Former phenom Rashan Gary driven to meet sky-high expectations with Packers
GREEN BAY – There’s a legend at the highest level of New Jersey high school football, the night its biggest and baddest also became the best. It was early in the 2014 season, a rivalry showdown between Paramus Catholic and national powerhouse Bergen Catholic. Until then, Rashan Gary had done little since setting the state’s football scene ablaze the previous offseason, when he transferred to PC from his local public school.
As legends go, some details remain murky. There may or may not have been a prank of sorts a night before the game, with Bergen Catholic players allegedly videoing themselves defacing Paramus Catholic’s field, then posting it to social media. Kid stuff, really. Except Gary wasn’t amused. “It really set him off,” says former PC head coach Chris Partridge, who perhaps embellished a little and, if nothing else, milked the motivational material for all its worth. “He went absolutely insane.”
Those who watched that night disagree on what they saw. One account from a reporter covering the game, according to the Bergen County Record, had Gary with 3.5 sacks. His coaches say it was closer to six … or seven … or maybe eight.
“He would’ve had 15,” retired PC defensive line coach John Westervelt says, “if they would have actually officiated the game fairly. First of all, he was being triple teamed. The center was trying to stand him up – which he couldn’t do, because immediately he was moving backwards – and the guards were tackling his legs. He was being tackled.”
Sounded like a tall tale. Like Gary was also lugging an ax and had a blue ox named Babe.
So dig a little deeper.
Nunzio Campanile, now the tight ends coach at Rutgers, was Bergen Catholic’s head coach that night. He says he knows nothing about any prank, but “whatever beef” Gary had with his team, the junior defensive lineman exorcised it.
“I actually think,” Campanile says, “it was probably realistically – like, realistically – seven or eight sacks. But then, he also had a couple tackles for losses on designed quarterback runs, and he blocked a punt for a touchdown.
“He just destroyed us.”
As result, Paramus Catholic destroyed Bergen Catholic, 44-7.
Before that night, Gary was among a handful of recruits vying for top recognition in the country. After dismantling Bergen Catholic, and its quarterback who went on to start for Tennessee, he was the undisputed champion. Gary soon became the nation’s consensus top recruit.
Nothing since has ever been the same.
Unmatched power and speed
Only a select few high school athletes travel Rashan Gary’s road. They are the can’t-miss prospects, anointed not long after their first snap. Think LeBron James in shoulder pads. These kids face impossible expectations.
That the Green Bay Packers became Gary’s destination, drafting him 12th overall in last month’s first round, was only a footnote to the inevitable. Gary was branded a future NFL star before he could legally drive.
If that seems extreme, too tall tale to be true, set aside all the praise heaped upon him by his own coaches, their awe still palpable, and understand how Campanile and competitors across New Jersey perceived the overgrown kid nobody could block.
“Right around eighth grade,” Campanile says, “you said, ‘This kid has a shot.’ By the time he was a junior in high school, it was like he would have to screw it up. Not even to not make it to the NFL. He’d have to screw up to not be a Day 1 draft pick.”
There’s a tinge of folklore in Gary’s story. He was born 7 pounds, 6 ounces but, according to a Detroit Free Press article, wore clothes that fit a 3-year-old by his first birthday. He taught himself how to swim not by taking classes, but by watching YouTube clips. He didn’t play football until sixth grade, but he was immediately elevated to the junior high team because of how he towered over his peers.
Partridge remembers the first time he saw Gary, this baby-faced kid with a full-grown body, hiding behind thick-brimmed glasses. He was quiet, almost shy, showing an innocence that didn’t match the massive hype.
By Gary’s sophomore season, he was the top defensive line prospect in the country. He transferred from his local public school, Scotch Plains-Fanwood, to Paramus Catholic that offseason, sparking controversy over whether the private-school football factory recruited him. Gary’s eligibility was cast in doubt, his case brought before the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association’s Eligibility Appeals Committee, which unanimously ruled by a 5-0 vote there were no violations.
Once eligible, Gary’s combination of power and speed were unmatched. Greg Russo, a former offensive coordinator at Paramus Catholic, remembers the first tangible evidence of Gary’s immense size, standing next to him during a weigh-in, not quite believing the number on the scale.
