For a guy who’s been a running back for most of his high school career, Chad Stephens has developed into a pretty good linebacker.
Good enough, at least, that East Carolina felt the 6-foot-2, 215-pounder from Southeast Guilford High School in Greensboro was worthy of a football scholarship offer back in April. After considering other offers from the likes of Air Force, Army, Campbell, Charleston Southern, Charlotte, The Citadel, Coastal Carolina, Eastern Kentucky, Furman, Hampton, James Madison, Liberty, Navy, Richmond and Western Carolina, Stephens decided to accept the Pirates’ offer June 21st.
Landing Stephens continued a string of recruiting successes in Guilford County for ECU coach Scottie Montgomery and his staff. The Pirates signed defensive back Kenyon Taylor from Southern Guilford in the Class of 2016, then landed defensive backs Nolan Johnson (Southwest Guilford), Jaren Rainey (Southwest Guilford) and Myles Berry (Dudley) along with defensive end Trey Love (Southeast Guilford) in the Class of 2018.
Stephens’ relationship with former Southeast teammate Love certainly impacted his decision to join the Pirates, according to his prep linebacker coach, Reggie Lassiter.
“I think that was definitely a connection he had to East Carolina,” Lassiter said. “But he also liked the campus and the atmosphere. He loved the football stadium and the coaches. A lot of things made his decision easy to go to East Carolina, but Trey’s presence was definitely one of those that made him feel like it was a great fit.”
Although ECU has recruited Stephens as an outside linebacker, it’s on offense where he’s seen the most action throughout his career.
Stephens was almost exclusively a running back through middle school and sophomore year at Southeast Guilford. He played on the Southeast junior varsity as a freshman before seeing his first varsity action in 2016 when he ranked second in team rushing with 628 yards and seven touchdowns on 120 carries.
But with graduation losses leaving holes on defense for 2017, the Southeast coaching staff believed Stephens had the skills to help fill those gaps.
“He had good instincts, and he’s very physical,” Lassiter said. “He was able to take on blocks and was also able to read the field well. He could go left to right. He could cover from sideline to sideline. So we felt he would be a great fit somewhere at linebacker. We played him most at the SAM spot last year.”
Stephens still contributed on offense in 2017, rushing for 220 yards and two scores and producing 228 yards and three scores receiving. But in his first full season as a linebacker, he rang up 35 tackles, two tackles for loss, two sacks and made an interception.
A play Stephens made in the second game of the season against Greensboro Smith was all the proof Lassiter needed that moving him to linebacker was the right thing.
“He was playing the SAM (strongside) position and the play was on the opposite side of the field away from him,” Lassiter said. “He came from his position to the other side of the field and catch the runner about 10 or 12 yards down the field. It was a big play that stopped a major drive.”
Stephens wound up with five tackles and two tackles for loss in the 11-6 non-conference triumph against Smith.
Lassiter said Stephens will shift from the SAM to MIKE (middle) linebacker as a senior. He’ll replace last year’s top tackler Jax Hackett, who is a freshman at Furman this season. It’s another big change for a player still new to the linebacker position.
“He’s still learning about the rigors of playing linebacker,” Lassiter said. “His biggest thing now is being disciplined. Being a linebacker, you can’t just run out of the block. You have to stay and read before you make a move. Survey what’s going on. That’s one of the main things he needs to work on.”
Stephens’ transition from running back to linebacker is one that’s all to familiar to Southeast Guilford head coach Kennedy Tinsley. Tinsley was a 1,000-yard rusher at Greensboro Dudley High School before signing to play for North Carolina. But the Tar Heels eventually moved him to linebacker.
“He’s (Stephens) not as polished as Kennedy was, but his size and athletic ability are in that neighborhood,” Lassiter said. “Kennedy made the transition to linebacker at Carolina. And it is a transition. But because Chad is going through that at the high school level, we’re hopeful in a couple of years it’ll pay dividends for him at East Carolina.”
Stephens is the first linebacker to join ECU’s recruiting Class of 2019. Lassiter believes, in time, Stephens will develop into a top-flight defender for the Pirates.
“I believe, as far as athleticism, he could contribute immediately,” Lassiter said. “But as with all young players, his maturity has to increase a lot. But as a linebacker he has a chance to stand out. You look at him in his uniform right now and he looks like a Division I college linebacker. Then, once you see him move and hit and travel from sideline to sideline there is no question he’s a special player.”