Veteran Marietta High School coach James "Friday" Richards has been around the school a long, long time. Before becoming head coach, he played for the Marietta Blue Devils, a program in Georgia's elite Region 5-AAAAA. (How long ago, he doesn't care to admit.)
Richards has seen a lot of great athletes come through Marietta, including Clemson running back Travis Zachery and Georgia quarterback Eric Zeier. But Richards says that Herdley Harrison, a 6-1, 205-pound defensive end / tight end prospect who has committed to Vanderbilt, may be the best all-around athlete ever to come through the school.
"He was far and away the best player we had on our football team this year. He was the best player on the field in every game we played. He won the MVP at the banquet. He gives you all he can give you at all times.
For the mammoth schools at the AAAAA level like Marietta High, there are generally enough players on a team to allow individuals to specialize in either offense or defense. But Richards said Harrison was too much of an impact player to ever have off the field.
"[Herdley] never came off the field for us. He played a little bit of everything. When you get to the point where you can play both ways, every down, in a program like ours, that's saying something.
"Our program at Marietta has been pretty successful over the years, but even with that, [Herdley] started on both sides of the ball for us. Offensively he started at tight end, and defensively he played defensive end. He played all the special teams too."
Sometimes, when recruiting analysts know a player is a good enough athlete to play multiple positions in college, they list a player as an "ATH", or "pure athlete." Herdley Harrison probably belongs in that category.
To play both ways at that level demands that a player be in absolute top physical condition-- and that's exactly what Vanderbilt will get in Harrison, says Richards.
"We have a rigorous testing process that we put our athletes through," said Richards "You get so many points for the seven events we do-- power clean, bench, squat, 40-yard dash, vertical leap, shuttle run, and a 300-yard shuttle run. Herdley scored over 300 points, which is almost unheard-of. He's not just strong-- he's a really quick kid. He ran a 4.5 40 and made the Blue Club this year."
But Harrison, says Richards, was a special player off the field as well. He has absolutely no doubts that Harrison can thrive both on the field and in the classroom at Vanderbilt.
"As a person, I've been blessed to be around him a few years," says Richards. "He's a good Christian kid, and he loves to play the game of football. He's got a 3.75 GPA, which is exceptional. He was also voted by his classmates as Mr. MHS, our school's highest honor. He's just a great kid."
At 6-1, 205, Harrison is almost certainly too small to play defensive line in college. What position does Richards see him playing at the next level?
"I see him playing outside linebacker. Or, he could play a receiver. He played tight end for us, and he's got tremendous hands. Or he could even play free safety.
"He used to play baseball too. But now he's running track. He's going to run the 400-meters for us this year."
Richards said Bobby Johnson's staff had been in contact with Harrison when Johnson was coaching at Furman, and that Johnson had continued to pursue Harrison since moving on to Vanderbilt.
"Furman had been on Herdley since last spring," said Coach Richards. "We've got a lot of kids at Marietta that can run, and I have a lot of coaches who come through here and recruit my kids.
"Herdley is a smart kid, an academic kid, and he knows he can get a good education at Vanderbilt. At one time Penn State and Miami of Ohio were both looking at him. Furman and a few other smaller schools were looking at him too.
"He had a lot of opportunities, but I think he made a great choice. I know it was a tough process for him."
It wouldn't surprise Richards at all to see Harrison go on to star in college.
"He's a great athlete, and Vanderbilt has chosen a great kid. He's definitely going to be an asset to Vanderbilt's program."