Defensive end Brandon Rankin was offered a scholarship by Alabama but stayed with the Cougars, who signed him a year ago. Rankin enrolled at Washington State in January.
PULLMAN — Paul Wulff has made it clear: He’s not going down that road again. No more Washington State football teams built on the fragile footings of junior-college transfers.
To that rule, though, there are exceptions, one of them sitting opposite me in an office last week at Bohler Gym.
Brandon Rankin is a 6-foot-4, 270-pound pass-rushing defensive end, and he’s hard not to like, whether you’re a football coach in need of heat on the quarterback, or the people around Shallotte, N.C., a town of 1,400 only a couple of deep routes from the Atlantic Ocean and the South Carolina border.
“A lot of people said I’m like Michael Oher,” says Rankin, referencing the Baltimore Ravens’ offensive lineman whose adopted-family story inspired the movie “The Blind Side.”
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Wednesday is national football signing day, and Shallotte can go ahead and join in the celebration, even though Rankin was on WSU’s official list a year ago. Back then, his future as a major-college player was more dream than likelihood.
Rankin was a high-school standout in Shallotte, but recruiters knew the deal: He had poor grades, so he had a single campus visit, to North Carolina State.
An assistant coach his junior year knew the coach at Butte College in Northern California, so on Aug. 2, 2007, Rankin got on a plane and for the first time in his life, left the Eastern time zone.
His first season at Butte got off slowly, beginning with a sprained ankle. It healed, his play picked up and every day in practice, coaches matched him against offensive tackle Danny Watkins, now a starter at Baylor.
“He and I went at it,” Rankin says. “We made each other better.”
It was in 2008 that Rankin blew up, piling up 26 sacks — six in one game — becoming MVP of the state-championship game as Butte went 12-0.
“He had a huge year; he was probably the most dominant guy on defense in the state,” says Rob Snelling, a Butte assistant coach.
Recruiters came and called — LSU, USC, Oregon State — and left just as quickly. Rankin had miles to go before he could get the requisite JC degree. Wulff, the WSU coach, acknowledged as much when the Cougars signed him in ’09, saying, “He’s a wonderful kid. As a person of character, he’s somebody we’d be willing to work with.”
That’s where Shallotte came in. Rankin left Butte last spring, returned home and began catching up academically, needing 20-plus online credits.
The wife of the football coach at West Brunswick High, Lyn Fletcher, called and e-mailed Butte to ensure Rankin had every class he needed. A science teacher, she also helped tutor him. Another wife pitched in, another football aide/teacher assisted him in history.
“I just played the role of annoying parent,” Lyn Fletcher said, laughing over the phone the other day, referring to the coordination with Butte.
And what about Rankin inspires such investment?
“Brandon has always just been a special person,” she said. “He’s very humble and so very appreciative of anything someone does to help him. He’s just one of those infectious people.”
Through summer and fall, when he was helping coach his old high-school team, Rankin worked harder on schoolwork than he had in his life. And when he got good marks, funny thing, the recruiting picked up again.
Would it help to know, WSU fans, that Alabama wanted in on him?
Rankin’s cousin, Alfy Hill, a senior linebacker at West Brunswick, will sign Wednesday with ‘Bama. The Crimson Tide had a recruiter at the school checking out Hill in the fall when he stumbled upon Rankin. That led to a stop in Shallotte by Alabama coach Nick Saban in December on his way to the Heisman Trophy ceremony.
“He offered me,” said Rankin.
Rankin talked it over with his mother and decided to stay the course with Wulff and co-defensive coordinator Jody Sears.
“A lot of people say, ‘Why’d you turn down Alabama?’ ” Rankin says. “Washington State had been there … I felt comfortable with coach Wulff and coach Sears.”
Wednesday, the Cougars will make mention of Rankin, as well as two JC offensive linemen, Wade Jacobson and David Gonzales. A change in philosophy? Well, two successive dreadful seasons might do this to a coach.
But the risk is more calculated. This isn’t a hope that the next bus in mid-August will drop off a kid needing 23 summer-school hours. All three are enrolled, acclimating to class and winter and spring drills.
That means Rankin is getting used to things like edicts from strength coach Darin Lovat that being “late” is showing up at 3 o’clock for a 3 p.m. workout.
“I’ve been the first one in the door since then,” Rankin says. “You ain’t got to worry about me being late again.”
Smiling, he adds, “I got lost. I’m still trying to figure out these halls.”
At Butte, he got care packages from grandparents, aunts and uncles — money, clothes, food, “anything I needed.” The day doesn’t go by that he doesn’t hear from somebody back home.
“I don’t want to let them down,” Rankin says. “I don’t want to let myself down. I’ve got so many people looking for me to do great things.”
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org