COVINGTON, Ga. — Bittersweet.
No matter how you shake it, slice it or unpack it, if you were in the Newton High School auditorium watching four-star defensive tackle prospect, Darnell Jefferies sign to Clemson, you got the sense that bittersweet was the best way to describe the vibe.
Jefferies, a Clemson commit since June, took advantage of the new early signing period for college football-bound athletes which technically begins on Dec. 20 and runs through Dec. 22, by inking his letter of intent to signify his days as a high school student have come to an end.
The 6-foot-4, 285 pounder will graduate high school early and report to Clemson on January 8 to enroll as a freshman and be ready to hit the ground running with winter conditioning and spring ball.
And although Newton head coach, Terrance Banks was excited about Jefferies’ next step, he also showed a softer side, lamenting the departure of one of Newton’s larger-than-life personalities.
“I mean, they gotta graduate,” Banks said, half smiling and half sighing. “Darnell embodies everything it means to be a Ram. He embodies the ‘NewtonBoyz,’ he embodies his teammates. He embodies just being a great kid. He was doing everything he could to make sure Newton is successful.”
Perhaps no other time in Jefferies two-year stint at Newton did that ring true than in his last game in the Newton blue and white. Jefferies will play on the defensive line at Clemson, but during his senior year at Newton, he found the field in various ways, from punter to offensive line and tight end.
It was at tight end where Jefferies made a play that was probably the perfect summation to his can-do attitude for his team. Jefferies caught a four-yard touchdown pass in the waning moments of Newton’s first round playoff game at Parkview last month to force the game into overtime.
Newton’s season came to an end after a narrow defeat, but Jefferies’ legacy as one of Newton’s favorite sons was cemented.
When coaches and administrators talk about Jefferies, they rave of his humility and low-maintenance persona, despite the high volume of attention he’s received over the last two years.
“Here he is, on his next to last day in high school, in the weight room helping young players get better and get stronger,” Banks said while addressing the Newton auditorium filled with Jefferies’ teammates, classmates, family members and supporters.
“A kid like him, the attention you get, sometimes you don’t have to do that, because everybody wants to be around you,” Banks continued. “And some guys shut down. But Darnell doesn’t shut down. That’s why it’s a long line to take pictures with him. That’s why he hasn’t run off and isn’t going anywhere.”
Sure enough, after the signing ceremonies were over, the Newton auditorium’s stage quickly filled up with students and family members wanting to take pictures and selfies with the gentle giant affectionately known as “Big Baby.”
But on the field, Jefferies played like a grown man.
After starting his high school career as a freshman at Alcovy, Jefferies transferred to Peachtree Ridge for an injury-shortened sophomore season. He returned back to Newton for a junior campaign that saw him register 76 tackles, including more than a dozen for losses, two sacks and 42 quarterback hurries.
In all, Jefferies finished his two-year Newton career with 135 total tackles, 34 for losses, 13 sacks, three forced fumbles, and seven catches for 70 yards and a touchdown.
But it was following the 2016 performance when the recruiting attention started coming fast and furious. The in-state schools, Georgia Tech and Georgia came calling first, and then 33 other Power Five programs pursued him for his commitment.
Through it all, there was no star complex, according to Newton assistant coach and recruiting coordinator, Josh Skelton. Jefferies never allowed the headlines to mess with his head.
“He’s the most down to earth person ever,” Skelton said. “He treats the ninth graders the same way he treated the seniors. He’s just a quality young man, and a model to anyone who wants to get to that level. He set that example. And we’re deeply gonna miss him.”
Skelton also praised Jefferies for his work ethic.
“We had 6 a.m. workouts,” Skelton said. A chorus of Newton football players in the audience corrected him, shouting, ‘5:50!’
“For those workouts,” Skelton continued, “Darnell was the one calling me every morning at 4:45 making sure I was awake and ready to pick him up.”
The hard work wasn’t just limited to the football field, though. Kymberli Durden, one of those assisted the Newton coaching staff, and a person Jefferies calls “Mom No. 2” lauded the work Jefferies put in in the classroom in order to ensure his ability to graduate early.
“The work others was doing, he was doing twice that,” Durden said. “He was doubling up on his class work to make it happen. That in addition to three workouts a day. It was a lot. It was a grind, but he made it happen.”
His selflessness came through, even as he took the microphone to make his own remarks.
“I just want to thank my boys for being there for me,” Jefferies said. “Through the tough times. Even when we lost. I’m really going to miss ya’ll. But I know all our seniors are gonna sign. We’re all going to college.”
Jefferies’ signing is the latest in a string of several Power Five football signees Banks has helped produce during his time at Newton. And while he has a special place in his heart for all of them, you get the feeling that Jefferies’ void will be even more heavily felt.
“He’s a team player in every sense of the word,” Banks said. “I don’t have enough adjectives to describe how great Darnell Jefferies is.”