Randy Thompson was on the opposite sideline the first time he saw Dontavius Nash on the football field.
Nash had already emerged as player to watch in Gaston County, NC, where he racked up 50 tackles and two interceptions as a sophomore safety and made eight catches for 163 yards as a receiver at Hunter Huss High in Gastonia. The long 6-2.5, 180-pounder had already drawn scholarship offers from Maryland, North Carolina and Tennessee before the start of his junior season in 2019.
Thompson was an assistant coach at Nash’s county rival, North Gaston, when the teams met in early September for a non-conference matchup.
“He was pretty well known in the area as someone you didn’t want to throw the ball toward, and if he was on offense you wanted to know where he was on the field,” Thompson said. “Our gameplan was to stay away from him. He kind of has that affect that if you go at him, you’re going to pay for it.
“I’m pretty sure he had like two interceptions in the first half. We went his way by accident, and he made us pay for it.”
Those kinds of performances would earn Nash a consensus four-star rating from the major recruiting services and more than 20 scholarship offers. He would eventually choose North Carolina, but after limited playing time in two years with the Tar Heels, Nash decided to enter the NCAA Transfer Portal in early December.
East Carolina became Nash’s landing spot on Dec. 29, and he’s expected to sign a national letter of intent with the Pirates on Feb. 1.
Thompson would later have the brief privilege of working with Nash in the fall of 2020 when he was hired as head coach at Hunter Huss. But due to the COVID-19 outbreak that forced North Carolina high schools to play the 2020 season in the spring of 2021, he wouldn’t get to coach the star on the field because Nash graduated early and enrolled at UNC.
But Thompson saw enough as an opponent and in the brief time working with Nash in anticipation of the 2020 season to know East Carolina is getting something special.
“They’re getting a playmaker,” Thompson said. “They’re getting someone who is going to compete at a high level and is always going to represent the program and his family in a very positive manner.”
Nash spent three seasons playing varsity football for the Huskies, playing in four games as a freshman in 2017. He made 12 tackles on defense and caught two passes for 25 yards on offense during his varsity debut.
With future college players such as Nash, Tony Davis (Duke) and Deaven Lowery (Winston-Salem State) leading the way, Hunter Huss went 13-1 and reached the West Regional 3-A semifinals in 2018. But it was his junior campaign that really stoked the recruiting interest in Nash.
He was a force on defense, offense and special teams in 2019. Nash collected 65 tackles and two interceptions on defense, had 568 yards and scored 12 touchdowns receiving and had 209 yards on 10 kickoff returns.
Thompson was excited to work with Nash when hired as Huss head coach in April 2020. Together they prepared for the 2020 season only to have their hopes dashed when the N.C. High School Athletic Association opted to move football season to the spring of 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Like many other high-profile seniors that year, Nash decided to go ahead and graduate from high school in December so he could enroll at UNC in January. That meant missing his senior year of high school football.
Nash departed Hunter Huss after helping the Huskies win 30 games and with 127 career tackles, 777 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns.
At North Carolina, Nash played in nine games over two seasons and recorded three tackles. But after playing sparingly in five games in 2022, he decided to seek a new home.
The move didn’t surprise Thompson.
“Well, yes and no,” he said. “I knew he wanted to get on the field and wanted to be somewhere he could contribute. I guess he felt like UNC wasn’t the place for that to occur. One one hand I was surprised, but on the other I know how much of competitor he is. He wants to compete.”
Nash reached out to East Carolina, where two other former Tar Heels — cornerback Tymir Brown and linebacker RaRa Dillworth — would also wind up transferring. ECU head coach Mike Houston and his new staff were among the first schools to offer Nash a scholarship soon after arriving from James Madison in January 2019, so there was already a built-in relationship with the Pirates.
But there was also an ECU connection with Thompson, who had served as cornerbacks coach under Houston at Lenoir-Rhyne. Also on that L-R staff were current ECU defensive coordinator Blake Harrell and defensive tackles coach Roy Tesh.
“I did work under coach Houston at Lenior-Rhyne,” Thompson said. “So, I spoke to him (about Nash). But they already knew about him once he entered the portal. As far as getting that (ECU) ball rolling, that was all Dontavius.”
Even though Thompson didn’t get the chance to coach Dontavius Nash, he is getting that opportunity with Nash’s brothers. Younger brother Zamarius Gladden made 94 tackles for the Huskies last season as a freshman safety and a second brother is expected to join the Huss varsity for the 2023 season.
“Zamarius is a heck of a little player,” Thompson said. “They have strong bloodlines.”
Nash will get a chance to make an impact immediately at East Carolina, which has lost some significant talent at safety. Former starting safeties Jireh Wilson and Shawn Dourseau, and reserve safety Demetrius Mauney have exited the program via the transfer portal. Starting safety and this year’s No. 2 tackler Gerard Stringer has completed his eligibility and will also be missing this spring.
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