MIAMI — It was already deep into Lacedrick Brunson’s senior season at Miami Jackson High School, late October, and with limited scholarship offers he expected he’d sign with the football program at Florida International when the time came.
Brunson, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound linebacker, had been rated a 2-star prospect according to the 247Sports composite rankings, keeping him off the radar of many of the major programs in the region.
He didn’t agree with that appraisal, but he also didn’t dwell on it, he says. He was determined to prove himself, be it at FIU or wherever.
Little did he know, though, he was about to earn another believer, someone who agreed his talent belonged on a bigger stage and who could make that happen for him.
Florida defensive coordinator Randy Shannon, the Gators’ linebackers coach and co-coordinator at the time, showed up in town last fall to watch Miami Jackson’s Oct. 21 game with American Heritage — an eventual state champion featuring three top Florida recruits.
Brunson was made aware Shannon was in attendance and knew this was his audition.
“He was on the sideline talking to one of my coaches and my coach pointed me out to him and told him to watch me,” Brunson said. “I think he was there to watch somebody else. American Heritage has got a lot of recruits. But he saw me.”
While American Heritage rolled to a 44-21 win, Brunson left his mark nonetheless. Miami Jackson’s stats aren’t available from the game, but he made enough tackles to get Shannon’s attention.
“I wasn’t counting, but it was a lot,” Brunson said.
The next day, Shannon reached out to the linebacker and expressed Florida’s interest.
“I was just excited. It was unexpected,” Brunson’s mother Tiquia Morrow recalls.
If Shannon’s interest came as an initial surprise, he made sure Brunson and those around him knew he was serious about wanting the linebacker to end up with the Gators.
Said Miami Jackson head coach Lakatriona Brunson, who is not related to Lacedrick: “After that Randy was coming to the school on the regular. He came to the school like four or five times just to make sure, because Ced was real quiet. Ced wouldn’t say nothing to nobody, he wouldn’t call nobody. We had just got him on social media during the football season. We made him a Twitter, made him a Facebook, made him all the other stuff (so) he was able to communicate more. Got him a phone.”
That Brunson was so off the grid in those ways aligned with his status as an off-the-radar prospect, which was due in large part to injuries early in his high school years that kept him off the field and limited the tape with which recruiters could evaluate him.
But ultimately all he needed was for the right person to take notice that night in late October.
Now it’s on him to prove Shannon, who built his reputation identifying and developing often overlooked talent as an assistant coach and later defensive coordinator at Miami in the 1990s and early 2000s, made yet another keen find.
Morrow, Brunson’s mother, realized early on her son was in his comfort zone on the football field.
There was just something different about him out there, an energy and expression that ran counter to his normal disposition.
“He’s always been quiet and reserved so if (people have) never seen him play they would expect the quietness and reserved (nature),” she said. “On the field he’s like a whole other person. I’m excited for people to see that side of him.”
That was the first impression he left on Lakatriona Brunson when she took over as Miami Jackson’s head football coach heading into the linebacker’s senior season.
“He was a silent leader when I first met him,” she said. “I put a lot of responsibility on him and then he started talking. I never heard him talk during the spring — not one time. He never said anything. [Eventually] he came out of his shell. He started telling people what they needed to do.”
She lauds the linebacker for being coachable, eager to do whatever he’s asked, and she needed all the buy-in she could get last season.
Lakatriona Brunson had made a name for herself as a reality television star on the truTV series “South Beach Tow.” Now she was trying to prove herself as the first woman high school head football coach in Florida.
The previous Miami Jackson coach had resigned, she was already working in the school, applied for the job and was selected for the position. But that was the easy part. The rest was “an uphill battle,” as she put it.
“Let’s be honest right here, a lot of people don’t want their kids to be in a predominantly male sport coached by a female,” she said. “… No matter how much I love the game and how much I know about the game.”
Lakatriona played seven seasons for the Miami Fury of the Women’s Professional Football League. She’d been around the game her whole life — her cousin Richard Gordon has played with several NFL teams since being drafted by the Oakland Raiders in 2011 — and she knew she could handle the responsibility of coaching a high school team.
The challenge was getting everybody else to believe that.
