Friday Night Hero: East Rowan's T.J. Jefferson
By David Shaw
GRANITY QUARRY - Once again East Rowan football coach Danny Misenheimer has rolled the dice and come up a winner.
This time he's scored with senior nose tackle T.J. Jefferson, a space-eating defender who has helped elevate the Mustangs into a tie for the NPC lead. A 320-pound senior, Jefferson is a purebred who evidently wasn't designed for the gentle cycle,
"He's been an offensive lineman the last couple years," said Misenheimer, East's first-year coach and a former Shrine Bowl participant. "So you know he doesn't mind getting his hands dirty. But this season we changed our defense to a 3-5 and had to find someone big and quick to play in the middle. We had more linebacker bodies than defensive linemen bodies and we needed a nose."
They found one on the other side of the ball, where Jefferson had been anchored at right guard the past two seasons. And in Friday's 49-0 conference win at North Iredell, he was never more agile, mobile and hostile.
"It all comes from the work ethic I developed over the summer," Jefferson said. "The coaches got into my head. (Assistant coach) Jason Barnes told me I could be a great player if I believe in myself and all that. I realized that if I worked hard and outworked any man in the county - or the state - I could go far. I got that instilled in me early in the summer and ever since then I've just been going."
Don't let that easy-going, off-the-field demeanor fool you. What started as a work-in-progress is clearly working for East (5-3, 4-0), which has allowed only three touchdowns in its four conference games. Jefferson has quickly mastered the necessary skills to play nose - agility, strength, leverage and explosiveness - as the Mustang defense continues to enjoy life in its new, upscale neighborhood. Listen to the praise teammate Tyler L'Hommedieu, a sideline-to-sideline linebacker who was sprung for a pair of jailbreak sacks against NI, offered during a mid-week practice.
"What T.J. did on those plays was a big deal," he said. "He's the kind of guy you have to double- and triple-team every time. You have to game-plan for him. I got those sacks, but he's the reason I got them. He takes on a couple of blockers and that leaves me home free."
Of course, it's all by design. NFL nose tackles like Pittsburgh's Casey Hampton are paid handsomely to take on and occupy pairs of offensive linemen while linebackers and secondary blitzers charge into the backfield.
"One person can't handle T.J.," said East assistant coach Roland Fowler. "He opens lanes the size of the Grand Canyon. Even I could run through there. But it took him a while to buy into playing defense, Once he accepted it, he started excelling at it. Now he's taken ownership of the position."
Jefferson has wrapped his hamhock forearms around the opportunity and squuezed tight.
"If it's gonna better for the team, I'm willing to do anything," he said.
Against the winless Raiders, he was part of a unit that yielded only four first downs and 70 total yards. Offensive stars Sam Wyrick, Calvin Edwards and Madison Hedrick did the scoring but Jeffereson and the defense won the game - forcing two turnovers, five punts and permitting the hosts to take only seven snaps in East territory.
"I can deal with all the double-teaming because I know it's gonna happen," he said. "So I prepare myself. I get low, dig into the trenches and get by."
Misenheimer says Jefferson is incredibly strong. He reportedly squats about 600 pounds, bench presses more than 300 and power-cleans almost 300. Recruiters from Lenoir-Rhyne, UNC-Charlotte and a handful of other college programs have inquired about him - a testament to East's overall improvement. "Last year we weren't very good so not many colleges came knocking on our door," Misenheimer said. "But we have sent T.J.'s name out to 10 or 11 schools and they've all liked what they've seen."
There's still some unfinished business for Jefferson and his mates, who hope to secure a postseason berth and advance in the state playoffs.
"Like always, he's very crucial to everything we do," Misenheimer said. "Opponents have to take care of him. They can't focus on anything else until they take care of him."