November 14, 2013 at 1:00 am

Sam Webb

Da'Shawn Hand reaches finish line of meticulous college evaluation

Da'Shawn Hand's official visit to Michigan was Sept. 7 for the night game against Notre Dame. (Sam Webb / Scout.com)

The finish line is officially in sight for Da’Shawn Hand.

After three years of questions about which college campus he’ll call home, the Woodbridge, Va., star will choose between Michigan, Alabama and Florida during a press conference at his high school Thursday at noon. Hand, a defensive end, is rated among the top players in the nation regardless of position.

Opinions on where he’ll end up have varied in recent weeks based in large part on his glowing reviews of each program. The only school he hasn’t spoken at length about publicly is Florida because his lone visit to Gainesville took place last weekend. Since then he has sequestered himself for final deliberations. Even Hand’s father Sharif has spent considerable time in the dark when it comes to his son’s leanings. That said, dad’s lack of knowledge won’t last as long as everyone else’s.

“I know he is going to tell me because I am pops,” the elder Hand said laughingly. “I’ll let Da’Shawn do the media thing. But listen, I’m still dad. I’m going to know (before the announcement).”

There definitely was a jovial tone to that comment, but dad was dead serious about finding out his son’s choice ahead of time. It has nothing to do with his being an inquiring mind, though. Instead, it has everything to do with his being a filter for his son as he makes one of the most important decisions of his life.

“I want Shawn to sell me on why he wants to go to a college so I know the real reason he is going,” Mr. Hand explained. “It is not just because of short skirts, (good) weather, and all that stuff. I want to hear Da’Shawn tell me why he likes that college. If I feel like it is for those kinds of reasons, then that is when I’m going to interject and say, ‘There is more to this than just short skirts and sunny weather.’ I’m there just to keep reality in check for him.”

Careful process

That’s an example of a dad taking every precaution to ensure his son makes the right choice, but it will very likely prove to have been unnecessary. That’s because the younger Hand’s physical precociousness – he’s 6-5, 262 pounds – mirrors his maturity on the mental side. Basing his decision on anything but a thorough assessment of substantive criteria would simply be out of character.

He embarked upon a painstaking evaluation process almost two years ago that began with unofficial visits to number of campuses. Those informal trips offered him the opportunity to get an in-depth feel for the coaches, professors, and academic advisers at the respective institutions. After paring his list down, the next phase in the process called for him to officially visit his finalists in order to take in the game-day atmospheres.

First up was Michigan on Sept. 7 for the Under the Lights contest versus Notre Dame.

“Oh man, it was a great visit,” Hand told Scout.com. “The people were inviting – 115,000 people – and Michigan won. It was crazy. I really enjoyed meeting with the academic support staff. Also the coaches were laid back. They know I’m interested and they just kept it real with me.”

“It was just a great visit,” he later added. “It just let me know if I could live there or not, how the people are, things I could do every day, and places I could go. It was a good visit. Plus I got to spend some more time with the coaches. They weren’t really recruiting me that much. It was kind of just getting to know them more and getting to know the players.”

Hand’s father shared in that experience just as he did a prior trip to Ann Arbor during the spring. He again came away extremely impressed.

“Every time I come out to Michigan I have a good time,” Sharif stated. “That goes without saying. That was the biggest crowd ever there at the Big House. Just to be a part of that was something. I had a ball at Michigan and they treat you good when you get there. I really like Michigan. Shawn likes Michigan too.

“Hands down (the coaches) are good guys. No matter what decision my son makes, those are some genuine people and they are just all-around good guys. We sat and talked and we didn’t even talk about football. We talked about real life situations, growing up, fatherhood and things like that. Brady is just laid back. Mattison, he is like one of the players. He is high-energy and all that stuff. It didn’t change from the first visit to the last visit. I genuinely enjoy those guys every time I go out and visit them. That is just me as a father. Da’Shawn, I think feels the same.”

Both father and son were similarly awestruck by the official visit to Alabama on Oct. 26. It was Da’Shawn’s second trip to Tuscaloosa, but dad’s first. That made the experience even more of an eye-opening one.

