With a Friday in-home visit from Stanford Head Coach Jim Harbaugh looming for Alex Debniak, the Hudsonville (Mich.) "Sam" linebacker prospect received good news a day early when he learned that he had been accepted by the Stanford Office of Undergraduate Admission. It did not take long for him to commit to Harbaugh and the Cardinal.
"The application was accepted and I gave a verbal commitment, I think, three days ago," the happy recruit reports. "We're all very excited about it."
"Oh, I was ecstatic," he elaborates. "I couldn't believe what I heard. My sister told me at first and I need to have her repeat it every once in a while. I was very excited and right when I heard, I called Harbaugh and told him I wanted to commit."
Apparently, the feeling was mutual. With the Stanford coaches uncovering Debniak as a prospect late in the recruiting cycle after reviewing his senior film in December, he emerged as the staff's lone option for the strongside "Sam" linebacker position. Based on film that demonstrated his documented track speed, Debniak shot up Stanford's board and became a prime target to join Fred Craig, who projects as a weakside "Will" linebacker, as an outside linebacker opposite the Ohio Division I Defensive Player of the Year. Adding to Debniak's appeal, he also may possess the versatility to move inside to play the "Mike" linebacker position, another spot at which the Cardinal do not seem likely to garner a commitment in this recruiting cycle.
"He was happy to hear it," Debniak says of Harbaugh's reaction to the commitment. "Obviously, he wanted to wait for when he came the next day, but..."
While Debniak could not wait to tell Harbaugh the good news, his exuberance hardly took any luster off of the opportunity to spend a day with his future head coach only a week after getting to see Harbaugh during an official visit to Stanford.
"You know what, he's a really down-to-earth guy," the newest Stanford commit praises. "I had a lot of fun with him. He's a lot of fun. My family especially got along with him very well. He visited the school and I showed him around a little bit. He got to see the town. It was actually snowing really hard. Very different from California. We had lasagna. Actually, my grandparents came over. They wanted to meet him. We just had a lot of fun."
Given the lack of reporting on Debniak as a Stanford prospect until late last week, Stanford fans are undoubtedly curious for more information on the all-state defensive end in Michigan. Interestingly, Debniak reports a mentality and playing style starkly at odds with the polite and upbeat student-athlete who reports having so much "fun" with Harbaugh on Friday.
"I'm really mean [laughs]," he says of his on-field personality. "I'm a very different character on the field, that's for sure. I really don't take any pity on anybody. That's the fun of the game for me. I think speed is really the best way to describe me. I'll shed a lot of blocks but I'll chase people down from the backside. You know, for my size, I don't think a lot of people would expect that, but that's what Stanford saw and they were very impressed with that, I felt."
"I feel I have a good combination of speed and size," Debniak opines on his skills on offense, where he also starred for Hudsonville as a standout running back in a highly-touted two-back attack. "I am not a very shifty runner. I will just try to run through people. I'll try to make a few decent cuts, but mostly I just like to run through people. The good thing is, when I can break into the open, I don't feel anyone can catch me."
With production on both sides of the ball as a senior, Debniak will get an early look on both sides when he arrives in Palo Alto for preseason camp. Before that formal audition for the Stanford coaches, however, Debniak plans to spend some time in the summer working with his future teammates.
"As soon as school ends, I am planning on visiting for three weeks," he reveals. "I'll be up there with the team and then I will head back for another month and then go back to California permanently."
"I feel that I'm a very versatile athlete," he reflects on the traits he will bring to The Farm. "They feel I'm undersized and they want me as an outside linebacker just because of my speed and size. But, you know, eventually [Linebackers] Coach [Andy] Buh is going to keep working on me and he wants me as a "Mike" linebacker. That's what he envisions me as. But when I come in, though, during two-a-days, they're gonna try to see me on offense and defense and see where I'm more natural."
In the meantime, Debniak is cognizant of room for improvement in his admittedly unpolished game and is looking forward to improving himself under Buh's tutelage.
"I would have to say I need to study the game more," Debniak offers in rattling off things he would like to work on to become a better future linebacker for Stanford. "I feel I'm very young at the game. I've actually only played three years. I just kind of let my athleticism play for itself. I need to watch more film. I'd like to meet with Coach Buh a lot and he can go over some of the stuff. I've never played linebacker also, so as many drills as he can give me, especially learning to move better laterally... I'm a very north and south runner, but to learn how to move more horizontally I would have to work on. I need to work on my vision as well. That's something I feel I have to work on."
With a raw game that requires refinement for the college level, observers may think that Debniak racked up 17 sacks and over 1300 yards rushing by feasting on lowly competition. On the contrary, Debniak proudly recalls the high level of competition he played against for the 10-2 Hudsonville Eagles.
"We play in the Ottawa-Kent Red conference which," he claims, " the Detroit Free Press says [is] the toughest conference in the state of Michigan. Very tough competition. We play Muskegon, #16 ranked in the nation. We beat them early in the playoffs. Just very tough competition. Rockford has always been very competitive in the state running and nationally as well. Both of those teams actually were on ESPN a few months ago. So we play very tough competition. I don't feel we really get the best athletes in the state, but we're very well coached and we're very good at what we do. We've always been very competitive at the state level."
As Debniak suggests, his Hudsonville team is not alone as a prominent Ottawa-Kent Red conference team. The Eagles split against the aforementioned Muskegon team this year, avenging an earlier blowout loss with a resounding blowout win in the playoffs. Pac-10 recruiting observers may be familiar with Muskegon as the home of USC receiving phenom Ronald Johnson, who emerged as the Trojans' primary kick returner this season as a true freshman. This year's Muskegon team featured Johnson's 3-star receiver brother Corey Johnson.
Indeed, Debniak has experience competing against the elder Johnson, last year's #1 ranked receiver and #13 ranked overall prospect according to Scout.com, not only on the football field but also on the track. Notably, Debniak beat the smaller and older speedster head-to-head in one league competition last year in the 200-meter dash and generally served as one of the USC receiver's principal challengers in both the 200-meter dash and 400-meter dash. In a season ending meet, Debniak's third place 50.17 time in the 400-meter dash compared to Johnson's winning 49.81 time. Debniak's 22.02 200-meter time finished fourth while Johnson won with a 21.80 mark.
With two weeks to go until National Letter of Intent Signing Day, Debniak is now poised to join his former track and football adversary in the Pac-10. As excited as Stanford's coaches and fans are to receive a commitment from such an athletic option to fill a previously unfilled position in the recruiting class, it remains hard to imagine anybody being as excited as the recruit himself.
"I feel like I'm the luckiest guy in the world," he gushes. "I really am. I'm incredibly blessed with this opportunity. You know, you look at Stanford, they've won the Directors' Cup I believe 13 out of the 14 years. Both athletically and academically, to be a part of that institution is just a chance of a lifetime. I just thank God for giving me this opportunity and I will never let Stanford down, that's for sure. I won't let my coaches down."
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