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SNELLVILLE, Ga. — The nation’s No. 13 overall player for 2018 had himself a day at practice on Wednesday. He red-lined his efforts on special teams and was exact in the way he lined up. He went very hard and got a little bit better.
According to South Gwinnett coach John Small, that the norm for 5-star Justin Mascoll. Clemson and UGA are viewed as the top contenders but Mascoll said the race has a few more entries than that.
Small regards him as the best player he’s coached after 20 years in his profession. It is not simply because of a 6-foot-4 frame that makes the 237 pounds he carries seem like nothing. It wouldn’t even be his rating as the nation’s No. 1 weak-side defensive end among juniors.
Small pays attention to more important attributes.
“Phenomenal player but an even better person,” Small said. “He’s one of your hardest workers even though he’s your most highly-touted kid. He’s also your most humble kid. He’s a ‘Yes, sir’ and ‘No, sir’ kid and he’s been raised right. He’s going to be a guy when he gets to college that the school is going to want to make a face of the program. He’d be the one you want in front of the cameras.”
That description is constant. Ask the bench players. Quiz the freshmen and reserves. Even one of the team managers regards Mascoll as a guy who won’t pass by unless he’s done something to put her in a good mood.
And then there’s this.
“I think he already knows where he wants to go play college football,” Small said. “But he’s going to string it out for awhile. Because he knows that the longer he waits to commit then the more people are going to come by and want to talk to him. When they do, he realizes they are also going to give some of his teammates a good look, too.”
How Mascoll fits into the big picture for 2018
Mascoll said not to expect a commitment until after his senior season. That last statement from Hill would be the exact reason why.
“I definitely want my teammates to get the same exposure I’ve gotten,” Mascoll said. “That’s true. My Dad has been telling me that. We’ve got guys on this team getting offers and I feel like our whole team is getting the exposure. What we’ve been taught here is to find a way where your team can benefit from your opportunities. Try to spread it around. I definitely feel trying to help out my teammates is the way to do it. I know a lot of offers are coming around for all these other guys.”
He’s part of a pivotal 2018 class for Kirby Smart at Georgia. That in-state crop arrives at a perfect moment. If Smart is going to turn that big battleship around, then the state’s loaded junior class can steer that new course toward championships.
There are nine players from Georgia rated among the nation’s Top 100 players in Mascoll’s class. That’s not counting another six players in the Top 100 the Bulldogs have already positioned themselves as a key contender for.
Yet there’s been some attrition to what Georgia might wind up with there. The Class of 2018 discussion starts with Cartersville 5-star QB Trevor Lawrence. What if the nation’s No. 1 prospect picked Clemson over Georgia? That would be a stunning loss.
Georgia does have tremendous young depth at quarterback, but losing the nation’s No. 1 player at such an important position would still hurt. Smart’s charge is to stop the bleeding of seeing the state’s 5-star talent choose other schools.
In the 2018 class, Ohio State has already claimed the commitment of another top-flight in-state QB and seems the team to beat for another 5-star out of Metro Atlanta. Massive DT Robert Cooper — Mascoll’s classmate on the defensive line — has already committed to FSU.
Alabama has also already earned a 2018 commitment from the nation’s No. 5 RB. That came from Smart’s alma mater of all places. It sounds like a familiar theme. Rival schools poaching away top talent from inside the state’s borders.
Pace Academy 5-star guard Jamaree Salyer seems likely to head to UGA, but that’s not the best batting average among the state’s elite talent. Georgia has a chance to make a legit run at the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class in 2018.
Mascoll would be a cornerstone of that movement. But he hasn’t even taken a visit to see UGA play this season.
Should fans be worried?
“I have been to Athens so many times,” Mascoll said. “It has grown on me. I really do like it there. I feel at home there. Those fans shouldn’t be worried about me not being able to get up to Georgia yet.”
Could he decide right now if he wanted to?
“I have been having mixed emotions about different schools because so many coaches have been moving around and changing up,” Mascoll said. “I’m still thinking about this process so it will definitely be a decision that I will have to make some time during my senior year.”
The pitch from Georgia
Mascoll will not enroll early. It is interesting to note that current UGA commitment Jaden Hunter has already reached out to Mascoll.
“He just says that they really need me there,” Mascoll said. “He needs me to be a Bulldog and if I do come, he needs me to come in ready to work hard and to stay humble.”
Mascoll said Alabama, LSU and Florida State are also in the picture. He already knows that Georgia will receive an official visit.
“I feel great about Georgia,” Mascoll said. “I’m excited about what they can do this season and what the future holds for Georgia.”
He said Georgia’s struggles this season will not be a factor. He’s actually had to live through those at South Gwinnett as a lot of the young players in his class had to play early and initially struggled. But those same guys are now the core of a team that is still in the hunt for a region title.
An interesting player parallel
Newton High is the only team that has beaten South Gwinnett so far in region play. That didn’t stop coach Terrance Banks from being effusive in his praise for Mascoll’s game.
Banks said Mascoll reminds him of Georgia junior DE Lorenzo Carter. That’s the only other player he’s seen at the prep level with the same package of size, speed, skill and tenacity.
