After long days of recruiting the Tampa area, then South Florida defensive coordinator Tom Allen found comfort where a lot of football coaches do — up in the press box.
Allen didn’t go to the top of the stands at Plant High School in Tampa to coach. And while recruiting was always a possibility at the talent-rich South Tampa school, that really wasn’t his primary objective either. That press box at Plant was really just a chance for Allen to be a dad, as he watched his son Thomas play linebacker for one of the top programs in the state.
College football coaches aren’t accustomed to spending a lot of time at home, so the somewhat unique opportunity for Allen to watch Thomas practice was something he didn’t take for granted.
“When I was at South Florida the way everything worked in regards to my schedule, I had the Tampa Bay area as my recruiting area. So that was one unique thing, I never left the state to recruit,” Allen said. “I really hardly never left for recruiting for my area, I didn’t leave the Tampa Bay area. And they practiced actually at night.
“Because I was a dad, I was allowed to be there as much as I wanted to be. And so literally they would, I would go do my recruiting during the spring time as the DC there and then I would go at night and sit up in the press box with their video guy and watch practice.”
What Allen didn’t realize when the routine began was that he would be watching a future All-American linebacker at those Plant High School practices. And although he was tasked with recruiting the Tampa area, that was okay, because no one else realized it either.
A year behind Thomas at Plant was a relative unknown named Micah McFadden. According to the 247Sports Composite, he was the 1,986 ranked player in the 2018 class, the No. 139 outside linebacker, and the No. 316 player just in the state of Florida. He was the lowest rated scholarship player in Indiana’s 2018 class — and all of those numbers reflect the final rankings — after McFadden had popped a little bit as an upperclassman.
When Allen was watching McFadden early on, he was just a kid on special teams. But thanks to an Indiana high school coaching legend, Allen knew how to scout for talent when defenders are covering kicks.
“What I noticed him on was special teams,” Allen said of McFadden. “That’s where I noticed just a nose for the ball. Covering kicks, covering punts. I learned that from (former Ben Davis High School) Coach (Dick) Dullaghan years ago. … You find out who your linebacker and safeties are by who can cover kicks. I never forgot that.”
“He’s from a really small high school in south Mississippi, not a lot of people went down there to watch him,” Allen said.
A year ahead of McFadden in the class of 2017 was another kid that no one was paying much attention to.
Tucked between Hattiesburg and Mobile in the southeast corner of the state, Ty Fryfogle’s hometown of Lucedale, Miss. has a population of around 3,000.
“I live in Mississippi, it’s kind of an underrecruited state. Really just the in-state schools recruit you,” Indiana wide receiver Ty Fryfogle said at the Big Ten’s media day in July.
Ole Miss was in fact the only other power five program to offer Fryfogle a scholarship, and he had a connection to that program. His father Trey was a receiver there from 2000 to 2002, and because of that the elder Fryfogle knew fellow Ole Miss receiver Grant Heard, who went on to become the receivers coach there in Oxford before following Allen to Bloomington.
As a recruit, Fryfogle’s profile looked a lot like McFadden’s. He ended up ranked No. 1,712 overall in the class of 2017, the No. 243 receiver and just the No. 41 player in underrecruited Mississippi.
Even that offer from Ole Miss by Heard was complicated, as the Rebels may not have really had room for another receiver in their class. But when Heard took the job at Indiana, he knew he had to bring Fryfogle with him.
“You know, I knew he had the ability,” Heard said. “But, you know, where he comes from knowing his work ethic. There’s something in him that I just really (knew I) was going to take him at Ole Miss before I left. And because of our relationship he followed me up here to Indiana and just because of the hard work he’s put in, it’s panned out for him, but I always thought he had the potential to be a very special player.”
Fryfogle might have made it to Bloomington eventually if Heard hadn’t brought him along. FCS program Idaho, which was the only other school that offered beyond IU and Ole Miss, plays at Indiana on Sept. 11. Instead, Fryfogle will be lining up in that game as the Big Ten’s reigning receiver of the year. That was something that didn’t seem possible to anyone when he arrived with Heard in 2017, Allen’s first year as the head coach.
