Dee Liner donned an Alabama hat in Muscle Shoals. Florence’s Rashawn Smith made his commitment to Ole Miss official. And 26 football players throughout the area realized their goal of signing with a college program Wednesday on National Signing Day, the first day high school seniors can do so.
Liner made his announcement live on ESPN in front of a packed Muscle Shoals auditorium. It completed a transition to the Crimson Tide for the four-star defensive end, who had backed off Auburn after verbally committing to the Tigers before his junior year in 2011.
That afternoon, Smith, who had verbally committed to Ole Miss in September, became the second area player to sign with a Southeastern Conference program. That might have seemed like a longshot a couple years ago, when he gave up football to focus on basketball as a sophomore.
“It’s a blessing,” Smith said. “Not long ago, if you asked me what sport I’d be playing, I’d have said basketball, I’m thankful for all those people who convinced me to come out and give football another shot and all the coaches who helped me become the player I became.”
Smith rejoined the football team as a linebacker as a junior and started drawing recruiting interest immediately after that season.
He collected other offers from Arkansas, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, Minnesota, Purdue, Southern Miss, South Alabama and Tulane, but said he saw something special in Ole Miss under first-year coach Hugh Freeze.
“I knew what I was getting myself into with all the top-rated recruits coming in,” Smith said. “I knew Ole Miss was going to be big. Something told me down deep. Somebody called me the day after I committed and I told them Ole Miss is going to shock the world.”
He seems to be proven correct, as the Rebels put together a surprising recruiting class that was ranked as high as No. 2 nationally by 247Sports.
Smith figures to remain at linebacker at Ole Miss, though he said coaches also have talked to him about playing safety or receiver. Florence had seven players sign in all, tying Muscle Shoals for most among area schools.
Five Falcons signed with Division I FBS programs, including wide receiver J.J. Green (UAB), safety Jordan Petty (UAB), safety Jamaris Hart (Arkansas State) and linebacker Irving Adams (Arkansas State).
“Last year when we were juniors, Beniquez Brown and Kivon Coman were the only Division I signees there,” Green said. “We said we’ve got to beat that. We wanted to go bigger than them. It was a blessing for coach (Jamey) DuBose and his staff to come in. It’s been amazing.” Green chose the Blazers over offers from Troy, South Alabama, Middle Tennessee and a late offer from Minnesota.
Hart, who chose Arkansas State over UAB, figures to move to cornerback in college, while Adams, who drew interest from the Red Wolves late in the recruiting process, will move to safety.
Offensive lineman Laurence Carmichael (UNA) and punter Timmy Elam (Faulker) also signed at Florence.
At Muscle Shoals, offensive lineman Blake Copeland also signed an FBS scholarship, choosing Navy over Middle Tennessee and Troy. He said Trojans’ coach Scott Basden’s relationship with Navy offensive line coach Ashley Ingram, with whom Basden played at UNA, was a significant factor in his recruitment.
“I just really fit into their program,” Copeland said. “They are about to start running the pistol. They’ve been one of the top five rushing teams in the NCAA the last several years. I’m used to run blocking. That’s pretty much all we do.”
Copeland, a guard at Muscle Shoals who measures in at 6 feet, 4 inches, 250 pounds, said coaches want him to move to tackle at Navy. Other signees at Muscle Shoals included wide receiver Javian Ramson (Samford), running back Tyler Jackson (Miles College), running back Jamarcus Nance (Miles), cornerback Levi Fell (UNA) and defensive lineman Brian Kilpatrick (Bethel).
Ramson had previously committed to Louisiana Tech during the summer but his offer was rescinded when former Bulldogs coach Sonny Dykes left after being hired at Cal.
“It got real rough for a couple weeks because I’d stopped talking to people and I’d been off the market,” said Ramson who committed to Samford on Jan. 28. “Every one had moved on. Then Samford came in and were honest about everything and had me feeling real nice. They’ve got a good learning program and a good football team, so I decided to go with them.”
At Lauderdale County, D.J. Simmons was one of three players to sign, choosing UT-Martin.
“It feels like home and I feel very comfortable there,” Simmons said. “They run the same type of defense we ran here. They are going to try me at safety or outside linebacker. I going to work hard to get bigger and stronger to be ready to play. I’m 6-foot, 200 pounds and I would like to get up to 215 pounds before I get there.”
Russellville defensive lineman Kaelan Bonds signed with Miles, one of five Golden Tigers to ink National Letters of Intent.
At Rogers, standout athlete Austin Kerr signed with NAIA school Faulkner, overcoming a severe foot injury during the summer that broke four bones, caused him to miss three games and scared away some interested college programs, he said.
During the summer, Kerr visited Georgia, Missouri and Ole Miss. UAB, UNA, Samford, UT-Martin and Murray State all showed interest in Kerr at one time, he said.
Rogers alumnus Zeke Pigg, who played at Faulkner and now works as a graduate assistant there, played an instrumental role in turning the coaching staff on to Kerr.
“I didn’t think it would be as bad as it was,” Kerr said about the recruiting fallout after his injury. “I didn’t think it would turn as many schools away as it did, but I guess, getting injured like that, it does. But I guess it all works out in the end.”
Colbert Heights had two players — quarterback Cole Claunch and defensive lineman Trey Jaco — sign with NAIA school Campbellsville (Ky.).
“It’s a great feeling to finally make it official and know where I’m going to go after high school,” Claunch said. “The coaches were great, they’ve got a good staff and the spread offense they run will really fit me well. I’m excited to play in that offense.”
Added Jaco: “It’s pretty cool to go there with someone I’ve played with in high school. It won’t be something that’s completely new. I’ve put in a lot of hard work to get here, and now it feels like I’m starting all over again.”
Bryan App can be reached at 256-740-5730 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sports writer Jeff Edwards contributed to this report.