sophomore Da’Shawn Hand dominated everyone he faced.

“The San Antonio trip is what opened everything up,” Sharif said. “I didn’t make that trip. His mom went with him. They both came back excited and told me how well he did. I think that San Antonio trip is the one that (gave him national exposure).”

Visit from Mattison

That performance certainly caught Michigan’s attention. Not long after Da’Shawn returned home from the combine, Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison made his way to Woodbridge High to voice the Wolverines’ interest. Up to that point the talented youngster seemed all but certain he’d wind up playing football in the south at an SEC or ACC school. But the bond he forged with Mattison helped change that view. The veteran coach had a similar effect on rest of Hand’s circle when they visited Ann Arbor back in March.

Said Sharif, “When you first meet Greg you’ll be like, ‘Is this guy for real?’ But when you are around him for a while you see that that is how he really is. That dude is real young at heart and he is a fun guy to be around. That’s all I can say about him. I enjoy Greg and I hope to see him again.”

The connection with Mattison has proven to be a bridge for the rest of the Wolverine brass. Upon leaving Ann Arbor, Da’Shawn reiterated an enviable distinction they collectively hold.

“It was my favorite coaching staff,” he said. “A lot of charisma. They’re just fun guys to be around. You can tell by looking at the players. All the players are comfortable talking to the coaches. A lot players (at different schools) say, ‘Man I can’t stand this coach.’ Also, when practice is done they can’t wait to leave. But the (Michigan) players, it seemed like they want to stay around. They don’t mind being around their coaches.”

The comfort level achieved with the people in Ann Arbor is certainly a major selling point, but Da’Shawn is nothing if not consistent. Relationships weren’t any more effective in cementing Michigan’s place on his list of finalists than they were for Virginia Tech. The Wolverines made it over the hump thanks in large part to a memorable meeting with Michigan Sports Management professor Mark Rosentraub.

“That guy was blowing us away,” said Da’Shawn shortly after the visit. “The things he was talking about -- I just wanted to sit there in the class. Man! Oh my goodness, I just want to listen to him. He is a good guy to be around. To hear him talk was really amazing. He knew his stuff. The coolest things was when you walk in he has a bunch of hats from different professional teams, and all those teams are teams that he has helped build their stadiums and stuff. It was cool.”

He later added: “He had me wanting to sign up right then and there.”

Dad came away similarly impressed. Three months later and he is still in awe.

“There was about five of us in our entourage,” remembered Sharif. “We all took to that professor. This guy had all our mouths (open). Normally when you go sit down and hear somebody talk about the major you are taking, you don’t think that you’ll want to really get into it; (you think) it’ll be boring. But I really liked that part of it. I liked the coaching staff too. They seemed like genuine good guys. The players and the facilities and all that -- Michigan was a good trip for me.”

While all that certainly bodes well for the Maize and Blue, it would be premature to declare Michigan the victor. Alabama is the reigning national champion and it too has a significant academic feather in its cap. It is the only school currently being considered for its engineering program, and the academic presentation Da’Shawn was treated to on his visit to Tuscaloosa over a year ago still resonates today.

“When I went there it was the engineering dean,” Hand said of Alabama. “He is a football guy. At the time he told me about the 25 million dollar project they were doing last summer, and that was just amazing. On top of that, being a football guy is always a plus because of the academic support that you’ll get.”

Florida, meanwhile, is the finalist with which Da’Shawn is least familiar. He plans to change that when he travels to Gainesville in the fall.

“With Florida I heard it’s a great degree,” he stated. “I’ve got to go down there for myself and check it out. (The Gators surviving the cut) was just my interest in them. Will Muschamp, Brad Lawing -- that defensive coaching staff is just crazy. I’ve just got to get out there for that.”

Future teammates?

Future visits to all three schools will loom large in the final analysis. At the moment he plans to put recruiting on the backburner so he can attend a few more camps and relax a little before focusing his attention on preparing for his senior season. Even so, Michigan is still working diligently to convince him to make his way back to the Great Lakes State next month for its annual Barbecue at the Big House.

“(The Michigan coaches) talked to me about it,” Hand said. “Right now I don’t know. Right now I’m just focused on enjoying the summer and I’m taking my officials to those schools. Then I’ve got two outside teams looking in. USC and LSU (will also get officials).”

If the Wolverines can persuade him to attend the barbecue, the stage would be set for more potentially beneficial interactions. One would be with incoming Michigan freshman Derrick Green, with whom he has a friendship that dates back a few years. Another would be with recent Michigan commitment Jabrill Peppers. The two five-star prospects began corresponding months before Peppers pledged to the Maize and Blue, but in recent weeks their contact has picked up steam.

“That’s my man,” said Hand of Peppers. “I’m originally from Philly and he’s from Jersey, so we kind of have that little tri-state thing going on. But yeah, that’s my dude.”

Whether Peppers will also be his teammate remains to be seen. Fortunately for the coaches and fans waiting with bated breath, getting the verdict won’t take long as previously anticipated.

“My goal is try to make a decision before December,” Hand reported. “At first I was going to stretch it out, but then after talking with my pop -- we kind of had a heart to heart -- I kind of have to make up my mind. It’s a big decision, but at the same time I kind of have a gist of knowing where I’m going, but I ain’t gonna say that.”

Sam Webb is managing editor of GoBlueWolverine.com and co-host of the "Michigan Insider" morning show weekdays on Sports Talk 1050 WTKA. His Michigan recruiting column appears every week at detroitnews.com. For more on U-M recruiting, visit michigan.scout.com.

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