By MICHAEL RESCHKE
MEMPHIS — When Linda Uhl asked one of the coaches at a high school football combine what to do if you have a child that has the talent and ability to play college football, but doesn’t play for a high school team, he laughed in her face.
“He kind of said basically, good luck,” Uhl said. “And I said, ‘You don’t know.’ I said my son will play college ball. I don’t know with whom yet, but he will play.”
She said from there, she left the coach and the other parents seeking advice about the recruiting process. Her son, Griffin Uhl, worked out at the local-level National Underclassmen combine in Lexington, Ky., last May and at the conclusion, awards were announced. Griffin Uhl won the award for the strongest lineman. Then he was selected by the coaches as the defensive MVP.
Then Linda Uhl found the coach who laughed at her.
She went up to him asked if he remembered her from earlier. He said yes. She asked if he knew the red head that was just named srongest lineman and defensive MVP for the combine. He said yes.
“I said, ‘That’s my son,’ and he just said, ‘Oh my gosh,’” Linda Uhl said. “I said, ‘That’s my son, that’s the one that is going to play college ball.’ He said, ‘You’re right, he will.’”
SInce then, Griffin Uhl has continued to surprise people with his ability, strength and skill, despite not playing a down of high school football. He’s proven to coaches and recruiters across the country that he is capable of playing NCAA Division I college football. More than one coach has offered to basically adopt him so he could play on their high school football team. But before any of that, he had to prove to himself that he could play with the big boys.
Griffin Uhl lives on a farm where his father grows sod in Memphis, Ind. He started playing community-league football in seventh grade, knowing the high school he would go to didn’t have a football team. His mother knew that too.
She is a member of the West Clark football boosters, a group that has been trying to get football into all three of the West Clark high schools. They have succeeded in getting a varsity football team at Silver Creek. She hoped Henryville would have a team before her son graduated, but the Hornets are still football-free.
Griffin Uhl wouldn’t let that stop him from reaching his goal. He continued to play community-league football, and he began to research different camps and combines where he could go up against some tougher compeition and hopefully get noticed by college coaches.
After his sophomore year, he went to a football camp at Ball State University, and it was there that he found out what he was made of. He won best sophomore defensive lineman and at one point he was selected for a showcase repitition where the coaches put one of the best defensive linemen against one of the best offensive linemen for a one-on-one drill. He won the drill, and Linda Uhl will never forget what that meant to her son.
Linda Uhl describes her son as straight-faced. He takes everything in, and by looking at his face it’s tough to tell if things are going well or not for him.
“We got in the car and he turned to me,” Linda Uhl said, before apologizing for getting choked up. After composing herself she continued. “He said, ‘Mom, now I know I can play with kids that have had high school programs,’ and that was kind of the moment where he knew that, even though he wasn’t playing like everyone else.”
Linda Uhl paused and apologized again. “Sorry, this is a very emotional thing for us. But he knew right then that he could do it.”
And boy, did he do it.
When Griffin Uhl got to Henryville as a freshman, Athletic Director Bill Niece didn’t really notice him.
“As a freshman I don’t think I could have looked at him and said, you know, I think he should be playing football somewhere,” Niece said.
Niece can look at him and say that now.
“He’s a beast,” Niece said. “There’s no doubt about it.”
Niece recalled an incident where Uhl bent a bar in the school’s weight room. He got the school another one to replace it, though.
“I would venture to say, and I’m just specualting, there’s probably not a stronger kid in Clark County,” Niece said.
Uhl may be the strongest person in Clark County, regardless of age. He has bench pressed 375 pounds, squatted 625 and just before his 18th birthday in January, he deadlifted 700 pounds.
So how did he transform himself from an unimposing freshman to the beast that Niece describes him as today? Uhl credits that to his lack of resources and coaches. The community league he played for didn’t have a training and conditioning program.
“And the school weightroom is basically a closet,” Uhl said. “Not having the program to do the thinking for me, I had to go and research and read stuff and learn all that myself, so I think that’s why I’ve gotten so much stronger than everybody else, because I had to learn how to do it myself. I understand it.”
Judging by how strong he’s gotten, it’s safe to say Griffin Uhl is a fast learner. That was especially evident to Quincy Hipps when he saw Griffin at the National Underclassmen Top Prospect camp in Oklahoma.
“He could pick it up as fast as you could put it down,” Hipps said.
Hipps, who played defensive end for the University of Miami from 1997 to 2000 and now works as a coach for National Underclassmen, said a lot of the drills he puts kids through at combines are things they’ve never seen before.
“The average high school coach does not know these drills,” Hipps said.
He explained that in high school, most coaches are just teaching defensive linemen to run over people, but at the next level those kids are not able to do that anymore. That’s why it’s so important for players to have good feet, good hands and great hips. The drills he has players at combines perform teach them those things. Most aren’t used to what he’s having them do, so the first four or five times they do it, it’s almost funny because of how awkward they look.
“You know when you find something, a great player because they could do it fast, they could do it the first time you show it to them,” Hipps said.
Hipps found something in Griffin Uhl.
“He surprised me,” Hipps said. “I looked right up at him and like, hold on. Hey, OK, get to the front of the line again.”
After being impressed by Uhl during the combine, he talked to Uhl to find out what high school he played for so he could tell college coaches about the player he had found. That’s when he learned Uhl’s high school doesn’t have a football team.
