Because of the major college talent ahead of him, Jason Romero didn’t have the chance to really shine until his junior season for state 4-A powerhouse Scotland County HIgh School. And even then, Romero played in just eight games before an injury sent him to the sidelines.
But the lack of experience didn’t keep major college programs such as Duke, Coastal Carolina, Florida International, Old Dominion, Temple and Wake Forest from handing out scholarship offers to the defensive end. The Atlantic Coast Conference Blue Devils, in fact, coaxed a verbal commitment out of Romero last September.
Romero did eventually back off that pledge in early December, opening the door for East Carolina and its new coaching staff headed by Mike Houston. After hosting Romero during a Juinor Day in March and for football camp earlier this month, the Pirates finally secured a pledge from the 6-foot-5, 240-pounder on June 24.
The time spent on campus for camp on the weekend of June 15 cemented Romero’s decision to choose ECU.
“It impacted it (decision) a lot,” Romero said. “I talked to the starting defensive end, and really the whole defensive line. The players really showed me a lot about East Carolina, and the coaches were telling me how I was a player they really needed. It was just a great experience and made me realize ECU is the best fit for me.”
Scotland coach Richard Bailey believes the Pirates will be getting the best football version of Romero, who spent his formative years in Strasburg, PA, before moving to Marlboro County, SC, for his seventh- and eighth-grade years.
Romero moved to Laurinburg, NC, as a freshman where he played for the Scotland junior varsity for a season. He made 113 tackles and 20 tackles for loss with the JVs.
“He was a raw … a tall, skinny kid at the time who could run,” Scotland’s veteran head coach Richard Bailey said. “You could definitely see the potential.”
“Potential” couldn’t get Romero on the field for many varsity snaps as a sophomore on a senior-laden team that would finish 12-2 and reach the state 4-A championship game. Two big talents standing in Romero’s way that season were senior Tony Smith and sophomore Mohamed Kaba.
Smith was the Fighting Scots’ sack leader for two straight seasons and wound up earning a scholarship offer to play at Georgia State, where he’ll be a redshirt freshman in 2019. Kaba was a sophomore sensation who ranked just behind Smith in tackles for loss and sacks. Now a rising senior linebacker at Clinton High School, Kaba made a verbal commitment to South Carolina in May.
“It helped me mature being around Tony and Muhamed,” Romero said. “My work ethic blew up.”
With Smith graduated and Kaba transferring to Clinton, Romero took center stage on the Scotland defensive front as the 2018 season got underway. He made eight tackles and two sacks in the second game of the season against Durham Hillside and followed that up with a 10-tackle, two-sack effort against Marlboro County.
Then came Hurricane Florence in September. The storm forced postponement of football games, and flooding in the aftermath disrupted the county’s water service and prompted mandatory evacuations in some areas.
Romero left the county to take refuge with relatives in Durham. The situation became so severe in Scotland County that Romero actually considered staying in Durham and playing for Northern Durham High as a mid-season transfer. But when it became evident he wouldn’t be eligible at Northern Durham, Romero headed back to Laurinburg where he rejoined the Fighting Scots in early October, making seven tackles and a tackle for loss in his return against Hoke County.
Just when Romero was started to hit his stride, he suffered a neck injury in the final minutes against rival Richmond County that ended his season. Still, Romero finished with 51 tackles, six tackles for loss and six sacks over eight games.
Bailey is a veteran coach who has helped develop more than 20 Football Bowl Subdivision players in an 18-year career between Fayetteville’s Jack Britt High and Scotland. They include current active players such as Georgia State’s Smith, North Carolina linebacker Jonathan Smith and Georgia running back Zamir White.
Bailey says Romero’s skills are comparable to another big-time talent he coached at Jack Britt, former Appalachian State and NFL player Marques Murrell. Murrell produced 36 career sacks and set a school record with 18 forced fumbles in helping Appalachian State win consecutive NCAA Division I-AA titles in 2005 and 2006.
“Jason is a probably a little like Marques Murrell,” Bailey said. “He’s a little taller and bigger than Marques was in high school. If Marques had been a little bigger he would have been at Florida State instead of Appalachian State. But they both run well, are fast off the edge and have a high motor. Jason definitely has the potential to be a big-time player, too. He’s still raw. I think his best football is still ahead of him.”
As an example of Romero’s potential, Bailey recalled a play the defensive end made on special teams last season against Lumberton.
“He picks up a short kickoff and starts running it back,” Bailey said. “He’s running over and away from people for about 38 yards. It was impressive and was a great example of his athleticism.”
With four of the six players anticipated to be on ECU’s depth chart at the defensive end positions next fall scheduled to exit the program over the next two years, Romero believes he’ll have the opportunity to compete for playing time immediately when he arrives on campus in 2020.
“Absolutely. I feel like after my senior season I’ll go ahead straight to college,” he said. “I feel like if I work hard enough I can play or even start as a freshman.”
Romero’s commitment gives ECU 10 in the month of June and 13 overall. He’s the second defensive lineman to pick the Pirates, following West Brunswick High tackle J’Vian McCray.