Staff Photo: John Bohn North Gwinnett defensive end Justin Alabi will play in the Gwinnett all-star game on Saturday, December 17th. Alabi, who began playing football during the 8th grade, finished this season with 12 sacks, second most in the county.
LAWRENCEVILLE -- It may not be 100 percent fair to refer to Justin Alabi as a late bloomer. After all, he has had plenty of athletic gifts since an early age.
A more accurate statement might be that it took the North Gwinnett senior defensive end some time to find his athletic calling.
As the Bulldogs' Region 7-AAAAA foes have discovered the past three seasons, Alabi has definitely found that calling on the gridiron.
And while his appearance in the Rivalries of Gwinnett All-Star Game on Saturday at Mountain View High School represents the end of his high school career, it will also mark somewhat of a beginning for the recent Tennessee-Chattanooga commitment.
"That's kind of the M.O. at North Gwinnett, to be honest with you," Bulldogs coach Bob Sphire said. "A whole lot of our team has been guys that haven't played a lot of football in the past or they were considered D-II (prospects) in middle school. It's been a huge make up of our team -- guys that have been late developers or guys late playing football. It's not been unusual."
In Alabi's case, his development began when he first decided to give football a try in eighth grade.
"Actually, I played baseball my entire life -- since I was, like, 8 years old," Alabi recalled. "I was planning on playing it in high school, but I got to eighth grade and my mom was like, 'Hey, do you want to try football?' And I was like, 'Sure.' I didn't think I'd like it, but I was like, 'What have I been missing my entire life?' So, I stuck with that."
It didn't take long for the North coaching staff to realize the potential Alabi had once he stepped into the Bulldogs' program.
"I recall his sophomore year when we started seeing the light go on and the flashes of him really getting after it and (gaining) confidence," Sphire remembered. "It was also a combination of him getting physically stronger and more physically mature. It was really kind of that point before he jumped out at us -- about the middle of his sophomore year."
It was also about that time when the North coaching staff decided to experiment by moving Alabi from linebacker up to a defensive end spot.
Alabi admits he wasn't entirely comfortable with the move at first.
In addition to his 6-foot-1, 215-pound frame that seems more suited for linebacker in this day and age of high school football, he said there were some moments that he felt awkward learning the game, though he added that those feelings soon disappeared.
"I was really raw and I didn't really know that much," Alabi said. "So, I just put my hand down (at defensive end), and they let me grow there.
"They were planning on moving me back (to linebacker), but I was good at it, and I grew there. So they kept me there, and I developed my speed and my technique."
The decision to keep Alabi at defensive end has proven to be a good one, which he has rewarded by becoming a force on the defensive front, especially as a pass rusher off the corner.
He posted solid numbers of 60 combined tackles and assists, 14 tackles for losses and a team-best 10 sacks as a junior last year.
And he followed up with a strong senior campaign, with 53 combined tackles, including team highs of 17 tackles for losses and 12 sacks in helping the Bulldogs (10-2) to a region title and the second round of the Class AAAAA state playoffs.
"For us, when he put his hand down (on the ground) at defensive end, he immediately started making plays," Sphire said of Alabi. "He's a very explosive speed guy. He just jumped out at you. He's so explosive and fast, he just created speed matchups and created problems for offensive linemen. Yet, he's very powerful. He's our top power-clean guy in the weight room. I think he's about 325 to 340 now."
Indeed, speed may Alabi's most dangerous weapon.
In fact, it has led him to take up another new sport while looking for something to busy during the spring by competing in the 100-meter dash and as part of the 400 relay team for North's track and field team.
And while his size makes him somewhat small for a defensive end, it makes him larger than the average sprinter, and he sometimes surprises competitors with his speed.
"I get in the blocks and everybody looks at me, and as crazy as it sounds, underestimates me because they say, 'Oh, he's big, he can't really run,'" said Alabi, who hopes to improve on his personal best of 11.2 seconds in the 100 in order to challenge for a berth in the Class AAAAAA state meet this spring. "Then the gun goes off, and it's like, 'What is he doing? He's just moving right now.' It's shocked a lot of people, but it's natural speed."
Still, football remains his first passion, and it is the physicality that has made it so over his first love of baseball.
"I'd never done anything where you could hit somebody and not get in trouble," Alabi joked. "Hitting a little white ball isn't doing it for me. Hitting somebody else is."