Since he took over as Central’s head football coach three years ago, Chris Sands has often emphasized his focus on finding opportunities for his players at the college level.
The product of his efforts was on display during Wednesday’s National Signing Day, when four Bears celebrated as they put pen to paper on a National Letter of Intent.
De’Vonta Smith, the state’s leading rusher this past season, was the headliner, inking with Division I Appalachian State, but he wasn’t alone. Defensive back Dominique Walker signed with Division I Florida Championship Subdivision FAMU, linebacker Josh Rivera is headed to Division II Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and safety Sam Garner picked NAIA Webber International.
“We’re starting to make a trend of it every year,” Sands said. “We had eight senior starters and seven with college offers. It’s just a testament to the hard work we’ve put in and the pride we take in sending kids off to get an education for free.”
Smith had announced his commitment to Appalachian State a few months ago, after drawing 21 D-I offers while piecing together a prep career highlighted by 6,257 rushing yards and 66 touchdowns. After compiling 2,193 yards and 19 touchdowns as a junior, he posted a state-leading 2,913 yards on the ground and scored 37 times in 2016.
Last week, he was named an honorable mention All-American, after being tabbed first team Class 5A All-State in January.
“It means a lot to me,” Smith said of signing. “It’s always been my dream since I was a little kid.
“It took a lot of hard work, in the classroom, on the field, in the weight room. A lot of hard work. It was hard work to get my grades up, I worked hard in the weight room and I applied all that to the field to get in the position I’m in now.”
The decision for Smith came down to the Mountaineers and USF. When head coach Willie Taggart left the Bulls in early December to take the same job at Oregon, he took running backs coach Donte Pimpleton with him. It was Pimpleton who had been recruiting Smith to USF.
That left Appalachian State as the clear favorite for Smith’s services, despite being one of the last teams to present him with an offer. Yet the Mountaineers impressed Smith and Sands with their diligence in making sure Smith’s grades were in line.
“Ultimately, it was a perfect fit for him,” Sands said. “You’re talking about a program that wins 10 games every single year.”
With his signing out of the way, Smith will be up in Boone, N.C. as soon as possible. He’s set to officially arrive on campus on June 7.
“I can’t wait,” Smith said. “I was telling my mom, I’m ready to go on my journey.”
For Walker, this was the culmination of a whirlwind year in which he transferred from Springstead and was shifted from running back to cornerback. He posted 36 tackles, three passes defended, an interception and a fumble recovery.
“I credit Coach Sands, I credit my family, I credit God for putting me in this spot,” Walker said. “I’m ready to go to the next level and see what the future has got in store for me.”
Walker chose the Rattlers over Marshall and Southern Mississippi, and admitted he couldn’t have imagined such a scenario prior to arriving at Central.
“At Central, there was just something special I saw them building,” Walker said. “I was in a different situation and this wouldn’t have been possible in that other situation. But once I got here in the spring, everything started happening.”
Rivera led the Bears with 87 tackles, including 19 for a loss. He also had an interception and caused two fumbles. He was additionally looking at Henderson State, a D-II school in Arkansas, while fielding some interest from smaller D-I programs.
“It’s my dream come true,” Rivera said. “I’ve been working my whole life to get here and I finally got here. It means a lot. It’s the beginning of my future. I can say I made it out of Hernando County.
“They were the only visit I took. I went up there and it felt right. I liked the atmosphere. I liked being up north. It just felt like the right place for me.”
Lincoln “took the initiative to get me,” Rivera said, and made him feel wanted. Now he’d like to make the investment in him pay dividends.
“I’m looking to show out and I’m looking forward to the academic part, to build my future up there,” Rivera said. “I want to work as hard as I can so the rest of my life will be easy.”
Follow Chris Bernhardt Jr. on Twitter @cpbernhardtjr.