Photo: Sardis High School senior Jacob Hopper signed a football scholarship with the University of South Alabama on Dec. 19 at the SHS gym. Pictured, sitting, from left: Jacob’s dad Jody, Jacob, Jacob’s mom Tabatha. Standing, from left: SHS assistant football coach Clay Wright, SHS assistant football coach Ty Harris, SHS assistant football coach Matt Harris, SHS assistant football coach Cory Franklin, SHS head football coach Gene Hill, Jacob’s brother Joshua. (Courtesy of Bentley Gray Photography)
Shannon J. Allen/Sand Mountain Reporter
Jacob Hopper recently joined the ranks of the all-time greats in Sardis High School football history thanks to his tremendous accomplishments during his four-year career.
As a sophomore in 2017, Hopper helped the Lions win a region championship in their last season in Class 4A. As a senior in 2019, he led Sardis to the program’s first state playoff berth as a Class 5A school.
The Alabama Sports Writers Association recently voted Hopper a Class 5A second team all-state selection in the athlete category, while the Etowah County Schools’ football coaches named him to the 2019 All-Etowah County team.
A two-way starter for head coach Gene Hill’s Lions, Hopper had 46 receptions for 558 yards and eight touchdowns. From his defensive end spot, he racked up 61 tackles, 19 tackles for loss, four fumble recoveries and two forced fumbles. He also scored two defensive TDs.
On Dec. 18, Hopper took the next step in his football career by signing with the University of South Alabama, which competes in the Sun Belt Conference. The 6-foot-6, 235-pounder verbally committed to the Jaguars in June.
“It felt like home, right from the start,” Hopper said. “Right when Coach [Steve] Campbell took me into his office and talked to me, I said I plan on early signing, no doubt.”
South Alabama, which is located in Mobile, recruited Hopper to play tight end. Chad Huff coaches the Jaguars’ tight ends.
“[South Alabama] had two tight ends go out this past season with knee surgeries,” Hopper said. “[Campbell] said that playing and getting in the mix is a great possibility. He said it’s looking like I can come in and get good minutes.”
Hopper is Sardis’ first NCAA Division I signee since Toby Pee inked with Jacksonville State in 2013.
“It’s definitely special,” Hopper said. “You can always put my name with this school, and that’s something I love about this place.”
Hopper was a freshman when he made it his goal to play college football.
“My 10th-grade year, I didn’t play baseball and I was in the weight room,” Hopper said. “Coach Hill and me were talking, and he found out that’s something I wanted to do. And he said, ‘With your 40 time, you’ll have to play with your hand in the dirt. But with your frame, you’d be a good tight end.’ Then we started putting on the weight and hitting the weight room hard. This offseason, after basketball, I’m going straight to the weight room and trying to pack on as much weight as possible.”
Hopper said USA wants him to play at 250 to 255 pounds. He will begin working out with the Jaguars in June when he enrolls in summer school
“They told me they want me to take one class in the summer to get me adjusted to college life, so it’s not just a great big transition,” he said.
Hill said he knew Hopper’s size and skills would earn him a chance to play college football.
“It’s a high-dollar thing to pay for your education,” Hill said. “That’s the No. 1 thing. We’re happy for him. We’re sad to see him leave here, but at least he’s going to get an opportunity to play. Less than 1 percent of the kids get to play football on scholarships at the next level. He’s in a select group.
“After the end of Jacob’s junior year, everybody knew about him, and coming into this year you draw double teams and triple teams, and that’s frustrating at times. But he didn’t let that frustrate him and went out and did what he had to do. Sometimes, he might have been a decoy because of that and opened up some other things.
“Jacob’s put a lot of work in. He’s gotten his 40 time down, and I think that was a big thing. When he went to [USA’s] camp, he ran a really good 40 time. All of those things are important when you go to those places. He’s helped himself a lot.”
The signature play of Hopper’s career as a Lion occurred with 5:37 left in the third quarter of a 31-28 win over archrival Boaz. He stripped the ball from BHS running back Kadin Bennefield and returned it 99 yards for a touchdown.
“They said I tied for second-longest fumble return in the state [history],” Hopper said. “I knew he was about to get in the end zone and he was about to stick the ball out, and I just ripped it from him.”
Late in the fourth quarter against Boaz, Hopper made a leaping 25-yard catch while being triple-teamed to convert a third-and-long that sealed the Lions’ victory.
“It’s difficult, but you’ve got a lot of adrenaline going as plays happen,” Hopper said of making catches while being double- and triple-teamed. “I’ll have to go back on film and remember exactly what happened. It’s my nerves. It’s instincts. There’s stuff you can look back and say, ‘Oh, I could’ve done this better,’ but I love this place. It will always be home.”
Hopper expressed thanks to D.J. Taylor of Birmingham, who served as his personal coach.
“He’s a great coach, and I would recommend him to anybody trying to build anything,” Hopper said. “We focused on 40 [yard dash] time.”