Land of 10 has embarked on a series of Next Generation articles, a project that aims to bring our readers greater insight into the class of 2017 signees. Land of 10 Michigan writers Rachel Lenzi and Kevin Goheen are visiting this year’s Michigan incoming class of freshmen to show you more than their 40-yard dash times and recruiting rankings. Today’s installment is with Lee County (Ga.) defensive tackle Aubrey Solomon.
LEESBURG, Ga. – Aubrey Solomon carries around a toolbox every day. It’s a toolbox his mother, Sabrina Caldwell, gave him. She’s given one to all five of her children, and she is constantly making sure it’s full of everything they need.
You won’t find this toolbox at Sears or a hardware store, and there are no hammers or screwdrivers in it.
“It’s communication skills, and how to see the fake people,” Solomon said. “It’s how to analyze people and tell if their feelings are BS or not. That’s what I really know about the tools she gave us.”
Aubrey Solomon is the third of Sabrina’s children and he is the biggest of the bunch. He is 6-foot-3 and weighs 305 pounds. He can cast an imposing figure if he wants, but Solomon is confident enough in who he is that he doesn’t need to use his size that way, with the exception of when he’s playing defensive tackle on a football field.
That confidence comes from his mother, his family, and a select group of people he’s come to trust using his toolbox.
It’s what got him through a recruiting process that led him to Michigan, away from Michigan, and ultimately back to Michigan, where he is a member of the 2017 incoming class of freshmen. Among a class rated No. 5 nationally by the 247Sports composite rankings, Solomon, a 5-star recruit, is the second-highest rated among the 30 players behind only wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones.
Solomon received attention from colleges from the time he was a freshman starting on the Lee County High School varsity team, but there were only a handful of places he seriously considered. He got offers from 13 schools, according to 247Sports. That seems like a small number for a player so highly regarded, but schools found out quickly where they were on Solomon’s priority list.
“I was able to use these tools by seeing what coaches really wanted for me,” Solomon said. “Some coaches would say they need me and their school could do this and that, but when it came down to it, my research is really what opened my eyes. A lot of coaches were feeding me a bunch of bull crap, and I didn’t want to be fed lies no more. That’s what I had to do, I had to sit down and analyze it.”
This is home
Sabrina Caldwell had often been on the move. She was the daughter of an Army veteran and served in the Navy herself. She had lived in Arizona and California because of work, and had come to southwestern Georgia for another work opportunity at the Albany Marine Corps Logistics Base.
Another opportunity presented itself a few years back. A job promotion that would mean a move to Colorado. If it was just herself, it would have been an easy decision, but Sabrina had a family of four children at that time to consider first.
Family is always first.
So she sat down with her kids – daughter Kayla and her three boys, Alex, Aubrey and Kermit Jr. – and asked what they thought. Would they mind moving? Again. The answer she got was “no,” but that wasn’t really the answer. Kids are going to do and say things that make their parents happy.
They really didn’t want to move. They had found a home in Leesburg, one with friends and a sense of stability. So which one of them was going to tell mom?
“Of the kids, Aubrey is – how do I put this? – he’s not scared of me,” Sabrina says with a laugh. “Not saying the others are, but he’s the spokesperson. (They’d tell him) ‘You talk to her. You don’t care how she gives you that stare, or snaps. You’re brave.’”
So Aubrey talked to his mom and told her how the kids felt. The family remained in Leesburg.
That’s where Aubrey met Kaion Hamilton.
‘He believed in me’
Hamilton is a physical education teacher at Lee County Middle School West Campus, and he was the middle school football coach when he met Solomon.
“Typical sixth-grader,” is how Hamilton described Solomon. “Aggravating in class, just showing off, being silly. I always saw potential. In middle school, a lot of times academic teachers don’t look at kids for their age, they look at them 10 years from now or what they potentially could be. It took Aubrey some time to fulfill that.”