He’s 290? Russo thought. He looks skinny.
On the track, Gary was even more remarkable. He threw shot in high school, but Gary dabbled with sprints as part of his offseason football training. Russo doubled as the school’s sprints coach, and he had the area’s best four-by-100 relay. His sprinters were slim and nimble. Fast enough, he assumed, to outrun a 290-pound lineman built like a refrigerator.
Then they raced.
“He’d be running like 50-, 60-meter sprints,” Russo says. “In the first 20 to 30 meters, he’d be with them – like, sometimes beating them – and I’m like, ‘This is insane.’”
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So, no, Russo was not surprised when Gary clocked a 4.58 40 at the NFL scouting combine in February, becoming the heaviest player at 277 pounds to ever run below 4.6 seconds.
Gary could play every position on the defensive line, from end to nose. “And,” Westervelt adds, “he’s the best player on the field at all four positions.” College recruiters urged him to move Gary inside, believing his explosiveness would do to interior blockers what a paper shredder does to junk mail.
No, he’d tell them. One day, some NFL team will line him up as an edge rusher.
“There’s no offensive tackle,” Westervelt says, “that’s going to back kick at the speed he can explode off the line of scrimmage.”
Westervelt, who became head coach in Gary’s senior season, used to yank his top player off the practice field. The college recruiters filling his sidelines would beg for more reps, but Westervelt had no choice. It was the only way his offense could get anything done, he says.
Even after his promotion, Westervelt continued coaching the defensive line. It’s his passion. He designed drills on how Bruce Smith, the best he ever saw, played. That meant emphasizing hand usage, making a priority to never have a lazy upper body. So long as a lineman was chopping their feet, Westervelt says, they better be moving their hands. Gary took like a sponge, adding technique to his raw athleticism.
The result, Westervelt says, was unlike anything he’s ever seen.
“When Rashan Gary decides he’s not going to be blocked,” Westervelt gushes, “he’s not blockable. I saw it with my own two eyes. When he decides, ‘I’m not going to get blocked on this play,’ he’s not blockable. You can tackle him, but you’re not going to block him.”
After Bergen Catholic, Gary continued his unholy tear. He had 14 sacks as a junior. He had 13.5 sacks, including another 3.5 against BC, with four forced fumbles as a senior. The hype built. Gary announced his college choice live on ESPN’s campus in Bristol, Conn. The hype built some more. He picked Michigan. By the time Gary arrived in Ann Arbor, the hype had mushroomed out of control.
That’s the problem with tall tales.
They almost always leave you disappointed with reality.
Comparison to Clowney
Before Gary, there was Jadeveon Clowney. The nation’s consensus top player in high school, Clowney’s legendary moment, when the biggest and baddest also became the best, came in the 2013 Outback Bowl against Michigan. "The Hit," it was called.
Clowney burst through the offensive line, exploded through Wolverines running back Vincent Smith, the force dislodging Smith from the football and his helmet. Like a double decapitation. Clowney clutched the loose football as he rose off the field.
Nothing again was ever the same.
With Clowney’s power and speed on display for a few spectacular seconds, it became the expectation every snap. Fans watched not to see Clowney do the little things required of all defensive linemen, but the type of athletic feats duplicable by no one. Such is life for those can’t-miss prospects, the anointed few. Each highlight only increases the demand for more.
“It’s tough,” Russo says, “because nothing you ever do is enough.”
What, exactly, Gary needed to do at Michigan to justify his hype is unclear. What’s certain, however, is that his three seasons failed to meet expectations. Gary is an interesting comparison to Clowney not just because of their shared history as the nation’s consensus top high school player – a distinction so few ever hold in a field so widely covered and open to subjectivity – but for the underwhelming end to their college careers.
Gary, like Clowney, was a guaranteed first-round pick before being eligible for the NFL draft. His 5.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss as a sophomore paled to the 13 sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss Clowney had in his second season at South Carolina, but they were enough to stir the hype. What Gary could achieve as a junior seemed limitless.
Gary wasn’t being judged on his ability to do all the little things. Fans wanted 10 … 15 … maybe 20 sacks.
