Every college football recruiting cycle features thousands of young athletes who spent their adolescence attempting to earn a Division I roster spot, only to come up empty in that endeavor.
But hidden within that trove of high school athletes are gems such as T.J. Bradley — who hasn’t played a down of football in nearly six years and yet needed just three practices at offensive tackle to garner a scholarship offer. And then several more.
“I have no time to waste,” the 20-year-old said hours after securing a Penn State offer, his seventh scholarship opportunity — and third from Big Ten territory — in April.
Bradley, nearing the end of his second spring football camp at Lackawanna College in Scranton, Pa., remains nearly four months away from his first game with the program. When he finally does stick a hand in the dirt Sept. 2 against Gattaca Prep (N.J.), it will commence his first live snap since 2011.
Bradley estimates he took the field at 6-foot-3, 185 pounds in that last game, which occurred during his freshman year at Tuscarora (Leesburg, Va.) High School. The next hit he delivers in the direction of an opponent will come from a 6-9, 290-pound frame.
“His upside is enormously high,” Lackawanna head coach Mark Duda said. “It’s fascinating because three years from now he’ll still be playing college football — somewhere between here and California — and right now he’s probably about 30 percent the player he’s going to be. How will he look in 2020?”
Basketball was the plan, football was the passion
Bradley suited up for football season each year in middle school and continued playing through his first year of high school. Contemplating T.J.’s physique at 15 years old, his father, Terry, figured basketball was actually the ideal athletic fit.
“I pushed T.J. for basketball because he grew so tall and skinny,” Terry said. “But I didn’t have to win him over on football. Since he was a young boy, he loved football.”
Bradley embraced his on-court experience, becoming a solid front-court player and blossoming to 6-6 by the end of senior year. However, he didn’t make enough of an impression to warrant collegiate looks for his hoops skills, and graduated from Tuscarora in 2015 without a set plan.
The short-term solution led him to a familiar place: Terry’s automotive transmission shop.
“He really didn’t like it but you’re not just going to sit around the house after high school — you’re going to work,” Terry said.
T.J. was tasked with all manner of jobs under his dad’s direction, from the menial to the mechanical.
“He was basically doing whatever he was asked to do,” Terry said. “It’s a physical job: installing transmissions, taking them apart, cleaning up the shop and everything else.”
When school resumed that fall, T.J. began developing a Plan B.
He discussed the possibility of using football as a platform for his next step. Terry knew exactly where to turn.
He introduced his son to a fellow member of their community congregation at Grace Covenant Church (Chantilly, Va.), Cliff Russell. The 38-year-old Russell played college football at Utah — he still holds the program’s 40-yard dash record (4.25 seconds) — and spent six seasons in the NFL.
Upon an initial assessment, Russell understood plenty of work awaited if Bradley’s ambitions were to become reality.
“I think there was some regret about not playing and proving himself in high school,” he said. “But overall, it was a matter of him discovering his motivation. T.J.’s family works very, very hard and his father owns a business but he envisions himself doing greater things. He had that vision but just didn’t know the necessary steps toward achieving those goals.”
Building a beast
Together, Bradley and Russell laid out a plan.
A 2002 Washington Redskins draft pick who is now a trainer at Ripped Performance in Ashburn, Va., Russell became a mentor. He described Bradley as approximately 6-6, 220 pounds and “very raw” when they first met.
That size didn’t exactly translate well on the football field.
“I threw a lot of education his way in terms of understanding his body in terms of nutrition, training, supplementation and all those things he had to put together,” Russell said. “He was very willing to learn. T.J. was basically a robot — he did everything I told him.”
Along with a consistent workout agenda, Russell set Bradley’s daily consumption goal at 3,000 calories. Plenty of chicken breasts and burgers fell victim to this expanded diet during those final months of 2015. Terry takes credit for one particular staple of home-cooking in the Bradley household.
“T.J.’s favorite is smothered pork chops,” he said. “That’ll do it.”
Bradley began searching for a junior college option that December, landing on Lackawanna as his best choice. He proceeded to send Duda and the Falcons staff his basketball highlights:
That film at least served a sample of his athletic prowess, and convinced the coaches to welcome him to the squad’s 2016 spring camp on a tryout basis.
He arrived on campus standing 6-9, and weighing 240 pounds, according to Duda. It turned out Bradley’s height continued to increase as he packed on pounds post-high school.
“We didn’t quite know where to play him since he’d never really been in a 3-point stance before,” Duda said.
A decision was made to place Bradley at defensive end. The learning process wasn’t always smooth but he quickly impressed Lackawanna’s staff to the point where he earned a permanent place on their roster.
“He’s just such a damn-hard worker,” Duda said. “T.J. had that attitude from Day 1 with us. He stepped on campus and tried his tail off every day on the defensive line. He’s a pain-tolerant, tough kid so the physical demands of football haven’t fazed him.”
