COVINGTON, Ga. -- Neither player knew it, but on the same night at two different stadiums playing for two different teams against two different opponents, Darnell Jefferies and Spurgeon Gaither did enough to essentially clinch the same superlative designation.
Both players are The Covington News’ 2017 Players of the Year.
What Jefferies and Gaither did that night against Shiloh and Salem respectively, was turn in performances that capsulized why they were the two most dominant, game-changing players in our area this past season.
While Jefferies was snagging a pick six from his defensive end position in Newton’s Oct. 27, 37-0 win over Shiloh, Gaither was doing the same from his defensive tackle spot.
In fact, that same night, Gaither picked off two passes and took them to the house – the most impressive one was a 98-yard touchdown return off an interception where the 6-foot-1, 275 pound performed a side-step and a running back-style jump cut juke move to shake himself free of would-be tacklers.
Jefferies would add another signature play to his highlight reel resume when Newton went to Parkview and pushed the Panthers to the limit in a 42-35 overtime loss in the playoffs.
That night, in addition to a monster performance from the defensive line, Jefferies snagged several passes from the tight end position. But it was a four-yard diving grab in the end zone for a touchdown that forced overtime that sticks in your mind.
Both plays showed off the versatility of the two players, as well as the unquestioned impact both had on their teams as seniors.
Jefferies got more of the statewide and nationwide size, thanks to his 6-foot-4, 285-pound frame. He looks the part of a prototypical Division I football player. But Eastside football coach, Troy Hoff probably perfectly summarized the difference in how college scouts see Gaither as opposed to a player like Jefferies.
“If Spurgeon’s a couple of inches taller, he’s got the attention of every Division I school in the southeast,” Hoff said. “He’s got that kind of ability and that kind of motor. Unfortunately, sometimes, size makes it challenging for guys trying to get looks. But whoever signs him will get a steal of a player.”
To place Newton’s Darnell Jefferies and Eastside’s Spurgeon Gaither side by side as co-players of the year is not a slight to either player’s ability or accomplishments. Rather, it’s a complement to how dominant both were for their respective teams and regions.
Both Jefferies and Gaither snagged region defensive Player of the Year honors, and both reached well into double digits in both tackles and tackles for losses.
Gaither registered 60 tackles, 16 for losses and five quarterback sacks with the two interceptions, two forced fumbles a fumble recovery, a blocked punt and kick and two scores.
Jefferies registered 65 stops, 19 for losses and seven quarterback sacks. He added to that an interception, four pass deflections, two forced fumbles and seven catches for 70 yards and a score.
Jefferies, a Clemson signee, was also named the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Class AAAAAAA Defensive Player of the Year in a region that included some of the top teams and players in Georgia – think Archer and Grayson. Meanwhile, Gaither is currently unsigned but is attracting much interest.
Check out our rundown Q&As for each athlete:
Newton's Darnell Jefferies as Co-Player of the Year
When Darnell Jefferies sustained a knee injury during his sophomore season things felt bleak for the now-6-foot-4, 285-pound soon-to-be Clemson freshman.
Now, juxtapose that with euphoric feelings that accompanied his signing a National Letter of Intent to play football with the defending 2016 college football national champions, and Jefferies will tell you that the highs and lows were worth it. Jefferies has carved out a reputation as one of the top high school players in Georgia and one of the nation’s best defensive linemen. But it wasn’t a road that was without its difficulties.
To hear people speak of Jefferies now at Newton High School lets you know that he’s bounced back from every difficulty to become one of the school’s most loved and treasured student-athletes, both for his on and off-the-field presence.
School: Newton High.
By the Numbers: Jefferies recorded 65 tackles, 19 TFLs and nine sacks with a 27-yard pick six against Shiloh. Offensively, he registered seven catches for 70 yards and a touchdown, and also played meaningful snaps on the Rams’ offensive line.
Recruiting Attention: Jefferies, a consensus three-star prospect, had 25 Division I and Power Five offers, including Alabama, Auburn, Arkansas, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Florida and Ohio State. Although Tech and UGA were the first to offer, Jefferies picked Clemson, citing it as the best fit for both his football and entrepreneurial goals.
The Accolades: Atlanta Journal Constitution’s Defensive Player of the Year; First-team AJC all-state; First-team Georgia Sportswriters Association all-state; Region 8-AAAAAAA Defensive Player of the Year and first-team all-region.
Q&A With Jefferies
The Covington News: What makes all of the accolades and awards you’ve seen so special to you?
Darnell Jefferies: “Really for me it’s just know that all of my hard work over the last four years is finally paying off.”
TCN: You started at Alcovy, went to Peachtree Ridge and back home to Newton. Do you ever have any regrets about the path you took?
DJ: “No, not at all, because I know that this is the path that God had set for me.”
TCN: You share this Player of the Year distinction with Eastside’s Spurgeon Gaither. From what you know about him, what kind of player is he?
DJ: “As a player, Spurgeon is a hard worker and he never gives up. He definitely believes in the process.”
