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Could Linder be the key to an Aquinas pipeline?

Next to Miami Northwestern, no high school program churns out major Division I talent year in and year out quite as often Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas. The Raiders, five-time state champions under coach George Smith, have sent players to the University of Miami in the past. Receiver Leonard Hankerson, former Canes safety Anthony Reddick and current freshman offensive lineman Jermaine Johnson all wore the golden helmets at Aquinas.

Brandon Linder (right) is the first major recruit UM has been able to land at Aquinas since Leonard Hankerson in 2006.  But the Raiders' gems, the best of the best, have usually headed to other schools. Florida got safety Major Wright and has star cornerback Cody Riggs set to join next year. Notre Dame landed stud left tackle Sam Young four years ago and now has Gio Bernanrd lined up for 2010. Florida State got tackle Andrew Datko and is supposed to reel in this year's star Lamarcus Joyner. 

Linder, a three-year starter at Aquinas and stud left tackle, is hoping his commitment to UM over the weekend will help the Canes' nab more of the stars that go to Aquinas. "I'd love for UM to build a pipeline to St. Thomas," Linder said. "The fact four of us [tackle Jermaine Barton, cornerback Keion Payne and punter Ben Hopfinger] are going there from this class is great. I think it could just be the start of more us going there."

Three weeks ago before Aquinas beat Ely in the regional finals, I caught up with longtime offensive line coach Jay Connolly, who has been an assistant with Smith since 1990. He's coached a lot of the best linemen in South Florida over the years and said the Hurricanes are definitely making more of an effort lately to build a better relationship. Canes offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland is the primary person responsible.

Connolly gave me his thoughts on the three Aquinas offensive linemen who will be wearing orange and green the next few years. He says Linder, a kid that kicks 55-yard field goals barefoot for fun after practice, might be the most athletic lineman he's ever coached.

"When he came up as a freshman he played on JV and we saw something special right away," Connolly said. "He came up played sophomore on varsity as center. We had a pretty good left tackle (Andrew Datko) at the time. But we saw he had the versatility to play left tackle. His size and athleticsm. Brandon is a great basketball player. I remember when he was a freshman the basketball coach told me the best hands in the freshman class were Brandon Linder's.He's just a big kid who is able to move. He's smart. He's a natural football player. Put him at tackle, put at him center, wherever. But left tackle, that's where I think he'll be for the next four years. He's good enough to make an impact right away."

Jay Connolly Connolly said Barton (6-7, 290) will likely need some more time to grow. But he said the kid has enough physical gifts to be a special player. Last year, Barton was the sixth man on St. Thomas' offensive line. This year, he took every snap at right tackle. "His biggest thing is toughness," Connolly said. "In basketball Jermaine was always told not to touch people. But now, we have to get him to touch people. He's really converted a lot of those basketball skills. I think his work ethic has helped me a lot. He's bigger, stronger and he's growing."

Current Cane Jermaine Johnson only played one season for Connolly, but he showed him he had the ability to be special. "He didn't get into a game until the third game of the year. But when he got in he was good enough to start at right tackle. We actually moved Datko to guard so Johnson could start at right tackle," Connolly said. "He has the best punch of any kid I've ever coached. He can just drill you and stun you. He's real athletic. He's built like [Barton], maybe a little bit taller. He's going to be a great player."

The Hurricanes are definitely going to want to keep their eyes on Aquinas. The Raiders have a pair of 2011 recruits in Andrew Reyes (6-3, 240) and Austin Barron (6-3, 250) who started in the interior all season. Sophomore Brad Mills (6-2, 220) is another player Connolly said could have a bright college future.

A few more recruiting nuggets...

> Northwestern coach Billy Rolle told our high school editor Andre Fernandez Saturday that after reports surfaced last week that defensive tackle Todd Chandler had switched his commitment to USF, UM defensive backs coach Wesley McGriff visited Northwestern the next day to tell let him and Chandler know UM still wanted him. "My advice to Todd was be patient, your going to talk to a lot of coaches over the next month," Rolle said. "Todd told me he was going to think about it."

Rolle said receiver Michaelee Harris, another UM target, is also being heavily recruited by Florida State. Recently hired Florida State assistant Eddie Gran is supposedly pushing hard for Harris. Running back Corvin Lamb, meanwhile, is strongly considering committing to North Carolina. 

> Miramar receiver Ivan McCartney told me Saturday after the Class 6A state championship game while he likes the University of Miami a lot, he also feels strongly about Oregon, Florida and West Virginia. McCartney said he is supposed to visit UM during Super Bowl weekend. My money is on West Virginia. Several Miramar assistants told me McCartney wants to badly reunite with former quarterback and close friend Eugene Smith.