MADISON TOWNSHIP – Madison sophomore Tyrell Ajian had never spoken with anyone connected with the University of Michigan football program until offered a scholarship over the phone Tuesday.
That doesn’t mean the Wolverines made their pitch sight unseen.
They saw plenty.
New Madison head coach Jamie Masi, who was on the phone for 15 minutes with defensive line coach/recruiting coordinator Greg Mattison, said the words “jumped off the film” in conversation.
“(Mattison) said they checked out Tyrell’s character and grades and didn’t want to miss out on a kid this good,” Masi said. “Tyrell’s a great kid who does everything right.”
The highlight film, ironically, was put together by Ajian. A young man of few words, he might be the most unassuming student walking the halls at Madison. After joining the phone conversation, Ajian returned to the lunch room as if nothing had happened. Masi had to tell the other students at Ajian’s table Michigan had just offered him a full ride.
A little self-promotion can’t hurt.
“That’s the first contact (Michigan) had with me, so I guess they liked the highlight tape I put together,” Ajian said. “I was just happy to get an offer from such a big school.”
Ajian got his first recruiting letter in ninth grade from William & Mary and his first scholarship offers recently from Toledo and Miami of Ohio. But Mid-American Conference schools are probably spinning their wheels. Ajian is visiting Ohio State on April 7 and even though Michigan beat OSU to the punch it’s very possible the Buckeyes will have the final word.
“I’ve watched Michigan and I love college football,” Ajian said, “but I’m definitely an Ohio State fan.”
He had a picture taken with defensive end Thaddeus Gibson after an Ohio State spring game a few years ago. It sits on the dresser in his bedroom.
When Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell showed up recently at the school, it might have been more thrilling for Ajian than any of the five interceptions he made as a free safety last fall.
“I was completely surprised,” he said. “When they called me down to the office, I couldn’t believe it at first. I thought someone was joking.
“I’m not sure what to do with all this attention.”
He’ll have to figure it out fast. Andrew Saris, Madison’s secondary coach, is sure he will.
“Tyrell’s not a great communicator, and I think that’s because he’s a processor,” Saris said. “He listens and breaks things down. His ability to learn the game, along with his skills, I think that’s what sets him apart.
“People on the outside can see the film, but what sets him apart is his willingness to learn. He never, ever questions you as a coach.”
Ajian was a two-way star last fall for the Rams, gaining 428 yards on receptions and averaging nearly 10 yards a carry. But colleges are recruiting the 6-foot, 180-pounder as a defensive back, where he had 60 tackles and two fumble recoveries in addition to the five picks, helping Madison reach the Division III playoffs.
“It really doesn’t matter what side of the ball I play on,” Ajian said, “but I haven’t had a school talk to me about offense.”
Those recruiters obviously see what Saris has seen as his position coach.
“I’m the biggest believer in this kid and think he’s pretty darn good on both sides, but when you watch kids with the ability to go up and get the ball, they’re a dime a dozen on offense,” Saris said. “Guys who can do that on defense are pretty special.
“The ‘leap’ is obvious, but it’s also about the grit and grind and wanting it more than other kids. He can clearly do everything else a safety can do, but when you add those intangibles to it, you’re putting a weapon back there who can force mistakes out of a quarterback.”
Ajian was excelling on the basketball court as well until he suffered a broken foot in a game against Mount Vernon in mid-January. At the time he was averaging nearly 17 points a game and the Rams were 8-3. They finished 12-11.
Off crutches for six weeks, Ajian is planning to play some AAU ball this spring. Saris, the head track coach, is left to fantasize about Ajian complementing state medalist hurdler — and secondary mate — Frank Gordon, which would have given the Rams even more rocket boost on the oval.
“Straight-forward speed, I like Frank (in a duel), but Tyrell has great football speed,” Saris said. “He has great vision, puts his cleats in the ground and goes. It’s exciting to coach him.”
Saris first got that chance as the seventh-grade football coach. He was brought up to speed quickly on Ajian by Sean Conway, who stepped down after last season as varsity coach.
“He said, ‘Look, you’ve got a kid who’s pretty special,'” Saris said. “You never want to make any assumptions until you see him, but it didn’t take long to see him live up to the hype.
“And what’s great is that his mom (Nikki) stresses academics. Every time I talk to her, she mentions that he’s got to be doing the job in the classroom.”
New Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh is not unfamiliar with this neck of the woods. His dad, Jack, a former Michigan assistant and national champion coach at the Division I-AA level, grew up in Crestline. When Jim Harbaugh was head coach at Stanford, he recruited Lexington star Courtney Avery, who eventually signed at Michigan and was named captain his senior year.
“I used to watch Courtney all the time,” Ajian said. “He and my brother (Vincent) were in the same class.”
Harbaugh has been busy since taking the Michigan job in January trying to trample the fence erected around Ohio by OSU coach Urban Meyer and his predecessor Jim Tressel. Two weeks ago, Harbaugh plucked Rick Finotti away from Lakewood St. Edward as his director of football operations. Finotti led St. Ed’s to a Division I state championship last fall.
In addition to Ajian, Michigan offered scholarships this week to Hoban running back Todd Sibley and Walsh Jesuit offensive lineman Jack Wohlabaugh, son of former Cleveland Brown Dave Wohlabaugh.
Ajian, who has spoken with both Fickell and OSU co-defensive coordinator/secondary coach Chris Ash, will be a tough sell for the Wolverines. He’s looking forward to his trip to Columbus in a couple of weeks and participating in an OSU camp.
“I’m not in a hurry (to commit) at all,” he said.
What did Ajian say when Michigan made its offer? It was short and polite: Thank you.
At that point, Masi interjected.
“I said ‘Coach (Mattison), he’s a quiet kid,’ Masi said, “‘but I’ve never seen a smile like that on his face.'”
It’s always nice to be wanted by a major college football program. There could be many more smiles to come.
“I told him there are going to be a lot of opportunities … have fun with it,” Saris said. “He’s got a good head on his shoulders and a lot of people giving him some good advice.”