Veteran High Point Central High School coach Wayne Jones sent East Carolina a defensive end in 2011 who would end up starting 16 games and appearing in 37 overall.
The player, Johnathon White, had been a three-time All-Piedmont Triad 4-A Conference pick performing for Jones. After a redshirt season as a true freshman at ECU, White recorded 95 tackles, 11 tackles for loss and 2.5 quarterback sacks over the next four years as a prominent member of the Pirates’ defensive front.
White completed his eligibility after the 2015 season, but Pirates won’t have to wait long for Jones to send another defensive end with similar skills to Greenville.
High Point Central’s senior defensive end Ja-Quane Nelson agreed to follow in White’s footsteps on July 28 by making a verbal commitment to play for ECU. Nelson chose the Pirates over offers from Charlotte, Hampton and Murray State.
The pledge prompted questions for Jones about whom Nelson was comparable to among his former players.
“He reminds me of Johnathon White,” Jones said. “Johnathon started for East Carolina and just graduated last May. [Nelson] reminds me of that kind of athlete. Ja-Quane may be just a little bigger and he’s definitely stronger than Johnathon was in high school.”
The 6-foot-3, 260-pound Nelson took a little more time to develop into a star at Central than White. He played sparingly for the junior varsity as a freshman after nursing a nagging ankle sprain the entire season.
Arriving on the varsity as a sophomore, Nelson began to show his potential by making 18 tackles, four tackles for loss and a sack in seven games. He then became a disruptive force last season, racking up 33 total tackles, 11 tackles for loss, nine sacks and three fumble recoveries, one of which he returned for a touchdown.
“He’s a big kid with good feet and good hands,” Jones said. “He could easily be a tight end. He’s very agile, quick, strong and just a good athlete. He made it to the state championship in the discus, and he could play basketball for us.
“Right now, we use him on offense [line] as well as on defense. We don’t have a lot of linemen, so he has to play both ways. This year we moved him to a three technique (defensive tackle) and he’s done really well inside there.”
Nelson’s forte is penetrating into the opposition’s backfield.
“In our Northwest (Guilford) game last year he was just impossible to block,” Jones said. “Anytime they ran any kind of counter he was in the backfield causing havoc. He’s just one of those kids who is quick off the ball, strong and makes a lot of plays.”
The defensive line is an area ECU needed to address in the recruiting Class of 2017. The Pirates are off to a strong start at the end positions, having already added Taijh Alston from Union Pines High at that spot.
Two junior college prospects who could fill the remaining defensive line spots in the class are tackle Walter Palmore from Eastern Arizona Community College and end Brandon Henderson from Georgia Military.
The 6-4, 295-pound Palmore visited Greenville in late June after receiving a scholarship offer from the Pirates. He has an impressive offer list which also includes Georgia, Houston, Kansas State, Missouri, West Virginia and others.
Henderson, a 6-5, 255-pounder, received his offer from ECU in May. He’s also had offers from Bowling Green, Charlotte, Georgia Southern, Georgia State, Louisiana Lafayette, Northern Illinois, Toledo and Western Kentucky.
Those players will hopefully see the same thing that turned Nelson from prospect to pledge for East Carolina.
“East Carolina was on Da-Quane early in the process and they were convincing to him,” Jones said. “He liked the coaching staff because they showed him more attention than any other people.
“I think he’s pretty solid (to ECU). The only thing would be is somebody bigger came along. But I think he’s solid. I think he likes where he’s at.”