Saturday, May 25, 2024
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From Colorado to transfer portal, is there a path of redemption for Cormani McClain?

There is a future where Cormani McClain finds a new home, develops into a shutdown cornerback, collects All-America honors, wins a championship and culminates a three-year college career with a celebratory stroll across the stage at the NFL Draft.

The question is whether the generational talent can or will find the right home to begin fulfilling those dreams.

In only 17 bumpy months, McClain has been criticized for a cloak-and-dagger recruiting process that burned several bridges at college programs, which then led to a rollercoaster fall semester at Colorado, where Hall of Famer Deion Sanders benched the former five-star recruit while trying — and failing — to coax the freshman to break bad work habits.

McClain entered the college football transfer portal on Tuesday, looking for a fresh start after a sour beginning and ending in Boulder. He played only nine games. Many schools are reluctant to recruit McClain because of what transpired over the last two years, though USC and USF have shown interest, according to 247Sports’ Tom Loy.

“I’m always in prayer for our young men and I want the best for them,” Sanders said Wednesday in response to the departure of McClainvia DNVR Buffs. “I pray to God that he goes to a program that challenges him, as well as holds him accountable and develops him as a young man.”

To better understand what the future might hold for McClain, 247Sports spoke to people close to him and others who were intimately involved in his rollercoaster ride through recruitment from Lakeland, Florida, to Boulder, Colorado.

There really is no beginning to McClain’s story, but there are hallmarks. The biggest red flag emerged in September, when Sanders openly questioned McClain’s desire to play football and refused to put him on the field. 

“Study, prepare, be on time for meetings. Show up to the darn meetings,” Sanders said. “Understand what we’re doing as a scheme. Want to play this game. Desire to play this game. Desire to be the best at this game — at practice, in the film room and on your own free time. You do know that I check film time for each player upon the week. Thursday, I need film times from the whole staff so I can see who’s been preparing. And that’s just not about Cormani, it’s about a multitude of them. So if I don’t see that, you would be a fool to put somebody out there unprepared. Can’t do it. Won’t do it. I’m old school.”

Sanders’ public criticism of McClain encapsulated evaluators’ worst fears that still linger over McClain today in the portal. Across the country, and in recruiting circles, Sanders’ comments about McClain’s work ethic struck a chord, including those who coached him.

“I don’t want to say I was necessarily surprised,” said Keith Barefield, McClain’s high school coach in 2020 and 2021. “That was a lot of work that I had to do getting him to start doing the right thing. … He’s a kid that grew up and always got away with things because of how good an athlete he was. Some things we did were that first step of taking steps towards it, and kinda warning him about it. Florida kids are going to stretch your limit. They’re always gonna fall to the floor of your standards. Whatever that floor is, they’re gonna fall to it. That’s why I liked Deion for Cormani because I knew Deion wouldn’t kiss his butt.”

It wasn’t all doom and gloom. McClain made strides and was praised for improvements. He worked his way into the lineup in October, played in nine games and started the final three games of the season. His production was a mixed bag. He allowed 18 catches on 25 targets for 380 yards and 17 first downs, according to Pro Football Focus analytics. He was given a below-average grade of 51.7 on 277 snaps, the second-lowest rating among 32 former five-star freshmen.

“You can certainly make the case Deion is exactly what the doctor ordered for a kid who needed a sense of direction,” said Andrew Ivins, 247Sports’ director of scouting, who covered McClain’s recruiting process in high school. “But I thought it was a fragile situation. I always thought Cormani had everything you want in a new-age corner, but he lacked the inner confidence. You could see that. My biggest fear with him during the scouting process was: what happens when he gets beat in a stadium full of 80,000 people?”

McClain’s story is unfinished, and a road to redemption can be paved at a new school. However, Sanders’ public criticism and McClain’s questionable work ethic and past decisions — skipping Under Armour All-American Game practices in January 2023 and arriving late to his college commitment ceremony — have turned off potential suitors. 

But that talent. McClain picked off 19 passes in a two-year span in high school and won a state title. His technique is raw and needs refinement, but his closing speed is ridiculous, and his leaping ability is tremendous. He is a freak. McClain is the most intriguing prospect in the portal because of the upside and also the risks. USC and USF have shown interest in the portal.

“The clay is there for him to play the game at the highest levels and make an impact,” Ivins said.

McClain was tabbed as a future superstar as the nation’s No. 14 overall prospect and No. 1 cornerback out of Lakeland (Fla.) High in 2023. He tumbled Tuesday in 247Sports’ Transfer Portal rankings as the fifth-best corner available in the market. 

What does McClain want from his next school? 

“Gotta be somewhere where your (sic) appreciated and not just tolerated!!!” his mother, Tikisha White, posted Tuesday on X. “God take the lead, we right behind ya.”

247Sports’ attempts to reach McClain and his mother, Tikisha White, this week were unsuccessful.

What we do know is McClain’s short journey has been filled with enough twists and turns to span an entire career. 

In the fall of 2021, he shocked many in the industry when he listed BYU among his top five schools after an impromptu visit to Provo, Utah. He grew frustrated in early 2022 when Georgia, a school he was considering, lost assistant coach Jahmile Addae to Miami. That spring, Florida gained momentum in his recruitment, and in June, he transferred across town from Lake Gibson to Lakeland High. 

