Three years ago, Jalen Merrick had a dream, and if that dream had come true, college coaches like Mike Krzyzewski or Rick Pitino or Billy Donovan might be swinging by New Smyrna Beach High to check him out as a top recruit.
That dream is gone, but this is not a tale of woe.
Merrick is indeed a top recruit, but instead of meeting basketball coaching kings like Coach K and Pitino, Merrick is far more likely to see Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, Will Muschamp or George O’Leary.
“It feels really good,” Merrick said with a chuckle.
He chuckles about it a lot. It’s an amazing turnaround from the basketball goal he once had.
He’s still just kind of taking it all in, trying to comprehend how he went from a kid with a hoops dream to suddenly being one of the top offensive tackles in the state of Florida after only two varsity football seasons.
“It really just came out of nowhere,” Merrick said of the sudden attention.
He loved basketball, but he just kept getting bigger, so he took his shot at football one day and he liked it. He liked the thought that he was allowed physical contact and he didn’t have to worry about picking up that fifth foul.
“There’s a lot more contact in football and that really was the issue for me, because I used to probably foul out a lot in basketball. Can’t foul out in football,” Merrick laughed. “It transitions over a lot though, like a lot of the footwork that goes along with basketball kind of helps you in football.”
The 6-foot-5, 317-pounder’s athleticism is what impresses the scouts. He runs a 5.1-second 40-yard dash, has a vertical leap of 31 inches and he’s strong as an ox, benching nearly 400 pounds and pulling and power-cleaning 300.
He’s a big, mobile tackle with great fundamentals. He’s gifted in the classroom as well as on the field, sporting a 3.8 GPA.
New Smyrna Beach head football coach Lance Jenkins sums it up as well as anyone: “He’s just one, big, agile, smart human being,” Jenkins said. “The sky is the limit.”
Merrick laughed when all of these big-time colleges started courting him. He doesn’t know how to react.
So when Alabama came calling Friday, he didn’t even know how to describe how he felt.
“I’m lost for words right now,” he texted shortly after Crimson Tide offensive line coach Mario Cristobal visited the school first thing in the morning
“Coach Cristobal came and I was his first stop on his way to see Martez [Ivey], Christian Pellage and Abdul Bello.”
Ivey (Apopka), Pellage (Brooksville Nature Coast) and Bello (Montverde), along with Tampa Plant’s Jake Fruhmorgen, are considered the top four offensive linemen in the state. Merrick is not far behind.
Ivey, who is ranked No. 1 in the country by 247sports.com, is ranked No. 3 in the Sentinel’s 2015 Florida Top 100, while Fruhmorgen is 17, Bello is 20, Pellage is 44 and Merrick is No. 46.
“I’m trying to just stay level-headed. I’m getting a lot of advice from some of the previous guys like D’cota Dixon. He’s really helping me get used to the process a lot,” Merrick said.
Former teammate Dixon signed with Wisconsin in February and the graduating senior has been through the recruiting shuffle.
This year is Merrick’s turn, and he’s by far the biggest recruit in Volusia in the 2015 class — in both size and attention, with 24 FBS scholarship offers, and counting.
“Yeah, I think there are a lot of schools on the verge of offering,” Merrick said. “There are a lot of them who have been talking to me and want to come down in the spring. A lot of them just want to know who I am because I kinda popped up out of nowhere.”
He has offers from Florida, UCF, Miami, Ohio State, Georgia, West Virginia, South Carolina, Michigan State and Wisconsin, just to name a few. He doesn't have a Florida State offer just yet, but he said he thinks the Seminoles would like to evaluate him more.
Merrick has no favorites right now and there surely will be more offers with spring practice just getting in gear.
Florida and UCF are on him quite heavily. Merrick visited Gainesville in March.
“It’s a really good school. Going into it I had no idea what was going to happen,” Merrick said. “They gave me a tour of the school and I watched the practice and then I was talking to coach Summers [offensive line coach, Mike], and then I ended up in Coach Muschamp’s office and he broke the news that he was going to offer me a scholarship.
“Florida coach’s like my upside and the potential that I have. They said that I have a lot of the necessary tools and that you can’t teach 6-5, 317 pounds,” Merrick laughed.
As for UCF, he’s already quite familiar with local recruiter Sean Beckton, the Knights receivers coach.
“Coach Beckton was always up and down the hallways at school when he was recruiting D’Cota last year,” Merrick said. “So he was really familiar with my face and he saw a lot of the development things in me, from the first game of last season on out to the last. He’s a real great guy.”
As the offers keep trickling in, Merrick will have a tough decision to make, but he's already made one right decision.
He once thought basketball was his ticket, but he’s glad he changed his mind.
“That was definitely a big decision and it obviously was worth it,” Merrick said.
Chris Hays is the Sentinel's recruiting coverage coordinator and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Twitter at @Os_Recruiting and Facebook at Orlando Sentinel Recruiting, and on Instagram at os_recruiting.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun