by Zach Mason
Jaylen Smith and the Copiah-Lincoln Wolves knew they were the better team.
They jogged off the field after suffering a crushing 38-0 loss in the 2022 season opener believing they were the more complete roster, despite the lopsided score.
“Our defense held them to three points in the first half,” Smith said. “We couldn’t get nothin’ going on offense. We kept getting three-and-outs, turnovers. Defense getting tired, they let up 35 more points. But we came out knowing we was the better team, we just wasn’t gelled.”
“We came out of that game sayin’, ‘We see them again, we gonna beat ‘em.’”
Smith was never supposed to be at Co-Lin.
A three-star receiver out of Mandarin High School in Jacksonville, Fla., Smith caught passes from current Georgia quarterback Carson Beck and helped the team to the Florida 8A High School State Championship.
The pandemic partially stunted his recruitment, but Smith found a Division I home at Bowling Green in 2021. The Falcons welcomed him into their family, but the freshman from SEC country had trouble adjusting to college life in northern Ohio.
“Goin’ all the way to Ohio, being an 18-year old kid fresh out of high school was just so much freedom,” he said. “I didn’t know how to act.”
Smith faced the reality so many freshmen encounter in their first few practices – he wasn’t mentally or physically ready to command playing time. He played in just three games in his debut season and didn’t record a catch.
“Coming from being the guy at your high school, I’d say it’s definitely a humbling experience,” he said. “You not just gonna come up here and think you just gonna start off the rip. It’s more work. You gotta get bigger, stronger, get in your playbook. At first, I wanted that true freshman, all these awards, bells and whistles, but then I realized I really wasn’t that ready my freshman year. It took me ‘til I got to Co-Lin to realize I wasn’t ready for it yet.”
The lack of playing time contributed to a loss of motivation off the field, and soon, Smith and other teammates who weren’t seeing game action started neglecting their classwork. The poor judgment bled into practice, where Smith would laugh with teammates on the sideline and neglect coaching.
More questionable decisions compounded, and it wasn’t long before Smith became academically ineligible to play NCAA football.
In my head, I’m like, I ain’t goin’ to no juco. I’m not hearin’ none of that.Jaylen Smith
With no options except to enter the transfer portal, Smith received messages from Division I coaches who wanted to sign him. He couldn’t text them back because he’d be wasting their time – under NCAA rules, he was unable play for any of them, regardless of how committed they were to signing him.
Smith’s coaches told him he had no choice but to sign with a junior college if he wanted to keep his college football career alive.
“In my head, I’m like, I ain’t goin’ to no juco,” he said. “I’m not hearin’ none of that.”
But reality set in when he talked to his high school coaches back home. Smith had squandered his opportunity to play Division I football with no guarantee he’d ever get a second chance.
Breaking the news to his father, a former wide receiver who had kept Smith focused on the field and out of trouble growing up in West Jacksonville, was a difficult phone call.
“I’m getting scolded, yelled at for not doing what I was supposed to do,” he said. “I’m supposed to be in college doing my job, handling business. And I wasn’t. But he kept it like a football thing. ‘It’s in the past now. Now you get another chance to do what you supposed to do. So fix it.’”
It’s the first game of the 2023 season, and Co-Lin is taking on East Mississippi once again.
The Wolves had circled this game on their calendar after the 38-0 loss a season ago, and they’re off to a good start in the first quarter. Brandon Gilliam sends a 25-yard kick through the uprights to give Co-Lin a 3-0 lead, then quarterback DeVon Tott connects with Jamarquez Melton for a two-yard touchdown to extend the Wolves’ advantage to 10-0 at the end of the first quarter.
But East Mississippi, led by two-time Mississippi Gatorade Player of the Year Ty Keyes at quarterback, strikes quickly in the second quarter with a couple of touchdowns. The Wolves go into halftime trailing by more than they did in last year’s 38-0 blowout.
Smith knows when he looks at the opposing sideline he was just a phone call away from joining them.
On the day he was supposed to send his letter of intent to play for East Mississippi, Smith received a call from his high school wide receivers coach.
