Last spring, Mallard Creek High offensive coordinator Aaron Brand asked star receiver, star running back and sometimes star quarterback Jaylen Samuels to try something new: Run track. And, at first, Samuels wasnt the least bit interested.
He was getting college offers, planning college camp visits and lifting weights, getting ready for his senior season. Sprinting around an oval track in the Charlotte heat wasnt something Samuels was willing to sign up for. But Brand persisted, Samuels relented, and eventually a couple things happened.
I started to get into it, Samuels said.
I really started to like it, he said. Running with the fast guys was helping me big time.
By the time Mallard Creek started summer drills and 7-on-7 scrimmages, Samuels noticed a big difference in his game. At 6-foot-1, 220 pounds, he was always able to run over people with his knees always coming up high and his legs seeming to almost never stop moving. But now, after running the 100 meters and the 200 and helping on two sprint relay teams, well, Samuels saw he could run past people, too.
At first, Samuels said, I was just trying to stay in shape, but I got into it. I started liking track and I noticed as soon as I stepped onto the field in the summer and started running routes that I was faster in my cuts and I was able to blow past people. I knew something had changed. I got faster. And I was conditioned very well. I didnt get tired as fast.
Samuels committed to N.C. State over the summer, and he was timed at a speedy 4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash at a camp at North Carolina. Previously, Samuels had been timed at 4.7 or 4.8. With his newfound foot speed, Samuels has had a strong season, helping Mallard Creek to a school-record 15 wins, an unbeaten season and a berth in Saturdays N.C. 4AA state championship game.
Mallard Creek (15-0) plays Wake Forest (12-3) at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh. Kickoff is 7 p.m.
Jaylen has had a tremendous season, Mallard Creek coach Mike Palmieri said. He does it all for us on offense. His size and speed make him special.
Samuels has rushed 102 times for 1,305 yards and 36 touchdowns, the fifth-most in Mecklenburg County history on a list that previously only included full-time running backs. He scores once on every 2.8 carries. Samuels has thrown a few passes at quarterback this season, and hes caught 44 passes for 818 yards and 14 touchdowns. The receiving touchdowns is tied for 15th in Mecklenburg County history.
I cant say enough about the guy, said Hough High coach Bobby Collins, who has seen a lot of Samuels on film and in person. Hes one of the best football players in the state. Hes a guy who can line up at tight end, at running back, at quarterback, at wide receiver and he takes pride in doing all of them well. A lot of guys compare him to (former Mallard Creek star Marquez) North (now at Tennessee), but he can do a lot more things. (Samuels) can catch, run, block. Hes just an all-round football player.
Palmieri said Samuels is a good student and a model citizen in the schools hallways, too.
He makes great grades, Palmieri said. Hes got no problems at school. Hes a leader. You can count on him to be there on Friday because he wont do something during the week to throw us off.
Palmieri said he noticed Samuels had these traits from the moment entered school. He knew he would be a star player, though, early in Samuels sophomore season. The Mavericks had just beaten rival Butler 28-20 at home, and were playing at a strong Sun Valley team in August 2011. Samuels intercepted a pass in his teams end zone and returned it more than 100 yards for a touchdown.
I wasnt saying much when he made the play, Palmieri said, but I was excited that we picked off a ball and returned it 100 something yards. But I also knew that Sun Valley at the time had some fast kids and they couldnt catch him.
As a junior, Samuels had more than 850 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. He had three rushing touchdowns and made the N.C. Associated Press all-state team. And Palmieri said hes not been the least bit surprised by the type of senior year his star tight end is having.
He works really hard, Palmieri said. Hes a low-key kid. Hes been with us three years and hes been dynamite all three years. And theres a big difference having a guy that skilled in high school like him. Hes just special.
Now, Samuels and Mallard Creek have one game left in the season. Mallard Creek, nationally ranked in at least four polls, is a heavy favorite to beat a Wake Forest team that lost 44-0 to Butler in the 2010 state final. Palmieri, though, doesnt worry about what the analysts are saying.
Hopefully we make enough plays to win, he said. The people who are talking about whos favored, theyre not watching film on Wake Forest. We know what they have. Were also used to being favorites and what people have to say good or bad about us, and our kids are focused on what we have to do. As long as we win by one, well be fine with that.
Samuels, who will play on his future home field Saturday night, agrees.
This is a big game for us, he said. In the past couple years, weve been losing in the semifinals and for us to get past that, it was a great moment for us, to just enjoy that feeling. Now weve got to go win that real thing in Raleigh. Man, this is such a big game, and we should send our seniors out with a ring, which is something weve wanted for the longest.
Wertz: 704-612-9716; Twitter: @langstonwertzjr
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