“We sat and talked with (Nick) Saban, we checked out the engineering program, and then we ate and watched the game for the most part,” Sharif recalled. “I was impressed with Saban and I was impressed with the professor of the engineering program. I saw this simulator where they simulate earthquakes for structure loads. That got me.”

It got Da’Shawn too. Especially the opportunity to reconnect with the dean of the engineering school. They’d struck up an instant rapport when they initially met in July 2012, and the official visit was their first time face time since then. That combined with the Crimson Tide’s 45-10 rout of Tennessee helped earn the trip rave reviews.

“The game was great,” Hand told Scout.com. “It just showed that they like to win, they work hard, and that hard work pays off. They love their football. There’s not a professional team down there, so (the Alabama players) are kind of looked at as professionals and superstars. The people are really dedicated to their team.

“When I was with (School of Engineering) dean (Charles) Karr, I got to see an earthquake simulator,” he added. “It was amazing and a great feeling to be able to spend some time with him. I liked the campus, too. A lot of people don’t know about Alabama’s academics, but it’s a good school.”

Reconnecting with Karr may have balanced an academic scale that might have previously tipped in Wolverines’ favor thanks to Michigan Sports Management professor Mark Rosentraub.

“That guy was blowing us away,” Da’Shawn said last spring. “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.”

Those interactions highlight the importance of academic fit. Where many prospects pay lip service to its significance, the Hands insist it is a serious consideration. That certainly was the case when Da’Shawn had to choose which high school he would attend four years ago. He lives closer to Hylton high school – a bigger football power -- than he does Woodbridge. Hylton is also the high school that most of his middle school friends attend. Despite those lures he chose Woodbridge.

“Woodbridge had the engineering program and Hylton didn’t,” Mr. Hand explained. “At the time he was interested in the engineering program, plus over at Woodbridge his cousin went there. But there still was a little more familiarity (at Hylton) because he went to school up to eighth grade with the guys at Hylton. It was pretty much the engineering program at the time (that caused him to choose Woodbridge).”

Weighing the attributes

That’s not meant to suggest that Hand’s decision will come down to sports management vs. engineering. He has a genuine interest in both. It merely highlights the precedent for academics playing more than a casual role in this type of decision. However, dad warns against overestimating their role.

“I think a lot of things are going to play a part (in the decision), not just academics,” Mr. Hand said. “Everybody is saying solely academics. You want to be a part of a successful program. You want to feel at home. You do want a degree that carries weight. There are a lot of things that play a part in that and I think he is going to weigh that all out.”

“Can you live there Da’Shawn? Do you think the coach is going to be there? Can you interact with the players? Do you like the programs that they offer? Did you get to talk to this professor and that professor?”

Many outside observers believe that guaranteed playing time and in-season struggles will also figure into the equation, but dad scoffs at those ideas.

“Saban was pretty much to the point with (playing time),” Mr. Hand recalled. “Pretty much no spots are guaranteed. You’ve got to come in and earn it. We expect that anywhere he goes -- Michigan, Florida, or Alabama. So we were already up for that challenge.”

He’s also up for helping build a program up to a championship level.

“Losing is part of the game,” replied Sharif when asked if recent losses by Florida and Michigan have affected their standing. “I don’t think that has too much to play on the decision. Of course you want to be with a successful program. At the same time, you want to be with a program that has your best interest in mind too. It’s not all about winning.”

That’s why the belief that Saban-to-Texas rumors don’t matter is off-base.

“No, it matters,” Sharif insisted. “We just haven’t talked about it yet.”

How much it matters remains to be seen.

All that can be said for now is the only person that truly knows which school Da’Shawn Hand is going to choose prior to his final sit-down with dad is Da’Shawn himself.

“The only thing I can tell you about that is Da’Shawn has three good schools that he has picked out,” said Sharif. “My thing is that it is going to come down to gut feeling. I really don’t know. It is close. You got Alabama, you got Florida and you got Michigan. Any degree from any one of these colleges would be good, so I don’t know. Only Da’Shawn knows the answer to those questions.”

Thursday at noon he’ll finally share the answers.

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 weekly at detroitnews.com. For more on U-M recruiting, visit michigan.scout.com.