TEXAS FOOTBALL: CHRISTMAS IN AUSTIN

Charlie Strong said Texas' defensive line is his biggest concern heading into the 2016 season and is hoping a group of five incoming freshmen defensive tackles - D'Andre Christmas-Giles, Gerald Wilbon, Jordan Elliott, Marcel Southall and Chris Daniels - can come in and contribute immediately. Here's a look at one of those talented freshmen ...

When your last name is Christmas, it might help explain how you can repeatedly stare down adversity and always maintain an upbeat, positive outlook.

“Coach (Charlie) Strong talks about how I’m going to be delivering presents and stuff,” said incoming Texas freshman defensive tackle D’Andre Christmas-Giles. “People grab onto my last name and make fun of it. I love it.”

On the field, the 6-foot-3, 305-pound, late-blooming star at New Orleans’ St. Augustine High School, is a disruptive force. An unmistakably explosive first step leaps off of his game film – along with beyond-his-years hand work that keeps most offensive linemen from getting a firm grasp on him.

“I love Christmas’ first step,” said fellow incoming freshman DT Gerald Wilbon, also from Louisiana. “He’s big and explosive. He can move because he’s athletic.”

Of five freshmen defensive tackles making their way to Texas in June, Christmas-Giles may be the most complete package in terms of explosiveness, technique and motor.

D’Andre is expected to play the three-technique, which is the pass-rushing DT who lines up on the outside shoulder of the guard (where it’s harder for the offense to double team).

“He’s got a motor,” Wilbon said. “He’s always going, and that’s what sets him apart.”

When you ask D’Andre - whom Strong refers to simply as “Christmas” - what sets him apart as a football player, he talks about his “mindset.” And you soon realize he’s talking about a mental toughness hardened by real life.

“Obviously, I’m quick off the ball and have good hands,” he said. “But, honestly, I think it’s my mindset.

“My senior year, I was facing guys who had offers who were 6-4 and 6-5, and I made plays. When I get on the field, obviously, I have athletic ability. But I think it’s my mindset that sets me apart.”

A MENTAL TOUGHNESS HARDENED BY REAL LIFE

Christmas-Giles is described by those near to him as upbeat and inquisitive – usually with a smile on his face.

But at 18, he’s already been through some incredibly difficult times. His father was murdered in a random act of violence when he was 3 years old.

D’Andre only played two seasons of high school football because he was ruled academically ineligible as a freshman at Salmen HS in Slidell, La., and had to sit out his junior season after transferring to St. Augustine HS in New Orleans.

While going to school in New Orleans, D’Andre has been surrounded by gun violence, including a shooting near St. Augustine’s practice fields less than a month ago.

What has kept him going with a positive outlook?

“What gets me through things – knowing I’ve had a tough past – is just seeing my future,” he said.

It was just himself, his older brother, George, and his mother, LaTonya Christmas, moving from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where D’Andre was born (and where his father was killed) to Fort Worth and then to New Orleans.

“Me, my brother and my mom struggled a lot,” D’Andre said. “Then, my mom got re-married. I got a stepdad and two sisters, and we started doing better.”

It’s easy to see where D’Andre gets his positive outlook.

“Everyone says something about our last name,” his mother, LaTonya said, laughing. “Thank goodness my parents didn’t name me Mary Christmas, right?”

 

MAKING TWO YEARS OF HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL COUNT

After D’Andre made varsity as a freshman at Salmen High School in Slidell, La., a suburb of New Orleans, he was ruled academically ineligible midway through the season.

“My freshman year in high school I made varsity, and I felt like I dominated,” D’Andre said. “But I was kicked off the team because of my grades in the middle of the season.”

D’Andre started on offense and defense as a sophomore at Salmen with his brother, George, who was a senior defensive back and running back.

Then D’Andre transferred to St. Augustine – known as “St. Aug” - a prestigious, all-boys, all-black private high school in the heart of New Orleans with a long list of prominent alumni.

Those alums include LSU RB Leonard Fournette, RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, former NBA star and coach Avery Johnson, Texas hoopster Javan Felix, actor Carl Weathers, ESPN anchor Stan Verrett, Panthers’ OT Trai Turner and Cardinals’ CB Tyrann Mathieu.

Due to an eligibility issue after transferring to St. Aug, D’Andre had to sit out his junior season. He could practice but not play. He was able to attract some attention from colleges based on his spring football and practice performances as a junior.

Among those coaches was Texas defensive line coach Brick Haley, who had recruited St. Aug while the D-line coach at LSU.

So D’Andre had his senior season to prove himself as a recruit to the major programs looking at him – and he did – making one disruptive play after another.

He helped St. Aug to a playoff appearance in 2015 and closed the season with four tackles, a sack, a 50-yard fumble return (nearly for a TD) and a kick return against Holy Cross.

D’Andre committed to Tennessee – his first major college offer.

But Wilbon said D’Andre began following Wilbon on Twitter after Wilbon committed to Texas. Wilbon said D’Andre then started asking Wilbon questions via direct message on Twitter about his decision to commit to Texas and about the Longhorns in general.

