Washington star Michael Penix Jr. was limping off the field for the final time of his decorated college career when Michigan’s Jaylen Harrell chased him down again.
Harrell wanted to shake his competitor’s hand after the Wolverines’ 34-13 victory over the Huskies in Monday’s national championship.
Neither acknowledged the obvious: It was a touching embrace between two of the Tampa Bay area’s latest stars.
Penix’s local roots are well chronicled, from his first steps on Pasco High’s football field in Dade City to his sensational career at Tampa Bay Tech.
Harrell’s has been overlooked. He was a four-year starter and senior captain who played five different positions (defensive end, linebacker, tight end, fullback and running back) at Berkeley Prep, where he blossomed into a top-300 national recruit.
His statistics don’t jump out. His 30 tackles entering the title game ranked 11th on the team. But Monday was his 30th career start and 19th in a row. You don’t reach those milestones at mighty Michigan by chance.
As Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh told reporters after the game: “When a play needs to be made, J.J. McCarthy makes it, Donovan Edwards makes it, Jaylen Harrell makes it, Junior Colson makes it, Rod Moore makes it.”
Harrell only had one assisted tackle against Washington, but he still made plays. His spin move in the fourth quarter pressured Penix and helped force a short pass on third and 18. He got his hand on Penix on second down in the closing minutes, too, during the Huskies’ last gasps.
The deciding factor in the Wolverines’ 21-point triumph was their ability to harass Penix without adding new blitzers; Harrell played a significant role in making that happen.
“His motor runs 100 mph on every play,” his former high school coach, Dominick Ciao, said Tuesday. “Just to see his effort and be part of the unselfishness of the rotation, what they do …”
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What that rotation did Monday was pressure and pound Penix. Judging by the way he held his midsection when ESPN’s cameras showed him trudging toward the locker room, he was still feeling it after the game.
Penix was 11 steps into the tunnel when Harrell trotted in from the field and tapped his elbow. Penix lifted the black Gatorade towel from his face enough to see Harrell. They shared a quick embrace. The encounter lasted no more than five seconds. As of Tuesday afternoon, that clip had been viewed more than 650,000 times from one social media post alone and liked another 400,000-plus times on another. Notable Tampa-area alumni, including former Florida State running back James Wilder Jr., touted the local connection. Harrell shared ESPN’s post and added 813 and palm tree emoji.
It was, as best we can tell, the first meeting between Harrell and Penix. Berkeley Prep and Tampa Bay Tech didn’t play each other during their two overlapping high school years. Ciao said they probably knew each other in Hillsborough County, but he’s not sure. Maybe it doesn’t matter.
Ciao didn’t see the video Tuesday morning because he was at NRG Stadium the night before to watch Harrell and another Berkeley alumnus, walk-on offensive lineman/long snapper James Kavouklis, win it all. But after coaching Harrell and seeing how he took care of Kavouklis at Michigan, he wasn’t surprised by his star pupil’s gesture of sportsmanship, regardless of what prompted it.
“Not at all,” Ciao said. “That’s him, 100%.”