In the world of college football recruiting, where seemingly every potential all-American is identified before he leaves the Pop Warner League, it might be hard to imagine how a player such as Branden Albert could go so unnoticed.
Albert, 6 feet 7 and 310 pounds, is only the second Virginia freshman since 1972 to start on the offensive line. He will make his fourth start in Saturday's game against Maryland at Byrd Stadium, and this week was named ACC rookie of the week for his performance in the No. 19 Cavaliers' 38-7 victory over Duke last weekend.
So why was Virginia the only school to offer Albert a scholarship during his senior year at Glen Burnie High School in 2003? Because the Cavaliers, apparently, were the only team that could see past Albert's less than spectacular academic record and recognize his enormous potential, both on and off the football field.
Albert, who turns 21 in November, grew up in a single-parent home in Rochester, N.Y. With his mother, Susan Albert, working long shifts to make financial ends meet, Albert was often on his own. When his older brother, Ashley Sims, left home to play football at the University of Maryland, there was often no one to ensure Albert did his homework or attended school.
So after Albert failed his freshman year of high school twice and nearly flunked out of school midway through his third year as a ninth-grader, Susan Albert decided to send her youngest son south.
"Albert's grades weren't up to par, and she wanted him to have a fresh start," said Sims, a defensive lineman for the Terrapins from 1994 to 1997 and now a probation officer in the District. "She knew when he came down here, I'd be strict with him as far as school."
Albert knew moving to Maryland also meant he would have to play football. Although Albert was always much bigger and stronger than his classmates, he had resisted playing the sport because he worried he would get hurt and wouldn't be able to play basketball.
"He knew I'd be on him to play football," Sims said. "He knew I wasn't going to let him sit there in my house during the fall unless he was working or playing football."
First, Albert had to improve his grades to become academically eligible to play sports at Glen Burnie. With Sims and his wife, Adrienne, watching Albert's every move, he slowly pulled his grade-point average up to 2.0 to become eligible.
When Albert reported to football practice before his junior year, then-Glen Burnie coach Brad Wilson couldn't believe the mammoth lineman had been walking his school's hallways for two years. Albert immediately became a starter on both offense and defense.
"He was a big, strong kid and you can't coach size," said Wilson, now coach at Westminster (Md.) High School. "For somebody his size, he has tremendous feet. You don't find many people his size that can move like that. He's a tremendous young man. He's very intelligent and personable, and he's coachable."
But because of Albert's poor grades and because he had played football for only one season, college coaches were reluctant to recruit him during his senior season at Glen Burnie. After Albert's grades slipped during the first semester of 2003, which meant he would have to attend a prep school or junior college after high school, most Division I-A schools eliminated him from consideration altogether.
"That's when we started cracking the whip again," Sims said. "I told him, 'You're either just going to finish out the year and then go back home, or you're going to work hard and get a scholarship to a good school.' "
Sims said he was surprised Virginia's coaches offered his brother a scholarship, knowing Albert's academic future was tenuous at best. Sims said he was initially disappointed that Maryland, his alma mater, didn't recruit his younger brother more diligently, but later "understood that they couldn't wait on him to make his grades."
Virginia helped Albert enroll at Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va., last year. He played football and was able to obtain a qualifying grade-point average and standardized test score.
"Going to Hargrave really helped me a lot," Albert said. "I was still pretty immature to football and going there just gave me an extra year to learn how to play the game."
When Hargrave's post-graduate football team played the U.S. Naval Academy's prep team last year, Maryland's coaches were in attendance and noticed Albert's talents. Terrapins coaches started calling Albert and his brother, and they eventually offered him a scholarship. But Sims told his younger brother to keep his oral commitment to the Cavaliers because they showed confidence in him when no one else would.
Albert signed with the Cavaliers in February and during preseason practice was named a surprising replacement for left guard Bart Barthelmes, who had moved to center. Albert played every snap in the season opening 31-19 win over Western Michigan and has rarely left the field since.
"The year at Hargrave -- the year of physical maturity, the year of increased level of competition and the year, most particularly, of personal responsibility and maturity -- was clearly beneficial for him," Virginia Coach Al Groh said. "It probably would have been unrealistic to think he'd have this same impact as a true freshman last year."