“The first text messages I had were, ‘Can you get me tickets?’” Tallassee’s Dijon Paschal said. “I’m just excited all my coaches from high school and past teammates finally get to come see me because Arkansas is a good little ride up the road. It’s just a great feeling, being back in front of everyone.”
For Paschal, a tumultuous journey is coming to a close, one that has seen three different head coaches through the early part of his collegiate career.
“We’ve been through a lot, seen a lot,” Paschal admitted. “But one thing we learned was to stick together. It became a business when we got to college so we understood that, bonded and that relationship will keep us together the rest of our lives.”
Paschal was an underappreciated wide out at Tallassee High, accounting for twice as many rushing yards (884) as receiving yards (450), but a gifted athlete whose speed made him a return specialist for the Tigers and caught the eye of the Arkansas State coaching staff and its head coach, Gus Malzahn.
Malzahn would leave for Auburn soon after recruiting Paschal, the third Arkansas State coach in as many years. But it would get worse, not better, for Paschal as Malzahn’s replacement, Bryan Harsin, left the following December for Boise State.
“After (Malzahn) left, Coach Harsin was the first coach I was under, but I redshirted,” Paschal said. “So this group of coaches was the first group I was under that I played, and they’ve treated me like I was one of their recruits. It was a bond we made.”
Anderson, a former offensive coordinator at Middle Tennessee, Louisiana-Lafayette, Southern Mississippi and most recently North Carolina, would have a difficult task in those early days at Jonesboro, rebuilding the trust and confidence of a group of players that would ultimately become a standout unit of fifth-year seniors on a Camellia Bowl participant.
“Once we really established the fact that we were really going to be there, I think the guard came down and they really bought in to becoming family,” Anderson said. “I think at first they had been through so many transitions that it was hard to truly believe that we were going to stay put. There’s four guys in that senior class that signed five years ago – Dijon Paschal, Mark Johnson, Jonah Hill and Ja’Von Rolland-Jones – that have gone through three coaches, but you wouldn’t know it. They have accepted us as family. Even though we didn’t recruit them, they treat us as if we did.
“There’s four good (former) walk-ons (Ben Gallagher, Katon Hill, Johnston White and Clifford Thomas) in that class as well, so really eight total guys that went through that transition. They all earned scholarships before their careers were over and all have contributed in different ways.”
‘A great teammate’
Paschal is one of seven Red Wolves with 20 or more receptions this year, catching 23 passes for 298 yards and a touchdown. Although his numbers aren’t as flashy as the trio of Justin McInnis, Chris Murray and Blake Mack, Paschal’s status as one of the elder statesmen commands respect.
“He’s a great kid, great teammate. Guys love him,” Anderson said. “Big smile. The guy never has a bad day. He’s had a great career. His name’s going to be in the record book in some spots; I know his yards per catch has been through the roof. Mainly, he’s just been a great teammate. No matter what the day’s like, he always seems to be positive. The guys love being around him.”
Paschal ranks seventh in school history in receiving yards (1,769), eighth in touchdown receptions (11) and ninth in career receptions (109), but more importantly he has a bachelor’s degree in sports management and is working on a master’s degree in sports administration, with hopes of becoming an athletic director one day.
This week, he’ll have to settle for being the tour guide for the visiting Red Wolves.
“I was basically the Uber,” Paschal said. “It was little spots here and there they had been hearing about or wanted to know about, try some good food.”
On Saturday, he hopes to end his career on a high note in his first game at Cramton Bowl.
“It feels amazing, being home in front of all my family and friends,” Paschal said. “Everyone gets to see me and meet all the lovely friends I’ve made.”
About the game
The Arkansas State and Middle Tennessee State football teams both hit the practice field in Montgomery on Wednesday in preparations for the 2017 Raycom Media Camellia Bowl. The fourth annual Camellia Bowl will be played Saturday, Dec. 16, at historic Cramton Bowl in Montgomery. The game will be televised by ESPN with kickoff set for 7:05 p.m.
SWEET HOME ALABAMA
A total of 19 players in the 2017 Raycom Media Camellia Bowl call Alabama home.
Middle Tennessee has nine players on its roster from Alabama:
- Freshman running back Brad Anderson (Bob Jones High School) is the team’s leading rusher in 2017. He has 89 rushing attempts for 419 yards for the Blue Raiders. He had nine carries for 137 yards and one touchdown at UAB on Oct. 14.
- Freshman safety Reed Blankenship (West Limestone High School; Athens) is the team’s fourth-leading tackler. He has recorded 63 tackles, seven tackles for losses (minus 24 yards) and two interceptions. He made his first career start in the win at Syracuse, finishing the game with five tackles and one interception. Blankenship also leads the team with six punt returns for 69 yards in 2017.
- Redshirt junior defensive end Walter Brady (Florence High School) has recorded 38 tackles, five tackles for losses, four pass breakups and three sacks this year. He played the 2015 season at Missouri before transferring to Middle Tennessee. Brady was a 2015 Freshman All-American at Mizzou.
- Junior right guard Chandler Brewer (Florence High School) has started 11 games in 2017.
- Redshirt sophomore running back Terelle West (Clay-Chalkville High School) has 267 rushing yards and three touchdowns this season.
- CB Justin Brown (Parker HS; Birmingham)
- LB Caleb Felton (Muscle Shoals HS; Muscle Shoals)
- P Matthew Stephenson (Bob Jones HS; Madison)
- DT Je’Kerrius Wright (Autauga Academy; Prattville)
Arkansas State has 10 Alabama natives on its roster:
- Sophomore defensive back B.J. Edmonds (St. Paul’s High School) is the Red Wolves’ second-leading tackler. Edmonds has 76 tackles and four pass breakups this season. He posted 13 tackles against UL Lafayette and South Alabama.
- Sophomore linebacker Trent Ellis-Brewer (Daphne High School) had a season-high nine tackles against SMU. Ellis-Brewer has 35 tackles, 3.5 tackles for losses (minus 17 yards), two pass breakups and one interception this year.
- Senior defensive lineman Dee Liner (Muscle Shoals High School) originally signed with Alabama. He played at Alabama in 2013 and 2014 before transferring to ASU. Liner has 53 tackles and 13.5 tackles for losses in his two seasons in Jonesboro.
- Redshirt senior receiver Dijon Paschal (Tallassee High School) has 109 catches for 1,769 yards and 11 touchdowns in his career. He has 22 receptions for 278 yards and one touchdown this season.
- LB Caleb Bonner (Pickens County HS; Reform)
- OL Lanard Bonner (Shades Valley HS; Birmingham)
- DB Brandon Byner (Bessemer City HS; Bessemer)
- OL Alex Novak (McGill-Toolen HS; Fairhope)
- DE Griffin Riggs (Auburn HS; Auburn)
- DB Larry Wooden (Spain Park HS; Hoover)