ST. JOSEPH, Mich. — Helmet in hand and relaxed demeanor in tow, Corey Malone-Hatcher took the practice field Monday to begin the most important season of his young football career.
Little distinguished the four-star junior defensive end from his teammates, save a physique that called out Division I athlete. He checked in at 6-foot-4 and 244 pounds during his post-camp physical and is starting to reach his father’s build. Orlando Malone, an assistant coach, remains a little taller and more filled out than his son. That’ll likely change soon enough.
Malone-Hatcher went about his business just like everyone else. He worked on tackling technique. He went through reads at inside linebacker, where the coaching staff hopes to make the most of his talent. He teased a wide receiver that cornerback could be his next stop.
All in all, it was difficult to tell Malone-Hatcher has heaped expectations on himself after a meteoric rise over the last year from raw sophomore talent to legitimate elite prospect.
“I think everybody should think along those lines really,” Malone-Hatcher said. “It’s just about the standard you hold yourself to. I know I hold myself to a very high standard and I preach that to all my teammates, so I have to follow through. It’s not pressure coming from college coaches or anything. It’s just I want to be able to tell my teammates the right way to go. In order for me to do that I have to be able to do it myself.”
There’s at least one crucial reason Malone-Hatcher expects a lot of himself: After spot varsity reps as a freshman, he played just three games as a sophomore thanks to a nagging shoulder injury.
Malone-Hatcher put together a highlight tape anyway and hit the summer camp circuit, which triggered a steady flow of scholarship offers.
Alabama, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisville, Michigan, Michigan State, Mississippi State, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Penn State, Tennessee and Virginia Tech have all come calling. Scout.com rates him a four-star prospect and No. 265 overall in its Class of 2017 rankings.
Already Malone-Hatcher has reached rarified air in the state. Scout.com has ranked 17 players from Michigan in the junior and senior classes. He’s the only one not from the eastern part of the state, specifically Detroit, its suburbs or Ann Arbor.
That’s happened with limited varsity experience at a program that will field about 37 players total this season. Enrollment at St. Joseph High School is 980, according to Michigan High School Athletic Association figures.
Malone-Hatcher is very much a big-time talent at a small school, but he doesn’t have the body of work to back up that reputation just yet.
“He’s a special athlete and to be honest he’s been recruited on that,” said St. Joseph head coach Gandalf Church. “He hasn’t been recruited on a ton of what he’s been able to do on the field. You put on a highlight, he’s got a highlight tape. But that was about it. He played 15 snaps his freshman year in the playoffs with one simple job — chase the quarterback. Last year he was coming along. It’s his athletic ability that’s gotten him this attention.
“The deal won’t be sealed until people see him do it on the gridiron. Now he’s got the opportunity to do that. He’s had a great summer and a great camp. I don’t see any reason why he can’t.”
Malone-Hatcher wants validation on Friday nights at Dickinson Stadium, which is nestled between the high school and bustling Lakeshore Drive. Lake Michigan starts just a few hundred yards beyond that field.
Malone-Hatcher wants to chase a district title, something St. Joseph hasn’t won since 2009. Also on the goals list are the single season sack record and eclipsing the 100-tackle plateau. Malone-Hatcher will move around the defense but line up mostly at inside linebacker.
Church and his staff won’t let opponents scheme their best player out of the action.
“Having him at the inside backer position helps do that,” said defensive coordinator Ben Iliff. “It’s hard to scheme away from him. A lot of guys say he has potential on the d-line, which he does. But on the d-line a lot of times they’ll just read that guy and go opposite of him. That’s why sometimes we put him on, sometimes we take him off. We play around with him a little bit.”
Malone-Hatcher will no doubt be critical to whatever success St. Joseph has this season. He’ll also work at tight end. St. Joseph spent part of Monday’s practice introducing an up-tempo pace to go along with traditional sets.
Keeping Malone-Hatcher healthy and engaged is the initial step after a season mostly lost to injury. Not to mention the team is short on depth in the first place.
But with limited numbers on the roster comes increased chances to make a mark for players on the field week in, week out. Church believes Malone-Hatcher will be one of those guys and has told him as much.
“We expect him to play a lot of football,” Church said. “He only played in three games last year, obviously. He wasn’t able to impact our season very much. I’m excited for him to have that opportunity. I think he is as well. What I told him is what he has to do is seize the opportunity to become a dominant player for the entire season. He didn’t have that last year.”
Malone-Hatcher will mix in recruiting with game day visits in the works to Notre Dame, Michigan and Michigan State.
He’ll be back in South Bend for the season opener against Texas and again in October for the USC game. He plans to visit Michigan when it hosts Ohio State and Michigan State for its matchup against Oregon.
Over the last couple years, Malone-Hatcher has learned lessons in how to balance recruiting along with anything else.
Right now he’s hustling to complete coursework toward graduating high school a semester early. Making a verbal commitment is still a ways off, although Malone-Hatcher admitted he and his family have been talking more in-depth about the process in recent months.
In the meantime, Malone-Hatcher just wants to prove himself worthy of the hype he’s attracted.
“I’ve had a few experiences in this area where people definitely doubted me,” Malone-Hatcher said. “We don’t play Cass Tech. We don’t play Detroit King or Harrison. I feel like people don’t know what a Division I athlete looks like. They expect you to look like Thor or Captain America when really I see the guys that I’m going up against. With some recruiting sites, I’m still No. 2 in the state regardless of the fact that I’m on the western half and one of the only kids in the western half of the state with offers. I’m just proud of the fact that I can prove to myself and my area that I deserve it.”