• 52°

High school football: Full ride for Salisbury’s Clay

By Mike London

mike.london@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — Like Daniel Boone in the 1700s, Salisbury High senior defensive lineman Zae Clay plans to blaze a trail for others to follow.

Clay signed earlier this year with the University of the Cumberlands in Williamsburg, Kentucky. The Cumberland Gap is the portal through the Appalachian Mountains that Boone, the famed frontiersman, once explored. The University of the Cumberlands in Kentucky is not to be confused with Cumberland University in Tennessee.

Clay is headed to a school that is a national football power in the NAIA ranks. The University of the Cumberlands Patriots finished the 2019 season ranked seventh in the country in NAIA Division I and they were a preseason No. 5 in the nation in the fall of 2020 when their season got postponed. They’re competing in a short season now against Kentucky schools such as Pikeville and Campbellsville.

Recruiting never completely shuts down for a program like the University of the Cumberlands.

“I was on Twitter one day, just trying to stay positive about everything, and I got a message from the University of the Cumberlands,” Clay said. “That’s one of the schools our defensive line coach sent film out to, and they they really liked me. They wanted to know if I’d be interested in making a visit.”

The 230-pound Clay, 2019 Central Carolina Conference Lineman of the Year and Salisbury’s outstanding defensive player in the 2019 2AA state championship game, was more than interested.

There had been a lot of lookers when it came to recruiting Clay. A number of college coaches figuratively kicked the tires on Clay, but his 5-foot-11 height was a dealbreaker, no matter how much the kid produced on the field. The only firm offer Clay had when the University of the Cumberlands got involved had come from Division III Averett, in Danville, Virginia, a school that could provide some academic scholarship money, but not an athletic scholarship.

“Believe me, if Zae was 6-foot-3, his recruiting would have been done long ago,” Salisbury head coach Brian Hinson said.

Clay, the son of a single mother who works multiple jobs, needed a full athletic scholarship. That’s what he worked for for years before COVID made recruiting even more challenging for coaches, as well as players.

After that Twitter communication, Clay wound up making the trip to Kentucky to take a first-hand look.

His journey didn’t come at an ideal time, as far as weather conditions.

“It was snowing in Kentucky when I got there,” Clay said. “But that didn’t bother me. As far as the atmosphere, the football coaches, the facilities (including a turf field) and the school, I couldn’t have liked it any more than I did. It’s a long way (close to six hours), but I wasn’t turning down a full scholarship. For a kid like me, the full ride means everything. It means a college education. That’s been the dream for a long time. It lifted the pressure off me and took a burden off my family.”

It’s a surprisingly large school, the biggest private university in Kentucky, with more than 18,000 students. It offers degrees in 40 major fields of study.

Clay started playing football when he was 7 or 8, soaking up the basics and fundamentals with the Salisbury 49ers youth program.

People still talk about Clay’s five touchdown game at Knox Middle School, with scores on both sides of the ball. He was a fullback/linebacker in those days.

The Salisbury Hornets needed Clay most on the defensive line, so that’s where he has made his home. He’s started since his freshman year. He grew into a perennial all-county and all-conference player and developed a wider reputation last December with his three sacks against Shelby in the championship game.

“You may not know Zae is a player until the game starts, but then he starts making plays,” Hinson said.  “Not many people have the motor that Zae plays with. His first step is really quick and it makes him so hard to block. We’re so proud of him, He’s done the job on the field and in the classroom.”

Comments

News

Man killed by deputy recalled as storyteller, jokester

News

Rowan’s Sen. Ford backs ‘Election Integrity Act’ to move up absentee ballot deadlines

Business

Salisbury earns ranking on national list of best small cities to start a business

Crime

Supreme Court makes it easier to give minors convicted of murder a life sentence

Local

Quotes of the week

Local

Salisbury Human Relations Council offering online Racial Wealth Gap Simulation

News

Bill seeking permanent daylight saving clears NC House

News

Friends describe Elizabeth City man killed by deputy

Business

With second hobbit house now complete, Cherry Treesort looks toward future expansion

College

Catawba Sports: 2021 Hall of Fame class announced

Crime

Supreme Court makes it easier to sentence minors convicted of murder to life in prison

Local

Overton dedicates tree to longtime volunteer Leon Zimmerman

Coronavirus

First dose COVID-19 vaccinations up to 24% in Rowan County

Crime

Blotter: April 22

Crime

Lawsuit: Salisbury Police, Rowan Sheriff’s Office tore woman’s shoulder during traffic stop

Business

‘Believe me, they’ll be fresh’: Patterson Farm welcomes strawberry crop

Local

City appoints more members to boards, commissions, with 9 seats left to be filled

News

Virtual play groups the new norm at Smart Start

Local

City meets in closed session to consult with attorney on two ongoing litigation cases

Education

Summit takes art out of the classroom, into the student’s home

Education

Education briefs: Gene Haas Foundation donates $12,500 to RCCC

Business

County’s restaurant grant program dishes out funding to eight local eateries

High School

High school football: Yow out as South head coach

Education

Shoutouts