FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The dude cut straight through the crap and right to the point. Kai-Leon Herbert loved that.
The kid asked questions. Smart questions. Deep questions. Thoughtful questions. Questions from someone who clearly wasn’t afraid to think outside the box, someone who clearly gave a damn. LeCharles Bentley loved that even more.
“He was an interesting kid, very smart,” Bentley, the esteemed offensive line tutor and former Ohio State center, told Land of 10. “He was at The Opening, so you have to assume he was a pretty good football player. But the thing that really stood out the most to me? He was very smart. He asked very specific questions, which is abnormal for most players in that age demographic.
“We would have conversations at meetings, and after breakout sessions he would go back to his room and think, and come back later in the day and we’d have more advanced conversations on the topic of the day. So that really stood out to me.”
A Buckeyes alum and a Wolverines commitment walk into a room …
Sounds like the start of a bad joke, doesn’t it? But after a few days together this past July at Nike’s The Opening, where Bentley spoke and Herbert — a stud lineman at American Heritage School in Plantation, Fla., and a Michigan commit — listened, they formed a kinship. Almost a friendship, even.
“He’s a great teacher because he gives everything to you as it is. He doesn’t sugarcoat anything,” Herbert said. “When you mess up, he’ll show you what you did right. He’s coaching you up to that point where not only are you growing physically, you’re getting better mentally as well.”
“Obviously, him going to a school like Michigan and it being a very prestigious academic institution, I’m not surprised,” Bentley said. “Because he’s very unique.”
‘I’ve never seen a guy work as hard as him’
It doesn’t get much more unique than the way Herbert, a 6-foot-5, 284-pound road grader, pledged to the Wolverines this past summer. The big lug had attended Jim Harbaugh’s satellite camp on June 3 in Davie, Fla., and bonded almost immediately with Michigan offensive line coach Tim Drevno. Herbert committed on July 6 conventionally via a statement posted to Twitter, and rather unconventionally through a video tribute to the television hit The Walking Dead, a clip produced by Bleacher Report:
— Kai-Leon Herbert (@KHerb17) July 6, 2016
— GoBlueFR (@GoBlueFR) July 7, 2016
Herbert says the “Dead” tribute wasn’t his idea, but he ran with it. More like stumbled and kicked and punched with it, technically.
“Actually, a lot of kids down here who have Michigan offers, they’re like, ‘Oh, Harbaugh’s going to do this, Harbaugh’s going to do that,’” said Herbert, a 4-star blocker. “He’s not even a normal coach. He has a different type of personality, and some people like that about him.”
Those who know the kid best like that about Herbert, too. He transferred into Heritage after his sophomore year as a tall, lanky 240-pounder, always asking questions, always angling to improve.
“I’ve never seen a guy work as hard as him,” said Heritage coach Patrick Surtain, the ex-NFL cornerback and, like Bentley, another former Pro Bowler. “Before school, he gets his work (in). He comes before practice and gets his work (in). He stays after school. In the offseason, he continually works. His best football is ahead of him. His upside is tremendous.”
His grit ain’t too shabby, either. Surtain said his star big man played with a torn or partially torn labrum all through the fall and “didn’t miss a practice … he did scout team, he did everything. He was just a pleasure to be around, a guy that cared that much about the team and the process.
“I knew it (had) been bothering him for two years, and he didn’t complain. He aggravated it a bunch of times and even in practice, didn’t miss (time). And it just showed his toughness and showed his love for his teammates. A lot of guys would tap out in that situation. He stuck in there and was our best offensive lineman this year.”
‘He really opened up a lot of doors for me’
Given a choice, Herbert prefers to finish what he starts. In December, he helped power Heritage to a Class 5A state title, the program’s third in four years and the first with Surtain as head coach. He’s remained committed to Michigan, while still planning to take official visits next month to Florida, Auburn and Miami.
“I think The Opening opened up some eyes, too,” Surtain said. “I think people there say that his upside is tremendous … and when you’re a college coach and you’ve got raw, untapped potential, you can mold that guy. He’s athletic as all get-out. The sky is the limit for this kid. I’m excited, (given) his potential, to see where he takes it.”
And yet the Wolverines have never quite left the frame, even 1,348 miles from Ann Arbor. At a South Florida Publix grocery store recently, a stranger noticed Herbert’s father wearing a Michigan hat and stopped him with a smile.
“He’s like, ‘Oh, did you go to Michigan?’” Herbert recalled.
“And he said, ‘No, my son’s committed there.’ And they had this conversation.”
The conversations with Bentley are ongoing, too. Even from across the country:
Hell yea! Thank you https://t.co/j1FFrSnrPw
— LeCharles Bentley (@OLineWorld65) November 8, 2016
“He really opened up a lot of doors for me,” Herbert recalled, “and for a lot of other players.”
Win the head, the heart usually follows. Bentley, founder of L. Bentley O-Line Performance, a training academy devoted exclusively to the art of the offensive line, has visited The Opening for six years now, a tackle whisperer, a sounding board for the best of the best.
Kai-Leon was different.
Like that zombie video, Kai-Leon stuck.
“He told me that I’m not (like) the other offensive linemen that are there,” Herbert said. “I’m not the big, strong (type). I’m not the freak who’s like 6-7, 320. I’m more of a technician. And I need to build up in that area … working on hands, working on technique, and working on being a technician.”
A Buckeyes alum and a Wolverines commitment walk into a room …
“He was such an interesting person, and he’s such a creative person in terms of how he thinks,” Bentley said. “He’s not just the typical ‘big’ guy. The stereotypical things you think about an offensive lineman, he’s not that.
“He’s going to be able to pick language and skills that are beyond his years. With guys like him, you don’t know how far down the rabbit hole they can really go.”