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Ronald Darby makes himself at home

10/7/2011

OXON HILLS, Md. -- Ronald Darby had a surprise for the Under Armour presenters.

When handed his honorary jersey for the UA All-America Game, the four-star prospect ripped off his Notre Dame jacket to display an Under Armour T-shirt he donned just before he was officially named to the all-star event. Yet his outfit wasn't complete until he adorned the actual jersey and hat before taking the podium. It was part of the 80-stop American Family Insurance presents the Under Armour All-America Game selection tour.

Then, incredibly comfortable in what many prospects have considered a nerve-wracking environment, Darby preceded to give "shout-outs" to what seemed like every member of the crowd gathered in the Oxon Hills (Md.) Potomac gymnasium. With a huge grin, he even acknowledged those that have mistakenly doubted his ability.

"I love my haters," the 5-foot-11, 176-pound athlete said. "Talk behind my back and smile to my face, I can take it."

Darby, No. 70 in the ESPNU 150, then took a seat, only to return to the podium for more shout-outs. At some point during the energetic press conference, one of Darby's mentors, track coach Stanley Mullins, finally got to speak. He choked up a bit as he talked about his star pupil.

"He's a very, very God-gifted, talented athlete," Mullins said quietly. "They don't come around that often. He's a very, very technically sound athlete. He's very, very inquisitive. He likes to know why he's doing certain things and then he goes about doing it.

"Ronald is very intelligent and with his natural abilities and the things that he learned from his coaches, he has come together."

That wasn't always the case. Like many teenagers, time and direction from his elders molded Darby into the athlete, student and person he is today. That's why he considered much more than football when he decided to commit to Notre Dame in April.

"I knew they were a real up-and-coming team," said Darby, who is slated to play cornerback in college. "The D-line class they signed, I knew that would help me as a defensive back on the next level. I just love the coaches, the education and the graduation rate. I try to think of things after football."

That mindset comes from the tutoring he has received at Potomac High School. The school is technically in the suburbs but sits just outside Washington, D.C., so there are plenty of temptations for kids to go astray. Three broken-down scoreboards (two in the gymnasium and one on the football field) and a condemned press box are reminders that times can be hard.

The message delivered by school administrators is an education is the most reliable way to improve one's situation. That's why athletic director Joanna Stephens regularly meets with the school's athletes and talks about the eventuality of life after sports.

"We try to point out other athletes that made it big and fell to the wayside," she said.

Those days seem a long way away for Darby. Aside from being a top football prospect, he's also a world-class track athlete, having posted a 21.1-second time in the 200 meters and excelling in shorter distances. Not bad for a young man who just started running track in the ninth grade.

"Nobody is close to him in the state of Maryland or nationally too," Mullins said. "He's accomplished quite a bit."

So much so that Darby has traveled to France, Japan and Puerto Rico to compete, which makes it reasonable to wonder where his athletic talents will take him.

When asked if he'll be in the NFL or the Olympic Summer Games in 2016, he said, "If it's up to me, the NFL."

But he's not ruling out the Olympics.

"It can be a possibility but I like football more," he said. "But I also love track."

Mullins agreed, even if he lamented that fact just a bit.

"He'll be in the NFL, I think," Mullins said. "His first true love is football. Track, he's beginning to love track also because he's had some very positive experiences with track and field."

Sometimes track can be a distraction for a football player. Spring practice is often held during track season and competing year-round can wear some athletes down. Mullins said he has had to hold Darby back at times to avoid that.

Mullins said he believes track has actually made Darby a better football player. Competing against some of the best young runners caught Darby's attention and taught him some lessons.

"Ronald has found out that to be the best, you have to compete against the best and you have to be in the best possible condition to compete at that level," Mullins said. "He's found that out from his experiences in competing against other athletes that are world class like he is. You have to be in peak condition for that.

"He strives to keep his body in that condition for it. He's always asking me for more [work]."

Darby agrees that the track experiences have made him better overall. However, it's easy to wonder if the workload may have contributed to a pulled groin muscle in preseason football camp. Darby missed Potomac's last two games after pushing through and competing for Potomac's first four contests, which were the meat of its schedule.

Pulled groin and all, Darby took the opening kickoff of the season back 91 yards for a touchdown. It was a dazzling return in which he broke a handful of tackles, changed direction several times and sprinted away for the score -- all made more impressive by the fact that Darby wasn't close to full speed at the time.

"He says 70 percent," said Mullins, who actually estimated Darby was more like 60 percent healthy on that day. "But at 70 percent, he was better than all of them."

Darby's infectious personality may also pay dividends for Notre Dame. One of his good friends, Keith Marshall from Raleigh (N.C.) Millbrook, is considering the Irish and will take his official visit there on Oct. 21.
Darby said he doesn't push Marshall too hard to Notre Dame, but he'll mention it now and again.

But put him behind a podium and Darby could become the Fighting Irish's best recruiter.

Dave Hooker covers Southeast and Atlantic Coast recruiting. He has covered recruiting and college football for more than a decade. Email him at davehookerespn@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @davehookerespn