Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Will Rackley to the NFL, Part One: From Riverdale to Lehigh

(Photo Credit: Andrew Meier/The Brown & White)

"OL Will Rackley didn’t have any shoe boxes full of letters from Georgia or Georgia Tech," an article from Will's hometown paper, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, said. "There was one scholarship offer and another major opportunity," referring to a general offer from Tulane and a walk-on opportunity at Georgia Tech.

Ask his mother, Wanda Rackley, though, and you'll get a different viewpoint as to which schools were important or not.

"I went with him on two official visits," she told me. "The first visit was to Lafayette. He didn't have a good feeling there and he thought the football field was too small.

"The next visit was to the school was Lehigh. He loved it right off, and I loved it too."(more)

For Will, admittance to Lehigh was the cumulation of a youth filled with football.

"He started out playing running back in my home town of Fayetteville, North Carolina," his mother said. "When we moved to Georgia, the coach changed him to guard because of his size.

"Everyone was really pushing me to try out being that I was a bigger kid," Will told me.

After a while, according to this October article in the Brown & White, Rackley took a couple years off from football.  After not playing for two years, he felt he was too big to play basketball or other sports, so he went back into football.

"After recreation ball, he played football in middle school for two years and then went on to play three years of high school football," his mother added. "He was also one of the captains of the football team in his senior year."

His stellar play at Riverdale High School, and his strong academic profile, soon had schools like Lehigh and Lafayette knocking on his door.

Once Will came to Lehigh, the 6 foot 2 1/2 inch incoming freshman immediately made an impact on the football team.

Almost from the outset, head coach Andy Coen, himself a former collegiate offensive lineman, knew he had something special, putting the Riverdale, Georgia native on his two-deep only weeks after he reported to his first camp.

A few weeks into the season, he worked his way into the starting lineup, and never relinquished his starting position in his Lehigh career.

During that time, he would bulk up to 309 pounds, and become a bookend tackle. As he became a junior and senior, Lehigh adopted a Wildcat running formation that very frequently went to his side of the field. Even though teams like Harvard and Northern Iowa knew the play was going his way, they couldn't stop it - thanks, in part, to Will.

"In my opinion Will is the best offensive lineman in my 18 seasons of coaching in the Ivy or Patriot League," coach Coen told Michael LoRe of the Express-Times. "Maybe (Ravens center) Matt Birk, who played for Harvard and is still an All-Pro caliber guy in the NFL, would be the guy you can compare him to in those two leagues. He’s just a super player. You won’t get a guy like him this year."

Will could have, frankly, coasted through Patriot League play his senior year. He was a dominant player, and didn't have to work that hard to be all-Patriot League.

But he kept finding other things to work on, like becoming more aggressive as well as getting et bigger and stronger. "I want to improve on the nastiness aspect this year," he told Matt Markus of Lehighsports.com before his senior season. "As a lineman, I'm going to go out there and just maul guys this year."

To a person - coaches, teammates, or NFL scouts - what seems to have stood out the most in Rackley's Lehigh football career is his near-relentless work ethic.

Offensive line coach Brett Sawyer told the Brown & White that Rackley is determined to succeed. "He wants to do things the right way and he does them the right way." And teammate senior WR Jake Drwal agreed. "[Will is] one of, if not the hardest working [player] on the team. We know that no matter what is happening, we can always count on him."

There have been other Lehigh offensive linemen that tipped the scales at over 300 lbs. There have been other tall, 6'4 hogs that have protected Lehigh QB's blind sides. There have been other offensive linemen that have been good, even great - C John Hill, who had a long NFL career with the New York Giants and New Orleans Saints in the 1970s, was one such player.

But none of them have been the mix of size, speed and agility that Rackley had at Lehigh. They didn't have his strength off the line. On those Wildcat runs or counter trey runs downfield, Patriot League linebackers would frequently see a 300 lb tackle bearing down on them as quick as a fullback.

And it wasn't just designed plays, either, where Will showed his skills. After a fumble in the Holy Cross game near their goal line, LB Alex Johnson scooped up the ball and seemed to have real estate in front of him to grab the momentum of the game. Who made the touchdown-saving tackle at the Holy Cross 28 yard line? Try the 300 lb left tackle from the state of Georgia.

It's not like Will just went to Lehigh to pancake defensive linemen, however.

Academically, it's not a vacation to play at Lehigh - it's an academic challenge for everyone, including football players. And Will, who is on track to graduate with a design arts major in May, continues to balance the craziness in the run-up to the NFL draft with his classwork to graduate on time - without the redshirt year afforded most of the people that will be drafted around him this weekend.

"It's been a struggle - but all my work will get done," he told me.

For Will, that hard work on the field and in the classroom is about to pay off with a golden opportunity of playing in the NFL.

“It’s a great feeling to have a chance to play pro football,” Rackley said to Lehighsports.com this week. “Going back to when I was a kid playing with my brothers in the backyard it’s something I’ve always wanted to do so it’s really a dream come true. It’s a rare opportunity and one I’m definitely looking to take advantage of.”

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