When Mathias Barnwell signed up to play tackle football he was 20 pounds too heavy.
He towered over his peers and weighed in at 115 pounds at age 7. The weight limit in the Fredericksburg Area Youth Football League was 95 pounds and Barnwell was ruled ineligible to suit up unless he slimmed down.
But the youngster didn’t sulk.
He practiced with the Fredericksburg Canes five days a week. He then met with coach Brian Smith at Spotsylvania Middle School every Friday evening and ran hills. He wasn’t allowed to eat after 6 p.m. and drank only water. He limited carbohydrates.
“It was amazing to watch,” said his mother, Shanna Barnwell.
Barnwell made the weight limit within 30 days and went on to become a standout offensive tackle and defensive lineman for the Canes. He has since continued to grow.
Barnwell (6-foot-6, 240 pounds) just completed his freshman year at Spotsylvania High School.
He’s a tight end for the Knights’ football team and holds 10 scholarship offers from colleges in “Power Five” conferences.
He’s one of four highly regarded Fredericksburg area prospects in the Class of 2023. All have multiple Division I scholarship offers after just one season of high school football.
“Recruiting has definitely been trending in the direction of earlier and earlier offers over the past few cycles,” said Brad Franklin who covers University of Virginia recruiting for cavscorner.com. “A lot of kids, particularly in Virginia, don’t really pay much attention to schools if those schools haven’t offered. To them, the offer shows how serious a school is about you.”
Barnwell, Mountain View running back Ike Daniels, James Monroe linebacker Jordan Hall and Colonial Forge offensive tackle Nolan McConnell all hold full scholarship offers in the rising sophomore class.
Daniels’ father, Jesse Daniels, is a 2000 North Stafford graduate and a youth football coach with the Fredericksburg Jackets.
Jesse Daniels said recruiting nowadays is “like night and day” compared to when he suited up for the Wolverines. He said players are better equipped at an earlier age because of travel teams that offer advance teachings and opportunities outside their zip codes.
He also noted college coaches have access to players’ highlights readily available on their tablets or smartphones.
“Social media makes it so much easier where you can get online and just send out clips on Hudl,” Daniels said. “And the athletes are evolving. They’re starting to be bigger, faster and stronger. They have so many opportunities to go out there and train. You’re seeing a big evolution in football in this area.”
A ‘MEGA’ TALENT
At the end of Barnwell’s first FAYFL tackle season he participated in an all-star game. Current Colonial Forge assistant coach D.J. Palmer was one of the coaches.
Barnwell wore socks with the character Megatron from the “Transformers” series plastered on them.
“I was always the biggest kid and I had these Megatron socks on,” Barnwell recalled. “[Palmer] said, ‘Since you’re bigger than everybody I’m just going to call you Mega.’ It just stuck from there.”
Barnwell is working toward his game becoming as large as his nickname.
After excelling with the Canes he moved on to the Metro Raiders 14U travel team. Barnwell picked up his first scholarship offer from Liberty University last summer before he attended one high school practice.
The Flames recruited him as a tight end. Virginia followed up with an offer as an offensive lineman at its camp and later told Barnwell they like him as a tight end after he began to trim some of the 260 pounds he weighed entering high school.
Barnwell was named first-team all-Battlefield District last fall after recording three touchdown catches and five two-point conversions in the Knights’ run-heavy single-wing attack.
“He’s not just a grounded player,” Spotsylvania head coach Jeremy Jack said. “He’s able to elevate and go up and get the ball.”
Barnwell was recently rated the No. 1 tight end in Virginia and the No. 2 player at his position in the nation in the Class of 2023 by national recruiting analyst Tom Lemming. In addition to Liberty and Virginia, he holds offers from Duke, Maryland, Nebraska, Ole Miss, Penn State, Pittsburgh, Southern California, Tennessee and Virginia Tech.
Jack said Barnwell’s body type, football IQ and willingness to improve makes him an ideal target for college coaches.
“I think the easiest way to say it is, ‘What’s not to like?’ ” Jack said. “He’s been very blessed genetically and a lot of football at the Division I level comes down to genetics and being able to carry the size necessary to play. He has the God-gifted ability and skill, as well.”
SIDELINE TO SIDELINE
Hall was 7 years old when Fredericksburg Jackets coach Anthony Poole began to recognize his potential. It didn’t take long for Hall to buy in to the confidence Poole and others showed in him.
“Every kids’ dream that plays football is to go to the NFL,” Hall said. “So that’s always been my mindset since I was young—play every play like it’s my last and eventually one day I’ll get there.”
Hall is making sure he’s enjoying the process, too. But he acknowledges there are sacrifices in chasing his dream. He can’t always have fun with friends because there’s work to be done in keeping his body in shape and his mind sharp.
“I know if I want to get where I want to get I have to make those sacrifices,” Hall said. “It just comes with it.”
Hall is on his way. He’s 6-foot-3, 230 pounds and the No. 1 ranked linebacker in his class, according to Lemming. He recorded 90 tackles (23 for loss) for the Yellow Jackets last season.
He picked up his first scholarship offer from Virginia Tech last month and Virginia extended an offer on May 22.
Yellow Jackets head coach George Coghill said Hall’s natural ability and production in one season make him a commodity on the recruiting scene. Coghill said Hall makes plays on the opposite side of the field whether he’s at outside linebacker or defensive end. He said Hall has also shown an ability to cover athletes in space.
