Ryan Riggan was just two seasons into a tenure as head football coach at Union Pines High School near the end of the 2011-12 academic year when the parent of a graduating senior student dropped by with some information.
“He was the dad of a kid who was graduating, and he told me he had a kid moving here to live with him who was a player,” Riggan recalled. “I didn’t think a lot about it again until the first day of summer workouts when this kid came around the corner.
“I was like, ‘Holy smoke, he was right.’ Kids like that don’t fall on my doorsteps that often.”
The tall, athletic player who appeared that day was Taijh Alston, who had been living with his mother in Lumberton. But Alston moved to the Union Pines school district prior to entering high school to reside his father. Lumberton’s loss was a major gain for Riggan and the 3-A class school located just North of Southern Pines in the tiny town of Cameron.
After a stint on the Union Pines junior varsity as a freshman, Alston has been a force the last two seasons at defensive end for the Vikings. The play of the 6-foot-5, 235-pounder was so impressive during that time that programs such as Appalachian State, Charlotte, Coastal Carolina, Miami of Ohio and N.C. State extended scholarship offers in recent months.
But loyalty and opportunity led Alston to instead accept an opportunity to play for East Carolina. He made a verbal commitment to first-year coach Scottie Montgomery while in Greenville for Saturday’s annual Purple-Gold scrimmage that marked the end of spring practice.
Alston becomes the third rising senior high school prospect to join the recruiting Class of 2017 and was the first of two to do so during the Purple-Gold weekend. Greensboro Dudley cornerback Myles White also made a verbal commitment to the Pirates while attending the scrimmage festivities.
Recruiting attention had been mounting for Alston with Appalachian State and N.C. State extending offers over the last month. But Alston was sold on ECU from the minute the previous coaching staff originally extended his first major college offer last summer when Alston attended the Pirates football camp.
“I was a little surprised he decided this early,” Riggan said. “I felt like there was some time left in the (recruiting) process. But going up there he told me he was ready to make the decision. In his words, he said ‘They were the first ones to take a chance on me.’
“I asked if he was sure about it and he said he was. I said, ‘Great, tell them.’ ”
Another reason Alston chose to announce an early college choice is because he plans to graduate from Union Pines next December, so he can enroll at ECU in January 2017. That will allow him to participate in spring practice with the Pirates and hopefully compete for some immediate playing time as a true freshman at defensive end or outside linebacker.
Looming graduation losses – seven of the 10 defensive linemen on ECU’s spring roster are juniors or seniors – should certainly open up opportunities for Alston in 2017.
“Taijh wanted to go somewhere he can compete to play right away, and I know that’s been some of the conversation he’s had with their coaches,” Riggan said. “His first three steps are incredible. He comes off really fast and plays at a pretty good pad level most of the time.
“One of the biggest things for defensive linemen whenever he’s chasing a quarterback is not to not let those big (offensive line) boys get their hands on you. He does a good job keeping hands off of him, being fast and closing ground.
“I think he’ll graduate at Christmas this year and get on up to (ECU’s) campus to get that first semester under his belt. He’ll go through spring practice, the weight program and will get to eat all the stuff up there. He’ll continue to grow as an athlete. If he does that, he could have a chance (to play early).”
Alston spent his freshman year at Union Pines playing linebacker for the junior varsity. He moved into a starting role on the varsity as a sophomore when he made 54 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks.
Despite being limited for several games due to concussion symptoms, Alston piled up 77 tackles, 13 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks last season to earn first-team All-Cape Fear Valley 3-A Conference honors and second-team All-Cape Fear region status from The Fayetteville Observer.
Alston kicked off his junior season with an eye-opening performance in a 43-26 opening victory against East Montgomery.
“He had so many big plays, but the one I remember is one he didn’t actually get a sack on,” Riggan said. “But East Montgomery ran a sprint out away from his side. Taijh did a great job getting off the blocker and actually tracked the kid down. He got a hit on him (quarterback) as he turned the ball loose on the opposite side of the line of scrimmage.”
Alston isn’t likely to be the last defensive end prospect added to the 2017 class. Another in-state target at end is 6-2, 220-pound Zion DeBose from North Rowan High in Spencer.
ECU along with Appalachian State, Charlotte and Duke have offered DeBose at this stage of recruiting. He made 68 tackles – 33 of them for lost yardage – and 4.5 sacks as a junior.