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March 10, 2009Our Lady of Good Counsel is a football factory. Just last year they churned out one of the top prospects in the country in linebacker Jelani Jenkins (Florida), and this year they have five more surefire Division 1 prospects. Reporters and coaches constantly pepper the Good Counsel staff with question about prospective recruits, while scouts lurk in the stands, ready to pounce.
But despite the incessant hullabaloo, Good Counsel is doing its best to temper enthusiasm on their next Big Thing.
"Can I talk to Mr. Vincent Croce ?" I asked Good Counsel's defensive line coach Kevin McFadden.
"Can I perhaps call him at a specified time?"
"No numbers man."
"Can you give him my number?"
"I can. But he won't call you."
So much for an interview with the next Big Thing.
"We don't want to blow him up to the point where he's targeted," said McFadden, a former NFL player. "We want to give him a chance to be a kid. I don't want him in the papers all the time. I don't want the fun of the game to turn into a demand in high school. I've seen it over and over again where the kid's not having fun anymore. We want Vincent to lay low, be under the radar."
Fair enough, but that won't be easy considering the next Big Thing at Good Counsel is already 6-foot-5 and weighs 245 pounds. That won't be easy if Vincent Croce continues to terrorize quarterbacks and running backs like he did in his sophomore year. That won't be easy once he starts adding schools like LSU and Florida to a list that already includes offers from N.C. State, Maryland, West Virginia and Wisconsin.
McFadden realizes this. That' why he'll handle the reporters. And maybe, just maybe, he'll let them in on the secret that's not really a secret.
But before we gush over Vincent Croce's football potential -- none of which will surprise you -- let's throw out the one statistic that'll make you choke on your morning coffee. The kid's got a 4.0 GPA.
That's right, Croce is that rare Emeka-Okafur-Myron-Rolle-type superstar athlete who cares just as much about his grades as sacking the quarterback.
"He has a strong foundation," McFadden said. "He has a mom and a dad in the home, and they don't play around."
That should tell you a little something about what kind of a football player Croce is. Sure, he plays defensive tackle like a shark that smells blood, but plenty of 300-pound linemen in college can do that. What separates Croce ? and what makes him so appealing ? is his keen sense of the game.
"He wants to learn more, and he wants to be taught more," McFadden said, "He's a connoisseur of the game."
Watch him feel out the offensive lineman on the first possession, notice a weakness, and then exploit it in the fourth quarter. Watch him listen to the quarterback's cadence, which can tell him if the play is a run or pass. Watch him recognize blocks and double teams and then deconstruct how to fight through them and still make a play.
"It's like a chess match to him," McFadden said. "He's always thinking, strategizing, trying to find a weakness in the line of scrimmage that he can conquer and divide."
Croce has been taught well. McFadden has produced his share of elite defensive linemen who all have that combination of pure physical strength and uncanny field awareness. There's Bryan Murray up at Boston College; there's Nick Jenkins down at Virginia; there's Anthony Wilson down at Appalachian State; there's Corey Boatman up at Syracuse. Croce is the next in line.
"I like players that can dance," McFadden said. "If you can dance, you got good feet. I look for kids that are energetic. I look for kids that have a level of anger inside of them that I can channel. I'm looking for those kids I can build into fine young men on and off the field. Vincent has all those qualities."
Most sophomores wear down as the season goes on. Especially if they start every game (most don't). Especially if they play defensive tackle against hulking offensive linemen (most don't). Vincent Croce didn't wear down ? he got better.
In the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference semifinal playoff game against McNamara, Croce, who was starting in his 11th straight game, responded by recording three sacks and a forced fumble. So much for hitting the wall.
"He never dropped below the standard he set," McFadden said. "He showed up in all the big games. ? His work ethic is phenomenal. He doesn't mind pain."
It sounds like Croce is ready to suit up for LSU or Florida right now, but he is only a sophomore. There's got to be more he can learn. There's got to be some weaknesses.
McFadden says Croce must get faster, even though he already bursts off the line like a top-notch defensive end. He says he must have better ball awareness, even though he already sniffs out running backs like a hungry bear. He says he must recognize schemes better, even though he already reads opponents like a courtroom lawyer.
The point is this: Neither player nor coach is satisfied with being very good. Vincent Croce must be the best. That's the only way you get to represent an elite university on Saturdays. That's the only way you get to represent an entire city on Sundays.
McFadden stops. He might have gone too far.
"We're just dealing with the right now," he said. "And Right now he's just running track, in the weight room and studying."
All that other stuff ? fame, money, agents ? he'll be bombarded with in time. Meanwhile, Vincent Croce, the next Big Thing, is busy being a kid. Shhh, don't let the secret out.