SAN ANTONIO, Tex. - What is it with North Carolina linebackers and the U.S. Army All-American Bowl? Last year Derek Nicholson came in to San Antonio with something to prove and left as one of the top linebackers in the country. This year it's Shelby (N.C.) Crest 'backer Brandon Spikes who is making a name for himself with spirited play, a clear love of the game and unquestionable skills.
Spikes has been the early story for the East defense, breaking up passes, coming close to interceptions and rocking massive running back Chris Wells with a huge hit. It's no wonder Florida, Alabama and Virginia Tech are all battling for his services and will be glued to the TV on Saturday when he announces his decision.
"Since I was real young it's been a goal of mine to be in the U.S. Army All American Game," said the 6-foot-4, 235-pounder. "So we're just kicking it, meeting players, building relationships and playing ball. I'm having a great time."
Spikes has instantly become a leader of the East team.
"It just kind of takes me over," he said. "I'm a student of the game, I play hard and lead by example. It just comes out of me and I hope it catches."
It certainly catches on with other players, not only because of Spikes clear enjoyment of the game and his affable nature, but also because he's good -- very good. Leaders talk like leaders and you can hear it when Spikes speaks.
"He ran over one of my safeties yesterday so it was a little payback for the defense," said Spikes of his huge hit on Wells on Tuesday and speaking as if this was his team and he had ownership. "That was a little bit back from us that hit. But that's a big back yo. He's gotta be around 230 or 235 and I've never gone against a back like that, but it don't matter. If you're 245 or 250 or whatever, I'll hit you."
Spikes can also do more than hit. He's excellent in coverage with his long arms and good instincts. But on Monday he was particularly upset with one portion of his anatomy.
"I was yelling at my hands, I dropped two picks yesterday," he said. "That usually doesn't happen. I usually have pretty good hands."
And what did he say to his disappointing appendages?
"I said 'what are you all doing to me?," he explained as he flashed a smile. "I needed to talk to them."
Spikes credits much of his instinctual ability with watching a lot of football.
"Some of the old-time guys like Dick Butkus and the NFL guys like Takeo Spikes and Ray Lewis," he said. "Just watching how they do things and see how they read plays has taught me. You can also see they love the game and that energy they have helps them."
Is there a relation to Takeo?
"No, but I get that question a lot and I wish I was," he said. "He's a great player. I've never met him but I'd love to."
Moving to recruiting, Spikes has made his decision and will announce it on Saturday during the game. His choice was between Florida, Alabama and Virginia Tech and he certainly wasn't going to spill it early.
"It's going to be about people, it's all about people," he said. "All three places have great players, great coaches, great atmospheres but it comes down to where I feel at home and where I know I can play early."
Spikes hasn't told anyone his decision just yet.
"That's the hardest part about this thing is saying no to people," he said. "That will be tough."
The two schools most think have the best shot for Spikes are Florida and Alabama because of connections to Spikes and his school. Florida assistant coach Doc Holliday has been recruiting Spikes since Holliday was at NC State while Charlie "Cheese" Harbison attended Spikes' high school in Shelby.
"Coach Holliday is great and I've known him for awhile and coach Cheese is a guy I know would take care of me while I'm down there if I chose Alabama so there is a connection to each," he said. "It's good to have that."
So who needs him the most in his opinion?
"Good question," he said and pondered a bit. "Alabama does I think. They're losing two guys who could both be first rounders in the NFL so that tells me where I could end up and I know I could play early. They've talked about starting. Florida is losing one linebacker but they think I can step in and play right away as well and Virginia Tech thinks I could play right away with Vince Hall and Xavier Adibi. But Alabama needs me the most if I had to pick one."
Spikes said he made his decision awhile ago but wouldn't specify when. There had been rumors of a silent commitment to Florida and more recent rumors that Alabama had closed the gap.
"Not gonna say," he smiled. "I know who it is and everyone will know Saturday."