LAURINBURG — Senior linebacker Jonathan Smith announced his pledge to the University of North Carolina in August before Scotland’s first regular season game, but left the door to his commitment slightly ajar in case he experienced second thoughts.
The 6-1, 230-pounder slammed that door shut Thursday during a signing ceremony at Scotland Motors in Laurinburg, inking his National Letter of Intent to join the Tar Heels. Smith is expected to enroll early at UNC for the spring semester, which begins Jan. 11.
“Ever since I committed, I knew that UNC was the school for me,” he said. “It’s a big lift off my shoulders. I know I have the next four years of my life set.”
The captain of Scotland’s defense initially announced his decision to join coach Larry Fedora’s program during the summer, ending a recruitment that saw him pursued by some of the premier programs in the country. UNC and Duke were considered the favorites at the time, with offers from Georgia Tech, Michigan, Notre Dame and Virginia Tech also in consideration.
In all, Smith received 16 Division I scholarship offers before his senior season.
“If anybody ever deserved good things that happened in their lives, it’s Jon Smith,” said Scotland coach Richard Bailey. “I’ve been doing this for 24 years, and I’ve never had a kid that loved football, loved working out, loved the team locker room unity like Jon. I’m extremely proud of him.”
As a junior, Smith was named to the 2014 Associated Press all-state team and earned Southeastern Conference Player of the Year honors for a Scotland team that finished 12-2 overall and advanced to the third round of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association 4A playoffs. He totaled a team-high 156 tackles (22 for loss), four sacks and an interception.
Though Smith knew where he would play football the next four years of his career, he refused to rest on his laurels entering the 2015 campaign.
He helped the Scots reach the No. 1 ranking in the North Carolina Associated Press poll en route to an undefeated regular and the program’s fifth straight SEC championship. Smith recorded 107 tackles (17 for loss), one forced fumble and recovery, and three interceptions. He provided the highlight of the Scotland’s season in the regular season finale against rival Richmond Senior, stepping in front of a pass in the red zone during the waning seconds to secure the game-clinching pick.
Smith was named the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year for the second consecutive season, and he was selected to participate in next Saturday’s North Carolina-South Carolina Shrine Bowl at Gibbs Stadium in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Scout.com currently ranks Smith as the No. 1 inside linebacker in the state and rates him as a 3-star recruit.
“It has been a tremendous four years — Jon’s been here since I got here and he’s been a big part of the success we’ve had,” Bailey said.
‘I have a pretty good chance of playing’
Smith is set to join a UNC team that was 11-2 this season and captured the ACC Coastal Division title. The Tar Heels were defeated by Clemson, 45-37, last Saturday in the ACC Championship game. While the loss eliminated UNC from earning a spot in the College Football Playoff, the Tar Heels were tabbed to play Baylor in the Russell Athletic Bowl Dec. 29 in Orlando, Florida.
Smith mentioned he attended five of UNC’s seven home games this year, and took note of the Tar Heels’ revamped defense under first-year coordinator Gene Chizik. The Tar Heels fielded one of the worst defenses in school history in 2014, but Chizik, and a new coaching staff that included the likes of linebackers coach John Papuchis and defensive backs coach Charlton Warren, helped that side of the ball become one of the most improved units in the country.
“There wasn’t much changed from last year, it was just the players were buying in and everybody bought in to coach Chizik and coach J.P.” Smith said. “Everybody out there was having fun.”
Smith noted that he’s kept in contact with UNC’s entire defensive staff and Fedora since his commitment in the summer. The Tar Heels will lose two of their starting linebackers to graduation, including middle linebacker Jeff Schoettmer. Smith hopes he can plug that hole once he steps foot on campus next fall.
“I think that if I get up there and work hard and if I’m able to get down their defense, I have a pretty good chance of playing,” Smith said.
The Scots’ season did not end the way Smith and the rest of the team envisioned before the start of the year, as Scotland’s chase for a championship was cut short in the second round of the 4A playoffs. North Davidson, a No. 7 seed in the West Region, defeated No. 2 Scotland 46-42 in Laurinburg.
Now that his days of wearing Scotland black and blue are over, he reminisced about the camaraderie he shared with his teammates on, and off, the Pate Stadium field.
“The locker room — there’s nothing like it,” he said. “Being in there with the guys day in and day out, laughing and just building a bond with them.”
When asked what his favorite moment was as a Fighting Scot, Smith didn’t hesitate with his response.
“The Richmond County game is going to be unforgettable, especially the moment that I had this year with the interception,” he said with a grin.
Logan Martinez can be reached at 910-506-3170. Follow him on Twitter @L_Martinez13.