The last time Malik Herring went to visit Alabama, it wasn’t the same as the others. The T-Rex of college programs was his first offer.
“There is still a good atmosphere at Alabama now,” Herring said, “but to me it seems like there is a big difference.”
Why? That’s answered with a name: Kirby Smart.
Smart extended that first offer. He greeted the nation’s No. 6 weakside defensive end prospect at the door of the Mal Moore Athletic Complex on those visits. Their relationship sounds elevated from just a coach seeking the next brick in the defensive wall he aims to build in Athens.
“Kirby is just my man,” Herring said. “He keeps it real with me. I keep it real with him. I really look up to him. I talk to him about anything. If I have a problem, I talk to him about that already.”
The 6-foot-4, 256-pounder also lights up when asked about UGA line coach Tracy Rocker.
“Coach Rocker reminds me of my AAU coach,” Herring said. “My AAU (basketball) coach really showed me about going out there and taking what you really want. … He keeps in touch with me and got me into basketball before I hurt my knee that ended my basketball career. He’s just a big role model for me. I see my AAU coach in my mind every time I talk to Coach Rocker. That man knows what he’s talking about and can get me where I want to be.”
UGA sees him in the Jordan Jenkins mold as both a defensive end and an outside linebacker. Herring has yet to make a commitment or even declare a leader publicly. He wants to find a chance to play early and feels Smart’s new team will afford him that opportunity.
The nation’s No. 112 player overall was close to UGA commits Jaden Hunter and Richard LeCounte III, and that bond grew stronger at the Rising Seniors event.
Herring freely refers to LeCounte as “my boy” and cheered Liberty County on when it won a state basketball championship in Macon this month. Herring saw LeCounte lose a tooth during a Rising Seniors practice, but never miss a rep.
He saw how LeCounte faced a big halftime deficit, too.
“My boy is for real,” Herring said. “At halftime we were losing and I was telling everyone ‘we got to get this,’ and my boy Rich stood up and said, ‘Man, I’m not going out like no punk’ and walked off. The way he just said that gave me chills. Richard is a good player and a natural leader. He’s a guy you want to play with. I feel like me and him have a lot in common. That’s my boy.”
The Mary Persons standout also has a strong relationship with incoming freshman David Marshall. Those two started talking at this time last year. Marshall convinced Herring he’d be going to UGA pretty soon after Smart got the UGA job.
Herring said Smart told him he was one of the top defensive ends on the board for this class. Norcross 4-star Robert Beal would be one, along with Crisp County defensive end Markaviest “Big Cat” Bryant.
Herring told Bryant at the Rising Seniors event he wanted to play with him in college.
“If I commit before him, I’m going to recruit him hard to join me,” Herring said. “He’s great at rushing the passer. He’s got that speed. He was going up against Tony Gray at the Rising Seniors and did well. He’s coachable, athletic and can move sideline-to-sideline. He’s really an overall great athlete to me.”
Does anyone know where Herring is going to go?
“Well, maybe my mom but I am really not sure,” Herring said. “I told her one school and she gave me a face like you ain’t ready yet. You aren’t ready yet to go there. She wants me to go see more schools.”
He will not enroll early and that means Herring is not certain when he will make his decision. Herring also recently visited Clemson and has a strong bond with defensive ends coach Marion Hobby.
“I do love Clemson,” Herring said. “Coach Hobby, now that’s my guy. We are real cool and have a tight relationship.”
Alabama assistant coach Tosh Lupoi has also built a great relationship with Herring. Tuscaloosa might not feel the same way it used to, but Lupoi is doing a good job.
“I really respect him, too,” Herring said.
Unless otherwise indicated, player rankings and ratings are from the 247Sports Composite.
Jeff Sentell covers UGA football and UGA recruiting for AJC.com and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow him on Twitter for the latest on who’s on their way to play Between the Hedges.