“He took a little longer when he got here to kind of figure some things out but always had a really good ball skills and just kept getting stronger and faster,” Allen said.
“I was ecstatic, I couldn’t even believe it”
That was McFadden’s reaction when word came that the guy up in the press box had extended an offer, his first from a Division One program. As it turned out, the more Allen saw of his son’s teammate, the more he realized what everyone else was missing.
“He just kept playing better and better and so, but still he never got a lot of, he was probably maybe a little undersized, you know, and so, but I didn’t care, I knew he was good and we went ahead and pulled trigger on him and never wavered with it,” Allen said. “I was actually shocked that he didn’t get more highly recruited.”
Able to free himself from the pressures of recruiting a bit up in that press box, Allen was able to see McFadden’s potential in a way that fit what he was trying to do at Indiana in the most basic of ways.
“On defense you got to find the guys that get to the football and get them on the ground. And I thought Micah had a knack for that,” Allen said.
More offers followed after Indiana, as schools began to realize there must be something in McFadden that they had missed. But still just one other Power Five program, Boston College, gave the 6-foot-1 linebacker a chance. He knows his college football career could have turned out much different if not for a bit of good fortune.
“I was definitely blessed to have the opportunity to play with coach Allen’s son, and Coach Allen got to see me play while I was in high school so that was a big reason why I got this (Indiana) offer and why I came here,” McFadden said.
Getting to the Power Five was one thing. But what Fryfogle and McFadden have become since arriving four and three years ago, respectively, just isn’t supposed to happen.
But it did.
Fryfogle was named third team All-American by the AP in 2020 and first team All-Big Ten. He is the first receiver in Big Ten history to record back-to-back 200 yard games when he became a household name last fall against Michigan State and Ohio State.
McFadden was named second team All-American by Phil Steele in 2020, first team All-Big Ten and the team MVP. He led IU with with 58 tackles, 44 solos, a Big Ten best six sacks, and 10.5 tackles for loss.
In the case of both players, Allen believes a quiet determination fueled their improbable journeys.
“Both of them are tough guys, both of them are actually pretty quiet and they love to work,” Allen said. “So I think you kind of get those core things you look for in guys. And they fit with us character wise and got to know their families and believed they were really high-quality young men that they were going to come here and do everything we asked them to do and they just bought in and they took off.
“So I guess it’s a great story it’s a great testament to these young men and how hard they have been willing to work and to our coaching staff to kind of know some key things you want to look for in a young man and when you find that you trust your evaluation.”
While McFadden knows he was fortunate to have Allen at his practices, he also knows that it was his hard work that propelled him from the bottom of his recruiting class to All-American.
“Where I’ve gotten today is just a collection of hard work, great coaching, and a belief that I could be here,” he said.
What would he tell another high school player who has the talent but can’t seem to land an offer?
“It’s different for everybody and everybody kind of just has to find their way through that,” McFadden said. “If I was talking to a young guy right now I would just say ‘trust yourself, trust what you can do and your skill level. It doesn’t really matter where you’re going to play or what level, if you just believe in yourself and know that you can become the football player you want to be, I think good things will turn out for you.'”
Good things did in fact turn out for Fryfogle. And what he found was that once he arrived in Bloomington, everything started over. Suddenly, the rankings, the stars, none of it mattered. Like everyone else, he had a chance to compete for playing time.
“Don’t worry about the stars and things, because once you get to college all that stuff wears off and the cream will rise to the top,” Fryfogle said of his advice for the young players who are being underrecruited.
Perhaps most unheralded recruits who turn out to be big-time college players have a similar story. They just needed one coach to notice and take a chance.
And for the coaches, when they see talent, they have to be able to trust their instincts and not worry about why others haven’t noticed.
“You have to kind of not fall victim to the recruiting rankings,” Allen said. “Sometimes they’re right, sometimes they’re not, but recruiting is not an exact science. Anybody that acts like they got it figured out, they’re not being honest.
“It’s hard to project sometimes. But you just got to trust your gut and press on.”
Allen and his staff did just that in the case of McFadden and Fryfogle.
And now being unheralded has become a badge of honor for the All-American duo.
“The guys that work the hardest, it will show,” Fryfogle said. “Stars don’t mean anything.”
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