STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Basketball was the sport in the Holmes family. Lee Holmes played college basketball at Shippensburg University, and Des, one of his two sons, followed in his footsteps, entering Norristown High School with a focus on hoops.
“My dad was a big basketball player,” Des Holmes said. “I had cousins in my family, and I had friends and other guys I looked up to, and everything was basketball, basketball, basketball. So, I thought I would be trying to go in that direction.”
At 6-foot-2 and 280 pounds as a freshman, however, Holmes decided to check out football at the urging of his father. That began his rise to a level at which he received postseason recognition and offers from major colleges and led him to Penn State, and a chance to compete for a starting offensive-tackle spot this season.
“I was stuck on basketball, and thank God for football, because I wouldn’t have gone anywhere,” Holmes, now a 6-5, 314-pound redshirt sophomore, said in a recent interview. “I played my freshman year on varsity at Norristown and just fell in love with the game. I’d be like, ‘This is amazing. I love this. This is where I want to take my life.’ ”
Holmes transferred to Cardinal O’Hara after his freshman year. With a relatively late start in the sport, he knew he had some catching up to do, and his response was to “just train ridiculously.”
His father emphasized footwork, so Holmes bought a ladder, put it in his basement, and worked on his footwork every night. He also focused on CrossFit training, adding speed and strength. He credited his high school coach, B.J. Hogan, with “pushing me to be better than what I already was.”
With his improvement, he waited for college scholarship offers to come in, though the wait was pretty long. They finally started after his junior season, the first one from Duquesne, an FCS school.
“When I got that first call, it was the craziest moment of my life,” Holmes said. “They told me they wanted to offer me a full scholarship. I was in the car with my mom driving back from school, and she started crying. I couldn’t believe what was going on.”
Penn State coaches invited Holmes to a camp the summer after his junior year, and he later went for a visit. The program’s offer came on his 17th birthday — “the best birthday present I ever got,” he said — and he committed 10 days later.
After redshirting his freshman year and appearing in five games last season, Holmes will vie for the starting tackle spot left vacant by Ryan Bates, who signed with the Eagles. Holmes realizes his biggest battle will come from the young man he sees in the mirror every day.
“It’s really a competition with myself,” he said. “I’ve got to be on my best P’s and Q’s. I want to be in the best shape I can be. I want to have everything down in my playbook. I say I compete with myself because it really is myself. I feel like it goes back to just having all the little things down.”
Offensive line coach Matt Limegrover said Holmes had “a really strong spring” because of his increased understanding of the system.
“Sometimes earlier in his career, he misunderstood activity for productivity,” Limegrover said. “He’s starting to understand more what the productivity part of it is, that it doesn’t have to be done a million miles an hour, but it has to be done correctly. You could really see that light bulb come on with him back in the spring.”
That will serve Holmes well in the preseason, a long way from the time he thought about whether he liked football well enough to try it.
“I fell in love with the game like that,” he said, snapping his fingers and smiling.