TCN: What would you say has been the highlight and low-light of your high school career:
DJ: “My highlight of my career is definitely being able to graduate high school early and being able to attend Clemson University. And for me, my low point is when I sustained that injury during my sophomore year.”
TCN: Everyone knows about Darnell Jefferies on the football field. What is something about you off the field that some people might be surprised to know about you?
DJ: “It would be that I am a very humble young man, and that I put God first in everything I do.”
TCN: Finally, how has your high school career, and particularly your time at Newton, helped prepare you for the next level?
DJ: “My time in high school and at Newton has definitely helped me improve my work ethic day in and day out.”
Coach Banks says: “There aren’t enough words to describe what Darnell Jefferies has meant to our team, our program and our school. The kids have to graduate, so you’re glad for that, but Darnell will definitely, definitely be missed around Newton High School, and not just for football.”
Eastside's Spurgeon Gaither as Co-Player of the Year
The big guys deserve the love.
If you saw either Gaither or his co-Player of the Year counterpart, Darnell Jefferies, play football this year, you’d probably say the same thing. For an award that typically gets reserved for skill player positions, the rarity of having a pair of defensive linemen standout is something special, and well deserved.
Gaither went from playing so sparingly his freshman and sophomore season that thoughts of quitting may have creeped in, playing himself into a place where, if not for his size — Gaither is generously listed at 6-foot-2, 275 pounds — the Eastside senior defensive tackle would be one of the most sought after players in the state.
As it stands, Gaither will tell you it doesn’t bother him much. Instead, his being overlooked due to his size seems to have worked in his favor, creating a chip on his shoulder that he proudly wears on the football field that changes him from a mild-mannered “country boy,” as he calls himself, into a playmaking machine on the defensive line.
“The number one thing about Spurgeon is he plays with a lot of energy,” said Eastside football coach Troy Hoff. “Once he crosses those white lines, he’s all business.”
School: Eastside High.
By the Numbers: Gaither compiled 60 total stops with 16 tackles for losses and five quarterback sacks. He also registered an interception with a 98-yard touchdown return, two forced fumbles, one for a score, a blocked put and a blocked kick. Gaither has five defensive touchdowns in his high school career.
Recruiting Attention: Gaither’s size has caused some to shy away a bit, but there’s still ample interest, including Kennesaw State, Middle Tennessee State, The Citadel and several others.
The Accolades: All-Region 4-AAAA first team and Region 4-AAAA Defensive Player of the Year.
Q&A With Gaither
The Covington News: With some of the awards and recognition, how does it feel for you to start getting noticed for your play?
Spurgeon Gaither: “I was excited, really. I never thought I would get these kinds of awards, so it surprised me really. I just never thought someone would pick me.”
TCN: Coach Hoff says you have a non-stop motor. What is it that keeps you turned up?
SG: “Just those boys around me. My teammates, especially on defense. They get me turned up. They turn me up so I can play better. It’s good to be around a bunch of guys like that. Guys like Rico and Jay Lack (Jaylon Lackey). Really, everybody on the defensive side, I just love those guys.”
TCN: You’ve had an amazing five defensive touchdowns as a lineman. What’s your favorite one?
SG: “That 96, 97-yard, or however many yards that was. It was that interception return against Salem. That’s my longest one. I made a couple of juke moves. That’s just me trying to be an athletic big guy.”
TCN: You share this award with Newton’s Darnell Jefferies. What do you think about the kind of player he is?
SG: “A beast. A monster. It’s like playing against a grown man out there. But he’s always been like that, though. Always been dominant and bigger than the other kids. I’ve been knowing him for a while since we were younger, playing together on the Tigers’ recreation teams. Being rec all-stars. I’m proud of what he’s doing.”
TCN: What would you say has been the toughest time of your career?
SG: “The toughest would probably be my 10th grade year because I just didn’t get to play. I wanted to play more and I wasn’t able to. But that summer before my 11th grade year, it made me turn up and work to get better. I started understanding the game more, and my 11th grade year I got to play a whole lot more.”
TCN: How do you keep yourself motivated, despite always hearing about how your size limits you in recruiting?
SG: “I just keep pushing and stay positive. Somebody’s gonna look my way and see my hard work. I ain’t that big, but I know I can play. But if they overlook me, they’ll be sorry that they did.”
TCN: How has playing at Eastside prepared you for the next level?
SG: “They care about you, the coaches here do. They don’t just throw you out there. They sit down and talk with you and find out if you really want to play the game of football and then they just coach you up with that desire.”
TCN: Finally, everyone knows about Spurgeon Gaither on the football field. What is something about you off the field that some people might be surprised to know about you?
SG: “That I’m a country boy. That I live out in the country, and I drive a big ol’ truck — a Ford Powerstroke 350. And that I really want to study either engineering or business in college. I think people would be shocked to know that about me.”
Coach Hoff says: "Spurgeon is just a loved kid in the building. He's a great player. He's a great kid. He's never been that 'look at me' kind of kid. We've had to pull teeth to get him to put a profile up on Twitter. He just goes about things in his way, and as a coach I can appreciate that. Other guys see that from him and feed off of it. And though he doesn't say a lot, when he does speak, people listen."