I've came a long way since middle school and I'm thankful you've been apart of my growing GREAT mentor, but a even better FATHER FIGURE pic.twitter.com/fKFyZp9XI7
— Aubrey Solomon (@AubreySolomon91) April 12, 2017
“I’m not going to lie, I wasn’t the best I could be my middle school years,” Solomon said. “I regret a lot of things about middle school, but early he bought into me. He believed in me and kept pouring into me, telling me I could be something if I stopped doing what I was doing, stopped with the shenanigans and just got right.”
Hamilton, now an assistant coach on the high school team as well as the boys track and field coach, saw a little of himself in Solomon. He, too, was raised by a single mother, but something else always stuck with Hamilton when he talked with the kid he called “Big Guy.”
“He was always, ‘yes, sir,’ ‘no, sir,’” Hamilton said. “I’ve never had a situation where he’s disrespectful toward me. That just showed me this was a kid who had a good foundation and understood respecting adults.
“I tell the kids, if you practice being respectful now it doesn’t seem forced. The genuine will shine through. That’s Aubrey. He’s not forcefully saying ‘yes, sir,’ it’s what he naturally does. It’s how he was raised.”
The ugly side of recruiting
Recruiting pressure from the world outside a player’s inner circle – his family, close friends, teammates and coaches – is real. It’s heightened in the South, where football is king and Southeastern Conference programs are particularly protective of their region.
Solomon figured that out as the recruiting process progressed, but he never really understood how important one teenager’s decision on where to go to college and play football was viewed until he backed away from an original commitment to Michigan.
“Nauseating. It really is,” is how Sabrina Caldwell describes the recruiting process.
“I get it, where I am geographically located. Unfortunately, the geographic location brings about a lot of stereotypes. You think about it: single parent, a child doing well athletically. The first thing they think of is I am either on assistance or I am uneducated. There were some schools that fed into that stereotype without doing their homework about me, and talked to me in such a manner that was repulsive.
“I pretty much told them, ‘Get my son off your board.'”
Solomon initially committed to Michigan last June after a visit to Ann Arbor. That didn’t sit well with some SEC fans, particularly fans of Alabama and Georgia.
Solomon changed his mind in August after receiving a “thank you” letter for attending a Michigan barbecue. The problem was Solomon didn’t attend the function, and the letter misspelled his name. He loved Michigan, but …
“Me being the mother that I am, said, ‘A school you’ve committed to can’t commit to you?’ I said, ‘Aubrey, you need to look at this,’” Sabrina Caldwell said.
Solomon reopened his recruitment, much to the delight of those SEC fans who had once railed against him, and to the dismay of some Michigan fans. “Dismay” is a polite term for some of the responses he got on social media even though he never dismissed the Wolverines.
“Oh, I got a whole lot of static, both good and bad, but at the end of the day it was my decision and I had to do what was best for me,” Solomon said.
A second chance
Sabrina made sure her son gave Michigan a second chance. Aubrey had used his toolbox to make his initial commitment, and there was a reason he chose the Wolverines the first time. The coaches directly involved in his recruitment weren’t the ones who sent the letter, so don’t be afraid to continue looking at them, Sabrina told Aubrey.
Jim Harbaugh and assistants Don Brown and Chris Partridge took advantage of that second chance. The healing began when Harbaugh reached out and apologized directly. When Solomon and his mother made an official visit last November, Harbaugh told them they had found a couple of other mistakes made by the staff that had since been corrected.
“I was impressed by that,” Sabrina said. “That was beyond impressive.”
Partridge’s approach also struck a chord with Solomon and his mom.
“The way I approached it was, I got to meet a great family and great people, and hopefully they make the right decision,” Partridge said. “If they don’t, I still have a heck of an opportunity to form a great relationship with the young man. Me and Aubrey got really tight through it, kind of tighter than you get with other kids sometimes.”
Partridge, Michigan’s linebackers coach, has earned national accolades in his two years at the school for his work as a recruiter.
