Prep Football: Five Rowan County players headed to Division III Averett
By Ronnie Gallagher
DANVILLE, Va. — Has Division III Averett College found a pipeline to Rowan County?
It seems that way this year. Five players, four from Carson and one from West Rowan, are headed to the beautiful campus and play in the USA South.
From Carson, Dunlevy has recruited defensive backs Zach Blythe and Dontae Gilbert, linebacker T.J. Smith and offensive lineman Daniel Rodriguez. From West, he’s getting the North Piedmont Conference kicker of the year in Hobie Proctor.
For Carson’s players, it’s a dream come true. They can keep their nickname: Cougars.
For Proctor, it’s a dream come true. Averett doesn’t have a kicker.
Together, they’ll try to turn around Averett’s fortunes. The Cougars were 3-7 overall and 2-5 in the USA South.
Below are capsules of each player.
What type of player is Averett College getting in Carson linebacker T.J. Smith?
Let Carson assistant Travis Billings take you back to last season’s 16-6 victory over North Rowan.
Smith was making a tackle and got his finger twisted in a Cavalier’s jersey. He trotted over to the sidelines with a mangled finger. It would have benched an ordinary player.
T.J. Smith isn’t ordinary.
“One of the things that sticks out in my mind was when he dislocated his finger,” said Billings, who wanted to check it out before sending his stud back onto the field. “He pops it in and says, ‘Tape it up. I gotta go back in.’ ”
“He’s old school,” chuckled Carson head coach Mark Woody when reminded of the story. “He’s physical.”
Smith looks like a linebacker, from those bulging muscles to the thick neck to the steely glance. Division I schools were interested but when he visited Averett, he knew that was the place to continue his career.
“I liked the campus and how friendly the coaches were to me,” Smith said.
Former Carson player Zack Grkman also helped.
“He said he really liked it and loved the football team,” Smith said. “It’s a friendly environment. There is really nobody you don’t know.”
Smith will introduce himself quickly. The middle linebacker has been told he could see playing time next fall.
“They said, ‘As a freshman, there’s an opportunity for you to play. You need to show up as soon as camp starts and show everybody who you are,’ ” Smith said. “Which I plan on doing.”
Woody and Billings believe him. Smith led Carson in tackles with over 160 and was all-conference and all-county.
“He’s a diamond in the rough,” Woody said. “At Averett, he might really shine.”
Billings agreed, adding, “They’re getting a hard-nosed player who anchored the center of our defense.”
Smith could anchor Averett’s, too. And if he ever mangles a finger, he says his head coach need not worry.
“I’ve got nine others,” Smith grinned.
Ron Blythe told his son to keep an open mind when visiting colleges.
Zach’s mind closed as soon as he reached the Averett College campus in Danville, Va.
“Averett had them all beat, said Blythe, a defensive back for Carson. “It was a family oriented thing. The other coaches tried too hard.”
So Blythe picked the Cougars over the likes of Methodist and Greensboro.
Speaking of coaches, Averett head man Mike Dunlevy and his staff made quite an impression as well during a visit.
“When I went to other schools, you’d talk to the coaches and leave. At Averett, the coaches went out of the room so we could ask the players questions,” Blythe said. “It was a good bonding experience to meet them.”
Dunlevy won’t get a harder worker than Blythe, a 5-foot-8 speedster who is currently winning the 100 and 200 meters for the Carson track team.
It wasn’t always like that.
“He’s self-made,” said Carson assistant Travis Billings. “When he came in as a freshman, he wasn’t fast at all. But Zach picked it up a lot the first couple of years. He worked hard to get faster and better. By his junior year, he started developing.”
Blythe always had a big fan in head coach Mark Woody. When Blythe was brought up early in his career, Woody gushed about how good he could be.
“He’s a prime example of a kid that works,” praised Woody.
Carson finished only 4-7 in Blythe’s senior senior but he did enough to get noticed by the next level. He’ll play safety or cornerback.
Along with teammate Dontae Gilbert and former teammate Zack Grkman, who’ll be a senior, Averett could have three-fourths of its secondary from the same high school.
Blythe is especially excited about going with another teammate, T.J. Smith.
“We’ve always had each other,” Blythe said. “If something goes bad, I go talk to him or he comes and talks to me. We’ve always played together. College is just another step in our friendship.”
A friendship that will also keep them Cougars.
Hobie Proctor thought he had a college scholarship sewn up midway through last season.
The West Rowan senior had kicked two field goals against Reidsville. He had two field goals against West Iredell in a game that gave West its eighth straight NPC title. And then, that mental block kickers go through sometimes hit him hard. He was suddenly missing.
