Late, but sudden bloom for UMass signee Larnel Coleman

Brendan C. Hall/ESPNBoston.com

MEDFORD, Mass. -- The seeds sown long ago, the net cast wide, St. Clement senior Larnel Coleman waited a long time for something to sprout on the herky-jerky roller coaster that is the football recruiting trail.

And when that something finally arrived for the mammoth Malden resident, it hit him like a ton of bricks.

“At first I was in disbelief,” reflected Coleman from inside his school’s gymnasium, where he signed a National Letter of Intent with UMass in one of the more surprising developments locally on Signing Day.

“I didn’t think I was ever going to get an offer. I thought I would have to PG [take a post-graduate season] or play Division 2. I felt like I was, you could say, in a video game. I didn’t think this was going to be possible.”

Coleman, who also plays center for his school’s basketball team, was absent in the Anchormen’s loss to O’Bryant at last weekend’s MLK Invtational tournament Boston, while on his official visit to Amherst. The Minutemen offered him a scholarship two weeks ago over the phone, and about an hour after the call he says he made up his mind that he was going to commit.

On his official visit, Coleman said he was blown away. Right then and there, he gave a pledge on the spot.

“I can barely describe it. It’s a whole different universe there,” he said. “The campus is its own thing. It’s amazing, I loved it. I was speechless.”

As of this morning, when he officially faxed in his NLI to seal the deal, UMass was still the only Division 1 school offering a full ride to Coleman.

But let’s not be mistaken -- this is no diamond in the rough. Coleman certainly put himself out there this summer, showcasing his talent at camps on seven different college campuses around New England, including Boston College, UMass, Maine and New Hampshire. And he certainly checked off on some intangibles, from his speed (5.1 in the 40) for a player his size (6-foot-7, 250 pounds), to his wingspan (6-foot-11), vertical leap (30 inches), down to the clamp-like grip on his Gronkowski-sized hands.

On the field, Coleman certainly held his own the last four years for the Anchormen, often plowing through double and triple-teams at defensive end and switching to tight end from tackle on offense this year to better exploit mismatches downfield. He even long snapped on special teams.

“He was a beast, I’ve never seen someone that big with that speed,” noted his teammate, running back Ivan Mertilus, who signed with Division 2 Assumption this afternoon. Once in a game last year, Mertilus recalled Coleman chasing down a running back from rival Cathedral High from across the field, some 15 yards behind the play (“He literally out-ran him,” Mertilus laughs).

Wielding an aggressive bull rush move and deceivingly soft hands for a player of his size, Coleman certainly made some impressive plays this fall, evidenced on his highlight reel:

But the question remains -- What took so long for things to finally fall into place?

Maybe it’s that, for all of his impressive traits, there are Larnel Coleman-types in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Florida, fertile states where UMass head coach Mark Whipple has historically recruited well. Or maybe Coleman was simply everyone’s “Plan B” as they all patiently watched the dominoes fall. Or maybe it was the perception that he played mostly inferior competition in his league, the Catholic Central League’s Small division.

UMass also came to watch Coleman on the basketball court in January, when he went off for a season-high 42 points against Lowell Catholic, and Anchormen coach Colin Walsh suggests maybe that was the tipping point.

Still, the stigma of his league seems to be slowly shedding. Oregon State, Michigan and Boston College were among the schools checking in with St. Clement’s All-State receiver Khaneil Bruce two years ago, before an eye injury sidelined him at Nassau (N.Y.) Community College (Bruce, a Cambridge resident, signed with New Haven last month). Last year Matignon offensive tackle Badara Traore caught the eye of Cincinnati and Eastern Michigan, before also heading to Nassau.

“A lot of the schools in this league fly under the radar,” Walsh said. “A lot of the coaches come in and say, ‘Well, look at the competition’. But in the offseason, we’re going to summer camps against the best competition, and they’re going to blue chip camps. In-season, yes, maybe there’s not 22 Division 1 players on the field -- but there’s certainly three, four, five on the field every week.”

Coleman, who doesn’t turn 18 until this summer, is planning on grayshirting the fall semester at UMass, becoming a full-time student in the spring 2017 semester. He signed with UMass as an "athlete", with the possibility of filling one of several undetermined roles -- long-term, the plan is to make him an offensive tackle, but he could fit at defensive end as well.

“I’m still in disbelief that it went through, but I’m happy that I did,” Coleman said.