HomeSports'Straight beast mode': The highlights that explain the incomparable Jalen Carter

‘Straight beast mode’: The highlights that explain the incomparable Jalen Carter

ATHENS, Ga. — When defending national champion Georgia lost 15 starters to the NFL draft after winning its first title since 1980 last season, the Bulldogs weren’t expected to be nearly as good this year.

Georgia had five defensive starters selected in the first round of the draft, so surely it couldn’t be as good on that side of the ball again.

But the Bulldogs who did come back knew their defense was in good hands with defensive tackle Jalen Carter anchoring the middle. His rise to stardom from the shadows of his former teammates is a big reason Georgia is back in the College Football Playoff for the third time in coach Kirby Smart’s tenure.

“He’s straight beast mode,” Georgia cornerback Kelee Ringo said. “His strength is his combination of strength, speed and size. You just don’t see that too often. Taking on double-teams or grabbing guys with one hand, he throws them out of his gap and goes and make plays. He’s a force, and it’s a great thing knowing I’m playing complementary football with his pass-rushing skills.”

As No. 1 Georgia prepares to play No. 4 Ohio State in Saturday’s College Football Playoff semifinal at the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl in Atlanta (8 p.m., ESPN), the Bulldogs hope Carter adds to his growing list of greatest hits, which goes back to his early days as a football and basketball player in Apopka, Florida. His impressive highlight reel at Georgia is the reason he’s considered a potential No. 1 pick in the 2023 NFL draft.

For those who know Carter best, watching him sack and then pick up LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels in the SEC championship game wasn’t all that surprising. They’ve seen him do too many amazing feats to keep count.

“Jalen is crazy,” Georgia linebacker Jamon Dumas-Johnson said. “He’s unblockable. He keeps doing what he’s doing, he’ll be top three going into the draft.”

The Catch(es)

When Anthony Fieldings first saw Carter, he knew the impressive sixth grader had to play on his Apopka Raptors tackle football team and 7-on-7 squad, Next Level.

“I went and talked to his mom about coming and playing tackle football with us,” Fieldings said. “He was just an exceptional talent before all of this. You could tell he was going to be special. He was just different than most kids, even when he was very young.”

In middle school, Carter played several positions for the Raptors, including running back, cornerback, receiver and outside linebacker. When an opposing wideout was lighting up Apopka’s secondary, Fieldings shut him down by lining up Carter against him. When the Raptors needed a big play on offense in the AAU 14-under national championship game against the Pensacola Browns in the eighth grade, Fieldings inserted Carter at quarterback, and Carter threw a 70-yard touchdown.

“It was literally just like flicking the wrist [and throwing] on a dime,” Fieldings said.

Carter’s first viral football moment came on Feb. 2, 2019, when he was playing 7-on-7 against the Central Florida Knights. On a video of the play posted to Carter’s Twitter account, a woman, believed to be his mother, Tonique Brown, can be heard saying, “Talk to ’em, Jalen.” Carter spoke loud and clear with a spectacular one-handed catch for a touchdown.

When Carter arrived at Miami’s junior day recruiting event the next day, according to Fieldings, then-Hurricanes coach Manny Diaz asked him, “What are you doing catching touchdowns on people’s heads?”

“We couldn’t believe they’d already seen it,” Fieldings said.

Nearly a year later, in another 7-on-7 game against Seminole Elite, Carter grabbed another victim, resulting in another viral video — and a flabbergasted videographer.

The Nutcracker

Former Apopka High coach Rick Darlington first met Carter at a football banquet for an eighth-grade team in 2015. While Carter was pretty big for his age, Darlington wasn’t immediately awestruck. In fact, Carter started his high school career on the freshman team — until he participated in a practice drill the Blue Darters fondly called the “Nutcracker.”

“It’s basically a version of the Oklahoma drill that everyone has done for 100 years,” Darlington said. “He really stood out in that, so we moved him up off the freshman team.”

Carter played H-back on the varsity team and was used primarily as a blocker in its single-wing offense. He was devastating from the beginning, helping the Blue Darters finish unbeaten in the regular season.

Darlington said Carter started to blossom as a sophomore in 2017. In a scene straight out of “The Blind Side,” Carter blocked an opponent into the fence surrounding the playing field. In a playoff game against eventual Class 8A state champion Mandarin High in 2018, Carter took a direct snap on an end-around play and leaped over a defender. It wasn’t the only time he did it in high school.

“We didn’t play him on defense as much as we should have,” Darlington said. “That was my fault. We played him mostly on offense. He was just a freaky talented athlete. I know he’s a great defensive lineman in college, but he could 360 dunk a basketball and probably had the best hands I’ve ever seen on a guy that size. He wasn’t your typical athlete; he was a great athlete in a lineman’s body.”