Another summer break of concentrated strength training and nutritional guidance did wonders. Bradley returned to campus for Lackawanna’s 2016 season tipping the scales in the 290-pound range.
Though Bradley was relegated to scout-team DE duties during a redshirt fall of acclimation, Lackawanna coaches saw a beast budding before them. Duda noted that despite the tremendous weight increase, Bradley boasted a “flat abdominal section” and “no visible signs of fat”.
This past offseason, Duda and offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Josh Pardini added another wrinkle to Bradley’s study-cram of the sport. They moved him to offensive tackle.
“I was starting to feel comfortable and thought I was going to stay at DE, but since I kept growing they moved me to the O-line,” Bradley said. “It felt like a major challenge but it was just another part of the process that got me to this point.”
It wasn’t a voluntary transition but early results are good. In fact, they’re freakishly good.
“By his first spring practice, T.J. was doing things well that other guys couldn’t do in three years,” Duda said. “His innate athletic ability was already in place, and then Pardini and him worked to get all the fundamental aspects down.”
Early effort, immediate returns
After three practices as Lackawanna’s left tackle, coaches encouraged him to create a short highlight package with practice film. He pieced it together in his dorm room, while Duda & Co. informed several Division I recruiting departments to be aware.
Bradley published the highlight tape on Hudl.com, a popular landing spot for footage of high school and JUCO football players:
By lunch time the next day — April 3 — Syracuse and West Virginia extended scholarship offers.
“I was extremely surprised there was even one offer,” he said. “I would’ve been blown away if you said I got a look from any Division I school.”
Naturally, his first phone call was to the site of those smothered pork chops that helped create an overnight — quite literally — recruiting sensation.
“It is remarkable,” said his mother, Marlene. “We’re like totally in shock, but at the same time I knew my son was determined. He worked hard and was disciplined.”
Lackawanna established its reputation as an offensive linemen factory through the years. Duda, leader of the program since 1994, already believes he’s witnessing one of its most impressive products, despite a lack of game experience.
“Everything T.J. does is essentially textbook because he didn’t bring any bad habits from a technique standpoint,” Duda said. “It’s a wonderful thing. He’s like a clean slate. His stance looks exactly how a left tackle’s stance should look like.”
The best is yet to come
Lackawanna offense line alumni include current Seattle Seahawks starter Mark Glowinski, 2017 Baltimore Ravens draft selection Jermaine Eluemunor and 2015 Penn State signee Paris Palmer, who started 14 games for the Nittany Lions in two seasons. Duda points to his most highly touted pupil as the prime example of what Bradley can become.
While discussing the physical traits of his burgeoning standout, Duda draws a direct comparison to Bryant McKinnie, who became an All-American OT at Miami and a top-10 NFL draft pick in 2002.
He estimates McKinnie arrived on campus 6-8, 277 pounds. Like Bradley, McKinnie bulked up (he was listed 6-8, 343 pounds at the 2002 draft) during his stay in Northeast Pennsylvania.
“I don’t think any of us have seen the best of T.J.,” said Russell, now admiring his trainee’s ascent from afar. “He’s still growing physically, he’s still growing mentally. I can only imagine what college coaches can envision for his future.”
Just one day after Bradley received his initial pair of offers, Big Ten programs Maryland and Minnesota offered. That list since swelled to include Cincinnati, Connecticut, Marshall and Penn State.
He spent time in Happy Valley late last month, traveling to State College for the Nittany Lions spring game. Coach James Franklin offered him three days afterward.
“The stadium experience was so great I knew I had to come back even before they offered,” Bradley said. “Now I want to go there as much as possible.”
Though the volume of suitors should continue to expand, Penn State is in strong position to keep him in the area.
“Penn State is definitely one of my top choices right now — no doubt,” he said. “I thought they would just stay interested, but I didn’t know they would offer me. When [offensive line coach Matt Limegrover] came out to my practice I thought he was just keeping tabs.”
Limegrover joined a growing line of college assistants who have made the trek to Lackawanna. Duda welcomed coaches from Florida, Oklahoma and South Carolina just last week, when Bradley reached double-digit practices at offensive tackle.
“At first I had a lot of anxiety because suddenly I felt like people expected big things from me during these practices,” Bradley said. “But now before practices, I say a prayer and give my anxiety to God. It helps me relax and focus on what I can control — trying to get better.”
A year from now, Bradley hopes to be fresh off his first spring camp with an FBS program. His journey at Lackawanna ends in December, following his first season of football in six years.
He will be 21 years old, with three seasons of eligibility remaining. However, if his clout continues to mount at offensive tackle, college may not be a long-term consideration.
NFL franchises place a premium on players of Bradley’s physicality, as evidenced by the early selection of McKinnie.
“These past few weeks have really boosted my hopes and made me realize I could take this football thing pretty far,” Bradley said. “I think [Duda] is right: I’m probably at 20 or 30 percent of my potential. Now it’s up to me to reach it.”