LAURINBURG — Associated Press all-state linebacker Jonathan Smith is a Tar Heel.
The Scotland senior standout announced his choice to attend the University of North Carolina Friday evening at “Laurinburg After Five,” a community event held at the James L. Morgan Recreation Complex.
Smith took the stage at the intermission of the concert, and with help from fellow senior Dashaun Ferguson, unveiled a UNC hat in front of an anxious crowd eager to hear his decision.
The 6-1, 230-pounder ended a recruitment that saw him pursued by some of the premier programs in the country. North Carolina and Duke were considered the favorites for the services of the physical middle linebacker.
“It was a lot of going back and forth, seeing what Duke had to offer and what North Carolina had to offer, and it was just North Carolina outweighed Duke,” Smith said.
In addition to the two in-state schools, Georgia Tech, Michigan, Notre Dame and Virginia Tech were among the 16 Division I schools that offered the senior. The Blue Devils appeared to have a slight edge in the recruiting battle after hosting Smith for a visit two weekends ago, but UNC swung the pendulum in its favor during his trip to Chapel Hill Sunday.
“The last visit I took, they showed me a lot about the school and what they have to offer, and I just made up my mind that I’m going to be a Tar Heel,” Smith said.
Scotland coach Richard Bailey said he didn’t know which hat Smith would take out of the bag, though he mentioned the Tar Heels appeared to have more momentum leading up to the announcement. With encouragement from his coach, Smith called the UNC staff later in the week to confirm his decision.
“Wednesday I talked to (linebackers) coach (John Papuchis) and he just told me that Carolina was the place that I needed to be and I believed him,” Smith said. “I called coach (Larry) Fedora and said, ‘I’m Jonathan Smith, and I’m a Tar Heel.’ He was hollering everywhere and was happy.”
Smith rebounded from a major knee injury that wiped out his sophomore campaign to win the SEC Defensive Player of the Year award last year.
He led the Scots in tackles, recording 156 stops. He also notched 22 tackles for loss, four sacks and an interception. A player known for having a nose for the ball carrier, Smith tallied a season-high 28 tackles (15 solo, 13 assisted) in an early-season victory against Jack Britt.
Bailey said Smith’s attention to detail and knowledge of the playbook is something few of his players have matched during his time as coach.
“(Jonathan is) as college-ready a football player as I’ve ever coached because of his I.Q. and his work ethic,” Bailey said. “He’s not going to be overwhelmed when he gets to North Carolina as far as the commitment that it takes to be a football player because he embraces the process. He loves the lifting, the loves the running, he loves the film study, he loves the X’s and O’s.”
In addition to earning all-SEC honors, Smith was also named to the Associated Press all-state team after helping Scotland reach the quarterfinals of the North Carolina 4A playoffs.
Smith’s 2014 accomplishments landed him on NCPreps.com’s preseason all-state team, which was released earlier this month. He, along with Pinecrest offensive lineman Sean Pollard, are the only two SEC players to earn the distinction. Pollard committed to Clemson in December.
Despite the NCAA investigation that continues to linger over UNC athletics, Smith said the coaching staff assured him the football program would not be punished for any potential sanctions.
“They said it wouldn’t affect them any and I believe coach (Papuchis) and they’re very truthful with me, so I believe them.”
Smith is UNC’s 17th commitment in the class of 2016, and he said he expects to see early playing time with the Tar Heels.
“They had a gameplan of what I was going to do when I go there and how they were going to fit me into the defense and set the defense around me. They told me the recruits and the D-linemen they were going to bring in, so you know for linebackers that’s very important to have big defensive linemen in front of you to protect you from the offensive linemen.”
Smith thanked the Scotland County community and his family, teammates and coaches, and is looking forward to shifting his attention to the field now that he knows where he will attend school next fall.
“It feels great, now I can focus on my teammates and helping everyone get better and focus on winning a state championship,” Smith said.
Smith and the Scots open the regular season at home against South View Aug. 21.
Logan Martinez can be reached at 910-506-3170. Follow him on Twitter @L_Martinez13.