Prep football: West's Jackson to prep school
By Mike London
MOUNT ULLA — West Rowan’s Darryl Jackson will be part of the first football game in Gray Military Academy history.
The cornerback will be wearing the black-and white uniform of the home team when Gray’s War Eagles take on another brand new program — Orangeburg-Calhoun Prep on Aug. 27.
Gray is a combination prep school and junior college football program and hopes to do in South Carolina what Hargrave and Fork Union have done in Virginia.
Gray’s goals are to prepare students mentally, physically and spiritually to succeed in college on the field and in the classroom. Every student who will be enrolled for its start-up semester will be an athlete.
GMA students will live in dorms at the Wil Lou Gray Opportunity School, near the West Columbia airport. They’ll take character, life-skill and academic classes at the Opportunity School and will also study at the local junior college — Midlands Tech.
Jackson (5-foot-9, 176 pounds) isn’t big, but he’s talented enough to move on to bigger and better things if he can elevate his academic credentials at GMA.
“Clemson and East Carolina were recruiting me before they looked into my grades,” Jackson said.
Those two remain at the top of his list of dream schools.
“Coaches will be checking out Gray, and Darryl may get a chance to play at a high level,” West coach Scott Young said. “He’s a very skilled athlete. He has great coverage skills and improved tremendously as the season went on as far as run support.”
Gray offers a second chance to qualify for college athletics to talented athletes who damaged their transcript with one shaky academic year — or maybe just one poor semester as an unfocused freshman or sophomore.
Some freshmen heading to Gray still need a core course in math, science, English or social studies, while others have handled all their classroom requirements but need to raise their SAT or ACT score to qualify for college. The latter group could be ready to move on to a four-year school after just one semester — and one football season — at Gray.
Some Gray students lack multiple courses and will need to go through the two-year junior college academic program.
Some students are fully qualified academically already but hope to attract more recruiting interest than they did in high school by shining for Gray.
“My options were basically junior college or prep school and prep school was the best option,” Jackson said. “Each year of junior college, you lose a year of eligibility, but I can go to prep school without losing a year.”
Jackson didn’t just fill out an application to attend Gray, he earned a spot on the team through his performance in a highly competitive workout.
“It was about six weeks ago, and it was already hot in Columbia,” Jackson said. “It was a very big tryout, with a whole lot of big-time athletes there. We were down there for six hours, even with rain cutting things short a few hours.”
Gray had already conducted a tryout in the winter, but somewhere between 150 and 200 athletes showed up for the second camp/combine.
Jackson was tested in shuttle and vertical-jump drills and also matched up against receivers in 7-on-7 and 1-on-1 formats. He believed he’d held his own, but he had a couple of anxious nights waiting for his phone to ring.
“I thought I had done what I needed to do, but I was very relieved when I got a call from the coaches,” Jackson said.
Gray plans to open the season with a 68-man roster and has a seasoned coaching staff led by veteran head coach and AD Todd Helms, who has been on staffs at Coastal Carolina and Newberry.
Former NFL linebacker Corey Jenkins is the defensive coordinator, while former Georgia All-American safety Jeff Hipp coaches the secondary.
Jackson played at West only his senior season.
His father, also named Darryl Jackson, was a great running back and two-time county player of the year at North.
Jackson started at defensive back for the Cavaliers before transferring to West for his senior year, along with his younger brother Desmond, a promising tailback.
“At first, it was very tough, learning a new system and new coaches and new teammates, but once I got into the starting lineup, things started to click for me,” Jackson said. “West football is about working and winning, and I was surrounded by a lot of talent. It was great to be part of a championship team. I’m proud every day of that ring.”
Jackson intercepted five passes, including picks in the playoffs against Northwest Cabarrus and Concord. He had two interceptions against talented Statesville.
“He really does have a shot at doing some good things,” Young said. “He’s a skilled athlete and a dangerous man with the ball in his hands.”
Jackson showed that against South Rowan when he returned an interception 55 yards for a touchdown late in the first half.
“I guess I turn into a running back like my brother when I get the ball,” Jackson said with a laugh. “Every interception was fun because we had a great group of defensive backs (Georgia Tech’s Domonique Noble, Catawba’s Trey Mashore and West Liberty’s Eric Cowan all are moving on to college ball). Any time one guy got an interception, all four celebrated. And we all blocked hard for each other and tried to take those picks back all the way.”
West had 24 interceptions on its way to 16-0 and its third straight 3A state championship.
Jackson knows the months ahead won’t be easy. Helms has promised a military-style boot camp for the incoming recruits. After that, there’s going to be a lot of classes and 11 football games against a wide variety of opponents.
“I’m going to push myself hard,” Jackson said. “I have high goals. I want to play Division I football.”