By Sammy Batten,
Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer
August 23, 2004
Numerous Top-Ranked Prospects come From Gridiron BloodlinesFAYETTEVILLE Family tradition runs deep in the high school senior class of North Carolina's top college football prospects for 2005.
Headlining the top 30 prospects are seven whose fathers or siblings played major college football and/or in the National Football League. Five of those seven rate among the top 10 recruits, including one whose football bloodlines encompass his father and brother.
Winston-Salem Mount Tabor linebacker Derek Nicholson owns the distinction of belonging to what should be considered one of the first families of North Carolina football.
Nicholson's father, Darrell, was as feared by opponents as heralded teammate Lawrence Taylor while playing inside linebacker at North Carolina from 1978-81. The senior Nicholson was the ACC's freshman of the year in 1978 and first-team All-ACC in 1981. As a professional, he played one season with the NFL's New York Giants and helped Toronto win a Canadian Football League title.
Older brother A.J., who was North Carolina's top high school prospect in 2003, made his mark as a freshman linebacker last season at Florida State by appearing in all 13 games and logging three starts. He's expected to contend for all-conference honors as a full-time starter for the Seminoles this fall.
The oldest Nicholson brother, Darrell Jr., just finished a stellar career at linebacker for Division II Wingate. All three family members have been influential in Derek's football career, especially his father.
Just about every day during football season, we'll sit down and watch film, Derek said. He is critical in a good way, because he's trying to make sure I don't make the same mistake again. He's very knowledgeable about football. When I was younger, it was kind of tough to hear. But then he made me understand that he wasn't going to tell me anything that would hurt me. His critiques have helped me become a success.
Derek, a 6-2, 230-pounder, started alongside A.J. as a freshman at Mount Tabor and hasn't been out of the lineup since. He led the Spartans to a 13-2 record and the state Class 4A final as a junior, when he made more than 100 tackles (27 for loss) and 10 sacks. That performance earned Nicholson first-team all-state honors.
The list of suitors for Derek reads like a national Top 10, but by early August he had narrowed the field to 10 schools: Clemson, Florida State, Georgia, Miami, Michigan, Nebraska, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Oklahoma and Virginia Tech.
Right now it's wide open, Nicholson said in late August. I'm going to choose a place that feels like a home away from home. I want a school where there is a good coaching staff that I can trust, that has a good college atmosphere and a good football tradition.
Jamestown Ragsdale tailback Toney Baker is considered the state's No. 1 prospect by most recruiting services. The four-year varsity starter rushed for 1,800 yards as a freshman, 2,007 as a sophomore and 3,411 last season, pulling within about 1,700 yards of T.A. McLendon's career state record.
A work ethic that has resulted in a perfect attendance record at team strength-training sessions since his seventh-grade year has turned Baker in a powerfully built 5-10, 220-pounder. He combines that power with natural speed (4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash) and a unique ability to evaluate the field of play on the run.
Like Nicholson, Baker is being nurtured by a football-playing father. Tony Baker was East Carolina's leading rusher as a freshman in 1982 and again as a senior in 1985. He went on to be drafted by the NFL's Atlanta Falcons, for whom he played one season, and then continued his pro career in NFL Europe.
He's brought me up well, Toney Baker said. My freshman year, if I had some problem like blocking, I'd come home and talk to him. He'd break it down for me and give me little tips about how to make things better. But the best advice he gave me was when I first started out. He told me to hit the hole all-out, just as hard as you can. After he told me that, things just started opening up for me.
While dozens of major programs across the nation have extended scholarship offers to Baker, he said he'd like to choose a program close to home. He said he'll be closely watching the win-loss records of UNC and N.C. State this fall, and he's also seriously considering Tennessee, Virginia and Virginia Tech.
The family football connection continues with Jonathan Hannah from Hope Mills South View. He is an impressive physical specimen who stands 6-4 and weighs in at 255 pounds. But his best assets are the speed (4.7) and agility that have made him a hot property at tight end. Although he caught just 11 passes for 115 yards as a junior, he has very good hands.
Hannah has received scholarship offers from powerhouse programs such as LSU and Oklahoma, but many believe he is most likely to end up at N.C. State. His father, Joe, lettered on the defensive line for the Wolfpack from 1976-79. The defensive coordinator for N.C. State at the time was Chuck Amato, who is now the head coach in Raleigh.
The two other members of the top 10 with significant family ties to football are both quarterbacks.
