Jahmir Smith's recruitment creating Notre Dame fans in North Carolina

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

SANFORD, N.C. — Everyone at McCracken Field knew Autry Denson also attended the Lee County-Harnett Central football game Friday night.

If they didn’t, the public address announcer made sure they did. Between the first and second quarters, the announcer asked fans to welcome Denson, the Notre Dame running backs coach, and made sure to mention his status as the all-time leading rusher for the Irish.

Denson wasn’t hard to spot. He stood on the sideline dressed head-to-toe in Irish gear: a green long-sleeve shirt, navy blue pants, and Under Armour shoes. He was making his last recruiting visit of the day to see Notre Dame running back commit Jahmir Smith in action.

But Denson wasn’t alone wearing Notre Dame attire. Lee County defensive backs coach Foster Cates sported an ND visor which conveniently matched the navy blue and gold color scheme for the Yellow Jackets. Cates’ son, Brooks, even wore a Notre Dame jersey to the game.

Little man rocking a #NotreDame jersey for

— Tyler James (@TJamesNDI) October 7, 2017

The next day, Notre Dame would beat North Carolina 33-10 just 45 minutes away in Chapel Hill. But for at least one night, Lee County High School backed the Irish.

“It's awesome,” said Foster Cates. “It's one of the most prestigious programs in the country. It's one of those things that's probably not going to happen to me again. It's not like Notre Dame dudes fall off trees. It doesn't happen. That part of it, you just want to embrace the ride, support (Smith) and be there for him. I told him I'll be at the games."

Smith returned the favor from Denson by attending Notre Dame’s game at Chapel Hill the next day. The significance of Denson’s visit wasn’t lost on Smith.

"It was pretty cool,” Smith said after Lee County’s 50-0 victory. “This is the first time he ever came to a game. This is the first time Notre Dame has ever been to a game at Lee County. It's special.”

Notre Dame coaches may have been to Lee County at some point in the Irish football program’s 130-year history, but it certainly hadn’t happened recently.

“I've been down here eight years now,” said Lee County head coach Burton Cates, Foster’s father. “They hadn't been down here in eight years. I don't know when the last time it was, but it's been a long time. I said, ‘We're going to take care of y'all and give you the hospitality that you deserve.'"

Recruiting Smith

Denson identified the 5-foot-11, 198-pound Smith as a running back he’d like to coach back in April. A scholarship offer sparked Smith’s interest, and he decided to make an unofficial visit to Notre Dame.

He made the trip with Foster Cates without any public announcement and little-to-no media acknowledgement.

"It was awesome,” Foster Cates said. “It was first class. I knew that was how it was going to be. But I didn't want to say anything to him.

“You just let him go and not know. He knew stuff about it, but nothing about being on campus. That was really cool for him to see it firsthand with no bias.”

The visit happened on July 18. Five days later, Smith announced a verbal commitment to the Irish.

“It's Power Five football,” Smith said. “They're with the Ivy Leagues (academically). It's the best of both worlds. Plus the coaches were really cool too.”

Smith fit in Notre Dame’s 2018 recruiting class as the second running back alongside Indianapolis Cathedral’s Markese Stepp. Both play with similar physical running styles. Stepp, a vocal recruiter for the Irish, active Twitter user and four-star prospect, receives his fair share of hype. Smith, a three-star recruit, works under the radar.

As a junior, Smith rushed 2,130 yards and 40 touchdowns on 317 carries. He also caught seven passes for 117 yards and one touchdown.

Rivals ranks Smith as the No. 16 running back in the 2018 class. 247Sports slates him No. 25 at the position.

“He's special,” Burton Cates said. “I've been in this thing 42 years, 32 years as a head coach. I've never had one like him before. He just excels in the class room. He excels in the weight room. He excels in practice.

“Everything is full tilt. He's a real simple person. He really is. If it's not football or academics or his family, he's not interested."’

That drive has allowed Smith to continue to excel as a senior. He scored 14 touchdowns in his first six games of the season. The numbers aren’t his only impact on Lee County. He’s also taken over as a leader.

“A leadership role is what you always want, but it's not what you always get,” Foster Cates said. “It's been everything you'd want with everything we've got. The leadership has been the whole deal. It's been awesome to have somebody that's going to lead by example and not by a mouth."

Skills on display

Lee County might not have needed Smith to beat Harnett Central on Friday night. Many of Smith’s teammates stepped up to make big plays in the blowout victory.

Smith certainly didn’t need to prove himself to Denson either. Yet he showed flashes of why the Irish running backs coach wants to add him to Notre Dame’s roster.

Smith runs through contact and has a nose for the end zone. He scored the first two touchdowns of the game for Lee County from two and three yards out. Those skills are well-established for Smith. But he’s worked hard to become a more well-rounded back.

“My outside running really,” Smith said of what he wanted to improve this past offseason. “I usually run in between the tackles, but I've been doing a lot on the outside.”

Smith did exactly that on a 58-yard touchdown run in the second half. He took a pitch down the left sideline, ducked in between blockers and defenders and avoided getting touched on his way to the end zone.

It was Smith’s last play of the game. He watched the rest of the game from the sideline after racking up 88 yards and three touchdowns on 11 carries and 42 yards on two catches.

"I wanted to get back in again,” Smith said. “Coach wouldn't let me back in."

Burton Cates has been careful with not playing Smith when it’s not necessary for his team to win. He treats keeping Smith healthy for the Irish as a responsibility. But he knew Smith wanted to put on a show for his future coach whether Smith would admit it or not.

“If you saw him during the week, you wouldn't think anything,” Burton Cates said. “Not one bit. He's the same all the way."

Did Smith feel any pressure with Denson watching?

“Nah,” Smith said.

That’s probably because of the close relationship the two have developed. Denson and Smith communicate regularly with any topic on the table. Smith appreciates that Denson understands the path of his football career.

"He can be a big brother,” Smith said. “He'll tell me everything he learned. He gave me some tips and everything. So it's pretty cool."

Before Denson left Friday night’s game, he asked to play catch with a couple of kids on the sideline. He tossed the ball with both of them during halftime before heading back to the team hotel.

.@autrydenson playing catch with some kids at halftime.

— Tyler James (@TJamesNDI) October 7, 2017

If there weren’t many Notre Dame fans in Sanford, N.C. before Friday night, that may be starting to change.

"Oh Lord, yes. No question,” Burton Cates said. “We'll be up to see him quite a bit. There will be a lot of people cheering for the Irish, I guarantee it."

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Notre Dame running back commit Jahmir Smith scored three touchdowns in Friday night's game with Irish running backs coach Autry Denson in attendance. (Tribune Photo/TYLER JAMES)