The Grind is a weekly series from Forsyth Sports presented exclusively by Scott's Auto Center.
Last summer Tyler McLellan was just another big kid in a football uniform—he didn’t put too much thought into the game. It was all about going through the motions. Individual improvement would be a plus. He loved football.
That was about it.
Through each week of the fall, the then-junior took the game a bit more seriously. Then came Nov. 13. McLellan, an offensive tackle on South’s suddenly dominant, senior-laden football team, faced a task he never would have imagined.
McLellan lined up against Norcross defensive end Robert Beal, who at the time was committed to Notre Dame as a junior. He’s currently rated as the No. 5 overall prospect in ESPN.com’s Class of 2017 recruit rankings.
If South was going to defeat Norcross, one of many feared Gwinnett powers, McLellan would have to hold his own. Suddenly facing a load of responsibility, the junior obsessed over watching Beal’s online highlight tape to get a feel for how he’d handle such a strong defender.
When the game came—South’s first-round playoff contest—McLellan did hold his own, and the War Eagles beat the Blue Devils 20-14 to advance in the postseason. They won again the following week against another traditional power in Tucker. They even lead Colquitt County, a nationally-ranked juggernaut, in the fourth quarter before their inspiring 11-2 season came to an end.
You can understand why McLellan doesn’t just see himself as another big kid in a football uniform anymore. He has responsibility, passion, work ethic and great ambition. He’s traded fast food for grilled chicken and vegetables, transformed his fat into muscle, and has—despite his 6-foot-6, 330 pound frame—made an effort to set the bar when it comes to running and conditioning in the offseason.
It’s all because, despite the fact South lost a huge and important class of seniors, McLellan has his eyes set on becoming the first Class AAAAAAA state champion in Georgia. He also hopes to earn all-state recognition for the second consecutive year and a college scholarship. He already has an offer from Mercer and has talked to Georgia, Arkansas State and North Carolina State.
“Last season really was like dreams becoming a reality,” McLellan, now at his tallest, his leanest and his loudest since joining South as a goofy, chunky youngster, said. “We actually beat Norcross, beat Tucker, and went from thinking we couldn’t beat big programs to knowing we can easily beat them. It’s a good feeling to know we can actually compete. It’s a huge mindset change for us.”
As South discovered its potential, McLellan spent time last season discovering himself. Despite the deep playoff run, his favorite play from the season was a goal line block against Centennial where he bent back a defensive lineman.
It was all about him realizing his own potential.
“That play replays in my head. I think about doing that to everyone,” McLellan said.
McLellan is a man of few words, but calculated thought. He’s also all about the bigger picture. He doesn’t want his high school experience to end on a low note, so he makes sure to lead by example at practice—how can he not when he’s the tallest man on the field?
But he also has been thinking hard about his future. He likes to daydream about a gig in the National Football League, but also is willing to laugh it off. For now, he’s hoping his ability to dominate on the football field leads to a college education.
“Football opens so many doors in my life,” McLellan said. “It’s a really cool thing that kind of stacks up. You get a free education and everything. I want to continue playing and do what I love and get a free education with it. That’s what everything I do is based around. You always have that degree to fall back on.”
McLellan has still made sure to develop his game as much as he can. He went to The Opening in March, a football camp in Atlanta, where he hoped to improve on his pass blocking. This month he traveled to Kansas City to a Rivals camp, going up against some of the best athletes in the region.
“It’s pretty real,” he said. “A bunch of D-I athletes. I really just wanted to get up there and compete against the best. You have former NFL players coaching and stuff, so it’s a great learning experience.”
Heading into the summer and fall, McLellan knows the work it will take to get back to the state quarterfinals will include a lot of “not fun” activities. He’s willing to carry the torch, as a senior, and lead the next group of South players to the top.
“We’re molding as a team right now,” McLellan said. “During the summer we’ll run twenty 40s, with one break maybe, just 15-minute runs around the field. Anything to elevate what we do to a state championship level.”