Thanks to the likes of YouTube and on-line scouting services, Charles Tapper knew all about Jadevon Clowney, the elite defensive end from South Pointe High (South Carolina). The City College junior lineman was familiar with Clowney's power-forward's frame, his cartoonish speed, his quick lateral movement and his explosive first step. He watched him embarrass left tackles, knock running backs silly and even chase down elusive receivers. Yes, it's safe to say Tapper is tapped into (pun intended) the No. 1 prospect in the nation.
"I've seen all his tapes and I think his game is a lot better then mine technique-wise," said the 6-foot-4, 245-pound Tapper, who has almost the identical long, lean build as Clowney's. "But I think my skills and speed compare to his. I think I can get to his level. Once I get my technique down, I can be one of the best."
That's a fairly bold statement, even for a guy who has a Division-I offer from a place like Oklahoma. But there's little doubt Tapper has talent.
With arms the length of a broomstick, shoulders as broad as Dwight Howard's and the speed of a wide receiver, Tapper ransacked Baltimore City last year. He racked up about 50 tackles and 10 sacks at defensive end, earning an invitation to the prestigious Army All-American Combine, where he was named First-Team All-Defense. What's more, Tapper, who also plays power forward for City, was recently rated the ninth best basketball prospect in Maryland by CapitolHoops.
"He's just an outstanding athlete. I mean, he can do anything," said City coach George Petrides. "You can put him anywhere on the field -- wide receiver, tight end, defensive end, linebacker - and he'll excel. He's one of the best pure athletes I've seen. There's no telling what this young man can eventually do."
Petrides should consider himself lucky. If he hadn't convinced Tapper that his future was in football, the young man would still be wearing Air Jordans year round.
Like most inner-city Baltimore kids living in a basketball hotbed that's produced 27 NBA players, Tapper immediately took to the hardwood. He played Pop Warner football, too, but his height was a natural advantage on the court. When he was seven years old his Rec coach pulled him aside and told him basketball was his game.
"I still played football, but basketball was what I concentrated on," Tapper said. "I grew up thinking everything surrounded basketball."
That didn't change when Tapper reached high school. In his freshman year he started at power forward on City's varsity and promptly became a "player to watch." Football, meanwhile, took a back seat. In fact, Tapper didn't don a pair of cleats that entire first year.
But during a mid-winter basketball game Petrides happened to be watching from the stands. The longtime City coach, who has a natural eye for talent, took one look at Tapper and saw a Julius Peppers in the making.
"He could jump out of the gym, that much was clear," Petrides said. "But he was also very physical under the boards and he had no fear. I thought that would [translate] to the football field."
After the game, Petrides gave Tapper his best recruiting pitch, telling him how his size and athleticism would be death to quarterbacks. The young phenom mulled it over before discussing it with his mother. The head of the Tapper household gave her consent, urging Charles to try football.
Thus, Charles Tapper became a dual-sport athlete once again.
But unlike basketball, Tapper's athleticism alone wouldn't help him on the football field. He struggled with his footwork and form and was way too weak to handle life in the trenches. Petrides still kept him on varsity, but Tapper only received limited repetitions.
"People all over the place were telling me, 'Football's your sport, football's your sport,'" Tapper said. "But I really didn't believe them until last year. I didn't play much my sophomore year."
Tapper could have given up and gone right back to basketball. But he was determined to carve a niche on the gridiron.
"He didn't come into his own right away," Petrides said. "But last year we couldn't keep him off the field. He really worked hard for it."
During the offseason Tapper began seriously lifting weights and running hills for the first time in his life. Then he worked out with a personal training group. By the time summer workouts rolled around Tapper had a chiseled frame to complement a newly developed swim move and rip move.
"Charles played basketball the majority of his life, but he came in last year and was just a beast," said City senior defensive end Tre James, who led the team with 20 sacks. "No one worked harder, and that made my job easier. It was a partnership; we fed off each other up front."
In a playoff game against Baltimore County power Eastern Tech, Tapper showed out on the brightest stage. City was trailing 7-6 late in the game and in dire need of a stop. Eastern Tech faced a crucial fourth-down-and-short play inside City territory, according to James. A first down would basically allow them to run out the clock.
The Mavericks called a stretch run to the outside, but Tapper was too fast. He blasted off the edge, sprinted to the sidelines and dropped the runner before he could cross the line of scrimmage.
"I knew no one was getting outside of him because he was extremely quick off the ball," James said. "I had tremendous confidence in Charles."
City still lost, but Tapper went into the offseason convinced he could be an elite player. For the first time in his life, football was "his game."
Even so, Tapper still continued to play basketball, drawing the ire of a few critics. More than one coach believes Tapper needs to concentrate solely on football in order to build his body and sure up any technical flaws.
But Tapper isn't ready to surrender his first love. He's still a cog at power forward and plans to continue playing his senior year, too.
"I actually think both sports connect and help each other out," Tapper said. "I play very aggressive on the court, and that comes from the aggression I need in football. Then when I'm playing basketball, I have to think and break down a defense. That helps me think out on the football field. Basketball also keeps me in shape."
Tapper is still holding out a faint hope that he can pull a Peppers, who starred on North Carolina's basketball and football teams. But most agree football is his meal ticket.
"Charles' focus needs to be on football," said James, who had Division-I offers before grades derailed his chances. "He is already way better than me and he's just an 11th grader. He was unstoppable last year, and as long as he continues to work he'll be an animal."
The key, of course, is continuing to work. Tapper's athleticism and basic fundamentals carried him in 2010, but he'll need an entire butt-busting offseason to sniff the level of, say, a Jadevon Clowney. Moreover, he needs to raise his 2.3 GPA and score high enough on the SATs just to qualify for Division-I.
But if he's truly dedicated, Tapper's potential is seemingly unlimited.
"Talent-wise, Charles is probably one of the top five players I've had at City," said Petrides, who has been at the school for 36 years. "I can only think of one other lineman in my time here who was better. Charles can go to any college he wants."