When it came to recruiting All-American cornerback Tracy Howard nobody was quicker on the draw than the hometown Hurricanes.
The Hurricanes -- once first in the chase for the senior widely considered the No. 1 cover corner in the country -- are now hoping they can pull off a last-second come-from-behind victory for Howard's services. UM coach Al Golden secured an official visit from Howard for this coming weekend, the final recruiting weekend before National Signing Day next Wednesday.
While getting arguably the best player in UM's backyard to take a visit probably shouldn't be newsworthy, it is in this case. Until two weeks ago, Howard said he wasn't considering the Canes at all. LSU, Alabama, Florida and Florida State were the front runners. UM? They were that team coming off a 6-6 season and about to get hit by NCAA sanctions. Who in their right mind wanted to go there? Well, Howard's closest friends for one -- Miami Norland running back Duke Johnson, Miami Columbus safety Deon Bush and Miramar receiver Malcolm Lewis.
Suddenly, with a little added push from them and Hurricanes coaches, who visited Miramar on Tuesday, Howard said he now has something to think about.
"I see the guys they're getting, hometown guys, guys that can make an immediate impact. We could have freshman fever, if I happen to go there," Howard said. "I'm familiar with a lot of those guys, Duke Johnson, Malcolm [Lewis], Deon [Bush], Vernon [Davis]. Why not give my hometown a shot?"
Before the green and orange blood in your veins leads to hyperventilation and hyper-hope, realize first that Howard (5-11, 175, 4.4) has spent a long time building a relationship with his other finalists: Florida and Florida State.
While the Hurricanes clearly could put the nation's No. 1 high school cornerback right to work, right away (beyond senior Brandon McGee and sophomore Thomas Finnie there wouldn't be much competition), the Gators are just as needy when it comes to cornerback. And Howard knows it.
"I love Florida. I love the coaching staff. I love the opportunity to play early there. I love the players. Even the recruits, we get along very well," Howard said lovingly Wednesday. "Me and [Gators recruit] Brian Poole, we became close on my visit and things like that. The town of Gainesville is a nice fit. I'm a laid back guy. I wouldn't mind a small town like Gainesville, me being a chill guy."
Florida State, once considered the front runner for Howard, appears to have played itself out of the mix -- although Howard won't say it and says he'll choose between UM, UF and FSU next Wednesday. You can read between the lines of his comments in the video below (I did). Seems clear to me Tallahassee didn't make a great impression on him, no matter how much he likes the Noles staff and players.
Ultimately, after talking to him for close to 30 minutes Wednesday, I believe it comes down to the Canes and Gators for Howard. He'll make his announcement on ESPNU next Wednesday morning, roughly around 9 a.m. Florida is clearly the leader -- and the Gators earned it. It appears they've worked hardest to get Howard to like them, visiting Miramar High far more than any other team according to Howard.
"UM recruited me, but they weren't recruiting me as hard as Florida or Florida State," Howard said in a conversation not recorded on the video below.
"I'm not talking about calling all the time. I hate that. I don't answer the phone. Florida was always coming to the school, [defensive backs] coach [Travaris] Robinson. I was always seeing him. We built a bond, just got to know him a lot. I wasn't doing that with [UM defensive backs] coach Williams. I feel more comfortable with Coach T-Rob than I do with Coach Williams. If I had to go somewhere and made that choice two weeks ago, I would have gone to Florida because I feel more comfortable with that coaching staff. I know UM players just because some of them went to Miami, but I had better relationships with the coaches and things like that. I don't go to places where me and the coaches aren't real tight or I don't really know them."
But the Canes have earned their shot -- this final recruiting weekend. Howard said his relationship with Williams is "getting better and better by the day."
"We sat down and talked football yesterday. I like what he's coaching," Howard said.
He also likes what his Canes friends are willing to do for him. Duke Johnson, considered the Canes' top recruit, messaged Howard on Facebook Tuesday and offered up the No. 3 jersey Golden was saving for him (Howard wore No. 3 in high school too). Howard said he was blown away by the gesture. "I respect that, a guy to sacrifice a number he's had since he was 6 years old. For a player to do that is special, that's big for me. I liked that," Howard said.
Now, it's up to the Canes and Golden to blow Howard away Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Howard said he's visiting UM to see if the bond between players and coaches is strong, "see if they're really family."
Miramar coach Damon Cogdell -- accused by some of funneling too many of his players to his alma mater West Virginia -- will visit UM Saturday, too. "I just want to be there for Tracy," Cogdell said. "Coach Golden is a good man. I really like him and what he's doing."
After his visit, Howard said he plans to reach a decision by Monday or Tuesday at the latest.
"I didn't really think it was going to be this hard," Howard said. "Honestly, I'm not going to put any pressure on myself. I'll never let the pressure get to me in life, especially the football field. When I line up against the best receivers I'm not going to be panicking, 'God, I've got to live up to the hype, let me lock this guy down.' Just go out there and play loose. It's just like the recruiting process, be loose with it. I don't feel like I'm going to let nobody down. The only people I can let down are my parents, my little brother, my uncle and my head coach. Those are the five main people I look to for advice.
"My little brother, we've shared a room for 17 years. He knows me the most of anybody in the world. He knows what's best for me, just like I know what's best for him. Even my dad. He's a UM fan. He wants me to go to UM. But he respects my decision and he will if I decide to leave. My mom, she's always going to be there for me. Coach Cogdell will never steer me wrong.
"Fans, people don't understand how much work goes into this. Me and Malcolm [Lewis] were out at the park at 11 o'clock at night, battling, doing one-on-ones when the lights of the park went off every night. We lifted weights, ran bleachers when we didn't feel like it. We did sprints with my sprint coach, film studies for three hours every night, plus homework. Then, we woke up and did it all over again. The recruiting process is the easy part. You're just making a choice.
"They say if I don't go to Miami, Miami fans are going to be acting crazy and all that. Or if I don't go to Florida, those guys are going to be mad. I honestly don't care. They really don't know me. They weren't with me when I was there doing all the things I needed to do to get to where am. This is a selfish decision. You have to do what's best for you at the end of the day."