The drama really began in June 2022. He scheduled an official visit to Georgia later that month but skipped the trip in favor of a surprise visit to Miami. Industry insiders still believed Florida was the favorite to land McClain as he announced a commitment ceremony in October. 247Sports and CBS Sports HQ were invited to broadcast the announcement live, and the rented space in downtown Lakeland was abuzz with anticipation.

But there was one problem: McClain was late to his own party. 

Fifteen minutes late to the ceremony, and before cameras could go live to share his decision on CBS Sports HQ, McClain grabbed a microphone and told the crowd of 50 people that he was picking Miami, not Florida. He flung a Miami hat on his head and flashed the “U” sign with his hands. The decision shocked everyone in the crowd, including Ivins. Some thought McClain was pulling an elaborate joke on his friends.

He wasn’t.

The cameras also didn’t film it, and McClain had to recreate the announcement for TV.

“I just wanted to get this over with,” McClain said when pressed further about the decision. “It ain’t no surprise. I just wanted to get it over with. Straight business. I found the school that I want to go to for the next three to four years.”

It wasn’t over, though. 

One month later, McClain seemingly reversed course, opening his recruitment again when he told a reporter he had planned a visit to Alabama in December. Miami fans erupted with questions, but it was for nothing. McClain never boarded the plane to Tuscaloosa. 

The Hurricanes, however, were in for more shock and disappointment on National Signing Day later that month. Miami staffers awaited his letter of intent on Dec. 21, and as time passed, staffers wondered if he had overslept. Later, his mother announced on X that the pre-planned signing was instead a “false alarm” and that plans had been canceled. Later that hour, 247Sports reported McClain had been contacted by Colorado. The online message boards at Miami and Colorado shifted into chaotic overdrive.

At the Under Armour Game in January, organizers questioned McClain’s work ethic. He skipped one-on-one drills and didn’t attend a walkthrough practice. Later, he went on national television and told ESPN2 he would sign with Miami on Jan. 15. The Hurricanes breathed a sigh of relief. Miami’s entire defensive staff traveled to Lakeland on Jan. 13, the first day of the recruiting contact period, but when they arrived at the high school they learned Cormani had skipped town to visit Colorado. 

McClain and his family went silent. McClain even tried to dispel the Colorado rumors by posting a story to his Instagram account with a “Tampa” location tag. Fans knew better. Later, photos of him in Buffaloes gear alongside other recruits emerged online. Two days later, he tells 247Sports’ Carl Reed at a commitment ceremony inside a cigar bar that he would instead sign with Colorado.

McClain and his family went silent. McClain even tried to dispel the Colorado rumors by posting a story to his Instagram account with a “Tampa” location tag. Fans knew better. Later, photos of him in Buffaloes gear alongside other recruits emerge online. Two days later, he tells 247Sports’ Carl Reed at a commitment ceremony inside a cigar bar that he would instead sign with Colorado.

“I never got the vibe that he actually liked the recruiting process or wanted all that attention,” Ivins said. “It was more he was going with the flow.”

But is there really anyone to blame? Kids are kids, after all, and long-term decisions are difficult to finalize and they don’t always follow a linear path. 

“He’s a very popular loner,” Barefiled said. “He always had friends, always had people around him, everybody gravitated toward him but he was always quiet. You didn’t really get to see his personality until he was in the locker room, behind closed doors or the practice field with the music going. That’s his element. He’s deathly shy.”

Barefield was the point man in McClain’s recruitment in 2021 before he transferred to Lake Gibson. Barefiled, who is now the offensive coordinator at Grayson (Ga.) High, said he continues to communicate with the family, just as he did during McClain’s flip from Miami to Colorado in January 2023. “I told him Deion is the place,” he explained. “That’s a place you should go because he can talk to you the way you need to be talked to. He took that to heart. That’s why he ultimately decided to go there.”

Barefiled is well aware of the rumors of big-money deals through name, image and likeness contracts, and whether McClain was motivated by money. Barefield stresses that McClain’s flip from Miami to Colorado wasn’t a “flippant decision.”

“I wouldn’t tell him, ‘Don’t go for the money,’ because the kid comes from absolutely nothing, and so my heart went out to him,” Barefield said. “That’s why my advice to him was always listen to the people who get no money out of this because those are the people who are gonna guide you in the right direction. And I think he took that to heart, because there is big money for him to make right now in college, but the way I put it to him is you’re going to change future generations in your family by what you do in college and getting to the NFL.”

Polk County, where Lakeland is located, has produced multiple blue-chip recruits in recent years, but many have not panned out in college football. Since 2019, seven players from the Florida recruiting hot bed, including five blue-chip players, have yet to secure starting jobs in college. Six of those players, including McClain, have transferred at least once since 2021. This fall, four will have played at three different schools since 2020. 

The list includes big names like former 5-star running back Demarckus Bowman (Clemson to Florida to UCF), who has only 175 career yards, and 4-star linebacker Brendan Gant, who started six games in four years at Florida State before transferring to Colorado, where he played in four games last season.

Time is still on McClain’s side to buck the trend. McClain’s immense talent and potential is abundantly clear, but is his commitment to football? Coaches and personnel directors across the country are asking the question today as the transfer portal spins over the next two weeks.

“I think he’s hurt himself, I really do,” said Cooper Petagna, a 247Sports recruiting analyst who previously worked in recruiting departments at Oregon, Washington and Michigan.

“I think he’s trying to be as smart as he can while not selling himself short right now,” said Barefield, “but at the same time, don’t compromise what you’re building for your future.”

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