LEESBURG, Ga. — Much like Dan Mullen was busy doing at Florida after being hired away from Mississippi State in late November, new Bulldogs coach Joe Moorhead found himself in the same time crunch to protect and build his 2018 recruiting class in Starkville, Miss., with National Signing Day looming on the near horizon.
And in a plot twist he couldn’t have expected a year earlier, offensive lineman Griffin McDowell was suddenly right in the middle of it all.
A self-described late-bloomer who still can recall the excitement of receiving scholarship offers from Marshall and Troy, McDowell was suddenly in the crosshairs of two successful SEC programs in the final weeks before he’d have to make a decision that would shape his future.
Mullen and his staff had given McDowell his first SEC offer while at Mississippi State. The 3-star offensive lineman committed to the Bulldogs, assured that his path was set, but now everything was in flux.
“It was a little stressful. This is our first time going through something like this, and we didn’t know what to say or what to do — not knowing what choices to make, what was the right choice,” says Jamie McDowell, Griffin’s father. “We called Moorhead and told him, ‘We’re going to Florida this weekend.’ And he was like, ‘Well I don’t like that.’ Griffin wanted me to talk to him. I said, ‘Well, I understand, but you’ve got to understand our situation.’ He said, ‘Well, you know I’m looking if y’all are looking.'”
McDowell had visited with Moorhead and the new staff at Mississippi State two and a half weeks before National Signing Day. On the drive back home, Mullen texted him to ask how his visit had gone.
Sitting on the back patio of their home a couple months ago, McDowell and his family reflect on what would become a frenetic but ultimately mentally freeing week.
“[Mullen] wanted you to do an official visit down there, and you told him, ‘Coach Moorhead told me that he didn’t want me visiting Florida, and if I was looking, he was looking. That is my only SEC offer,'” Jamie McDowell says to his son, as they recreate the timeline of events. “And what did Mullen respond back?’ He said, ‘I’ll be there Thursday.'”
Says Tami McDowell, Griffin’s mother: “Coach Moorhead said, ‘Why take an official visit if you don’t have an offer? If he’s not serious to give you an offer then why are you going to take an official visit?'”
McDowell relayed that sentiment to Mullen as they conversed on that drive back from Starkville.
“That’s when he said, ‘I’ll be at your school Thursday to see you. … And expect something when I get there,'” McDowell recalls.
Mullen came with offensive line coach John Hevesy, fellow longtime assistant coach Billy Gonzales and, yes, a scholarship offer to join the Gators.
The next evening, McDowell and his family were on the way to Gainesville, Fla., for a visit, but the Bulldogs weren’t giving up either.
“I had about every coach on the [Mississippi State] staff texting me,” McDowell recalls.
“And calling him,” adds Tami. “The day you got offered, you had like 60 something phone calls from the coaches, even during class.”
“I don’t want to say the coach’s name,” McDowell says, “but I had one coach from Mississippi State sending me articles and the dates of when Coach Mullen had re-offered the players he had offered at Mississippi State. He was saying, ‘He could have offered you then. He waited so long.’ That’s when I was telling mom and dad, ‘He’s right. He did have time to offer me,’ but I remember Coach Hevesy came and saw me before a game. I think it was like two weeks or three weeks after they had left, and he came to my school. … It’s not like they had left me high and dry.”
The reality is McDowell had formed a strong bond with Mullen and his staff, and he needed to see this through. Even with the Gators finally showing the interest he coveted, though, the matter was anything but simple.
As the family returned from the Florida visit, Moorhead said he would bring his whole offensive staff to Leesburg to let McDowell know how much Mississippi State wanted him.
“We were driving home from Florida, and he said, ‘We’ve got the jet standing by,'” Tami recalls.
All the while, Auburn offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey came calling with a late pitch at the same time.
But by the end of the weekend, McDowell had indeed made up his mind — for good, this time. He told Mullen before he left that he was ready to flip his commitment to the Gators.
It just felt right, even if also a little surreal.
“I [had] never seen myself going to Florida. I never seen myself going to any college [for football],” he says. “You could have asked me a year ago, ‘Do you think you’re going to Florida?’ I would have been like, ‘No.’ … It was kind of funny how it worked out to be that way.”
On the final day of April, McDowell is working out in the Lee County High School football weight room with a couple teammates, following the program Florida strength coach Nick Savage sent him with some additions put in by Trojans athletic trainer Brian Davis.
McDowell’s younger and half-the-size brother Daniel, who will be a freshman at Lee County this coming school year, is going through his own routine, and Davis notes that Griffin was probably even a little smaller than Daniel at that point in his development.
When McDowell says that playing college football was mostly a dream for him several years ago, that’s more a testament to how far he’s pushed himself in that time.
And he didn’t only surprise himself.
“I had no idea. Back when he was a freshman, I was like, ‘He’ll be a backup guy the rest of his life,'” Davis, the program’s athletic trainer says. “But he was dedicated and he came a long ways and worked. Did not see it four years ago, three and a half years ago that he would be here.”
McDowell played every snap at left tackle for Lee County the last two years after replacing four-year starter Chris Barnes, who went on to Georgia.
When he first joined the program, though, McDowell says he was the third-string nose on the defensive line. “I sucked. … I was behind guys that haven’t seen the field since 10th grade.”
He moved to the offensive line, “learned to love” the weight room and took on wrestling as an offseason activity to keep pushing himself.
From third-string to SEC prospect in just a few years.
