When cornerback Marchez Coates walked through the doors at McDonough High after spending his first three years at rival North Point, Rams coach Luke Ethington knew he had just landed another great one. Ethington was in his office when the 5-foot-11, 170-pound junior transfer came in. Coates held his head high, looked Ethington in the eye, offered a firm handshake and addressed the coach with a sincere, "How are you, Sir?"
To a former military man like Coach E, Coates' courtesy wasn't lost.
"I look for little things like simple respect from the players on my team," said Ethington, whose team had just won the class 2A state championship. "And you could tell right away his parents did a great job with him. First impressions mean a lot, and he made an awfully good first impression."
That initial meeting resonated with Ethington more than anything he'd seen Coates do on a football field. No doubt the kid had talent - probably Division-I caliber talent. McDonough had played against North Point in Week 3 last year and Ethington specifically remembered game-planning for Coates.
But at this moment, the coach wasn't dwelling on Coates' 4.5 40-yard dash time, his 300-pound bench press or his 400-pound squat, which is unheard of for a 170-pound cornerback.
No, there was something about that simple handshake, something about the way Coates spoke - a charisma that revealed exactly the type of player McDonough would be getting.
"I was raised to be a high-character guy," said Coates, whose father moved into the McDonough school zone in order to be closer to his business. "I told [Ethington] how hard I was going to work for him on the field and in the classroom. I told him I'd do whatever he needed to help win another state championship."
Oh, he'd fit in all right. But just to be sure, Ethington sought out his quarterback, Aquil Michaux, a senior leader who embodied the Ram virtues. Michaux knew Coates well; he had grown up with him and played on his youth league team.
"There's nothing negative about Marchez. I know the type of guys Coach E likes, and he's going to love him," said Michaux, one of the heroes of McDonough's state championship team. "He's all about grades, he's very respectful, he works real hard and he stays out of trouble. With the image he has, he's a McDonough Ram through and through already. We open our arms up to guys like him -- he's another brother to us."
As an added benefit, this brother also happens to be a terrific athlete. Coates has been all over the camp and combine circuit, earning rave reviews from scouts and recruiters at each stop. Division-I programs from up and down the East Coast already have him on their radars.
"He has a smooth backpedal and accelerates forwards and backwards with quick-twitch motion," wrote Rivals.com recruiting analyst Mike Farrell after last year's National Underclassman Combine. "Coates also has great hips, is effortless in his change of direction and has excellent closing speed."
That's all well and good, but none of that combine mumbo-jumbo means much to Ethington. He's never been one to rave about a prospect's physical skills. He'll take a 5-foot-2 kid with a 4.7 40 who works his butt off over an all-star prima donna with ideal measurables. Heck, Ethington rode an undersized quarterback (Michaux) and a step-slow running back (Justin Brooks) all the way to the state title last year.
"We don't want guys that just want to wear a varsity uniform and secure a date to the prom," Ethington said. "We want guys that are going to go out, work hard and make plays for us. We want football players."
By all accounts, Coates is a football player. He didn't play much on a veteran North Point squad last year (two pass breakups, nine tackles and two carries for 5 yards), but evidently he left quite an impression. Ethington noticed how he exploded to the ball and always seemed to be in the right place at the right time.
The Ram's quarterback can vouch for that. Michaux had to play against Coates in the Rams-Eagles Week 3 showdown. Even though Coates didn't start, he still gave Michaux problems in pass coverage.
"He was a challenge for me as a quarterback," said Michaux, who threw an interception in the 26-6 loss. "He was always around the ball making plays. We didn't throw at him, but he still made a few tackles and stood out."
Next year, Coates will take his skills to the opposite sideline. Ethington doesn't have a specific plan for him yet - Coates said he will line up at receiver, cornerback, safety, running back, kicker and punter -- but his expectations are high.
"From what we've seen, we know he's good," Ethington said. "But if he buys into what we do, we thing he can be great."
Coates, for his part, is eager to be great. He's already hitting the weights and the track daily. At night, he plans on watching film and studying his playbook like it's the Bible. And most importantly, he's vowed to buckle down in the classroom so he's eligible to play in the fall and in college.
"They're going to help me get better," Coates said, "And I'm going to do whatever it takes to help them."
Michaux has no doubt about that. Even though he's graduating this spring, he's excited McDonough's chances with Coates coming in.
Like Ethington, who vividly recalls that first handshake, Michaux remembers Coates' first words to him after he transferred.
"He told me he wanted to be a positive influence on McDonough," Michaux said of his old friend Coates. "He told me he wanted to win a state championship and be around people with a like mind-set.
"Then I told him he came to the right place. With his character and work ethic, he's going to go far in our program."