Bennett’s Isaiah McDuffie and Canisius’ Blake Haubeil count their blessings everyday.
The two football players are barely old enough to drive a car, yet neither 16-year-old has to worry about his college future as he heads into his junior year of high school. They already know what universities they will attend because they’ve pounced on offers to go to two of the nation’s best for free.
The 6-foot-1, 190-pound McDuffie already plays for a team that wears orange and blue but gave his word to continue to do so with the program that made the color scheme famous when he accepted a full-ride to attend Syracuse back in July. The 6-3, 200-pound Haubeil, who began rooting for Ohio State as a 4-year-old, will get to suit up for games in The Horseshoe beginning in 2017. He gave his verbal commitment to play for the defending national-champion Buckeyes in late July after attending Ohio State’s Friday Night Lights Camp.
McDuffie, a first-team All-Western New York linebacker, and Haubeil, a second-team All-Western New York kicker, are the first area football stars to earn the Division I dream before attending junior prom.
The last time two major Division I commits went into a Western New York football season with their futures secure was in 2011, when St. Joe’s Chad Kelly and St. Francis’ Akeel Lynch committed as seniors-to-be to attend Clemson and Boston College, respectively. (Lynch changed his mind and opted to go to Penn State instead).
“It’s a blessing,” said McDuffie. On defense last year he made 161 tackles, forced five fumbles and made two interceptions. On offense he chipped in with 1,375 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns.
“It’s just a lot of hard work. We’re just blessed to be able to have the opportunity to do that.”
It’s not unusual for scholastic players in football hot beds like Ohio, Texas and Florida to give their verbal commitments to Division I schools prior to their junior seasons. Until this summer, it was unheard of in Western New York.
“Certainly a rare thing in Western New York,” Canisius coach Rich Robbins said. “It’s great for Blake. It’s great for Isaiah. Honestly, it’s really good for high school football in the Buffalo area overall.”
While McDuffie and Haubeil have God-given gifts and come from athletic families, both did their part to get noticed by major conference programs.
McDuffie making a name for himself in football shouldn’t be a surprise. His father, Bennett coach Steve, played at Louisville and the University at Buffalo. His uncles Tedy and Chris also played Division I football after star-studded scholastic careers at Grover Cleveland and Williamsville North, respectively.
Isaiah, who attends Olmsted but plays for Bennett since his school doesn’t offer football, said he always had a football in his hand when he was younger. Once he hit the field running and played organized ball for the first time at age 7, it was hard not to notice him.
“People always said there was something special about me,” he said. “I think it’s my motor I guess. Just the way I love the game.”
A lot of people love the game. Few receive multiple scholarship offers from major programs at age 16.
“I just put a lot of work in ever since I was younger,” McDuffie said. “Extra push ups, sit ups. Extra sprints. I did all that and I think that’s why I’ve succeeded.”
McDuffie started attending football camps at Division I schools as an eighth-grader. Syracuse’s was his very first one. Then the University at Buffalo’s camp. He’s a three-time camp participant at Syracuse and UB and has attended Penn State’s twice.
Other colleges took notice earlier this summer after he earned an invitation to the prestigious Sound Mind Sound Body Football Academy just outside Detroit. While coaches from the Southeastern Conference and Atlantic Coast Conference aren’t allowed to attend that camp, all other major and mid-major conference coaches were in attendance, including Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh, Ohio State’s Urban Meyer and Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio.
Washington State made McDuffie an offer after the camp, but the lifelong Syracuse fan pounced on the Orange’s offer which followed – picking SU over Penn State, UB and Connecticut. McDuffie said coach Scott Shafer and his staff plan to build their defense around him.
“They can see the potential I have, that’s what made me really jump at it,” said McDuffie. “I just loved the coaching staff. I can tell they really like me. ... It’s going to be a good relationship.”
Comfort, specifically with his future coaches, surroundings and academic programs also played a big role in Haubeil saying “yes” to Meyer’s offer.
As unusual as it is for an area junior-to-be to commit to a Division I school, Haubeil’s personal kicking coach Sam Watts said it’s almost unheard for that to happen to a kicker.
Meyer has always had an eye for talent.
Kohl’s Professional Kicking Camps, which rates place kickers, ranked Haubeil, the former Amherst Tiger who transferred to Canisius this year, as the top prospect nationally for the Class of 2017.
“I would say it’s his commitment and dedication,” said Watts, who runs his own kicking academy. Alumni include current NFL punters Brett Kern and Jacob Schum and Connecticut place-kicker Michael Tarbutt.
“He not only did what I asked him to do on the field, he also got into the weight room a year and half ago and took his physical strength to the next level,” Watts said of Haubeil.
Did he ever.
Haubeil said he added 20 pounds of muscle to his frame during the three years he’s worked with Watts, who had him join an area gym to do strength training.
“Ever since I’ve been working with coach Watts, I’ve just been getting better and better every year,” said Haubeil, whose career long field goal is 49 yards. He went 7 for 9 last season while recording a touchback on 65 percent of his kickoffs.
While Haubeil’s father did not play football, Hendrik did play soccer for Kenmore East. Blake got the itch to kick seeing his father and his buddies boot footballs through the uprights just for sport.
“My dad was a big inspiration,” Haubeil said. “I thought it was pretty cool so I bought a holder, put a football on the blocks and just started kicking it through the uprights.”
Blake said his father has a 57-yarder to his credit. It used to be the longest kick in the family until Aug. 17, Canisius’ first day of practice. Haubeil made a good first impression with his new teammates when he boomed a 61-yarder through the uprights. The boot, made without the aid of a block for elevation, was caught on video and made the rounds on Twitter.
Haubeil hasn’t used a kicking block since eighth grade, one of the reasons he’s on the Division I radar since they don’t use blocks to tee up field-goal attempts in college or the pros.
“It was nice when I hit that 60 range to beat” my dad’s record,” said Blake, who also attended camps at Wisconsin and UB. “It felt great, the first day being able to kick that field goal.”
What would feel even better is being part of a state championship team. Both Haubeil and McDuffie want to experience that winning feeling.
“That’s the main goal,” McDuffie said.
Regarding Canisius quest, Haubeil said: “They have high expectations but I’m looking forward to it.”
It’ll take more hard work, but that’s OK. They’ve already learned hard work pays off.