Slowly, the announcements and signings trickled down the line of past and future football players from Manor High School on National Signing Day. Through an excruciating delay, the coaches, players, and fanbases of the LSU Tigers and Texas Longhorns awaited a decision from defensive end/outside linebacker Erick Fowler, the 2016 US Army All-American who was committed to the Tigers but pushed by his family towards the hometown Longhorns.
Finally, it was time for the big announcement.
With two hats on the table -- the purple and gold of LSU and a burnt orange and black Texas cap -- Fowler made his mother, the vocal Longhorns proponent, turn her back away from the stage. After a look over his shoulder, the 6'1, 240-pounder promptly drew wild applause from what was likely a partisan crowd when he quickly grabbed the Texas hat.
Considering the stakes and what were surely intense discussions between Fowler family members behind the scenes, his mother was remarkably subdued in the immediate afermath. She turned, found the hat, rocked her head backwards ever so slightly, and affixed her son with a big hug. No exclamations, not even a smile big enough to flash her teeth.
It was the reaction of a woman secure in the knowledge that better judgement had won out -- not just her judgement, but better judgement. Mama does know best.
Roughly 10 miles away on the Texas campus, the Longhorns coaches received the news with everyone else.
"We didn't know until today when he walked up to the podium because I told him last night I said, 'I called you and then your brother told me you were in the shower and then I called back and he said you were asleep,' Strong said on National Signing Day.
"I said, 'You weren't asleep because you didn't fall asleep that quick.' He goes, 'I know it Coach, my bad.' But we didn't know."
Encouraged by the players present, Strong hit a celebratory dab, one of his least technically-sound efforts that week, but one of the most joyous.
Little did Strong know, but Fowler was soon to dab himself, echoing his head coach in throwing up a hook 'em Horns hand sign with his bent arm.
Stay lit pic.twitter.com/zhWWMWpENZ— ⚡️HUMBLE BEAST⚡️ (@erick_fowler) February 8, 2016
Perfect synchronicity on the biggest National Signing Day in modern history for Texas.
The decision from Fowler capped a dramatic finish with the local product. LSU was his dream school, so he pledged to the Tigers in the middle of June last year, roughly two weeks after an unofficial visit to Baton Rouge. In early January of 2016, the preferences of his family became official public knowledge and his official visit to Austin followed shortly thereafter.
One of the remarkable traits that Strong possesses is his ability to correctly read people and respond accordingly. In his efforts to build a rapport with Fowler on his critical official visit in mid-January, Strong chose to back and let Fowler come out of his shell.
"I tell you what, he is an unbelievable young man," Strong said. "He doesn't say much at all -- very quiet. Sometimes you don't force the conversation on him and just let him open up and let him talk. So we got him in here on a visit, and that is what we allowed him to do."
Apparently it worked, though the success of the tactic was not immediately clear. In the initial aftermath of Fowler's official visit to Baton Rouge the following weekend, it seemed as if the family was finally on board with the Tigers. In fact, there were even rumblings that the Fowlers would not allow Strong and his staff to hold their critical in-home visit. Yet, the in-home visit happened, and Strong was able to get in a final word with Fowler and his family days before the decision.
"He shocked everyone today," Strong said. "He was committed to LSU, and he's a guy we can move around. He can play outside, inside, get his hand down, and go rush. We're really excited about getting big 'E'."
Indeed, Fowler is the hybrid player that Strong coveted in the 2016 class. The Longhorns missed on Cibolo Steele product Mark Jackson and numerous other Fox end candidates (seven others, actually), leaving Fowler as the only prospect left on the board, increasing the stakes on National Signing Day.
As Strong mentioned, Fowler is versatile enough that he could play at a number of positions, including traditional linebacker spots -- his ability to wreak havoc from anywhere at the first or second level is limited only by his capacity to understand the demands of each of those spots.
Consider Rivals as extraordinarily high on Fowler's potential to do exactly that, as the service ranked as him as a five-star prospect, the No. 13 player nationally, the No. 2 outside linebacker, and the No. 2 player in Texas at the end of the process.
For a quiet guy, notice how Rivals recruiting analyst Jason Howell describes Fowler as someone who plays with an edge? The highlights back it up -- Fowler is using his hands to defeat blockers or simply playing through them with effort. Furthermore, he earned that fifth star in large part because he impressed observers like Howell while in San Antonio going against other top prospects at the Army Bowl.
At 6'1, the edge and motor are not only qualities that endear Fowler to coaches like Charlie Strong and evaluators like Howell, but also key requirements for a guy set to play on and around the line of scrimmage in college at that height. In other words, his height isn't ideal, but his better-than-average length and desire should help negate that disadvantage.
There's some depth in front of him at the Fox end position -- junior Naashon Hughes, sophomore Derick Roberson, and sophomore Charles Omenihu. Aldine Davis star Jeffrey McCulloch could eventually join him there, too. What will be interesting to watch is where Roberson and Omenihu end up, because both have the frames to eventually grow into strongside ends. But with Malcolm Roach and Andrew Fitzgerald both occupying that role in the 2016 class, it won't be necessary to move those two players.
So the moving parts at the position could determine when Fowler truly gets a chance to shine. Judging by his motor and relentlessness, the worst-case scenario is that he merely pushes his teammates in practice for a year or two before making an impact on the field.
Typically quiet and reserved, Fowler made a rare and bold pronouncement on Monday:
If Fowler follows through on that claim at Texas, expect him to do accomplish it without doing much more talking than that. Just call him a humble beast and stay tuned. Linebacker Malik Jefferson once publicly asked for some savages to join him in Austin and Fowler eventually answered the call. Humbly and without really letting anyone know about it beforehand. He's just like that.