Tom Crowell has been a high school football coach in Montgomery County, Maryland, for most of the past five decades. During that span, Crowell has helped develop some special football talents, including current National Football League players such as receiver Stefon Diggs of the Buffalo Bills and Washington Redskins’ cornerback Kendall Fuller.
Now the head coach at Sherwood High School in Sandy Spring, Maryland, Crowell is mentoring a player with similar potential in Jalen Clyatt.
The wide receiver/safety/special-teams standout became the first member of East Carolina’s football recruiting Class of 2021 on April 30th. Clyatt chose the Pirates over a lengthy list of Football Bowl Subdivision offers from schools such as Kent State, Marshall, Maryland, Pittsburgh, Rutgers and West Virginia.
The decision came as a bit of a surprise for Crowell, especially considering ECU’s offer came in late February and Clyatt hasn’t spent much time on campus.
“It seems like East Carolina has started hitting this area more so than the previous regime,’’ Crowell said. “They started recruiting him heavily about four or five months ago. They got some tape on him and really liked him.
“Yes, it (commitment) surprised me. I asked him, ‘Why Jalen?’ He said, ‘I just like those coaches. They showed all the love.’ I guess they said all the right things because he just fell right in love with them immediately.’’
The ECU staff certainly had plenty of time to evaluate Clyatt, who has been playing at the high school varsity level since he was a freshman. The 6-foot-4, 200-pounder burst on the scene at Sherwood High in 2017 for then head coach Chris Grier.
Sherwood is one of the traditional 4-A powers in Maryland, having won three state titles and made it to the championship game six times since the 2000 season. So having a freshman earn a playing time is rare, but Clyatt saw extensive action throwing blocks, catching passes and making hits as a receiver and safety.
Among the highlights were an 8-yard touchdown reception in a season-opening 44-0 blanking of Magruder High and a 14-yard scoring catch in a 62-8 triumph against Northwood.
Sherwood fans were expecting big things from Clyatt as a sophomore. But when head coach Chris Grier decided to step away from the sidelines after an 8-3 finish, Clyatt opted to transfer to football powerhouse DeMatha Catholic where he worked mainly at receiver in 2018. College recruiters began to notice Clyatt at DeMatha where he teamed with current four-star receiver prospect Kaden Prather, now at Northwest High School.
Before the 2018-19 academic year ended, Clyatt returned to Sherwood where Crowell had replaced Grier as the varsity football coach. He rarely left the field for the Warriors as a junior, seeing action at receiver, safety and on special teams.
Crowell said Clyatt gave one of his best performances of the season in a 28-17 loss against rival Paint Branch in late October.
“We were playing Paint Branch, which is a team we have to beat each year,’’ Crowell said. “We were getting beat 14-0 and he brought us back to 14-14 on his catches. We threw a fade (pass) and he just outran a guy and made a one-handed catch. On another one, we called a slant across the middle and he ran it down to the one-yard line.
“On defense, he made a play in the same game where somebody was crossing the middle and he just splattered the guy. He hit him and knocked the ball loose. He’s the real deal. He is a player without a doubt and I’m sure East Carolina knows that.’’
East Carolina has recruited Clyatt as a safety, but Crowell believes he could easily transition to an outside linebacker-rush end at the next level.
“He has a real good feel for football,’’ Crowell said. “A lot of people can play football but not understand football. He understands football. He knows his coverages, he knows his body on patterns and stuff. He’s athletically a good player and mentally he’s a good player. He’s a very smart guy.
“We use him at safety. We were thinking about maybe playing him there (outside linebacker) this year ourselves. But the offensive coaches go crazy so we have to be careful with that.’’
And that brings us back to some of Crowell’s previous football stars. He coached both Diggs and Fuller while serving as an assistant coach at Good Counsel High and believes Clyatt has similar potential.
“He’s bigger than both of those guys and you know what, he’s just starting to fill into his body,’’ Crowell said. “He can go offense or defense. He could do either one. I don’t know if East Carolina likes him more as a receiver. But Pittsburgh and Michigan State and schools like that were looking at him for maybe defense. He can play both sides of the football for sure.
“You’re getting him at the beginning. The sky is the limit. He gets bigger and faster and taller every time you see him.’’
The commitment from Clyatt gives ECU a good start to fulfilling one of its major needs in the recruiting Class of 2021 at safety.