From the moment he first stepped onto a football field, Ray Ray McCloud III has been blessed with an uncanny ability to see things before they happen.
His father—Ray Ray McCloud Jr. or Big Ray, as he's known to friends and family—said his son's prowess on the football field was evident when he first began playing organized football at four years old.
“I put him in flag football leagues with kids who were a year or two years older than him, and he was just doing things that make you say, ‘wow,’ and making it look easy, and then it became like a habit,” the elder McCloud said.
It’s that type of vision and foresight that led him to make a critical decision last summer at a time when his recruiting process was in its infancy.
Instead of competing at a Nike camp in Orlando for a chance to earn a coveted invite to The Opening, Ray Ray skipped the event in favor of attending a church retreat.
“It was about me basically looking myself in the mirror and trying to figure out what God has in store for me,” Ray Ray said. “I already had faith in God, but this kind of helped me realize just how important my faith is to me.”
Big Ray said his son never hesitated with his choice—one that his father predicted would reap rewards later on.
It's decisions such as that one that let former Tampa Bay Buccaneer linebacker Derrick Brooks know that his words were getting through to young Ray Ray. Brooks, who met Ray Ray through his work with Tampa's youth football leagues, immediately gravitated to him and became a mentor to the budding star.
Ray Ray has spent the last 12 months bursting onto the scene as one of the most explosive playmakers in the 2015 class.
After earning offers from the likes of Alabama, Auburn, Florida State and Florida, McCloud committed to Clemson last week. While the Tigers celebrated landing a potential future offensive cornerstone and one of the most dynamic players from the Sunshine State, the newly minted member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame beamed with pride.
Brooks vividly recalls the first time he saw Ray Ray in action. Brooks—in the middle of his decorated career with Tampa Bay—was watching his son, Decalon, play in Tampa’s youth leagues when a 10-year-old McCloud caught his eye.
“I was out there just watching the kids run around, and I noticed little Ray Ray instantly,” Brooks said. “His football instinct—or knowledge—he had that at a young age. You could see it then. He was just always a step ahead of all of the other kids out there.”
Brooks had known Big Ray since he moved to Tampa, and their relationship grew stronger after their kids wound up playing on the same youth team a few years later.
The elder McCloud would coach the offense while Brooks served as an assistant coach on defense. It was at that point when the bond between Brooks and Ray Ray—who still to this day refers to the former Florida State star as “Coach Brooks”—would blossom.
A few years later when it came to McCloud’s recruiting process, Brooks shared clues with Ray Ray that he should look for when dealing with coaches from different schools. After all, Brooks—who was recruited by several schools as a safety when he preferred linebacker—can empathize with what McCloud is going through.
The young Ray Ray prefers playing on the offensive side of the ball in college, while some schools have mentioned liking him as a defensive back.
As their relationship has grown, Ray Ray’s questions have shifted from advice about the recruiting process more to guidance not related to football.
“I’ve always respected Ray Ray’s football IQ and the questions he’s asked over the years about how to be a better player,” Brooks said. “But our last couple of years, our conversations have shifted more so about being a better person and a better human being.”
As the accolades have come, the messages from Brooks have helped Ray Ray remain humble and focused on the goals he's set for himself and his team.
“He told me that my talent won’t be enough on its own to succeed,” Ray Ray said. “Coming from him and knowing where he’s been and the things he’s accomplished in football, it really opened my eyes as to what it takes to be great in this game.”
During Ray Ray’s years in middle school, Big Ray would often let his son attend and compete in workouts led by college-bound standouts such as Javier Arenas and O.J. Murdock. The younger McCloud, who would often watch film of his youth games with his father in his free time, dazzled his older counterparts and quickly earned the respect of his peers.
Right before he entered high school, McCloud also joined Unsigned Preps—which is a non-profit organization that works with student-athletes in the Tampa area. Big Ray credits his son’s work with Unsigned Preps as helping him develop his game during the offseason periods.
Over the last two seasons at Sickles High School, McCloud—primarily operating at running back—rushed for 3,635 yards and 36 touchdowns while averaging nearly eight yards per carry.
However, his profile has grown immensely after numerous standout performances on the camp circuit this offseason.
At the Orlando Nike camp in March, the 5’10”, 184-pounder dominated at wide receiver and even took some reps at corner and shined in doing so. One year after winning the skills MVP at the Rivals Camp Series, McCloud took home MVP honors at wide receiver at the same event this year.
His seven-on-seven exploits culminated with a standout performance at The Opening last month. As noted by Luke Stampini of 247Sports, McCloud earned a spot on the event's offensive All-Tournament Team.
“It was great,” Ray Ray said. “I wanted to prove to people that I can be an all-purpose back or a receiver and do it at a high level. I can play corner if my team needs me. I just wanted to showcase my talent and have fun. It was on national TV, so I wanted to enjoy that and show what I can do.”
In addition to his exploits on the field, Ray Ray—who mentioned pharmacy as a potential major in college—is getting it done in the classroom with a 3.7 GPA.
While he’s been spectacular on the field, one area where Brooks has encouraged his young pupil to improve is providing leadership to his teammates.
As his stature has risen individually, the soft-spoken McCloud has gone through an adjustment period with the attention brought on from his recruiting process.
“He’s still trying to get comfortable in the spotlight,” Brooks said. “He’s starting to understand it and get more comfortable with it and be able to still go out and perform. He’s a kid who when he gets on that field, he turns the switch on.”
Assuming he and good friend and fellow Tampa stud recruit Deon Cain maintain their pledges to Clemson, the two Florida products have a chance to follow in the path of former Sunshine State stud recruits and former Tigers Sammy Watkins and C.J. Spiller.
But before he heads to the next level, McCloud has some unfinished business he hopes to take care of during his senior season at Sickles.
After the Gryphons went 11-2 last season and fell in the Class 7A quarterfinals, McCloud’s main focus is to try to lead his team to its first state title in school history.
One thing that is certain is that there will be plenty of eyes focused on him from this point forward, including the pair belonging to his accomplished mentor.
“I’m just proud of him,” Brooks said. “I’m proud of what he’s done thus far and I’m looking forward to what the future may hold for him, not necessarily as an athlete, but as a citizen and a human being. I’m expecting him to have a positive impact on the world.”
Sanjay Kirpalani is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand, and all recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.