“I’ve taken the whole thing of recruiting that when I meet them and start to get a relationship with them, I try to mentor them,” said Partridge. “I think the recruiting process is kind of broken. All of these coaches are selling, trying to sell the kids on their program and be all flashy. They’ve got all these game rooms and all these flashy things, these great meals. Everything is great. Well, where’s the mentorship of being a coach? Where’s that come in? That’s kind of lost.”
‘Mom, I need to make this right’
Solomon didn’t make his official announcement until National Signing Day, but Sabrina had mother’s intuition and realized he had made his decision in January at the U.S. All-American game in San Antonio.
A reporter covering the game asked Solomon what he thought when he received the incorrect letter from Michigan. Solomon answered what he had been thinking at that time.
“Bleep Michigan,” was the answer. The video of that answer went viral, minus the context of how the question was phrased and why Solomon replied the way he did.
Sabrina started getting text messages from Aubrey. She had been unaware of what had happened, or of his subsequent viral apology on Twitter. Aubrey needed Harbaugh’s number. Mom wondered if her son was going to announce his commitment. She soon came to realize he was doing cleanup work.
I have some growing up to do 💯 pic.twitter.com/ykDT9ModNY
— Aubrey Solomon (@AubreySolomon91) January 5, 2017
“This is when I had a gut feeling he was going to go to Michigan,” Sabrina said. “He said, ‘Mom, I need to make this right.’ I said, ‘Why does it matter? You said it, it was unfortunate.’
“He said, ‘Mom, I don’t need to get to that school and the fans boo me.’ I said, really? That’s interesting. I think that’s when I knew, because he said he didn’t want no issues when he got to campus.”
Aubrey and Sabrina were on an official visit to Southern Cal a week after the U.S. Army All-American game. Mom got another hint of what her son’s decision would be among the final four of Alabama, Michigan, Georgia and USC.
“She told me when we were on our USC trip that I had made a comment while we were touring the campus,” Solomon said. “I looked at it and said it was ‘too much city’ or something like that. She told me, ‘Right then and there, I knew you were going to pick Michigan.’
“I don’t know how she could tell, but she just knew.”
National Signing Day
Solomon still hadn’t told anyone what his decision was going to be when Feb. 1 — National Signing Day — arrived. ESPN was set to broadcast his announcement live as friends and family surrounded Solomon.
Hamilton was there. He found Solomon in a staging area. The two of them had shared many conversations over the past few years, including during the 2016 season when Solomon grew frustrated with the constant questioning of which school he was going to choose. What Solomon had hoped to do by committing early to Michigan was focus on leading Lee County to the playoffs and a state championship.
Instead, Solomon, was on the phone with Hamilton, his mentor.
“When he committed to Michigan in the summer, he had SEC fans sending him crazy messages, blowing him up on Twitter, and when he de-committed, he had Michigan fans (doing the same),” Hamilton said. “I think he was just kind of blown away. I don’t think he realized how big of a deal the recruitment process was until that moment. It was realizing how one individual in the small town of Leesburg, Ga., can affect so many.”
All that was about to end. Solomon was about to make his decision. Hamilton couldn’t wait.
“I say, ‘Big Guy, what’s it going to be?’” Hamilton said. “He reaches down to my ear and says, ‘I’m going to be a Wolverine, coach. I’m going to Michigan.’
“He steps back and he had this big Kool-Aid grin on his face and starts bobbing his head. So, I’m all excited because I felt like I knew something nobody in the crowd knew. That was pretty awesome.”
Sharing your talent
Solomon will wear No. 5 at Michigan. Big guys like single digits. Michigan defensive ends Carlo Kemp, Rashan Gary and Reuben Jones don Nos. 2, 3, and 4, respectively. Maybe it makes them appear faster; single digits are usually reserved for wide receivers, quarterbacks and running backs.
Solomon told his mom big men dream of wearing single digits when she asked why he wanted No. 5.
One day, Sabrina overheard her son tell someone else the real reason he wanted No. 5.
