Defensive back finds stardom at Louisville, but Charlotte still tugs at his heart

Louisville cornerback Jaire Alexander addresses the media during a news conference at the ACC Football Kickoff earlier this month in Charlotte, his hometown. Alexander played high school football at Rocky River High.
Louisville cornerback Jaire Alexander addresses the media during a news conference at the ACC Football Kickoff earlier this month in Charlotte, his hometown. Alexander played high school football at Rocky River High.

It was just hours before the biggest football game of his life, but Jaire Alexander’s allergies weren’t cooporating.

The big-play Lousiville cornerback from Charlotte had worked tirelessly to reach this stage and refused to let teary eyes sideline him.

The crisp fall breeze aggravated his allergies as Alexander and the visiting No. 3-ranked Cardinals faced No. 5 Clemson last October in Death Valley. His eyes steadily watered and he had difficulty seeing for most of the game

Still, it didn’t hinder the former Rocky River High standout from bursting into the national spotlight with three game-changing plays.

Early in the second quarter, All-America quarterback Deshaun Watson marched the Tigers’ offense deep into Louisville territory with a chance to tie the score at 7.

On first down, Watson spotted favorite receiver Mike Williams briefly open on a crossing route near the goal line and rifled a pass in his direction. With the ball slightly thrown behind Williams, Alexander reached in and ripped it away for an interception.

Louisville cornerback Jaire Alexander (right) and Clemson wide receiver Mike Williams fight for the ball in the end zone in last year’s ACC game at Clemson. Alexander, who grew up in Charlotte, ripped the ball away for an interception. Rainier Ehrhardt AP

Alexander added a forced fumble in the third quarter and another interception in the fourth. Despite the clutch plays – Louisville lost 42-36 to the eventual national champions – Alexander jokingly said he gained more Instagram followers after that game.

Alexander (5-foot-11 and 192 pounds) finished his sophomore season in 2016 with five interceptions, nine pass break-ups and a 69-yard punt return for a touchdown against Florida State. Pro Football Focus, a website that focuses on analysis of NFL and college football, ranks him the ACC’s best cornerback for 2017. His name is also showing up on NFL mock drafts.

While professional football is a goal, Alexander said there’s unfinished business for him at Louisville, a seven-hour drive from Charlotte, where he’s reminded of his difficult upbringing.

“The thought of (success) is pretty exciting, the hype, the publicity, but that's not where I started,” Alexander said earlier this month at ACC Football Kickoff in Charlotte. “I started here, the publicity brings me here, but I would rather stay on this level and stay grounded and stay humble so I can continue to grind.”

Fresh start at Rocky River

From the time he was 5 until around middle school in Charlotte, Alexander said, there were times he didn’t know where he would live from week to week. But his grandmother was always there to help the family, and he says when he went down the wrong path, there were mentors who changed his course.

Jaire Alexander, right, is shown making a catch during his senior season at Rocky River High in 2014. Observer File Photo

He got a fresh start at Rocky River High, hoping to make an impact in football.

Under coach Jason Fowler, the Ravens made two state playoff appearances - in 2013-14 - and Alexander played a key role as a receiver and defensive back his final two seasons. He totalled 1,693 receiving yards, 26 total touchdowns and 84 tackles .

Alexander hoped to play football at an ACC school in North Carolina, but none offered him a scholarship, he said. That motivated him to “do better and go harder.”

He decided to play for the Charlotte 49ers, but switched his commitment to South Carolina. Finally, concerned that Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier might retire, Alexander says, he visited Louisville and committed the next day. He enrolled in January 2015.

Charlotte’s still on his mind

Cardinals coach Bobby Petrino recruited Alexander to play receiver, but he was needed in the secondary because the defense lacked depth. Alexander also returned punts, where his 4.32-second, 40-yard dash speed is a valuable asset.

Petrino said it’s Alexander’s confidence that distinguishes him. There isn’t a receiver in the country he doesn’t think he can shut down, the coach says.

Louisville junior quarterback Lamar Jackson, last season’s Heisman Trophy winner, said Alexander also brings out the best in him at practice. As a former receiver, Alexander has better ball instincts than most cornerbacks, Jackson said. If Alexander recognizes the receiver’s route, he’ll run stride-for-stride with them, often making it hard for Jackson to complete passes.

“He runs our receivers’ routes sometimes and that's bad,” Jackson said. “You can't go at him head on. You got to bait him up and come back to him.”

At times, Alexander relies on quickness more than technique, and Petrino said correcting that will be an emphasis this season.

“I'm just trying to make him get in a great stance every play and utilize his footwork so he can be more consistent.” Petrino said.

Alexander hasn’t decided if he’ll turn pro after this season or return for his senior year.

But eventually, he knows he wants to return to Charlotte and be a positive influence and help change lives, as his was changed.

As he’s done in Louisville, Alexander said he wants to work with troubled youth.

“Seeing the impact it had on me lets me know that a voice does matter, and if somebody looks up to you that voice matters,” Alexander said. “I just want to be that voice.”

Emmanuel Morgan: 704-358-5337, @_EmmanuelMorgan