2018 All-AREA FOOTBALL DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Engine No. 9: Smith is Cougars' steady hand on defense

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SouthWest Edgecombe's Jelan Smith is the Telegram’s 2018 Football Defensive Player of the Year.


Sports Writer

Monday, December 31, 2018

SouthWest Edgecombe coach Jonathan Cobb sat behind his desk, peered out from under a blue visor, and spoke over a persistent buzz.

Jelan Smith was the topic.

The Cougars senior defensive end — the Telegram’s Football Defensive Player of the Year is coming off a strong season where he guided the Cougars’ defense to memorable moments and a spot in the third round of the 2-AA playoffs.

Smith was the top player on that talented defense that allowed just under 15 points per game. He was the leading tackler in the Eastern Plains Conference with 132 and had the most sacks with nine. Smith added 15 tackles for loss.

“I’ve told all the recruiters that have come out to see him that he just has this instinct for the defensive side of the ball,” Cobb said. “One of his great skills is he gets from 0-100 a lot faster than a lot of people. His initial burst of speed, and his athleticism allow him to be able to make plays everywhere.”

To be sure, Smith created chaos for opposing teams. Look no further than the photographic evidence published in the Nov. 17 edition of the Rocky Mount Telegram. The play where Washington punter Ridge Zerniak careened sideways was Smith’s doing.

He broke through blockers and blew up the play.

“That was definitely my favorite moment of the season,” Smith said. “It’s funny because I was scared at first to play defense in middle school. I was scared to hit so that’s why I played offense.

“But the more coaches put me out there I got over my fear and then I started liking it.”

Those types of plays are made possible by Smith’s ability to get to places on the field quicker than others — and by using those instincts Cobb talked about.

“Sometimes you have players that can break your own rules when their instinct tells them to, and you have very few of those players,” Cobb said. “We had one back on the 2015 team, a defensive end fast as lightning, and Jelan.

“Those are the only two players that I’ve coached where I gave the directive to our defensive coaches that if he’s not doing something right, it’s OK. You trust Jelan’s instincts.”

The defensive end position at SWE was created long ago with players like Smith in mind.

Longtime Edgecombe County defensive coordinator A.B Whitley, who won state titles with North Edgecombe and Tarboro, began using his defensive scheme where the defensive end position acts as the linchpin of the whole unit.

Whitley, who coached with Cobb’s father Raymond, believed that the best player on the team should play at defensive end in his system due to having a number of responsibilities. The player would have to be able to stop off-tackle runs, handle pass rush assignments, all while defending the sideline.

“A.B. Whitley, my father’s defensive coordinator for almost 15 years, it was his scheme that has been very successful in Edgecombe County for two-and-a-half decades. And AB always said you have to put your best players at defensive end in this defense because they have so much ground to cover. So if you put a stud there you’ll be very successful.”

In a recent interview, Smith talks about his dream job, his favorite car and where he would like to live someday as part of our All-Area series.

Which three things would you bring if you were stranded on an island?

I would bring a machete, a fishing rod and flashlight, I guess.

Do you have a favorite movie?

I like watching Friday. But I watch Netflix a lot so I watch a lot of TV series. I like that one called Shooter that follows Bob Lee Swagger.

Which teammate inspires you?

I like little Mikey (junior cornerback Michael Hussey), but I like Kedar (junior linebacker Kedar Darden), too. They’re my favorite two. I like Mikey because he has a lot of heart, and Kedar wants everything real bad too.

What’s the significance to your jersey number nine?

I just got it because I wanted a single-digit number so I was just like give me one of those, and they gave nine so I kept it ever since.

That number is part of your nickname too, right?

Yeah. That’s why my nickname is what it is. J9. I think it started in 10th grade because when I had the jersey on people just started called me J9. It’s everyone calling me that now, even the principal calls me that when he sees me.

If you could make a dream defensive line, who would be on it?

I don’t know all of their names, I mostly watch highlights and stuff. I do like Julius Peppers a lot. He’s one of my favorite players. But I don’t focus on each single player, I know mostly the big stars like Saquon Barkley and other running backs.

What’s your dream car?

I want a Hellcat. The one that Tyquan Lewis has.

What’s your dream job?

I want to be a police officer. Actually I want to do something with the FBI like in Criminal Minds. A profiler. I watch that show all the time.

If you could live anywhere in the world where would it be?

I want to live somewhere cold. I like the cold weather a lot better than the heat. Maybe in the mountains, somewhere like Boone.

Honorable mention

Keeshawn Silver, So., Rocky Mount High

Cedric Baker, Sr., Rocky Mount High

Alandis Trevathan, Sr., Rocky Mount High

Kedric Anderson, Sr., Southern Nash

Darius Edmundson, Sr., Southern Nash

Austin Curtis, Jr., Northern Nash

Brandyn Petteway, Jr., Nash Central

Kendall Winston, Sr., Nash Central

Melik Ward, Sr., Tarboro

Ja’viyes Massenburg, Jr., Tarboro

Kendarius Jenkins, Sr., Tarboro

Ty’Trez Higgs, Sr., Tarboro

Landon Lewis, Sr., Faith Christian