The junior is rated as the No. 3 recruit in the nation, and he has the offers from the top colleges to show for it. He'll announce his top nine schools after the season.

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It’s hard to get adults to listen when you’re a 4-year-old. Or even at age 13.

That’s been the plight of Sav’ell Smalls.

As a toddler buckled in the back seat of his father’s car, he griped about the age limit to play football because, at age 4, he was already bigger than the 6-year-olds on the field. Once able to play, he argued with coaches who made him a lineman because of his size.

“That was disrespectful,” said Smalls, who is heading into his junior season at Garfield.

He’s stood at 6 foot 3 and 227 pounds since eighth grade. But he has the agility, speed and aggression fit for a linebacker and hands adequate to play tight end.

Once he was able to run a few routes at a camp in Kent as an incoming freshman, he no longer had to speak. And now Smalls is recognized nationally as the talent he always believed himself to be — a five-star outside linebacker regarded as the No. 3 recruit in the nation for the Class of 2020.

Garfield, which last season advanced to the Class 3A state semifinals for the first time since 1977, opens practice Wednesday along with the other programs across the state. The Bulldogs’ season-opener is Aug. 31 at All Saints, a private school from Fort Worth, Texas, which had 12 players sign NCAA Division I scholarships last year.

“I’m very hesitant to light the fire under a freshman,” said Dirk Knudsen, founder of the Northwest Prep Report which wrote one of the first recruiting analyses on Smalls in 2016. “It can be a very self-destructive thing for the kid and the parents because they usually don’t have enough film or physicality to project that far. Having seen, in my 15 years, All-Americans come up, Sav’ell fit everything that you’re looking for in an impact player.”

Sav’ell Smalls helped lead Garfield to the state semifinals last year. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Sav’ell Smalls helped lead Garfield to the state semifinals last year. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

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Signature name

Sophia Butler knew the oldest of her three sons would be something.

Pregnant at 19, she refers to herself then as “young and bad-acting.” When she first looked at the face that mirrors her own, Butler knew a regular name wouldn’t do.

“I just made it up,” said Butler of liking the alliteration in merging the surname of her son’s paternal grandfather with a creative first name. When Sophia married Joseph Butler, she thought twice about the name choice made as a teenager.

But everyone was already having fun with the name. “Biggie Smalls” and “Savvy” were a few twists shouted from the sideline of basketball and football games as her son displayed grit and hustle. Smalls received his height and athleticism from his mother, who at 5 foot 9, played everything from flag football to hockey while growing up.

It wasn’t until hearing the nickname “Hats” that the Butlers grasped where Smalls was headed.

Kennedy Catholic coach Sheldon Cross gave Smalls the moniker his freshman season. After being misjudged as a lineman, Smalls played spring ball with the Lancers, putting on a show the way he snatched balls out of the air and exploded off the line for vicious hits.

Cross stopped practice, looked at Smalls and proclaimed, “You’re going to be a hats guy.”

“At the time, all the kids and even Sav’ell didn’t know what it meant,” Cross said. “It’s the guy who puts all these hats on a table and you’re on ESPN and you get to put that one on and all of these colleges are going to anxiously wait to see what hat goes on your head. That’s what a ‘Hat Guy’ is.”

Cross also had a conversation with Smalls’ parents to prepare them for attention from scouts, college coaches, media and detractors. The freshman finished the season with 17 sacks, two touchdowns, two interceptions and 50 tackles.

It started with an offer from Washington. Then Alabama and Stanford. An offer from Texas to begin August marked Smalls’ 23rd. Schools are able to send recruiting materials beginning Sept. 1.

“Everybody has nice facilities and nice uniforms,” said Smalls, who made unofficial visits to Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, Florida and Florida State this summer. “How they’ll develop me, how good will the business degree be and the coaches vibe, that’s how I look at it. Do I feel like they’ll make me a better person, a better player? Do they genuinely care about me? That’s a big thing.”

Smalls said he plans to narrow his list to nine schools after the high-school season, picking the number because he wears jersey No. 9. He’ll use the December, 2019 signing period so he can graduate and enroll in college early.

“It can be scary because you hear all of the stories about how people use athletes up and spit them out,” Joseph said. “But I think, being realistic, my job is to make sure he gets to a DI school, hopefully they pay for it.”

Most would assume that puts pressure on Smalls to get an athletic scholarship. It could just as easily be an academic full-ride. He has a 3.87 GPA with a strong interest in business.

He’s loved learning since first grade with Mr. Wong at Nautilus Elementary School in Federal Way. Weekly spelling contests and extra work after class had Smalls hooked. His favorite word to spell? “Encyclopedia” because of the books about the boy detective.

Not being challenged academically enough at Kennedy Catholic to warrant the cost of attending the private school is part of the reason Smalls transferred to Garfield for his sophomore year.

“Sav’ell will probably never have another teacher like Mr. Wong again; he was dedicated to those kids,” Sophia said. “Now, Sav’ell doesn’t want anybody to outdo him in anything. Academically, sports, whatever. He wants to be the best. We didn’t even have to say, ‘Do your homework.’ It just comes naturally. So, we’re never afraid to take him and put him in the best situations to succeed and grow. If you don’t advocate for your child, who will?”

Garfield High School Sav’ell Smalls is one of the biggest football recruits in the nation.  (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Garfield High School Sav’ell Smalls is one of the biggest football recruits in the nation. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

• • •

A new focus

Returning to the Central District — where Smalls’ parents and nearly all of his relatives attended Garfield — allowed the family to form a new plan.

His first trainer was Lou Kristopher, who helped teach Smalls to eat healthy and replace sugary cereals with salads. This summer, Smalls started training three times a week with former Washington State receiver Jeff Solomon, who has focused on developing Smalls’ core strength, hip flexibility and footwork.

Then there’s Bulldogs coach Joey Thomas, who played five seasons in the NFL, and defensive end coach Valentino Coleman, who played at Kansas State. Their approach is to create a program that mimics college on and off the field.

“Most don’t know how to handle a player of that magnitude,” said Thomas of Smalls, who 247Sports.com rates as the top prospect from Washington since the year 2000. That’s ahead of players such as Jonathan Stewart (2005), Reggie Williams (2001) and most recently, Foster Sarell (2017).

“We coach Sav’ell hard and hold him accountable,” Thomas continued. “He’s a special talent, but the thing that makes him so special is the way he works. It always gets overshadowed because people just see the results and think he was always good. Sav’ell Smalls worked to be the No. 1 player in the nation. Countless hours, studying his craft.”

Smalls, the reigning Metro League co-Defensive Player of the Year, will have a different team around him this season. Star receiver Tre’Shaun Harrison is gone along with 14 other starters. Quarterback Javon Tade, running back Avery Marrow and defensive back Quintavion Johnson are some key returners who’ll keep the Bulldogs competitive.

Garfield is again playing one of the toughest schedules in the state. In addition to the Texas road trip, the young team will play state semifinalists in Central Valley (Class 4A) and Bellevue (Class 3A). State runner-up and crosstown rival Rainier Beach and Eastside Catholic, which is regarded as the top team in the state.

“It gives me chills,” Smalls said. “I finally have a chance to, not have the team in a selfish way, but be the leader of the team. I’ve been waiting for that and I know I’m up for the challenge. It’s all about pressure and they say pressure makes diamonds. I’m going to turn into a diamond.”

Listen to what Smalls says.