“Jordan is one of those kids that know how to get to the football,” Coghill said. “And to have someone at that early of an age have that type of desire to get to the ball as much as he does I think is what’s attracting a lot of these college coaches.”
‘HE’S PRETTY SPECIAL’
Jesse Daniels believed his son was more talented in baseball than football. But Ike didn’t have the same passion for the diamond as the gridiron.
Jesse Daniels said Poole began to work closely with Ike at a young age and his aggression on the field intensified.
“When he was 8 or 9, [Poole and Palmer] forced me to realize, ‘Hey there’s something going on with this kid. He’s pretty special,’ ” Jesse Daniels recalled.
Ike played with Hall on the Jackets and they later teamed up with Barnwell in all-star games and they became close friends. Jesse Daniels said Poole gave Ike the nudge he needed, Palmer fine-tuned his skills and he simply offered support.
As a freshman for Mountain View last fall, Daniels was third on the team with 804 rushing yards (8.4 per carry). He led the Wildcats with 22 receptions. He played defensive back in the postseason and recorded two interceptions. He was named first-team all-Region 5D at running back.
“He’s a very explosive player,” Mountain View head coach Lou Sorrentino said. “He’s fast but he’s also strong and powerful.”
By the end of Daniels’ freshman year he held scholarship offers from Penn State, Pittsburgh, Virginia and Virginia Tech. His father’s former high school coach, Chris Beatty, is the wide receivers coach at Pitt.
“I take this serious,” Ike said of his future in the game. “It’s the way I’m going to provide for my family. The offers, they’re good to have. But you’ve got to keep working so you can have more.”
EARNING HIS KEEP
McConnell has continued to work, as well. He played junior varsity last season and was called up to varsity late. He played mostly on passing downs.
McConnell’s potential is vast. Colonial Forge head coach John Brown said the Eagles have big plans for the 6-foot-6, 260-pound McConnell on offense and defense. But his playing time will be earned. It won’t be given because of his recruiting notoriety.
In one week earlier this month, McConnell collected scholarship offers from Boston College, Liberty, Penn State, Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Virginia.
“Our kids earn their time,” Brown said. “He knows he has to earn his time and everybody around him knows he has to earn his time. That goes for everybody. I don’t think any coach around us would let a kid play or start or get a significant amount of playing time based on potential.”
Unlike Barnwell, Daniels and Hall, McConnell never played in any travel leagues. He participated in the Stafford County Parks & Recreation and for Rodney Thompson Middle School before joining the Eagles’ JV last fall.
He’s always loomed over his teammates and opposition. Doctors once told him he’d grow as tall as 7-foot-2 but toned down the projection to 6-10. McConnell said if he continues growing it could make playing football difficult.
Brown doesn’t think a height increase would be an issue because McConnell is so flexible he can squat to the floor. Brown said McConnell’s length could be an asset to ward off defenders from the offensive tackle position.
“I don’t want to get any taller,” McConnell said. “If I was like 6-10, that would be too tall. I’d be more injury prone. I just don’t want to grow anymore.”
ON THE FAST TRACK
Players growing in or out of positions can be a challenge for college coaches when they offer scholarships early on. They also don’t know if a player will develop at all.
Franklin said there are pros and cons to offering prospects so early. The offers are oral and colleges aren’t bound to them. College coaches are routinely hired and fired, and Franklin said not every offer is “committable.”
“The earlier the offer, typically, the more unlikely it is that it will still be there once their junior or senior seasons roll around,” Franklin said. “There are pros, though. Earlier offers do give some kids a chance to get into the process sooner and perhaps find the right fit before the madness of recruiting takes over.”
Brown was an assistant coach at C.D. Hylton High School in Woodbridge in the early 2000s when future Virginia linebacker Ahmad Brooks was the No. 1 recruit in the nation. Brooks didn’t receive an offer until after his junior year.
Coghill played at Wake Forest and held multiple major college offers in the late 1980s at JM. He didn’t receive his first scholarship offer until after his senior season ended.
Brown said the ramped up timetable for colleges puts pressure on high school coaches to develop kids and temper their egos.
Sorrentino said there are also challenges when it comes to team chemistry. He said older players that have been “plugging away” to gain attention from scouts can become resentful when younger teammates receive an offer.
Sorrentino said in the past 10 years he’s seen an increase in players that become preoccupied with recruiting and don’t enjoy the high school experience. He said Daniels is the first freshman he’s had receive an offer in more than 30 years of coaching.
“We’ve just got to be careful because for a young kid, a lot of times that’s one of their main goals and then to have that goal so early sometimes you can get complacent or start thinking about yourself rather than the team,” Sorrentino said. “That’s one thing I really like about coaching Ike Daniels. He really took to the team.”
Coghill and Jack said the same of Barnwell and Hall. McConnell is still finding his way on the Eagles’ varsity, but Brown doesn’t believe ego or work ethic will be an issue.
More players in the area’s Class of 2023 could develop into Division I prospects. The group is already shaping up to become perhaps the most decorated to ever come from the region.
“I think it’s a true blessing to see all of us getting offers because I know the type of work we have put in,” Barnwell said. “We’re all very humble. We continue to work. We don’t settle for anything.”