“I had never in my life heard of that and, like I said, I fly around the country to work out athletes, and that’s the first time I ever heard of that,” Hipps said.
That’s when he started realizing just how amazing Uhl’s situation is.
“So I’m like, ‘You learned what you learned with your hands and your feet and your hips basically on your own?’” Hipps said. “Because I know a little league coach can’t teach you this because I know he don’t know. There’s very few high school coaches that can help you with this right here. And it was amazing to me at that point in time.”
Just how amazing is Uhl? Hipps said flying around the country to different camps and combines allows him to see some of the best high school football players, and Uhl is hands-down in the top one or two that he has ever worked with.
“And I’ve sent some big-name guys to certain places,” Hipps said.
One of those players Hipps worked with was Desmond Jackson, who just finished his first year at the University of Texas where he started all 13 games as a true freshman and posted 10 tackles, two for a loss, and two sacks, accordiing to the University’s website. As a high school prospect, Jackson was ranked in ESPN’s Top 150 national prospects list and was ranked as the fourth-best defensive tackle in his class. So does Hipps think Uhl is on the same level as Jackson?
“Uh-huh,” Hipps said. “Yes I do.”
Because he was surprising coaches at the local and regional combine levels, National Underclassmen CEO and Presdient David Schuman took notice. Schuman, who is also the coach of Palisades Park/Leona High School in New Jersey, made Uhl an offer when he got to the national level Top Prospect combine in Oklahoma. He asked Linda Uhl if she would allow her son to move to New Jersey and live with him and play on his high school football team.
“He said if he plays on my team he will get the exposure he needs and he’ll have more (Division I) offers than he’ll know what to do with,” Linda Uhl said.
This wasn’t the first time a coach had made an offer like this to Linda Uhl, and just like every other time, she declined. She and her husband considered it, but it would mean that they would have to give up legal guardianship of their son, and they weren’t willing to do that.
“It’s ... I couldn’t do that,” Linda Uhl said. “He’s my son. I understood what the purpose was, but at the same time we would be in a situation where if something would have really happened to him, that woulnd’t have been my decision anymore as to what was done to care for him, and that was not something we were willing to do.”
Schuman said it’s obviously understandable for a parent to not want to give up legal gaurdianship of their son, but he was disappointed none the less.
“You know, I felt bad for him because he’s such a good player that — I knew having been in this a long time as a coach and as running these events, I know that without game film it’s very hard to get an offer,” Schuman said.
That has proven to be true for Uhl. Schools like the University of Louisville, Wofford in South Carolina, the University of Southern Florida, Tulane, the University of Indianapolis and Indiana State have expressed their interest in him at one point or another, but at the time this article was written none had offered him a scholarship. So does he regret not going to New Jersey or to any of the other states with coaches who made him offers to play at their schools?
“It would have helped, but I work with what I got now,” Uhl said.
So if guys like Schuman and Hipps, who travel across the country and see top high school players and know what to look for think he’s one of the best defensive linemen they’ve ever seen, shouldn’t that be enough to get an offer despite having not played high school football?
It becomes a risk-versus-reward situation for coaches.
“They’re trying to minimize their risk and without seeing someone play against high school competition, they figure they’ll take a guy similar to him that has played, and that’s the tough part about it,” Schuman said.
Schuman said there’s no doubt that Uhl was in the top 1 percent of the players he saw last year, but they’re in shorts and t-shirts at his combines.
“So top 1 percent in shorts and t-shirts usually translates into being top 1 percent in the field, but not always,” Schuman said. “That’s always the issue.”
So what’s Uhl to do now that national signing day has passed and he hasn’t received any offers? Schuman said prep school — so he doesn’t lose college eligibility — or a junior college are options, but Hipps has hopes something will still happen for Uhl without having to go to prep school or a junior college. Hipps said Uhl is a good kid who comes from a good family and has a lot of self discipline, which is something not all big name recruits have. He said sometimes those big-name recruits don’t pan out like coaches hope and then they have to go to their second-tier board.
“It’ll happen,” Hipps said. “I think it’ll happen by April.”
No matter what happens, it’s that self discipline that makes Linda Uhl so proud of her son. Even if he isn’t offered a scholarship, he can still play college football.
“There’s no doubt he’ll play college football,” Linda Uhl said. “No doubt at all because we already know we can pick up the phone and call one of several Division I schools and say OK, I’m going to walk on or he’s gonig to walk on and I have no doubt that he will very quickly prove himself to be an asset to the team.”
Of course, she wants her son to be offered a scholarship, but knowing that there is a list of colleges he could go play for means her son has achieved his goal, and that’s more important to her than anything else.
“The thing about this for me with Griffin is that — take all of the football and everything else out of it and speaking just from a mom’s perspective — I couldn’t be more proud because he has a goal and he’s never lost sight of it. He has never given up. He has always worked toward achieving it and it doesn’t matter how many people told him, ‘You don’t play high school ball, you don’t have a chance,’” Linda Uhl said. “He’s done what was necessary to get himself prepared to do that and never, ever was a coach kicking him in the back to go work out, never was anybody pushing and making him do it. He’s done it and he’s done it himself, and when you look at what that takes of an individual, I’m pretty proud of him.”