Jeff Jacobs: Will Norman, a big prospect with a bigger future now that he's at St. Thomas More

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St. Thomas More sophomore defensive lineman Will Norman is the top-rated high school football player in the state.

St. Thomas More sophomore defensive lineman Will Norman is the top-rated high school football player in the state.

Jeff Jacobs / Hearst Connecticut Media

MONTVILLE — Will Norman has a saying.

“Basketball raised me. Football saved me.”

Norman — all 6-foot-7, 270 pounds of him — stepped onto the prep school campus of St. Thomas More in January and immediately recognized the bucolic setting on Gardner Lake couldn’t be more different than his hometown of Camden, New Jersey.

Norman is a sophomore, turned 17 this year, and already has 15 major scholarship offers as a defensive lineman. Big-name schools before he ever played a down of high school football, and they keep rolling in. Oklahoma was the latest. Norman in Norman does have a ring.

He decided on St. Thomas More at mid-semester, because of the family and brotherhood feel here. He decided on St. Thomas More to work with defensive coordinator Ernest Anderson to hone his game, to hone his body.

“Here, I think it makes me a college player before college,” Norman said.

As he walks through the door to shake your hand, the first reaction is “Whoa!” This is not a kid with baby fat. He is big. He is athletic.

“Coming here, it gives you everything you need,” Norman said. “It gives you consistent shelter, consistent meals. You don’t want for anything. You walk to your workout. You don’t need to call an Uber. I don’t have to ask my coach to take me to this facility. It keeps you focused. The first two weeks here was hard. I’m from the city. I’m used to running down to the corner store. Ain’t no corner store here.”

No, there is not. As the slew of top basketball recruits over the decades and top football recruits in more recent years have come to learn, St. Thomas More is rural even by Eastern Connecticut standards. Asked what he does for kicks, he answers push-ups in his room.

“This is a way for Will to see what organized football is all about,” Anderson said. “We have done a good job of establishing a culture here and he has come into a situation where he’s not just the biggest kid. At his old school he was the biggest on the field on both sides of the ball. Here, one of our tackles is 6-7, 330. The other tackle is 6-7, 340. He’s now going against kids he’s going to see at the next level.

“Showing him proper technique. Showing him the proper way to lift. Having him here 24/7 has given us the opportunity to mold him. Get his football IQ up to where it needs to be. Show him a playbook and how to watch film. Show him what to look for when he’s reading an offensive lineman. Teaching him the proper way to be aligned in our defense. Getting him to be a complete football player.”

Norman played football growing up. He also played basketball. He was really good at basketball, national-level good. D.J. Wagner, son of Dajuan, grandson of Milt and one of the top teenage players in America out of Camden? “We were a duo,” Norman said. He crossed the Delaware River and started for traditional Philly basketball power Roman Catholic as a freshman.

There, football coach Rick Prete saw his athleticism on the court. He saw the size and power. Prete knew the kid had played youth football.

“He kept telling me, ‘Play football. You’re going to get to go to ’Bama,’” Norman said. “‘Play football, you’re going to be a five-star (recruit).’”

As the 2020 basketball season ended, Prete called Norman last spring and told him he had a football workout. Norman showed. Prete put him through the paces. Getting into a stance, firing out, etc. Caught it all on a cellphone camera.

“It wasn’t even a football field, it was a patch of grass,” Norman said. “He worked me out. He posted it on Twitter and …”

Norman clapped his hands.

“Tennessee the next day.”

Cincinnati, Bowling Green, Penn State followed in short order. Norman played for Woodbury (N.J.) High in a shortened fall season and now here he is at a prep school that has placed scholarship players at Nebraska, Michigan, Syracuse, UCLA, Arizona, Penn State and Florida in recent years.

“To be honest, he’ll probably be the most highly recruited kid we’ve had here,” Anderson said. “He’s on that pace already.”

Norman is Connecticut’s top-ranked recruit by 247Sports for the class of 2023. He and Anderson run through some of the offers: Oklahoma, Michigan, Michigan State, Arizona State, Maryland, West Virginia, Penn State, Texas A&M, Tennessee, BC, UConn. Cincinnati, Rutgers. Clemson, which Anderson said doesn’t offer scholarships until four semesters of transcripts are complete, reached out last week. Rutgers, trying to rebuild under Greg Schiano, figures to chase the Jersey kid hard. Its defensive secondary coach Fran Brown is from Norman’s Camden neighborhood, and Brown’s brother used to be Will’s barber.

This is going to be a process and at times it will be an intense process. One Norman said he would like to see culminate with an announcement on his 18th birthday — Jan. 10.

“Subject to change,” he said. “I’m very excited and I’m also very blessed. But honestly, it makes me work harder. I have to play with a chip on my shoulder. I have to show people who I am.”

He projects himself as a defensive end.

“But I’m versatile,” Norman said. “This year I’m going to play some 3-technique, which is D tackle, and I’m also going to play strong defensive end. I can play both. I think that’s what makes me unique. I’m big enough to battle with the 300-pounders. I’m also fast enough to run with the 250-pounders.

“I want to improve on the little stuff. Like staying low, know when to shoot, where to shoot, at what time. I feel like I’m good at hand fighting and good on my speed on my pass rush, but that little stuff pushes you up notches.”

On Saturday in the first of three spring games, St. Thomas More defeated Elite Gold Wave, a program run by Brandon Davis out of Danbury. Norman had three tackles for losses and a pass breakup in the 35-2 win.

Donte Williams, defensive coordinator at Danbury High, is one of Gold Wave’s coaches and a friend of Anderson. Its players are composed of top seniors from around the state, some missed seasons because of COVID. On Friday, the Chancellors are scheduled to play St. Frances Academy, a top high school program from Baltimore.

“Will did a great job setting the edge,” Anderson said. “We moved him inside to the 3-technique because they weren’t really going his way.”

Norman studies NFLers Chase Young, Jadeveon Clowney and Aaron Donald. He said he likes to watch No. 7 of Oklahoma (edge rusher Ronnie Perkins) who’ll be in the 2021 NFL draft. He roots for the emergence of his childhood friend from Camden, Texas A&M D lineman Fadil Diggs, the 2019 New Jersey Gatorade Player of the Year.

His role model? Norman doesn’t hesitate to answer. His mom, Lydia.

“Seeing what she has to do every day, that makes me work 20 times harder,” Norman said. “She has to make ends meet, pay the bills, paycheck to paycheck. I don’t want to and I don’t want her to live like that for too long.

“I had multiple offers without playing a down. All the other D tackles are probably wondering, ‘Who’s this kid?’ Getting these writeups?’ I want to put a face to that name. I want to show everyone I’m Will Norman. And I want to let everyone to know I’m here to stay.”; @jeffjacobs123