Cameron Sexton from Laurinburg Scotland is regarded as a better all-around athlete than the state's other two top-ranked quarterbacks. He has the speed of a wide receiver (4.5 in the 40), which often enables him to escape the pass rush and make big plays, but don't get the idea that Sexton is some kind of an option quarterback. On the contrary, he has the arm strength and savvy to match any prep passer in the state.
Cameron no doubt inherited some of that athletic ability from his father. Brent Sexton was a small-school All-American as a defensive back at Elon College in the early 1970s and was taken by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the fifth round of the 1975 NFL draft. The elder Sexton played for the Steelers from 1978-81.
My dad has been a great source of support and knowledge, Sexton said. I wouldn't be where I am right now if it wasn't for him.
Sexton, who threw for 1,700 yards and 12 touchdowns as a junior, appears headed for the big-time as well. Florida State and Virginia Tech ranked among his favorite schools in late August, along with Clemson, UNC, N.C. State and West Virginia.
Joe Cox, the state's other top-10 QB, replaced heralded Chris Leak (now at Florida) at Charlotte Independence last season and proved to be another exceptional talent. The 6-1, 195-pounder completed 237 of 373 passes for 3,983 yards and 43 touchdowns in leading Independence to the state Class 4A championship. Strong fundamentals, an impeccable work ethic and accuracy are Cox's calling cards.
Duke first obtained a commitment from Cox soon after adding his high school coach, prep legend Tommy Knotts, to its staff. But Cox changed his mind in June, after Georgia came through with a scholarship offer. The switch went against family ties, as Cox's father Charles played safety for the Blue Devils from 1971-73.
Outside the top 10 are two more prospects carrying on a family tradition.
Fayetteville Britt defensive back Brandon Ghee may be the best cover corner in the state. His speed (10.4 in the 100 meters) is exceptional, and he seems to play bigger than his 6-0, 175-pound frame. He had 50 tackles and five interceptions last fall.
Ghee may not, however, be the best defensive back in his family. That honor may belong to older brother Patrick, who is expected to start in the secondary at Wake Forest this season. The Demon Deacons are one of the leaders for Brandon's services, along with Clemson, UNC, Tennessee and Virginia Tech.
Charlotte Latin fullback-linebacker Mark Paschal plays with a style that compares favorably to his father, Doug Paschal. Doug lettered four years at fullback for North Carolina in the late 1970s and played for the NFL's Minnesota Vikings.
Mark, a 6-1, 225-pounder, is a strong inside runner at fullback like his father. He piled up 1,397 yards and 26 touchdowns last season. He also is an exceptional linebacker, capable of blitzing the quarterback or dropping back into pass coverage. The Tar Heels have offered Paschal, and he camped in Chapel Hill this summer, but Clemson, Georgia Tech, UCLA and others also are pushing hard.
A large number of North Carolina's top prospects already have given commitments to major colleges.
Wide receivers Brandon Woods and Maurice Covington from Durham Southern both made early pledges to Virginia. Woods, who made 36 catches for 857 yards and nine touchdowns last season, is an acrobatic receiver who can turn bad throws into big plays. Covington is a tall, speedy deep threat who had 16 receptions for 410 yards and seven scores last year.
North Carolina gained early commitments from promising lineman Camaron Thomas of Robbins North Moore, up-and-coming defensive end Darrius Massenburg of Roanoke Rapids High, wideout Brandon Tate of Burlington Cummings, cornerback Bryan Dixon of Tabor City South Columbus, fullback-linebacker Kennedy Tinsley of Greensboro Dudley and fullback-tight end Nick Starcevic of Charlotte Catholic.
Wake Forest picked up early pledges from well-regarded Mocksville Davie tight end Ted Randolph, speedy Burlington Cummings running back L.J. Flintall and hard-nosed Bunn High fullback Mike Rinfrette.
First-year Duke head coach Ted Roof also got off to an impressive start in-state. He has secured commitments from Wilson Fike athlete Requan Boyette, Reidsville High receiver Raphael Chestnut, Whiteville High defensive back Marquis Melvin, Shelby Crest tailback Travis Padgett, Charlotte Latin end Ryan Radloff and Durham Jordan linebacker/end Kinney Rucker.
Radloff, a 6-3, 230-pounder who had 18 sacks as a junior, is yet another prospect with a family history in the sport. His father, Walter, captained Georgia in 1982.