“I don’t think that’s standard by any means. He’s just a kid that’s worked real hard and he’s still growing,” Lee County coach Dean Fabrizio says. “With recruiting being pushed up so much these days, sometimes these late developers don’t get the attention they should. But he’s a kid, he was 200 pounds as a freshman, 220 pounds as a sophomore, 240 as a junior, 260 this spring last year at this time, probably played at 275 or 280 [in the fall]. And since the season’s ended he’s put on 20 more pounds of muscle in the last four months. So he’s a kid that he’s always in the weight room, he never misses a workout. …
“He wasn’t a guy who walked in the door as a freshman who you said, ‘Hey, that guy is going to be a big-time player.’ We thought he had potential, but to see him develop over these four years has really been special.”
It wasn’t until the summer after his junior year of high school, during a camp at Mercer that McDowell’s recruiting stock started to skyrocket.
As Tami recalls, there was a line of coaches waiting to talk to Griffin after that camp. South Alabama would become his first scholarship offer. Then Marshall and Troy. Kansas gave him his first Big 12 offer and the Mississippi State coaches, who were at that Mercer camp, officially made him an SEC recruit.
“He just didn’t think that this was [going to happen],” Tami says. “… I remember him coming home the first time saying, ‘They think I might go D-1.'”
Adds McDowell, “A lot of coaches have told me that they see players and it’s like a flower, they watch them grow to a D-1 player. But they told me I kind of just shot up. They never saw me in 10th grade or ninth grade. I came out of nowhere. So it was different for them and it was also different for me.”
He says it opened his eyes to what was now possible and what he needed to do as a senior.
On the last day of April, while nearing the end of his time at Lee County, McDowell refers to his phone between lifts to make sure he’s following the plan Savage sent him.
He says at the time that he has his bench press up to 385 pounds, can squat 585 pounds and power clean 310.
After finishing Savage’s recommended workout plan, McDowell heads to an indoor stretch of turf for Davis’ additions to the regimen. He and a teammate will take turns pushing a heavy sled up and back across the 25-yard field several times with jump-rope reps in between.
By the time he’s done, McDowell is slumped on the ground, leaning against the wall and exhausted. Just another day, another workout, another step closer to the dream of playing SEC football — a dream that is now about to become reality.
“A lot of times these guys who sign with Division I or especially Power 5 conference schools, they’ve been those guys since they walked in the door as a freshman. And Griffin’s kind of a little bit different,” Fabrizio says. “It’s funny, we go back and look and when he was in middle school he wasn’t even a starter. But as time went on, he’s grown into his body and just worked extremely hard in the weight room, on the field and really transformed his body and turned into a great, great football player for us. It’s nice when you see a kid just develop that much over these last five years.”
While McDowell was a starting left tackle for the 2017 Georgia Class 6A state champions, he expects to be a center at Florida.
“First time he ever saw him at Mercer, Coach Mullen said that he reminded him of the center that they had that ended up going pro at Mississippi State,” Tami says. “He said everything, the way he moved, so as soon as he saw him and he reminded him of that other player, he just loved him.”
McDowell, listed at 6-foot-4, and now more than 300 pounds, was rated a 3-star prospect and ranked the No. 22 center in the 2018 signing class, according to the 247Sports composite.
But aside from 4-star wide receiver Jacob Copeland, there might not have been a player Mullen spent more time talking about during his National Signing Day news conference in February.
“His recruiting maybe was a little different. I know he had been committed to Mississippi State. After we left, we kind of let a little gap go and let him digest and maybe talk and meet the new coaches and figure out what his future is. But he’s a player I always knew I wanted on my team,” Mullen said then.
While it took Mullen and his staff nearly two months after taking over to offer him a Gators scholarship, McDowell had stayed in touch with Hevesy throughout the process.
They, in particular, had formed a quick bond with McDowell finding both comfort and confidence in Hevesy’s blunt and direct manner.
When other recruiters were telling McDowell he could come in and have a chance to start as a freshman, Hevesy told him he almost certainly wouldn’t be on that kind of fast track if he played for him. He liked that honesty.
When Mississippi State amplified its efforts to finalize his commitment and Louisville made a late push to get McDowell to campus, he turned to Hevesy for advice. Would he have an offer from Florida to consider too?
“He said, ‘When the head coach of a school is your No. 1 fan, trust me, you have nothing to worry about,'” Tami recalls Hevesy telling her son.
Says McDowell: “I tried to keep that in my mind. Coach Mullen took a chance on me. I was no one and he offered me. I never thought I’d be someone that a big SEC coach would want.”
While McDowell says the recruiting process was “crazy” and “stressful” at times, he ended up where he wanted to be — where a couple years ago even he couldn’t have expected to be.
Now, he’s intent on proving he belongs.
“I can tell you, I want to be the hardest working person in the room,” he says. “I want to be the one that is the biggest person, is the fastest person, is the best at that position. That’s what I set my goal at, being the one that sacrifices the most. I want to be the one that even after the workout goes home and does some push-ups before he goes to bed.”
He says he’s never been all that interested in the recruiting rankings, the stars, etc. He developed beyond all expectations in high school, he shot up out of nowhere in recruiting and it’s now up to him what he has in store for his next act.
But spend an afternoon with McDowell, and it’s easy to see what Mullen, Hevesy and the Gators saw in the rising prospect.
“You’ve got to be really cautious as a coach that you do your proper research and you know exactly who you’re getting as a player,” Mullen had said back on Signing Day. “And with Griffin, we know exactly who we’re getting.”