From a negative came a positive for Jason Shuford and East Carolina’s football program.
Shuford, a defensive lineman from Statesville (NC) High School, had settled on continuing his football career at national junior college powerhouse Independence Community College in Kansas after falling just shy of NCAA academic requirements that would have earned him a scholarship to a Football Bowl Subdivision program.
But those plans changed suddenly for the 6-foot-4, 295-pounder in March when the NCAA passed a relief waiver due to the COVID-19 outbreak. The organization granted eligibility to athletes who had at least a 2.3 core grade point average while waiving previous requirements for SAT or ACT test scores that may have been cancelled due to the virus outbreak.
Shuford fell into that category.
“I remember when the rule came into effect and then (ECU defensive tackles) coach (Roy) Tesh was on the phone with me within 30 minutes of that happening,’’ Statesville coach Randall Gusler said. “He was like, ‘Hey man, what’s the deal with Jason Shuford? Let’s get it rolling.’
“Sure enough, it’s worked out really well.’’
Shuford became yet another late addition to ECU’s recruiting Class of 2020 on May 11 when he announced his pledge to the Pirates via a Twitter post. He joins a recruiting class that now features nine defensive line prospects and a 10th addition in Appalachian State graduate transfer Chris Willis.
Gusler believes it’s a well deserved second chance for Shuford, who joined the Statesville program as a freshman and played for the junior varsity. He made his varsity debut a year later as a part-time player on a veteran defensive front that sparked a 9-3 finish for the Greyhounds.
Shuford was again part of the defensive line rotation as a junior, producing 33 total tackles, 10 tackles for loss and two sacks in 12 games.
“He was a nice-sized freshman when he came in and he played JV ball as a freshman,’’ Gusler said. “We knew he was going to be really good. He really worked hard, not only in football but also on the wrestling mat. He just kept getting better and better.
“Honestly, I really think that we had a pretty good D-line his junior year and he was in the rotation. But he was kind of like, ‘Coach I don’t like this rotating.’ So he kept pushing the issue and trying to get stronger and work hard because he was like ‘I don’t want to come off the field this year, this is my senior year.’’’
Shuford didn’t disappoint. He returned last season to spearhead a defensive unit that allowed 14 or fewer points in seven of its final nine games en route to a 12-1 finish. He led the Greyhounds in tackles (95), tackles for loss (19) and sacks (8), while also ranking second with five forced fumbles. The performance earned Shuford first-team All-North Piedmont 3-A Conference honors and a berth on the All-Iredell County teams selected by the Statesville Record & Landmark newspaper. He was also named defensive player of the year for the North Piedmont Conference.
Dominant at times, Shuford produced double digits in total tackles three times and had nine hits in three other games. He recorded a season-high 13 tackles and four tackles for loss in an October victory against Jesse Carson, but it was a play that Shuford made during a nine-tackle effort in a 33-13 win against South Iredell that provided the best example of his talents.
“Really, he played really well all year,’’ Gusler said. “He had big plays throughout the year. But one of things that impressed me the most about him happened when we were playing a game against South Iredell and they threw a bubble pass. He shed a block and caught the receiver out in space. A normal person shouldn’t be there. But he read it perfectly, shed his block, took off and tackled the kid for a no gainer. He did that several times this year on several plays. But like I said that one play right there reminded me. I watched it on film the other day and I’m like, ‘I don’t know how he made it. I don’t know how he got there.’ It was just really impressive.’’
Shuford’s athletic exploits at Statesville weren’t limited to the gridiron. He was also an accomplished wrestler who twice placed fifth in the state 3-A heavyweight division. As a junior In the state meet, Shuford lost his first match but bounced back to pin four of his last five opponents.
Gusler said the skills Shuford gained as a wrestler also became assets on the football field.
“The thing I’ve realized with our kids who wrestle and play football is usually their footwork is really good,’’ he said. “They understand the concept of combat, leverage and those kinds of things. And they seem to do a really good job of translating that from the wrestling mats onto the football field where they understand the whole separation and the leverage thing, so it works out really well for them.’’
Shuford developed in a Statesville program that has recently had a steady stream of players flowing to the FBS level. Former offensive guard Brock Hoffman will be a junior next fall at Virginia Tech, offensive tackle T.J. Storment is a senior at Texas Christian and running back Nakendrick Clark will be a senior at Appalachian State. Statesville senior safety Tynan Tucker has signed to play at Kent State in 2020, while junior running back Chavion Smith already has scholarship offers from a number of FBS programs including Kentucky and Tennessee.
Gusler expects Shuford to extend that tradition at ECU.
“As far as d-linemen go, he’s a really good d-lineman,’’ Gusler said. “He can play inside or outside. They’ll probably tab him as a three-technique inside guy. But he played D-end for us, too. He can play inside or outside. He was fast enough and his arms are so long. It’s unreal how long his arms are and he can reach and get separation unbelievably.
“I think he can come in (at ECU) and make an impact right away. The thing about it is size-wise he is already 6-3, almost 6-4 and 295 pounds. Size-wise, he’s got the size, and with his speed and footwork and stuff I think he can definitely jump in and make an impact next year.’’