WOODBRIDGE, Va. — Wednesday’s new early signing period for football is meant for high school football players such as Hylton (Woodbridge, Va.) running back Ricky Slade Jr.
Slade, who was named to the American Family Insurance ALL-USA football team on Wednesday, committed in February to Penn State and never wavered in that commitment, even though the Nittany Lions haven’t yet hired a new running backs coach to replace Charles Huff, who left in late November to be Mississippi State’s co-offensive coordinator.
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While Slade made plenty of unofficial visits to other schools, including Clemson, North Carolina, Florida, Tennessee and Ohio State, he made only one official visit and that was to Penn State. There was no No. 2 school, he said.
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USA TODAY followed Slade around on Wednesday on his big day.
7:10 a.m., The Slade House
Slade’s signed National Letter-of-Intent was just sent to Penn State from his family’s house. Moments later, a text came back from the Penn State coaches saying the letter had been received. That was even before Ricky was dressed for school.
He came down about 7:45. At that point, the only person in the house who had any Penn State gear on was his mother Heather, who had on a blue Penn State sweatshirt. Three brand-new Penn State baseball-style caps were on the kitchen table. Ricky, not a big cap guy, wasn’t sure he would even use them as props at his signing day ceremony that was scheduled at 1 p.m. at Hylton.
“I want him to feel as comfortable in his college situation as he is now in high school and the only place I felt that would be the case was at Penn State,” Heather says. “Especially on the academic side. I was impressed by their set-up with the study hall, the tutors and the advisers.”
While Slade put up big-time numbers this season with 40 touchdowns and 2,700 all-purpose yards, including 1,978 rushing yards, he knows he’ll have to improve to be able to contribute right away. At Nike’s The Opening, he repeatedly made high-level defenders miss, but because he’s listed as 5-9 and 185 pounds, he knows he needs to be stronger.
“I didn’t do it much in high school, but I can block,” he says. “I’m sure once I get on their weight program, I should be able to get to 210 pounds, easy.”
Ricky, like his mother and his father, Ricky Sr., is low key. He saves most of his flash for the field, though shortly before his scheduled Snapchat video chat Wednesday morning at 8 with the Penn State coaches, he puts on a grey Penn State zipped sweatshirt.
Before he can make the Snapchat call, there’s a few glitches. Ricky Jr. yawns, still half asleep because he was up to 1:30 the night before thinking about the big day. He said he wasn’t concerned when Huff left though he was the coach who had been his primary contact at Penn State.
“As long as Coach (James) Franklin isn’t leaving, I have no reason to leave,” he says.
8:10 a.m. Connecting with the coaches
The Snapchat connection to the Penn State coaches office goes through and Ricky Jr. perks up a bit. The Nittany Lions are holding a NFL-style mock draft for their signees, with cheerleaders in the background. Penn State baseball coach Rob Cooper actually gets the honor of “selecting” Ricky.
“Good morning,” Cooper says. “With the sixth pick of the 2018 Signing Day draft, the Nittany Lions select, from C.D. Hylton High School in Woodbridge, Va., the electric running back, Ricky Slade.
“That’s awesome,” Ricky says.
Applause and the Penn State fight song can be heard on the call and Heather claps as well. At that point, offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne gets in the conversation.
“Hey man,” Rahne says. “Coach Cooper walked by and said he needed a base stealer. Let’s concentrate on scoring touchdowns first.”
“Yes, sir, football first,” Ricky Jr. says.
“Us Rickys have to stick together,” Rahne said.
At that point, Franklin got on the video call.
“I appreciate everything,” Franklin said. “I appreciate how much faith you guys had in us the whole time. You guys haven’t wavered. It was great getting to know the family. Mom, the new sweatshirt looks great on you. Dad, looking good. Get ready to go to work, stay going on those classes and get ready to win a national championship. You guys have anything to say?”
Ricky Sr. speaks up first.
“We are excited about this opportunity and appreciate you guys,” he says. “You have been great during this whole recruiting process.”
“I just want to say I am very comfortable handing my son off to you.”
Ricky Jr. then says, “I just want to thank everybody and I want to thank you for taking a chance on me and just can’t wait to go to work.”
Franklin interjects to everyone’s amusement.
“Just so you know, we don’t think we’re taking a chance on you.”
“I just want to thank you for the opportunity,” Ricky Jr. responds.
Franklin then thanks Ricky for sticking through Penn State’s coaching changes.
“I promise you once a running backs coach is hired, the first place he will be is sitting in your living room,” Franklin says. “I give you my word on that.”
Franklin asks Ricky to give his parents a big hug and Ricky’s smile lights up.
With that, Ricky is off to his second-period economics-finance class while Ricky Sr., a sales rep for a glass company, heads out to a job in Baltimore, tries to figure out if he can go to a job and still make it back in time for the ceremony at the school. When it turns out the job is north of Baltimore, he decides he can’t risk it.
1:15 p.m., C.D. Hylton High, Woodbridge, Va.
On the stage at the auditorium at Hylton, Slade signs a copy of the letter-of-intent he already signed earlier in the day.
While the ceremony at Hylton later that day was all for show, it was also a chance for Slade’s teammates and classmates to share in the moment. Slade made sure to give a shout out to his teammates, teachers, coaches and family:
Slade’s coach at Hylton, former Florida and NFL defensive back Tony Lilly, has coached his share of Division I players.
“They all have a lot of things in common,” Lilly said. “Ricky is one of the more competitive players I’ve coached. He certainly brings an ability at the position he plays that I’ve never seen before. He does things that are God-gifted. They are not coached. He wants to have success and mostly, he wants to have success for his teams.”
4 p.m., XSport Fitness, Woodbridge, Va.
During the season, Slade didn’t do much lifting, but scholarship in hand, it’s time to get back to work. Slade and He meets former Hylton teammate Donovan Williams, now a sophomore wide receiver at Connecticut and personal trainer Kevin “KJ” Johnson at the gym, which is enormous.
Johnson has been training Slade since he was in the eighth grade and during the off season, Slade usually lifts four days a week.
“I’m a high school guy,” Slade said. “I need to have a personal trainer to make sure I work out and stay focused. When we’re in school, we’re told to lift, but a lot of the guys do it for like three minutes and they’re done.”
Johnson focuses on explosive-type movements for Williams and Slade.
“Come on, speed is power,” Johnson tells Slade during a particularly tough set.”
After about a half hour, Slade says, “I don’t think I can feel my arms.”
After the workout, Slade says he plans to get something to eat and then maybe some sleep. It’s been a big day.