Red Devils ready for next level

Two defensive linemen highly recruited

Jay Woods (left) and Justin Akins have both seen their profiles rise dramatically since the end of last season.

Jay Woods (left) and Justin Akins have both seen their profiles rise dramatically since the end of last season.

Jacovian “Jay” Woods and Justin Akins, a pair of defensive linemen for the Jackson High School Red Devils, have seen their dreams quickly turn into reality over the past nine months.

Woods is a player who has received offers to at least 25 top universities around the country, and he’s recently had to begin the process of trimming his list of potential schools. Jackson High School Head Football Coach Mike Parris said Woods is now entering the stage of recruiting that the players typically dislike.

“The hardest part for these kids is telling people ‘no,’” Parris explained. “They’ve been working so hard throughout their high school careers to get people to notice them, that once they have to start making a decision, it’s not in them to turn anyone away.”

While Woods will work at methodically trimming his list over the coming months, Akins decided to take the plunge and pledge his verbal commitment to Georgia Tech on June 28. (No student-athlete football player can make his written commitment to a school, which is to sign a National Letter of Intent, until the first Wednesday of February.) Akins, said that even though he has made his commitment, the recruiting process hasn’t stopped.

“Nothing’s really changed,” said Akins. “People have still been calling me since I’ve committed, so it’s not that much different than it was.”

Recruiting is grueling for both the players and the collegiate coaching staffs, and has become a much more visible and much more scrutinized practice in recent years.

“The way recruiting is done has totally changed,” Parris said. “When we had recruiters from [the University of] Southern California at our practices this spring, they said [USC Head Coach] Lane Kiffin told them to look for guys that could be drafted in the first round in three years.

“Not only that, but guys like Justin and Jay are late bloomers from a recruiting standpoint,” Parris added. “By now, a lot of the recruiting is finished for this rising senior class, and they’re already working on next year’s rising juniors and rising sophomores.”

Parris said having the recruiters out to see the team’s best players has a “tremendously positive” impact on the team, which is evident through Akins’ recruiting saga.

“It’s great having these colleges out to see practices for a couple reasons,” Parris explained. “One is that the intensity of the practice picks up, because all the guys want to impress the colleges. But also, it gives other guys the opportunity to be seen, which is kind of what happened with Justin. A lot of these schools came to practices to see Jay, and by the end of the day, Justin was going home with another scholarship offer.”

Akins said that the attention he’s received, along with the realization that playing at the next level is a realistic expectation, has changed the way he’s approached his training on the field and in the weight room.

“We’re at a high school pace, but I’ve been trying to work myself like I’m in college,” Akins said. “You’ve got to be ready, because the work won’t end after the season is over.”

Woods said it’s been helpful to have a friend and a teammate alongside him while the two go through the recruiting process. Woods said they talk to each other about what they liked or disliked about certain visits that they take, and the two have even gone on visits together, for example when they each visited Clemson in late June.

Parris said one of the most useful tools in helping Woods and Akins get their names out to schools was YouTube. Kidd Sheppard, who films all of the Red Devil games from atop the press box at Red Devil Hill, has put together highlight packages for several current and former Red Devils, and he said he’s made films for eight players who went on to play for a Division 1 FBS school.

“When I was coaching rec football years ago, I promised the kids that I would help them go as far as their abilities would take them,” Sheppard said. “I wanted to give back to the community so that the kids could come back and give to their community.”

Jackson’s Defensive Coordinator Mike Eakin said his two star players will still have to prove themselves on the field this season.

“We’ve had guys like this here before who have gone on to play at real big schools,” Eakin said. “These two guys are going to have to go out there and prove that they are as good as some of the guys who won region championships before them.”

Eakin said he is impressed with the work that both players have done in the weight room since last season ended, and hopes that work will translate into results on the field.

“What I am looking forward to is these guys are going to be even better football players than they were last season,” Eakin added. “They have totally changed their bodies in different ways. Jay has lost a lot of weight while adding muscle. Justin has added bulk to his frame, and has been able to do so while maintaining his athleticism, which is very hard to do. That will benefit both of them in the fall.”

It sounds like motivation shouldn’t be a problem for either player.

“One thing my mom told me is to keep a level head and stay humble,” Woods said. “I still have to work hard for everything I get, and that’s one thing that will never stop in me.”

“We are trying to go after it every day like we’re already in college to help us get ready,” Akins added. “The next step is to put on the pads.”