“I overheard him telling someone that mom has five kids,” Sabrina said. “It touched me. He said, ‘Mom, I just didn’t want to tell you why I put 5 because you’ll start crying and then you’ll want to hold me, and I had no time for that.’ … like I’m some kind of sap or something.”
Sabrina Caldwell has been mother and father for her children throughout their lives. She grew up in a single-parent household as well, one where her father, Nathaniel Caldwell Sr., made sure his children understood the value of not just being educated but of utilizing that education for the betterment of others.
“I have multiple degrees, but those degrees mean nothing if I don’t share that knowledge,” Sabrina said. “My dad calls it wasted talent. Don’t acquire talent if you’re not willing to share it. That’s how Aubrey is.”
The Albany area was hit by massive storm on Jan. 22, a storm that included an EF3 tornado that caused damage over a 71-mile path through five Georgia counties.
Solomon and several friends have devoted their time the past three months since the storm volunteering for cleanup duty. While others are out on Friday nights, Solomon has been helping an area that is still recovering.
“It’s definitely something we wanted to do, get out of our comfort zone and help those in need,” Solomon said. “We basically just go out there, and if anyone needs some cleanup duty, we go.”
Saving the best for last
Solomon became a starter his freshman year at Lee County High School. He got to play with his older brother, Alex, a defensive end, his first two seasons. Lee County plays in the second largest of Georgia’s seven football divisions. A freshman playing on the varsity, let alone starting, is rare at this level.
“We knew he was going to be a good player since he was in the seventh grade,” Lee County head coach Dean Fabrizio said. “He started for us his freshman year, which is very unusual for us, at a large high school, so we had a lot of expectations for him as a younger kid. He’s certainly grown and each year he’s improved.”
Lee County won regional titles in Solomon’s freshman and sophomore seasons and again reached the playoffs last season, his senior year, losing in the second round. Solomon was credited with 77 tackles, 12 sacks, 18 quarterback hurries and 16 tackles for loss last season, according to the Albany Herald.
“He played great football for us all four years, but his senior year was definitely his best football,” Fabrizio said of Solomon.
Lee County was 5-0 when it hosted Houston County, the top-ranked Class AAAAAA team in the state, on Oct. 7. Houston County featured Jake Fromm, the No. 3-rated quarterback in the country who is now at Georgia as an early enrollee. Lee County rolled to a 55-29 win. Fromm threw for 358 yards and 4 touchdowns in the game but Lee County also intercepted him 4 times and forced 2 fumbles.
Little brother Kermit, who is a year younger than Aubrey, had two of those interceptions and got stopped 1 yard shy of a pick-6 on one of them. Big brother wouldn’t be outdone, so in the same game Aubrey chased Fromm as the quarterback rolled outside the pocket. He caught up to Fromm, stripped the ball from him, picked it up and went 20 yards for the first touchdown of his career.
Talk about your big man dreams.
“It was a showing-out party for our family because my little brother had an interception, and I was like I’m not going to let my little brother outdo me, so I had to have the strip, sack, scoop, score,” Aubrey said.
The toolbox is always there
Solomon’s recruitment was drama-filled, but that’s not who this 18-year-old is.
“I don’t want to say he’s a homebody, but he isn’t really a kid who gets out in the spotlight or who always wants to be the center of attention. He’s very much a low-key kid,” said Fabrizio, his high school coach.
Solomon leaned on his family and close friends throughout the recruitment process. His mother was always there, as was Hamilton, his mentor. Older sister Kayla, who graduated magna cum laude from Florida A&M, helped him research schools. Older brother Alex helped from a football perspective, and younger brother Kermit helped keep him focused when the pressure grew intense.
— Sam Webb (@SamWebb77) January 17, 2017
Even younger sister, Korrine, who rode a go-kart with Harbaugh when he made a January visit to Leesburg, helped.
“My baby sister,” Solomon said, “she just loves me.”
Solomon will end up going to college hundreds of miles away from this family, but they won’t be separated.
They’ve always got their toolbox to connect them.