“I really didn’t know what happened,” Proctor said. “But I figured it out.”
Actually, his kicking coach did. He watched film, told Proctor, and before the biggest game of the year — the Western Final against Burns — he had his act together. He boomed three extra points and had an important onsides kick, helping the Falcons reach their fourth straight 3A state title game.
He parlayed the success into an NPC Kicker of the Year award (seven field goals and 39 PATs). Considering Averett’s kicker was thrown off the team, a starting spot is awaiting Proctor.
“I really didn’t send film to (Averett),” he smiled. “They were probably the only Division III school I didn’t.”
But there he was at his visit, listening to coaches say to a horde of prospects, “A freshman will kick.”
Proctor hopes it’s him.
It has been a wild ride for Proctor, who began at West as a jayvee tight end. Before his junior year, West coach Scott Young approached him about being a kicker.
“He bought in to all of that,” Young said. “He and his parents worked hard on him becoming a place-kicker.”
Assistant Durwood Bynum is Proctor’s biggest fan.
“He worked hard in the offseason and you see where it has gotten him,” Bynum said.
Going with four Carson players is good, too.
“It will help,” Young said. “He won’t have that isolated feeling. They’re going to an established D-3 school with a good academic reputation.”
Proctor said he works out with Matt Turchin, another West grad who’s at Emory & Henry — and who lives in his neighborhood. He also follows Ben Erdman, who kicked at Coastal Carolina.
Proctor is happy to carry on the West kicking tradition.
“It’s something I’ve wanted since I started back in the third grade,” he said.
Dontae Gilbert was right to the point when asked about his football future.
I am ready for college,” he beamed.
But is college ready for him?
Averett coach Mike Dunlevy gets a kid who can play quarterback, running back or defensive back.
Gilbert can do it all, just like he did at Carson. Heck, if the basketball coach needs him, Gilbert can show film of his game-winning shot to beat East Rowan.
“Everybody knows Dontae,” smiled head coach Mark Woody. “He has done so well in a lot of sports.”
Dunlevy will settle for a talented defensive back. That’s what Gilbert will be when he joins the rest of his Cougar teammates in Danville, Va.
He’s come a long way, according to his coaches.
“As a freshman, he was undersized,” said assistant Travis Billings. “He hit a growth spurt and became a talented athlete at corner. If he does like he did in high school, he’ll develop.”
Woody had Gilbert penciled in as quarterback last fall, but changed his mind and left him on defense only.
“I took a chance not playing him at quarterback and I think it helped him,” Woody said.
Gilbert set the tone with an interception in the season opener. He made the season’s most spectacular play against Robinson, going high for a one-handed pick. He had one against East and got his fourth against North Iredell. He was all-county and all-conference.
Now, it’s Averett.
“It’s a nice, quiet and relaxing,” Gilbert said.
That will all change when he starts making some noise on the field.
Woody summed it up best.
“Averett’s getting a superb athlete.”
Carson is sending two defensive backs to Averett in Zach Blythe and Dontae Gilbert.
How about a third?
When asked about Daniel Rodriguez, Cougars’ head coach Mark Woody smiled.
“He ought to be a defensive back.”
Woody laughed heartily because Rodriguez was all about girth in his senior season, a 6-foot-2, 340-pound monster on the offensive line.
Woody was actually referring to the new and improved Daniel Rodriguez.
“I’ve dropped 53 pounds,” Rodriguez announced last week.
Now, at around 290 pounds, he feels light on his feet, maybe enough to make an impact at the D-3 school.
“I feel good that I made it,” Rodriguez said.
He will be on hand when camp opens Aug. 2, hoping to earn playing time at offensive tackle. He helped Woody’s team churn for almost 2,000 yards in 2011. When Woody needed the tough yards, he sent Brandon Sloop behind the behemoth.
“He’s a very strong kid,” Woody acknowledged.
Rodriguez said having familiar faces like T.J. Smith, Zach Blythe, Dontae Gilbert and Hobie Proctor with him makes playing at Averett even more special.
“It’s going to be a trip with all of them, to be honest with you,” Rodriguez grinned, nodding toward Smith.
“T.J.’s my rival,” he said.
“It’s a good feeling football in this county is producing some athletes,” Billings said.
“I sure an proud of these guys,” Woody said.
Local fans can see them all when Averett plays near Salisbury on Oct. 13 at Greensboro College They might get to see Rodriguez, the offensive lineman. Or, if he keeps slimming down, maybe Rodriguez the defensive back.
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