Photo: Etowah High senior football players Jamin Graham (left) and Justin Harris signed letters of intent with the University of Nebraska and Vanderbilt University, respectively, on Wednesday, Dec. 19) at EHS. (Chris McCarthy/Messenger)
By Chris McCarthy, Publisher/Editor
Three Etowah High seniors will continue their football careers at the highest level of competition.
Last Wednesday at the EHS cafeteria, Jamin Graham, Justin Harris and Emil Smith signed letters of intent to Division I University of Nebraska, Vanderbilt and Georgia Southern, respectively.
The three student-athletes were major factors in the Blue Devils’ success this past season, which included a 12-1 record, an undefeated regular season, a Class 5A, Region 6 championship and a second straight berth in the state quarterfinals. Etowah outscored the opposition by a per-game average of 32 to 9 while posting five shutouts.
The 6-6, 230-pound Graham, who is projected as a defense end/outside linebacker for the Cornhuskers, finished the season with 86 tackles (including 54 solo), 11 sacks, 35 tackles for a loss, two safeties; two forced fumbles and two defensive touchdowns.
“It’s great just to go ahead and get [the signing] out of way,” said Graham. “It shows just how far this program has come with me and Justin and Emil signing at the same time. I really liked the family atmosphere with the coaches and felt part of a family [at Nebraska], and that [head coach] Scott Frost kept his word in keeping in touch with me and keeping my (scholarship) offer open after he came from UCF. He showed a lot of loyalty and belief in me.”
Nebraska went 4-8 this past season, including a 3-6 mark in the Big 10. The Cornhuskers did win four of their last six games.
A 6-2, 185-pound cornerback, Harris had 29 tackles (including 16 solo), an interception and a forced fumble. Harris considered offers from Virginia, Florida Atlantic, Purdue, Wake Forest and Pitt before settling on Vanderbilt. The Commodores went 6-6 this past season with a 3-5 mark in the SEC East Division. Vanderbilt will play in the Texas Bowl on Dec. 26.
“I’m just glad to see so many people come out today for support,” said Harris, who plans on majoring in either chemical engineering or pharmacy science. “It’s a good feeling in my heart. Great academics and great football all in one just seemed a perfect match. I got along with all the coaches and all the players when I went up there so [Vanderbilt] seemed like the perfect place. [Head] coach [Derek] Mason is a really energetic guy and has a great personality.”
A 6-1, 192-pound receiver, Smith had 12 receptions for 415 yards and six touchdowns. He will have his signing day on Feb. 6.
“When I went up [to the Georgia Southern campus], they treated me like family,” said Smith, who plans on majoring in exercise science. “They said that I had a good chance of coming in and playing as a freshman, plus I could get a good education, so that kind of sold me. I went ahead and committed, and I think I made the right decision.
“Me and Jamin and Justin are brothers, and we’ve talked about this day since we were in middle school, so it means a lot to us and to this program.”
Smith will join 2017 Gadsden City graduate Elijah Campbell in the Eagle roster. GSU went 10-3 this past season, including a victory over Eastern Michigan last Saturday (Dec. 15) in the Camelia Bowl in Montgomery.
“Hopefully Eli can kind of show me the ropes so I won’t be totally lost when I get there,” said Smith. “Him being on the team definitely was a factor.”
EHS head football coach Drew Noles pointed out that Graham, Harris and Smith were integral parts of the Blue Devils’ success as a team as well as an athletic program.
“The fact that we’re having three players sign Division I scholarships makes this is an extraordinary day for our school. To have the opportunity to further their education through football is an awesome thing.”
Noles added that the three student-athletes were appreciated as much for being role models as standout players.
“It’s been great to see them develop both on the field and in the classroom – physically, mentally and spiritually. They’ll definitely be flag-bearers for our community and represent us in a positive manner.”