Lacedrick Brunson admits he and a number of his teammates had initial doubts and even thought about transferring to a different school. “I got real close,” he said.
He stayed put, though, and the team eventually bought into its new coach. Miami Jackson had only two assistant coaches, though, as Lakatriona struggled to convince others to join her staff.
“Respect is earned. It’s not something that somebody is just going to give to you,” she said.
The team went 3-7 last year, losing a few close games along the way, but Lakatriona earned some believers herself during that campaign. She says her staff will now include 13 assistant coaches heading into her second season.
“Everything that happened was supposed to happen,” she said. “It helped me with preparing for this season and helped my outlook. If it would have been peaches and rosy and everything I wouldn’t appreciate it like I do now. That was a tough season, it was a tough year. I won’t even lie to you and say that it was easy. It was just a learning experience and it was kind of like a crash course. It felt like it was five years.”
She appreciated the attitude of the players throughout that first season, and on that topic she praises Lacedrick Brunson’s “humble” and receptive approach.
“He’s a hard worker. Whatever you ask him to do he’s going to do it,” she said.
They formed a good relationship through that season, and after all, they had something significant in common.
They both had something to prove.
Ready for the spotlight
So about those recruiting rankings …
The 247Sports composite had Brunson ranked as the 156th-best outside linebacker in the 2017 class and the 354th-best prospect overall in the state of Florida. Yet, he’s part of a select group of in-state players about to start their freshman seasons in Gainesville.
Overall, the Gators signed 11 4-star prospects, 11 3-star prospects and Brunson in this class.
“I never felt like the stars and all that meant anything,” he said back in May, sitting in the living room of his family’s Miami home. “Even though I’m a 2-star, I know there’s people that are a 5-star that I can play better than. … It motivates me because I’m going to perform greater than what they expect.”
Lakatriona Brunson says the linebacker was undervalued because he got a late start as a high school football player due to injuries and was then hurt again during his junior season.
His Florida bio only provides stats from that junior season, crediting him with 84 tackles and 7 sacks in just six games. Brunson says he thrives on contact.
He envisions himself in the mold of Carolina Panthers star linebacker Luke Kuechly, a heady player who uses his football IQ and physical abilities to be around the ball making plays.
Meanwhile, ask Shannon about star ratings and recruiting rankings and he says that has nothing to do with the way he evaluates a player.
He reflected back on his stacked Miami defenses that produced a national championship in 2001 and national runner-up finish the next year, and noted that star safety Ed Reed was so lightly recruited that the Hurricanes were competing with Tulane during his recruitment. Shannon found defensive tackle William Joseph at Miami Edison High School and says there was nobody else trying to pry him away at that time. For star linebacker Jonathan Vilma, N.C. State was the biggest obstacle, he recalls.
Shannon’s point is it doesn’t matter who else is recruiting a player or what his star rating is if he identifies potential in the kid, as he did in Brunson.
“You don’t try to (focus on) 2-stars, I don’t know. I look at a guy who plays with a lot of high motor, that has a lot of fast-twitch muscles in him, that plays the game and loves the game. If you can find guys like that all the time you’ll be successful,” Shannon said. “I think those are things that when I was at Miami, and all the years I was at Miami, that’s what we developed. You’ve got to have confidence that if you find a guy that fits what you do and brings something to the table, you coach him, he’s going to be a great player.
“But if you’re always looking for a finished product out of high school, then you’re just going to be just a guy as a coach. A guy who can’t develop. And then if you don’t develop, now you’re just looking at a guy that’s a 5-star guy that’s probably disgruntled, upset, mad and he’s not playing and he’s not playing very good.”
Brunson is eager to prove Shannon right again, eager to prove Florida got a steal when it signed him and he’s not the only one who thinks so.
Lakatriona Brunson, who knows a little something about battling perception and preconceived expectations, believes the linebacker’s stock is only going to keep climbing as he applies his work ethic and abilities to the structure and coaching he’ll receive in Gainesville.
“I’m looking forward to him doing big things at Florida,” she said.
Florida beat writers Ryan Young and Zach Abolverdi traveled around the country visiting the Gators’ 2017 signees for SEC Country’s “NextGen” series. Read their past 2017 NextGen stories at this link.