June 30, 2014 at 12:22 pm

Sam Webb

Michigan enjoys strong start in bid to land LB Dele' Harding

Dele' Harding's father and coach are both impressed with all that Michigan has to offer. (Photo courtesy of Sam Webb)

When Elkton (Md.) Eastern Christian Academy stars Freddy Canteen, Brandon Watson, and Dele’ Harding arrived at Michigan’s football camp last summer, they did so to little fanfare. The lack of buzz was a direct result of a season that had been significantly shortened by their fledgling high school’s sanctioning issues. When they hit the field in Ann Arbor, though, that changed almost instantly.

After starring at wide receiver and defensive back during an intense day of competition, Canteen and Watson were offered scholarships and are now heading into their freshman campaigns at Michigan. Despite a similarly impressive showing, Harding was not extended an offer. Instead, the then-sophomore linebacker was given a very clear indication of the Wolverines’ strong interest. The feeling was definitely mutual.

“Actually (the visit) started off with the facilities, which were excellent,” Harding said to Scout.com. “I loved the coaches -- I loved everything. The camp went very well. My 1-on-1s, my coverages, my 7-on-7, the drills, and things like that (all) went well. And the coaches seemed to love me. When I made a play the coaches would meet me halfway down the field and give me a high-five. It was good overall. It made me feel like I was part of the team.”

Fast-forward a year later and Brady Hoke has officially offered him the opportunity to be just that.

Harding made his way back to the Great Lakes State earlier this month and turned in an even better performance at the Sound Mind Sound Body Academy in Harper Woods. He was among the select few prospects for which the Michigan coaching staff was a captive audience. He was then invited back to Ann Arbor following the event, and was rewarded with a scholarship offer when he arrived on campus.

“Brady was ready to pull the trigger last year (at camp), but I think (Harding) was a little young,” said Eastern Christian Academy coach Dwayne Thomas. “They saw some film on him from last season and they saw how he progressed. It is a smart move by them. He can be a “Michigan Man” type of guy. He looks like a Michigan Man, I would say.

“He was happy (about the offer). He thought it was great. Dele’ is a kid that was raised by a real good father and mother. He is going to look at all of his options, but I would say Dele’ is a Michigan-type guy.”

'Everything was phenomenal'

Harding’s father David was also along for the trip and saw Michigan for the first time. It proved to be an experience that made an extremely positive impression.

“I thought everything was phenomenal,” Mr. Harding said. “The history of it as well as the commitment to their players -- it was very family-oriented atmosphere. I was very impressed.

“We’re elated (about the offer), especially Dele’. It was an offer that he had been looking forward to since last year. He went to the Big House and he was very impressed with everything that Michigan had to offer academically, athletically -- and just the complete total package.”

The presence of Canteen and Watson just helps Michigan’s cause that much more, but not enough to make it his definitive leader. The Wolverines currently join Massachusetts, Tennessee and USC on Harding’s early offer sheet, but the Trojans hold the distinction of having been the first to extend him a scholarship. They also happen boast two of his former teammates on their roster.

“I know USC is great school; actually, growing up it was one of my dream schools,” Harding told Scout.com. “I already have two teammates out there, Kenny Bigelow and Khaliel Rodgers. It is a really nice school academically. I think it fits me all around really well.

“I did camp out there last year so I got to see the campus and stay with Kenny. It was great. Everything was beautiful. When I was out there for camp, I felt like I learned a lot about the program, and I think it would be a good fit all around.”

Many have speculated that Harding’s comfort in the Land of Troy makes USC his current leader, but those closest to him warn against jumping to that conclusion. That’s especially true of Thomas, who is unabashed in his support of the Maize and Blue.

“No, no,” said Thomas when asked about the rumor of the Trojans being on top. “That’s a new staff. I don’t know them. I knew the old staff. I don’t know these (guys) over there now.”

Keeping an open mind

He does know Michigan, though. That Canteen and Watson have offered glowing testimonials after a semester in Ann Arbor as early enrollees has only served to increase the appeal.

“(Canteen and Watson) come home and they talk good about Michigan and talk about how they operate,” said Thomas. “I’ve got kids in a lot of schools and I like the way they operate (at Michigan).”

Said Harding: “I would probably say (Canteen and Watson being at Michigan) helps just for the simple fact that they are my coolest teammates and talk to me almost every day. So I would say it would probably be a plus.”

Whether it will lead to a commitment is still a long way from being determined. For now the rising junior plans to move forward in his recruitment with an open mind.

“Freddy and Brandon, when they committed they were a year older,” said Thomas. “Dele’ is going to be a junior. If you want to do the equivalent to them, Dele’ is a sophomore going to his junior year. They committed their junior year going into their senior year. I think he’ll finish camping this summer, then he has still got a whole season and offseason.”

“I’ll probably wait awhile, weigh out my options, just get a feel for every program, get the experience from every program, and get a chance to visit and things like that,” said Harding. “Probably after my junior year (a decision will be made) because I’m going to be planning to (enroll in college) mid-year.”

The program that winds up victorious will be the one that does the best job of eliciting in him the same comfort that his high school team does.

“I would say first off the family, how the team cooperates,” said Harding. “What I can do personally to help the team? Another thing would probably be academics and surroundings -- where the college is and what city it is and things of that nature. I will probably want to settle down and make a living there.”

If Thomas has anything to say about it there’s a good chance Ann Arbor will be that place.

“I like Brady Hoke,” said Thomas. “I want to see Brady do well.”

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.

Dele' Harding is pictured with Michigan defensive coordinator Greg ... (Photo courtesy of Dele' Harding)
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