Nacho Garcia and Avery Johnson are about to become wanted men
Thanks to genetics and dedication, the Express LT and WR will be top 2012 recruits
The 6-foot-5, 347-pound Garcia is still raw, but has agility of someone much lighter
Scholarship offers are pouring in for Johnson, who has the size, speed, pedigree
SI.com's Andy Staples recently accompanied the South Florida Express travel team, which includes 25 of Florida's top prospects, on an unofficial recruiting trip to a national tournament and four schools in the South. From The Grove to South Beach, Staples got a firsthand look of what it's like to be a top recruit. This is the fourth installment of a five-part series.
SOMEWHERE ON INTERSTATE 10 -- The voice boomed from the front of the bus.
"Hey," the massive teenager said. "Look at the wingless bird!"
When multiple members of the South Florida Express travel football team craned their necks to see, a great laugh rolled down Nacho Garcia's body, all 6-foot-5, 347 pounds of it. Garcia wasn't finished, though.
"Hey," he said. "Look at the bald dude with dreads!" Apparently, not all of Garcia's coaches and teammates had learned their lesson the first time. Heads turned again, and Garcia doubled over again, his mouth flattening into a smile that seemed to stretch the length of the interstate -- from Jacksonville, Fla., to Los Angeles.
The innocence of the jokes and the purity of Garcia's reaction slammed home the fact that Garcia -- who hears his given name, Abraham, only from his mother, and only when she's mad -- is a 16-year-old soon-to-be high school junior largely unspoiled by the baggage of adult problems. Garcia is the type of kid you believe when he says that if his coach at the University School in Davie, Fla., told him he couldn't have a girlfriend, he would swear off women until season's end.
It's fitting that the player who most often laughed along with Garcia was Avery Johnson, a rising junior who plays receiver for Ely High in Pompano Beach, Fla. Thanks to genetics and dedication, both are about to become wanted men, and the attention that comes from an intense recruitment can turn the most jovial kid into a hardened cynic.
Garcia began life in the Bronx, but he moved to south Florida when his parents split. He always wanted to play football, but his size made that impossible. When he was 10, his mother took him to sign up for a youth league. After a weigh-in, league officials told Garcia's mother her son would have to play with 16-year-olds. "I was," Garcia said with a smile, "a heavyset kid." Fearing for her son's safety, Garcia's mother forbade him from playing.
Garcia didn't start playing football until the ninth grade. "I was horrible," he said of his freshman year. But Garcia, who plays left offensive tackle, has learned quickly. In video from his sophomore season, he blocked through the whistle, and he buried defenders -- even in pass protection. Yet Garcia remains raw. He must learn to stay low when he fires out of his stance, because he won't always have such a vast size advantage.
The weight that kept Garcia off the football field as a youngster will make college coaches beat a well-worn path to his school. He said Purdue, Florida, Wisconsin and Miami already have taken a closer look. Others will follow. While Garcia has a belly, he has plenty of muscle, and he carries most of his weight in his thighs and his butt -- ideal for an offensive lineman. He has squatted 565 pounds, and he said he could have done more but his coach made him stop. At one point during the six-day trip through the South, at least five of Garcia's Express teammates tried to pin him during a hotel-room wrestling match. When Garcia freed himself, he sent elite recruits such as Florida-bound linebacker Ryan Shazier sprinting in search of safety.
Garcia's baby face suggests two things: He might grow more, and he'll probably lose a lot of that fat when he steps into a college weight room. If Michael Lewis wanted to write a funnier story, he could pick Garcia as the main character for The Blind Side II, because Garcia has all the physical attributes of an elite tackle. Garcia has heard all this, but he still doesn't seem to have completely grasped the fact that his potential is as big as he is.
"I literally had no idea," he said. "If somebody had told me my seventh or eighth grade year, 'You're going to play football, and you're going to be one of the top prospects in 2012,' I would have never guessed."
Garcia said he has dropped his 40-yard dash time into the low five-second range. While most are accustomed to elite times in the 4.3- to 4.4-second range, bear in mind that Garcia weighs 347 pounds. Despite his girth, he has the agility of a player 150 pounds lighter. That was obvious when the Express practiced. Garcia was invited on the trip to get a look at some of the schools that inevitably will recruit him, but he also played tight end on the goal line. Though quarterback Teddy Bridgewater never looked Garcia's way in a game, Garcia showed soft hands and a knack for getting open in practice.
Bridgewater probably found it difficult to throw to Garcia because he was too tempted to throw to Johnson. Johnson stands 6-2, and he catches everything. Everyone knew he had decent speed before this past weekend, but when Johnson caught a 10-yard pass and outran the entire secondary of a Los Angeles-based team -- every player an elite prospect -- to score a 40-yard touchdown and clinch the BadgerSports Elite 7-on-7 national title, Johnson entered another sphere. Few players in the nation can outrun Crenshaw High's De'Anthony "Black Mamba" Thomas on a football field. Even fewer stand taller than 6-0.
"Avery ran a dig route on [Thomas], caught it in the second window and just ran down the middle of the field for the touchdown," Bridgewater said. "It was just a magnificent play." Said Johnson: "I just turned upfield and burned everybody."
Johnson, who said he already has scholarship offers from Alabama, Florida, Georgia, LSU, Michigan, Miami, USC and others, should be better prepared to face the rigors of a high-profile recruitment. His older brother, Patrick Peterson, was one of the nation's top-rated cornerbacks when he played for Ely. Peterson, now a junior at LSU, has started since his freshman season and is considered one of the nation's best college corners.
Though teammates and coaches joked with Johnson all week that he's been silently committed to LSU for years, Johnson said he doesn't intend to choose a school until his senior year. He also said that while Peterson hasn't tried to recruit him too hard to Baton Rouge, he did offer some brotherly advice about the recruiting process.
"Just take your time," Johnson remembered Peterson telling him. "Choose your school wisely, and enjoy it."
Hopefully, Johnson and Garcia will enjoy being two of America's most wanted. And hopefully, when it's all over, they'll still crack up when someone turns his head to catch a glimpse of the wingless bird or the bald dude with dreads.