“I knew from our conversations that he was starting to feel Texas and would probably end up going there,” Wilbon said. “I could just tell.”

Before long, D’Andre was having longer and longer conversations with Haley. He de-committed from Tennessee and re-opened his recruitment. He took visits to Texas, LSU, TCU and Texas A&M.

His decision came down to Texas, TCU and LSU. But it probably came down to Texas and TCU. D’Andre liked the defensive pedigree of Gary Patterson and had a soft spot for TCU, in part, because he lived in Fort Worth for a couple years during his childhood.

But the bottom line is “DCG” - as he’s commonly referred to by fans - wanted a change of scenery – away from New Orleans.

St. Aug is in New Orleans’ Seventh Ward, where gun violence occurs all the time. The shooting death that occurred near the St. Aug campus less than a month ago still nags at D’Andre.

And he retweeted St. Aug alum Tyrann Mathieu when Mathieu spoke out against the violence in New Orleans and when Mathieu offered a plan to address the problem after Saints’ DE Will Smith was shot and killed in what initially was called a random act of road rage.

Mathieu said there are those in New Orleans who actively seek out those from the city who are having success when they return home. And they look to take them down – if not out.

Mathieu said he doesn’t spend more than two or three days at a time in New Orleans for that very reason.

When you factor in the crime in New Orleans and D’Andre losing his father to a random act of violence, he knew his college choice would be out of state.

“I feel like I had to leave Louisiana, because it could be more of a bad thing if I went to school here,” D’Andre said. “I don’t want to be in the same problem I am right now. So that’s one of the reasons I wanted to come to Texas.”

D’Andre had never been to Austin and had never spent extensive time around Charlie Strong until his official visit to Texas, when he was hosted by Malik Jefferson.

“Malik’s a really humble-but-outgoing guy,” D’Andre said. “He showed me everything I needed to know, and I just fell in love with Austin. And Coach Strong, the first time we really talked, we didn’t even talk about football.

“We talked about life and the importance of academics. Those things are more important and come before football.”

D’Andre said he doesn’t expect to have any trouble qualifying academically at Texas.

“We won’t know if I’m qualified until the final transcript is in, but I should be good with the ACT score I needed,” he said.

THE INQUISITIVE 'GENTLE GIANT'

LaTonya Christmas calls her son a “gentle giant” who was forced to grow up fast after his father was murdered.

“I think it made him stronger. I think it made him strong for his age,” LaTonya said.

“But he’s a very sweet, kind-hearted kid, always has been. I used to call him the ‘gentle giant’ because he’s always been so caring. He’s always been very inquisitive, so he’s always asked a lot of questions. He likes to know what’s ahead, so he’s always looking for the answer.”

Strong made mention of D’Andre’s inquisitive nature when talking about this year’s recruiting class on National Signing Day.

“It was eight questions every night with him,” Strong joked about “Christmas.”

The one thing no one questions, however, is the upside and potential impact Christmas-Giles could have as a defensive tackle at Texas – perhaps immediately.

“I’ve always been able to flip a switch when I walk onto the football field,” D’Andre said. “It’s like I just take any anger or frustration out when I’m playing.”

His mother said she thinks football has been a release for her son.

“D’Andre is a very humble kid, somewhat introverted, holds a lot in,” she said. “So, I think football has been an outlet for him, which is good. It was a positive outlet for him.”

'A LOT OF CHRISTMAS JOY'

LaTonya said she knew Texas was the right fit for D’Andre after accompanying him on his official visit to Austin and meeting the coaches and current players.

“I just felt more comfortable with the Texas coaches, because they seemed genuine,” LaTonya said. “I felt they were coaches who truly wanted the best for all the players on the team.

“Although football is very important, they also want the athletes to take care of their education and to get a degree.”

D’Andre said he appreciates the way Haley recruited him.

“I was really drawn to Coach Haley, because he doesn’t tell you what you want to hear, he tells you what you need to hear,” D’Andre said.

“He used to coach at LSU and had a bunch of great defensive linemen.

“When I was on my official visit to LSU, the defensive linemen there told me Brick Haley was a real good guy. So when I got to Austin, saw the facilities, the school, the awesome city, I knew I needed to be at Texas. I love Austin.”

Mom could see it in her son’s eyes the morning after D’Andre was able to go out with Malik Jefferson and other current players on his visit.

“That morning, I asked him if he liked it?” she said. “He said, ‘I love it.’ After that I knew.

“His recruitment was a little stressful, because he was a late recruit. It all came together his senior year. So, it was a little stressful. We got through it.

“He made the best decision. I agree with it. I think Austin - the University of Texas - I think it’s going to be great. Not only for him, but for Texas also.”

D’Andre has stayed in touch with several current Texas players, including Jefferson, DeShon Elliott, Poona Ford and most of the D-line as well as incoming DT Jordan Elliott.

D’Andre has a separate group text message with his “Cajun Connection” – a total of four players from Louisiana – headed to Texas: himself, Wilbon, TE Peyton Aucoin and DE Malcolm Roach.

When I asked D’Andre what Texas fans can expect when he gets on campus (May 29), he said with a smile, “A lot of Christmas joy.”

 

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