Jalen Smith expected to catch a few passes, run the ball a few times and do a lot of blocking at Pittsboro Northwood this season, but that was before the Chargers switched to a spread offense.
The Chargers are averaging 46 pass attempts per game this fall after throwing 9.7 passes per game in 2012.
Smith already has caught more passes (60 to 55) for more yards (923 to 794) and more touchdowns (13 to 4) than the team had a year ago. He has set the school’s single-season records in all three areas.
He caught five passes for 71 yards in last week’s 33-21 win over Oxford Webb as Northwood turned to its running game. But Smith still leads the area with 131.9 receiving yards per game.
“I honestly don’t believe it,” Smith said. “I had no idea what the change would mean.”
The 5-foot-9, 155-pound junior had never played football until last year. He had outstanding speed and spent 2012 on the junior varsity learning to be a running back in a triple-option attack.
Even after he learned Chargers coach Bill Hall was bringing in a new offensive coordinator, Smith had no inkling of what the change would mean for him.
Hall was making a complete commitment to the passing game and Bill Renner, the former head coach of East Chapel Hill, was coming to install the system. Smith had heard of Renner, but not as a coach. “He’s the father of the Carolina quarterback (Bryn Renner),” Smith said. “I knew he coached somewhere.”
Renner had coached at East Chapel Hill, which averaged 44 passing attempts and 309 yards passing in 2011.
“He told us it was going to be exciting,” Smith recalled.
Hall, the Northwood coach, said he knew Smith was well suited for the spread.
“He is fast, has good hands, blocks and can understand things quickly,” Hall said. “He was a good enough athlete to play on the varsity last year, but we didn’t throw the ball much and he was just learning to play.
“When we decided to go in this direction, I thought Jalen could be a big factor.”
Smith was so busy learning the system that he really didn’t grasp his role in the offense until he played in a 7-on-7 scrimmage this summer.
“Then, it was like, wow, this really could work,” he said.
Smith and quarterback Ti Pinnix, another junior, grew up together. Their grandmothers are sisters and the boys live in the same neighborhood. They’ve played basketball with each other and have enjoyed each other’s company for as long as they can remember.
Pinnix has thrown for 2,099 yards and 21 touchdowns and he spreads his passes around, although Smith has emerged as a primary receiver.
Smith and Pinnix have a special bond, but Smith said he is close to all of his teammates.
His mother died last October during her third battle with breast cancer. Smith had seen his mom battle the disease in the past, but knew this bout was really bad.
“She had been sick for so long and had suffered so much,” Smith said. “It was terrible.”
The entire team boarded buses and attended her services.
“That meant a lot to me to have all of them there,” he said. “They were there when I needed them. They are like family.”
Hall said it was important to the players that Smith knew they cared. There was nothing they could do. Nothing they could say.
But they could be there and they were.