“He said the coach from Co-Lin has been looking for you, you should hear what he has to say,” Smith said. “I talked to him. I liked what I was hearing. Then a player from my city was going to Co-Lin, too. His dad got on the phone with my dad and said get Jaylen over to Co-Lin, him and Kyjuan [Herndon], they gon’ do big things. So I was like OK, I’ma go ‘cause one, I’m going somewhere where I know somebody, and two, I just feel a lot more comfortable comin’ here than East Mississippi.”
The East Mississippi coaching staff was predictably upset with Smith’s change of heart, but Smith said there were no hard feelings. At this point, it was about making the best decision to put him on a path back to Division I football.
Smith had never been to Mississippi before driving in to start school at Copiah-Lincoln Community College. It wasn’t the most scenic expedition, and when he stepped out of the car in Wesson, the reality of his circumstances set in.
“Coming from a big city and then you come to Mississippi and you see nothin’ but land,” he said. “You see farms everywhere, horses, cattle. It’s a lot of back roads, dirt roads. You not used to seein’ stuff like that in the big city. It was just a ‘I’m really in juco’ thing.”
The change in scenery was restorative to Smith’s academic and athletic priorities. The coaching staff, led by head coach Glenn Davis, put genuine effort into supporting each player on the roster in all aspects of life and emphasized handling their responsibilities in the classroom.
“I definitely started to take school more seriously,” he said. “I had to. The coaches really didn’t let up on me about school work. These coaches here really care about school, your well-being, how you is on and off the field, character and stuff like that.”
Smith finished his first season at Co-Lin with 17 catches for 326 yards and three receiving touchdowns and one punt return for a score, but more importantly, got his grades back on track.
I took what I had for granted, and now I’m in the middle of nowhere.Jaylen Smith
Still, the Florida kid had one more season to go in Mississippi, and it would start with a rematch against the Lions – the preseason No. 1 team in the country.
Co-Lin’s offense continued to struggle coming out of halftime, but the defense managed to keep Keyes and the potent East Mississippi passing attack in check. The Wolves entered the fourth quarter within arm’s reach of the Lions, trailing 14-13.
East Mississippi put the pressure on Co-Lin once again to start the fourth quarter, stringing together a lengthy 79-yard drive that resulted in a touchdown to make it 20-13.
Co-Lin’s resilience and belief it was the better team began to materialize on the ensuing drive and the Wolves tied the game with a touchdown.
But they needed more.
After the Wolves’ defense forced another Lions punt, Co-Lin gained possession deep in its own territory, needing a spark to get the offense back in rhythm. The Wolves had just one play of over 30 yards at that point in the game and needed a big play to flip the field and have any chance of retaking the lead.
That’s when Smith broke free for a 31-yard reception to catapult the Wolves to midfield. Co-Lin continued to march methodically into scoring territory and Gilliam gained the lead back with a 29-yard field goal.
Co-Lin’s defense held strong, and the Wolves accomplished what they believed was possible a year ago with a 23-20 win over the Lions.
“It felt real good ‘cause you put in all this work over the summer, spring,” Smith said. “And then you go out there and you actually do what you said you was going to do.”
The season is young, but after toppling the No. 1 team in the conference, Smith and Co-Lin have placed themselves in prime position to challenge for the state championship. Meanwhile, Smith is going through the recruitment process one final time, now with his grades in order.
He just finished an official visit at Troy, and holds scholarship offers from Division I programs Liberty, Toledo, and Southern Miss. More are sure to come as Co-Lin continues to climb the national polls and scouts take inventory on the players behind the Wolves’ success.
Regardless of where Smith ends up next fall, his story of maturation and renewal couldn’t be written without the Co-Lin chapter. It was in the small Mississippi town of Wesson where he not only came to terms with his mistakes, but addressed the core issues that caused them.
Now, he’s a few months away from stepping back into the world of Division I football.
This time, he said he has the right mentality to fully take advantage of the opportunity in front of him.
“I took what I had for granted, and now I’m here in the middle of nowhere,” Smith said. “But I think it’s a blessing that I came here. I was blessed to get a second chance, ‘cause most people don’t get second chances when it comes to this football stuff. Most people, as far as I seen back home, most people, you mess up in college, they send you back home. I was glad to be able to come to Co-Lin.”
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Zach Mason is a journalist from Texas currently living in Seoul, South Korea. He has written for several notable publications, including the San Antonio Express-News, Dallas Morning News, and Houston Chronicle. Support his work by subscribing to this newsletter and following him on X.