Conner Crowell had barely reached puberty, but he was already playing his first varsity football game. The 13-year-old spent exactly one week on the JV at North Point High School before the coaches decided he deserved a shot on varsity. Sure, there were some extenuating circumstances. North Point did have some injuries and the varsity program was so young it didn't even have a senior class yet. But still, a 13 year old on varsity?
"I was kind of apprehensive," coach Ken Lane said. "The only other time I brought a freshman up was when I was at Westlake and we had [former Maryland star] Randy Starks."
The varsity coaches knew the 6-foot, 200-pound man-child had a mean streak, so they stuck him on the kickoff team against Northern High School. On the opening kickoff, Crowell flew out ahead of his teammates and burst downfield like a single-man cavalry.
Now, Isaac Newton taught us that force is equivalent to mass multiplied by acceleration. So when a raging Connor Crowell spotted Northern's three-man wedge and threw his entire 200-pound frame into it … well, let's just say the wedge didn't last long.
"I looked at the coaches and we said, 'Yeah, he belongs on varsity football. He's where he's supposed to be,'" Lane said.
After that, Crowell entrenched himself on the varsity. He worked his way into the defensive rotation his freshman year, and by sophomore year he was starting at linebacker and rotating in at fullback. He grew two inches and put on 24 pounds after his rookie campaign, making him a hulking 6-foot-2, 224-pound phenom. And he's still only 15 years old.
"I'm waiting to see if there's another growth spurt. He does have size 15 feet," said Lane, chuckling. "He has the whole package going on … He has great size. great feet and speed to go with it. And the baby fat is gone and it's turning into muscle."
That's got to scare the opposition, who has already watched Crowell terrorize them that last two years. Lackey High School certainly isn't happy. Last season Crowell sacked their quarterback three times to go along with eight tackles. At fullback, he chipped in six pancake blocks, paving the way for North Point's ground game.
"That was a great game for our whole team," Crowell said.
After showing flashes of brilliance his freshman year, Crowell was invited to the Schuman's National Underclassmen Combine in Northern Virginia, where he won the Freshmen MVP award. It was a not-so-subtle omen. Last season, as a sophomore, Crowell racked up 74 tackles and five sacks, earning an honorable mention on the Small School All-State team.
But after North Point's 8-2 2008 season ended on a sour note - a 32-10 loss to Douglass - Lane took his linebacker aside. He told him he was now an upperclassman, which meant he had to take on more responsibility.
"I told him you're expected to be a leader now," Lane said. "He's got two years of varsity experience and he needs to step up."
Crowell has taken the words to heart. The 2009 season is still months away, but Crowell, a self-described "laid-back guy," has gotten an early start. He spent three months training for the Nike Baltimore Combine in March. Despite the rain and damp field at M&T Bank Stadium, Crowell knocked 0.2 seconds off his 40-yard dash time and almost 0.5 off his shuttle. His 4.55 40, 4.01 shuttle, 38-foot power-ball toss and 33-inch vertical jump earned him the top SPARQ rating (the top overall player) at the combine.
"I didn't come into the combine expecting to do that well," Crowell said. "I was training for three months, really working hard. And I just came out and dominated."
Now, Crowell is focused on dominating his junior season. He knows he must refine his fundamentals - footwork, positioning, reading offenses -- especially since he'll be the lead linebacker on North Point's defense. He wants to build his strength as well. Crowell admitted that bigger lineman pushed him around last year, mainly because he didn't work out as hard in the weight room.
"But this year I've gotten a lot bigger and faster," Crowell said.
In addition to leading the defense, Crowell will assume an even larger role on offense. He ran the ball just 18 times for 118 yards last season.
"I do want the ball more," Crowell said.
A big year should solidify his Division I status; scouts are already clamoring over him. The usual suspects from the ACC - Maryland, Virginia, Boston College, North Carolina - have started sending letters, and even Notre Dame knows about him.
"He's not going to have a problem [getting a scholarship]," Lane said. "If he continues to work hard, he's not only going to be a Division I player, but an impact player at that."