“I think that guy is almost unmovable,” Banks said. “I think Mascoll is as good as they say he is if not even more so. We definitely had to game plan during the game a lot more with him. He kind of made up our minds that we had to go away from him. I think he is Grade-A as good as everybody says he is.”
He even praised the South Gwinnett coaching staff for the variety of ways they used Mascoll and how much they moved him around. Banks felt like he knew what he was doing and was a factor at all times.
“He’s lined up at a ‘5’ technique and a ‘9’ technique and all over the place,” Banks said. “He was in ‘ghost 9’ as a defensive end as an outside linebacker in a three-man look up front. They just did a really good job in using him. We didn’t read any keys from him about the ways they were going to use him. He didn’t give away any keys either. I don’t think we get a good read all night of what they were doing with him. That hurt our tempo on offense because we kept trying to go away from him.”
His versatility also made a big impression. Small said some teams give up with Mascoll and just try to come right at him. But he’s proven time and again on film that he can hold up at the point of attack.
“The other big thing with Mascoll is his ability to do two things at once,” Banks said. “When we ran a lot of speed option read his way he had the wherewithal to play it the right way. He could string it in and then fall back in and get back down the line quickly. If he’s coming downhill, then it takes two guys to block him. He’s a kid that can do things that you can’t even prepare for.”
Quarterbacks are coached in the read-option to hand the ball off if a defensive end is slow-playing that read. The reason is that defensive ends aren’t able to adapt and fall back in there to take that option away.
Mascoll did that several times against Newton.
“He was not able to make the tackle always but even then he made our guys have to keep bouncing outside and that allowed their other guys to be able to run free to the ball,” Banks said. “The last time I had to call plays against a defensive end that good the kid’s name was Lorenzo Carter. Now I’m not trying to put any pressure on the young man, but the way he plays already reminds me a lot of Lorenzo.”
Mascoll’s highlight reel from that game illustrates his point.
The way to recruit Mascoll
Mascoll has big goals. The reason he works so hard is to set an example and be a role model for his younger brother. Marcus Mascoll is 10 years old and Justin describes him as a beast. He’s been at his recreational league football games every Saturday up to this point.
His season is almost over now and he’ll be free again on Saturdays. That’s another reason why he hasn’t taken any unofficial visits to games this year. He wants to support his younger brother. Justin said that his younger sibling plays both defensive end and defensive tackle.
He feels that Marcus is already much better than he was at the same age.
“I started playing football because my older brother played it,” Justin Mascoll said. “But after my little brother was born I definitely wanted to be great and do it to show him that anything is possible. I want him to see me as an example that he can achieve any goal he puts his mind to if he just grinds at it.”
That example clearly matters to him. That’s why he looks for substance within the many recruiting messages he receives daily.
“Just being real with me is what works,” Mascoll said. “I feel like that’s the only thing that will work for me. I definitely can see the window dressing and when coaches are telling me what I need to hear and not what I want to hear.”
He defined that.
“I’d intrigued when the coaches tell me not what I can do but more about what I can’t do,” Mascoll said. “I feel like when I am on a visit that’s the best time to be real with me. Tell me what I still need to do to get to where I’m going. Just be real with me. I want a coach who’s already pushing me and pointing me to where I need to go and what I need to do to be the best that I can be.”
Mascoll said that Clemson and Georgia are doing that. But he felt that they were the only schools that have gotten to that level with him yet.
“I feel like I’ve had a sit down with Kirby (Smart) so far where he’s explained to me all the stuff that I need to do to get better,” he said. “That’s tough love. That shows that they really care about me. That’s showing they care about what they can do for me to make me better and not just what I can do for them. They want me to be great.”
He said he’s already quite comfortable around Smart, but it was also interesting to learn he has yet to speak with Clemson coach Dabo Swinney. The relationship that’s already been built with Smart might be a potential deciding factor in the end.
Mascoll hasn’t worried too much about his recruiting right now. He’s opted to focus on his high school team. The Comets (6-2) travel to Archer this week for a key region game that could set up a region championship clash with Grayson next week. That’s a clear point of pride considering the program lost some key transfers prior to the 2016 season.
Getting those other looks
The recruiting of South Gwinnett junior cornerback Terell Smith would be an example of what Mascoll has hopes for regarding the opportunities for his teammates. When anyone with an eye for talent comes to see the 5-star, they can’t help but notice what Smith can do, too.
Smith rated as a 3-star prospect and as the No. 54 cornerback for 2018, but he’s scary fast.
Small said he’s clocked a time of 10.3 seconds in the 100 meters. The 6-foot-1 cornerback is also a kick and punt return threat with wheels like that. He’s raw, but he’s grabbed the attention of big-time college football with his length and truly elite speed.
The 180-pound junior already has SEC offers from Kentucky and Missouri. He also said that Georgia has been in frequent contact.
“I would really like the chance to play at Georgia,” Smith said. “I’ve been up there a couple of times and really liked it. If I got an offer from Georgia that would really change up my recruiting. … They would instantly become one of my top schools.”
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Follow Jeff Sentell on Twitter for the latest on who’s on their way to play Between the Hedges. Unless otherwise indicated, player rankings and ratings are from the 247Sports Composite.