June 22, 2014

Introducing ‘D-1’

Dalton High’s new linebacker receiving colleges’ attention

Devin Golden

— Nate Mays’ Twitter account name is “D-1.”

The moniker is appropriate, since “D-1” is probably where the Dalton High School football player is headed.

The Catamounts’ newest outside linebacker has a lot of eyes watching him and a lot of ears wondering where he’s headed. With Division I offers already coming his way and his summer schedule full, Mays is about to make one of the most important decisions a 17-year-old can make.

“It’s not really overwhelming,” he said. “It’s kind of exciting.”

Nate who?

If you only follow Dalton football on Friday nights in the fall, you may not even know who Nate Mays is. He hasn’t played a single snap for Dalton, and yet he’s possibly the school’s next great player.

A starter at Gordon Central High School in Calhoun the past two seasons, the rising senior helped his former school to an 8-3 record and a Class 3A state playoff appearance in 2012. Mays had 59 tackles, 1.5 sacks and a spot on the Rome News-Tribune’s All-Area second team. Colleges started taking notice.

The team finished 2013 with a new coach — Chad Fisher resigned after the 2012 season, and David Humphreys took over — and without a victory. Mays finished with 93 tackles, four sacks, four forced fumbles and a defensive touchdown. He made the Calhoun Times’ All-County first team and the Rome News-Tribune’s All-Area first team.

Then he came to Dalton, and his new teammates and fans got the first up-close football impressions during spring practice.

“My first reaction was the first time we lined up for scrimmage and seeing the size and stature and being, ‘Oh my goodness, this kid is a freak. We’re so lucky to have him,’” said Payton Veraldi, a returning starter at quarterback. “The very first play, he came off the edge and I forget who it was but he was absolutely demolished.”

Mays said he and his family made a “bona fide move” — the Georgia High School Association exception allowing transfers to play for their new school without sitting out one year — into the Dalton city limits and transferred to the high school between the fall and spring semesters of this past school year.

“I was looking for a better opportunity,” Mays said. “Dalton was a good choice. I thought I was working hard. When I came to Dalton, I realized I wasn’t working as hard as I needed to be.”

And the Catamounts now have a new star — a 6-foot, 3-inch, 217-pound physical force with a 4.5-second time in the 40-yard dash — at outside linebacker.

“It’s amazing to watch him work out,” said Dalton coach Matt Land, who noted Mays can squat nearly 600 pounds. “He has an explosiveness that’s pretty rare. When he came to us, he was really raw. One of the things we’ve helped him understand is the Dalton system, where it’s just doing his job. He comes from a system where he did everything.

“I think the thing I recognized off the bat is he’s so explosive that we had to slow him down a bit.”

Other teams like that explosiveness and strength, too. They like it so much they want Mays committing — now.

Wake Forest and Cincinnati, two BCS-level Division I schools, have offered scholarships, Mays said. They are the two most prestigious offers for a Dalton player since offensive lineman Watts Dantzler signed with the University of Georgia following the 2010 season.

Mays’ decision can’t be official until next February, when the annual signing day is, but he can make a verbal commitment to secure a scholarship at any time.

In fact, Mays said it’d be wise to do that — and soon.

“I kind of have no choice if I want to have a promised spot,” he said. “Coaches tell me that while I’m out here shopping for colleges, they’re shopping for players. So I need my decision pretty soon in order to not have my spot close up.

“They don’t want to keep playing the chasing game and end up not having me sign with them.”

All it takes is one

The first offer came April 16 from Georgia State, according to Mays’ Twitter account. He announced Mercer followed on May 13, then Kennesaw State on May 21. After going to Winston-Salem, N.C., for a camp, Mays posted Wake Forest had offered June 7. He announced the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC) offered two days later. Mays then said he visited Cincinnati two days after that for another camp and received a Bearcats offer.

“Most kids go to clinics and combines to get recognized,” Land said. “They’re going for exposure. The thing about a Nate Mays or Watts Dantzler is they’re going because they’re being invited by the schools.”

The invitations are much like a job interview. If an invitee shines in front of the coaches against the rest of the field, a scholarship offer can be quick to follow.

“What I’m told by most D-I coaches is they won’t offer a kid unless they are on their campus at their clinic,” Land said. “If they can’t get their hands on a kid and watch them run and jump and play, they won’t offer him.”

“The reason these college coaches want these kids on their campus is everybody has a combine and the combines are really losing their luster. They’re finding the combines aren’t being run by reputable people.”

Once the first D-I offer came, others followed. After one major program gives the green light, Land said, others are OK doing the same.

“Some of these schools don’t need to see the kid,” Land said. “They know these other schools are seeing him. When a Jacksonville State offers, a Middle Tennessee State or Eastern Kentucky will offer.

“That’s why the most important offer you get is the first offer. Once you get the first one, the others come in.”

It’s been a busy summer for Mays, who said he isn’t at all intimidated by the process or importance of the decision.

“This is what I love doing and basically this is my career,” he said, “so I’m not losing any summer.

“Traveling isn’t really a problem. It’s fun to go out and see all of these places.”

Luckily, he has a coaching staff willing to help along the way.

“Part of my job, as a head coach, is to help him find those systems that helps him the best,” Land said, noting he doesn’t want players spending every day during the summer going to camps. Land noted the body only can take so much and could break down from all the drills, which doesn’t help anyone.

“I think that’s the key for a coach — to navigate the waters for them.”

Nothing is final, but ...

Where is Mays leaning? Does he see himself wearing the Cincinnati red and black, making a short trip up Interstate 75 to UTC or staying in-state at Georgia State or Kennesaw State?

In his early assessment, his sights are on the Atlantic Coast Conference.

“Right now, I’m leaning toward Wake Forest,” he said. “Tennessee seemed pretty interested when I went to their camp.”

He also announced Thursday on Twitter he was visiting Wake Forest.

But don’t expect his interest to become a commitment before the summer concludes. Mays said Wednesday on Twitter, “I would rather make my decision as to what college I’ll commit to after the summer is over. Just (want to) enjoy my last summer doing camps.”

He plans to attend camps at Auburn and Georgia also, so there may be more offers coming.

The attention on Mays also brings some to his new teammates. Land said there were more than 30 college coaches at Dalton High during the first couple of days of spring practice. Many were looking at Mays — and they got to see potential college players like Veraldi, plus Jase Chastain, Zek Cobb, Kelvis Rhodes, and Chase Westfall.

“I talk to smaller Division I schools and bigger Division II or Division III schools,” Veraldi said. “The thing with Nate, him bringing in upper-tier Division I schools to watch practice, it gets eyes on us. They could come watch him, but then someone else could have a few pancakes or make a few good plays, and now they’re looking into that guy.

“It definitely helps.”

Land said all — Cobb is a rising sophomore, Chastain a rising junior and the others rising seniors — are receiving interest from colleges at some level. Chris Childs, Jordan Keener and Elijah Stidmon are the three from Dalton’s 2014 senior class who celebrated February during National Signing Day continuing to play the sport in college.

The 2015 class could have quite a few more.

“When you play for three straight years in the playoffs, that’s three more weeks of working,” Land said. “And that’s when coaches start watching you, when you’re in the playoffs. They see you playing a good team.”

A lot of coaches are watching “D-1.” Let’s see where he goes.