A position change

When Darlington left Apopka after the 2018 season, the Blue Darters hired Jeff Rolson, their former defensive coordinator, to replace him. One of Rolson’s first decisions was moving Carter to the defensive line.

“When I came back, we moved him to defensive tackle because that’s what he is,” Rolson said. “I coached defense, so obviously I thought he’d be very impactful for us. We played him at tackle and end. Wherever we felt like we needed to take something away, that’s where we put him. He was very dynamic, to say the least.”

Rolson got a glimpse of what Carter could do on defense in a spring jamboree game against Raines High of Jacksonville in 2019.

“I’d never seen anything like it,” Rolson said. “Jalen was just unblockable, with sacks, pressures, tackles behind the line, tackling perimeter plays from the interior. It was just a half of football, but it opened my eyes quickly. You’re not going to get the same [effort] in practice, particularly in the spring, that you might get in a game, and he wowed me. He just raised the level of everybody around him.”

As a senior, Carter had 64 tackles and 12 sacks, helping Apopka High reach the Class 8A state championship game. He split double-teams. He terrorized opposing quarterbacks. He even punted for the Blue Darters.

By the time Carter was done playing at Apopka, he was being compared to legendary Blue Darters star Warren Sapp, an All-American at Miami and a Pro Football Hall of Famer with the Buccaneers and Raiders.

Even Sapp was impressed. Responding to a tweet about Carter in 2017, Sapp wrote, “I was a TE and 225 lbs. That Kid is a Monster! #BetterThanMeInHighSchool.”

The dunk

Alex Marshall, director of the Raptors Elite basketball program outside Orlando, is convinced Carter would have played in the NBA if he hadn’t focused on football. Carter started playing for the Raptors in the seventh grade. Marshall had to move him up an age level because he was so much bigger than everyone else.

“He was just too athletic and too skilled,” Marshall said. “We moved him up from 13U to 14U, and he still dominated. He was just a complete athlete that could get to any spot on the floor that he wanted and do whatever he wanted. Just as he is doing in football, he was doing in basketball. He could have easily done the same in basketball.”

In 2016, Carter got two new coaches — Jason Williams, who was famously known as White Chocolate during his NBA career, and Corey Sawyer, an All-American cornerback at Florida State who played six seasons in the NFL. Their sons were Carter’s teammates for five seasons.

Like Williams, Carter was a little flashy on the floor. During a game against the Florida Bay Hawks in 2018, Carter was loafing on defense in hopes of getting a breakaway dunk. Carter got the ball, and Marshall couldn’t believe what he saw from the sideline.

“I thought he was going to miss it, but he kept elevating and continued to go up,” Marshall said. “And then he spun in the air, and I was like, ‘I know he’s not doing this. There’s no way!’ Then he just destroys the rim. I could not believe it. Even seeing it, it was hard to believe it. He’s just so graceful. Even with all of that muscle, how do you get all of that weight off the ground like that? I’m still perplexed. He’s one of a kind.”

How good would Carter have been if he had focused on basketball?

“Oh, gosh, he could have been a high-Division I kid,” Marshall said. “He’d be like a Zion Williamson, there’s no doubt about it. You see the dunk. He’s doing the same stuff Zion does.”

The step

By the beginning of Carter’s senior season at Apopka, he had grown to 6 feet, 3 inches and 301 pounds. He was the top-ranked player in the state of Florida and the No. 12 prospect overall in the 2020 ESPN 300.

For a prospect so highly regarded and coveted, Carter’s recruitment was rather mundane. On May 19, 2019, he announced his top three schools: Alabama, Clemson and Georgia. The next day, he committed to the Bulldogs. He made it official with Georgia on the first day of the early signing period.

During practices before the Under Armour All-America Game, Carter justified the hype. While the roster included future college stars, like Ole Miss running back Zach Evans, LSU receiver Kayshon Boutte, Oregon cornerback Dontae Manning, Auburn running back Tank Bigsby and Michigan tailback Blake Corum, ESPN national recruiting director Tom Luginbill remembers Carter as one player standing out. More than anything else, Carter’s combination of power and quickness impressed Luginbill the most, along with his incredibly quick first step.

Carter had four tackles and one tackle for loss in the game, and his work during practice that week earned him MVP honors for his team.

The touchdown

As good as Carter was in high school, he still had to wait his turn to make a big impact at Georgia. He joined a defensive line that included future NFL draft picks Travon Walker, Devonte Wyatt and Jordan Davis.

