Handling the pressure, exceeding expectation

Alabama has many stars in its top-ranked class of 2014 on Scout.com, which some say is the best class of all time. But one of the group has had to deal with the pressure of being a top recruit, with scholarship offers to ponder from all over the country a bit longer than the rest – Da'Shawn Hand.

Pressure is something everyone has to deal with, for various reasons, but it is how one deals with the pressure that helps define him.

For Da'Shawn Hand, five-star defensive end talent who signed with Alabama on Wednesday, there's been a bit more practice at the art of dealing with others than most outsiders will ever understand.

Most of it is in the past, now.

"He's enjoying being a kid," Kevin Johnson, Hand's trainer at Team Ascension, said. "He's just part of the actual recruiting class now."

When Johnson met Hand, Scout.com's No. 3 defensive end and the No. 12 player in the country regardless of position, there was an instant respect between the noted trainer and the high school junior.

"We have an old saying, ‘real recognize real,'" Johnson said. "We were at an event, and he saw some kids gravitating towards me. I met his dad first, and we had a great conversation. Then I spoke to Hand, and from the moment I shook his hand, I thought ‘this is a man, he's going to be special.'

"But it was the intelligence in his conversation; he gives off a good mood and vibe. After that junior season, he took two weeks off and then we went to work."

By this point, Hand already had dozens upon dozens of scholarship offers from around the country to sort through. But it would never match what his month of November was like. It was when he'd select a program to commit to, between perceived leader Michigan, Florida and Alabama.

"I've learned a lot about Hand," he said. "The amount of pressure that he was under, especially at the end when he had the three finalists, I woulnd't want to be in this position."

Hand wrapped up his high school career as an All-America selection.

It became a frenzy.

"I remember we were on our way back from Michigan, he fell asleep and woke up to 330 text messages," Johnson said. "I coulnd't even fathom anything like that. At the Michigan game, he went to the bathroom, and someone tweets, ‘Da'Shawn went to the bathroom.'

"It can be a bit overwhelming. I just always try to tell him at the height of it all, he was just a 17-year-old kid. I learned a lot about him, and a lot about people."

It only worsened on November 14, when he'd commit to Alabama on national television. Even then, Hand's true character shined through the backlash.

"He got a lot of hate mail... I wanted to respond to people who were wishing him bad things, like to tear his ACL, but he stopped me," he said. "He taught me not to let that stuff get to me, and it was about him.

"So we just combated negativity with hard work."

Hard work is something the Woodbirdge (Va.) standout got plenty of from Johnson and his team, who often use elevation masks to simulate altitudes as high up as 15,000 feet at times during training. One of the country's best worked with him for a year or so, and the results showed both in his vitals, on the football field and beyond.

"He was 240-something (pounds), or 250 about a year ago," Johnson said. "He was about 11.5 percent body fat. But we started training with these elevation masks, at 6,000, 9,000 feet above sea level. You get hooked up to this vertical resister bands, too, it all restricts you.

"I have Da'Shawn pushing a sled with several hundred pound plates, he was pushing cars up hill. He wants to be above the competition. It's blood, sweat and tears."

Physically, Hand is all there, now 270-plus pounds with even less body fat percentage as he prepares to begin his career at Alabama. But mentally, coupled with his will to be the best, Johnson sees an unprecedented athlete in front of him.

"I've had the opportunity to train Ahmad Brooks from the San Francisco 49ers, my son works for the Houston Texans, I've been around some top-tier athletes, top NFL players," he said. "I can tell you Da'Shawn is so far ahead of the game, mentally, that it's ridiculous. He can out-physical or out-think you. He's still collaborating on his training, and he's becoming a force.

"He's not a big fan of the trickery, he's a big fan of sticking to the basics. It's about explosion, speed, power, agility, reaction, quickness. He's up to 272 (pounds) now, he was Javon Kearse at first and now he's more like a DeMarcus Ware, physically. He's a beast, now his body-fat is at 10.5. That's scary."

Perhaps even scarier, is why he chose to commit and sign with Alabama. Johnson says he simply wants to continue competing with the best and Tuscaloosa was where he could do so.

"He's 6-4 ½, 272, super intelligent, wants to major in engineering, and he wants to make an impact in every aspect," he said. "I know Alabama was the right decision for him because he wants to go against top competition. That's the type of kid he is. He told me Alabama, and we didn't talk about it before hand, he knows he's going to go up against future NFL players, what could be better?"

And when it comes to working with the Team Ascension going forward, the pressure, lessons, drive and time will be passed down to the next group of area-stars, including the current No. 1 prospect in the class of 2015 on Scout.

"He's been through all this stuff, so he assumed the hierarchy," Johnson said. "He's a local guy who has shared his experiences. He doesn't care about comparisons, or rankings, his success is defined where he is.

"When it comes to guys like Matt Burrell and Tim Settle, they gravitate to him. He's a natural leader, he's humble."

Hand's humble approach will enable him to graduate from Woodbridge High this spring. He'll enroll at Alabama in the summer and participate in his first camp as a college athlete. Chances are, he'll face a new kind of pressure.

But if the last year is any indication, it's nothing he can't handle.

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