Six Frederica Academy seniors had a day to remember Thursday.
After receiving rings commemorating the first Class 3A state championship in the program’s history, Jeffrey Elliott, Cole Hinson, Isaiah Jackson, Ja’Shawn Sheffield, Jaylin Simpson, and Harry Veal were honored with a signing ceremony celebrating the national letters of intent each inked to play college football.
“Pretty bittersweet,” Veal said of the day. “Just all the good memories that have gone down this year and then leaving in two months. I just love this place and everything we’ve done for it.
“I’m going to miss it.”
Frederica’s senior class will be remembered long after they move on to college and the next step of their lives following a magical season that reverberated throughout the community on St. Simons Island.
The Knights started the season 0-2, only to finish 10-3 as state championships, having beaten the only two GISA teams to defeat them in the regular season by a combined score of 108-27 in the playoffs on their way to a title. Frederica averaged 43 points on the season while holding its opponents to fewer than 17 points per game.
Simpson starred for the Knights on both sides of the ball, racking up 1,433 yards and 15 touchdowns to one interception through the air and another 441 yards and seven scores on the ground as the team’s quarterback while also making 48 tackles and interception four passes at corner on the defensive side.
The two-way athlete signed his official LOI with Auburn, but before transferring to Frederica, Simpson couldn’t even fathom the possibility.
“I never even thought about college football,” he said. “I didn’t even know you had to be offered to play college football.
“I never saw it coming, and the school I’m going to is probably one of the best decision I’ve ever made. I’m just ready for the future.”
Simpson won’t be rolling to Auburn alone. Along with Sheffield, who also signed with the Tigers during the early national signing period in December after a season in which he averaged 13.2 yards per touch while recording 871 yards of total offense and 11 touchdowns, Veal will be attending Auburn, where he was offered the opportunity to make the football team as a preferred walk-on.
With his older brother currently attending the university, and his father Brannen Veal and grandfather Inman “Coot” Veal having played baseball at Auburn, the decision was a no-brainer for Veal even before he knew he’d have a chance to play football. But following a season that saw him lead the team with 129 tackles, 11 tackles for a loss, nine sacks, and two forced fumbles, it’d be unwise to bet against Veal getting on the field for the Tigers.
Sheffield isn’t quite prepared to leave behind all the friends and connections he’s made during his time at Frederica, but he feels the 292 miles between him and his hometown will be easier to manage with familiar faces joining him on the journey.
“I think college is going to be very, very fun,” Sheffield said. “I think all three of us are going to keep each other grounded, stay on each other when we see each other slipping.
“I just believe that it’s great I have two teammates coming with me, that I actually know on a personal level, that knows me. I think we’ll balance each other out.”
Simpson agreed, adding: “We’ll probably all feel the same once we get there, so we’ll definitely have someone to talk to.”
Although the other three Knights to sign won’t have the benefit of a teammate following them on their journey, each found a school that felt like a home away from home.
Hinson signed an LOI with Birmingham-Southern College after a visit that made him feel like he wanted to become part of the local community.
A cog in an offensive line that paved the way for Frederica to pile up 5,230 yards of offense on the season, Hinson discovered a love for the game and ability he never knew he had before joining the Knights.
“This is my second year here at Fred, and it changed my life forever,” Hinson said. “Two years ago, I couldn’t see myself going to play football anywhere, and now I’ve got the opportunity to go play D3 ball.
“I’m really excited about it.”
Jackson was one of the beneficiaries of the team’s strong play in the trenches, and he combined it with the fruit of a new-found devotion to the weight room to churn out 1,496 yards and 25 touchdowns at 9.59 yards per carry.
The breakout season was enough to garner Jackson a full-ride offer from Kentucky State, and he’s thankful it did.
“I’m excited, I really am,” Jackson said before the ceremony. “I never would have thought that I would have signed and I’m happy that I am. It’s just great.
“It’s so sad. I had great four years with everybody and the coaching staff. It’s sad, but all great things must come to an end. I’m going to miss them.”
Elliott compiled 46 tackles, seven tackles for a loss, and an interception this past season as a hybrid linebacker/safety. He signed with Averett University in Virginia, where he expects to make an impact for the football team while working towards becoming a pilot.
Elliott credited Frederica Academy for preparing him for any challenge he’ll face.
“I’m excited, to say the least,” he said leaving Frederica to take the next step in his life. “I’m a little nervous too. It’s a big jump, but I think I’m ready to make it.
“The school has prepared me academically-wise to make that big step and my parents have pushed me to success. I think I’m definitely ready for it.”
As bittersweet as signing day was for the Knights’ senior class, it’s a feeling shared by the coaching staff.
On one hand, a special group of players will be taking a significant step towards a positive future for themselves and their families. On the other hand, Frederica will have a lot of work to do on the football field if it aspires to reach the same heights next season.
“We’re graduating a lot talent,” Derrick said with a laugh. “I was joking, I said, ‘It’s a good thing we won the state championship, we’ve got all these guys signing.’”