Nolan Johnson and Jaren Rainey have been playing football together since the sixth grade, so it came as no surprise when choosing a college team they both picked East Carolina.
The Southwest Guilford High School combo made verbal commitments to the Pirates within 11 days of one another, Rainey announcing his intentions on June 20 and Johnson following on July 1. Johnson entertained offers from Air Force, Appalachian State, Eastern Kentucky, Elon, Maryland and Yale, while Rainey was also being courted by Army.
“They’ve been best friends since the sixth grade and have always talked about playing together in college,” said Southwest Guilford head coach and Jaren’s father, Eric Rainey. “So, I guess, to them this is a dream come true.”
Both have been recruited to play defensive back for the Pirates, although Jaren Rainey has never played any of those positions.
A quarterback since he was eight-years-old, Rainey would team with his dad, who coached the team, and Johnson in leading the recreation league Oak View Cowboys to the city title at age 11. He’d make his high school debut as quarterback of the Southwest junior varsity in 2015 before appearing in one game with the varsity that season.
A 6-foot-3, 187-pounder, Rainey became Southwest’s varsity starter as a sophomore when he passed for almost 1,500 yards. He then helped Southwest post its first winning record in more than a decade last season (7-5) when he passed for 1,662 yards and 16 touchdowns, while also rushing for 843 yards and nine more scores.
“We actually chuckled when [former ECU defensive backs] Coach [Rick] Smith offered him as a safety because he’d never played the position,” Eric Rainey said. “He’s only been a quarterback. A few schools were interested in him as a quarterback, like Coastal Carolina. Army 100 percent wanted him as a quarterback. But ultimately he said all along he just wanted to play college football at the highest level he can. If that means playing quarterback somewhere, fine. There was never really any hesitation in taking the offer as a safety.”
ECU’s Smith actually first offered Rainey the scholarship after his sophomore year. Eric Rainey said his son was immediately drawn to then-Pirate head coach Ruffin McNeill. But when McNeill was dismissed the new staff immediately let him know they were still interested.
“They just did a very good job recruiting him,” Eric Rainey said. “They did that with both guys. Both boys felt really comfortable there. Both wanted to play fairly close to home. They know East Carolina is a big-time football program and plays a tough schedule. They’ve beaten Carolina and N.C. State in recent years. And both boys wanted to play somewhere they were wanted. They felt that at East Carolina.”
While Jaren Rainey was a physically mature athlete by the time he reached high school, that wasn’t the case for Johnson.
Johnson arrived on the Southwest Guilford campus as a freshman standing about 5-10. He started the year playing cornerback for the junior varsity, but had the year cut short when he suffered a broken collarbone.
A year later, Johnson secured a starting job at cornerback on the varsity, but it wasn’t until a growth spurt between his sophomore and junior seasons that college recruiters began to take notice.
“Once his body developed he had a great year for us,” Eric Rainey said. “He’s now about the same size as Jaren – 6-2, 184 pounds. He had seven picks for us last year. He made one against (High Point) Andrews where he actually got beat a little bit. But he didn’t panic, caught back up and made a play on the ball. He knocked it up in the air and caught it off the deflection for an interception. That stood out to me because it showed his maturity to not panic, recover and make a play on that ball.”
Poise is something Johnson shares with his buddy, Jaren.
“I remember two years ago when he was just a sophomore we were playing Ragsdale, and we were losing,” Eric Rainey said. “We hadn’t beaten Ragsdale in 17 years. But we were winning in the fourth quarter when there was a fumble on the exchange between him and the running back. They scooped it up and scored with two minutes to play and took the lead.
“Jaren came to the sidelines and was as calm as anything. Kids all around him were crying and coaches were yelling. It was a real crazy time. But he walked to the sidelines and said, ‘Dad, don’t worry about it. We’re going to win this game.’
“Well, they kicked the ball off to us and we get to the 30. He throws a pass 40 or 50 yards over the middle of the field, then runs it in from the 20. It was a solidifying moment for me as a coach and as a dad to know this kid has nerves of steel. It was probably one of the biggest wins in our program’s history.”
Eric Rainey notes his son has been working on perfecting his secondary skills this summer at various camps and seven-on-seven competitions. “He had interceptions in all our seven-on-sevens,” Eric Rainey said. “He’s excited about his future as a safety.”
Johnson and Rainey are both excellent students as well. According to Eric Rainey, Johnson has a 3.6 grade point average and his son carries a 3.5. Both are expected to complete their high school graduation standards in December and hope to enroll at ECU for the spring semester.
“Both guys like to challenge themselves academically,” Eric Rainey said. “They are in a great situation where they need just one credit to graduate. So they’ll be taking some community college courses this semester to give them a head start on college.”