Carter played in 10 games as a freshman in 2020, starting against Florida and South Carolina. He finished with 14 tackles, 3 tackles for loss and 13 quarterback pressures. His biggest moment that season came against Tennessee — on offense. He caught a 1-yard touchdown from quarterback Stetson Bennett early in the fourth quarter of a 44-21 victory over the Volunteers. Carter lined up at fullback, and Bennett found him on a play-action pass.

“Some of the most amazing stuff to me has been at fullback and playing offensive positions,” Smart said. “He is a devastating blocker. He carried the ball in high school. [He] just has phenomenal athleticism for a guy that has size. He has balance and body control.”

More evidence: In a 37-0 rout of Arkansas in 2021, Carter blocked three Razorbacks on Kendall Milton‘s 1-yard touchdown run.

The clothesline

As a sophomore in 2021, Carter was coming off the bench, with three future NFL first-rounders still ahead of him. As Georgia’s season transpired, however, pro scouts and opposing coaches were beginning to whisper that Carter might be better than any of them.

In a 62-0 rout of Vanderbilt, Carter stuffed tailback Rocko Griffin for no gain on first down, then did this on second:

NFL scouts and opponents weren’t the only ones suggesting Carter was the best player on Georgia’s historically good defense. So were some of his teammates. Carter finished the 2021 season with 37 tackles, 33 quarterback hurries and 3 sacks. He blocked a field goal late in the third quarter against Alabama in the College Football Playoff National Championship. The Bulldogs outscored the Crimson Tide 20-9 in the fourth quarter to end their long title drought.

“He’s a dominant player,” said Walker, who was the No. 1 pick in the 2022 NFL draft by the Jaguars. “He’s one of those guys that can wreck the whole game, the whole interior. He’s a hard worker, and if he puts his mind to do something, I feel bad [for] whoever’s in his way.”

Walker suggested Carter’s best work has come during Georgia’s practices, after an offensive lineman has challenged him.

“I can just remember times when, like say for instance, somebody just pissed Jalen off during the middle of practice,” Walker said. “And, I mean, it got ugly fast. [If] somebody might say the wrong thing to him, he’ll just go probably bull rush him or just hit him with a quick move. Make it a little easy. Effortless.”

Wyatt, who was the 28th pick of the draft by the Packers, compares Carter to Titans Pro Bowl defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons.

“He’s like a freak of nature,” Wyatt said. “He’s younger than me, but I was always learning stuff from him while I was in college. He’s got the attitude, the effort and he loves the game. He always wants to win. When I compare him to somebody, it’s someone like Jeffery Simmons — someone that’s strong and can almost move guys without effort.”

The lift

Coming into the 2022 season, Georgia was counting on Carter to be the anchor of its rebuilt defense, which had the most defensive players selected in the first round from one school in the common draft era (since 1967).

Carter played well in the Bulldogs’ biggest games this season. After missing two contests because of a knee injury, Carter had a sack, a tackle for loss and two forced fumbles in a 27-13 victory against then-No. 1 Tennessee. His sack and strip of Volunteers quarterback Hendon Hooker helped the Bulldogs take a 14-3 lead.

After helping Georgia finish 12-0 in the regular season for the second straight year, Carter was again dominant in a 50-30 win against LSU in the SEC title game, finishing with 4 tackles, 6 quarterback pressures and 1 sack.

The highlight of his career might have occurred late in the first half, when Carter chased down LSU’s Daniels and picked him up until the whistle blew. While holding Daniels with his left arm, Carter lifted his right hand. He flashed No. 1 with his finger, as if to remind everyone who was the defending national champion and which player should be the first pick in next year’s NFL draft.

“It’s just how he throws other guys around like they’re just little kids that just impresses you,” said former Georgia safety Lewis Cine, a first-round pick of the Vikings. “Watching that LSU game, you see how he just picked the guy up like he was a little kid. You’re just seeing that kind of stuff, in practices, too. He’s just a freak.”

Added Walker: “That’s him every day.”

As memorable as that play was, Smart said Carter stuffing Tigers tailback Josh Williams for no gain on fourth-and-1 from the Georgia 5 might have been more important.

“They’re driving. They’re getting ready to score,” Smart said. “They decide to go for it on fourth-and-1. And he knocks two people back into the ball carrier and makes the tackle. And there’s probably not a bigger play in that game in terms of momentum that one person can make. He’s the only guy on our team that could make that play, and he made it.”

The Bulldogs are hoping Carter makes a few more plays in the College Football Playoff.

Additional reporting by Rob Demovsky, Michael DiRocco and Kevin Seifert.

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