Instead, Gary had just 3.5 with 6.5 tackles for loss, not unlike Clowney’s three sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss as a junior. His commitment was openly questioned, especially when a torn labrum in his shoulder forced Gary to miss four games. By some, Gary was seen as putting self before team, choosing his guaranteed draft status and future riches over the greater good.
Gary grew a reputation among some NFL scouts as entitled, an uber-talented millennial who expected things to come easily, because they always had.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh didn’t hush those sentiments after Gary missed a game against Michigan State. Asked afterward why Gary didn’t play despite practicing that week, Harbaugh answered: “Rashan didn’t feel like he could go.” The response drew a Facebook rebuttal from Gary’s mother, Jennifer Coney-Shepherd, who declined to be interviewed for this story.
Coney-Shepherd defended her son in the post, saying he “followed medical direction” to sit and rest his shoulder to avoid surgery. Harbaugh later walked back his comment and publicly was a staunch advocate for Gary before the draft.
He wasn’t the only one.
“He’s got the quickest feet I think I’ve ever seen,” says former Michigan defensive line coach Greg Mattison, who’s now co-defensive coordinator at Ohio State.
How come that explosiveness didn’t translate into more than 9.5 sacks in three seasons? Gary’s advocates point to his role in Michigan’s defense. He was a six-technique “anchor” end, playing across the line from the rush end. His job was to line up over the tight end and, relying more on his size and power than speed, shut down the opponent’s front-side run game. Further from the football, Gary constantly faced chip and double-team blocks, more traffic between him and the quarterback.
Partridge, who left Paramus Catholic for Michigan before Gary’s senior season and is now the Wolverines’ safeties coach, says his role in the defense limited the stats, but was necessary.
“Rashan is able to play multiple positions on the defensive line,” he says, “but other people can’t play multiple positions on the D-line. So for the team, we didn’t ask him to line up on the open side and rush the passer. We asked him to line up inside the tight end and knock the crap out of the tight end and stop the run. Because college is a lot different than the pro game. You’ve got so much quarterback-driven run, so much tight end run.
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“He did that better than anyone in the country. You can’t tell me that you can find somebody in the country that was better at knocking the crap out of the tight end and stopping the front-side run game. He had so many tackles on front-side, tight zone and power, and all that stuff. He completely took the play away. If people would actually look at it and notice, teams started running weak (side) against us all the time. They started attacking us weak because of what he was doing on the tight end side. So his production was very much related to what we asked him to do in the scheme.”
Mattison says Gary should be judged not on his numbers, but how he lifted Michigan’s defensive front. “There’s a reason,” he explains, “why Chase Winovich had a whole bunch of sacks.” Winovich, Michigan’s rush end, had 18.5 sacks the past three years, most of them with Gary on the field, his presence creating one-on-one blocks. The New England Patriots drafted Winovich early in the third round, 65 picks after Gary.
To some, that will sound like a cop-out. As one NFL scout who studied Gary noted, rushing the passer doesn’t suddenly become easier at the next level. The scout doesn’t believe Gary will ever become an elite pass rusher, but, saying Gary was among the best run-pass combination defenders in this edge class, considers Gary worth the 12th overall pick.
How much Gary’s role in Michigan’s defense limited his production, only time will tell. After being picked first overall in the 2014 draft, Clowney missed most of his first season with injury and had only 4.5 sacks in his second. Then he made the Pro Bowl each of the past three seasons, recording 24.5 sacks in that time.
Clowney has settled into his career, expectation finally matching reality. He’s something less than a generational talent, but far from disappointing. His positional versatility, the ability to rush quarterbacks from multiple spots, lifts the Houston Texans’ defensive front.
The Packers, needing to bolster their edge rush, would love to have a Clowney.
Gary, Westervelt believes, still hopes to be something more.
“We haven’t seen Rashan Gary yet,” Westervelt says. “You haven’t seen what he’s going to be. He will be the best defensive lineman in that draft once everything gets settled.
“He’s a driven kid. He’s not the kind of kid that’s satisfied with what’s happened so far. Until he is the best in the NFL, he’s not going to be happy.”