In middle school, Jaden McKenzie wasn’t sure if football was the right sport for him. So he quit.
“It was too much running, I was fat, I didn’t want to be out there,” he said about his middle school career.
Now a high school senior, McKenzie is a 6-3, 285-pound defensive lineman, a three-star recruit and the next star in a long line of Division I football players — like Bryce Love, Xach Gill, Javon Terry and Dexter and Devon Lawrence — to come through Wake Forest High School.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
McKenzie played football for the first time as a seventh grader. His Mills Park Middle School team in Cary lost only one game that year. But McKenzie decided not to play again in the eighth grade.
“It was a great feeling at the time, but I was like I’m not messing with it,” McKenzie said about leaving the sport.
But the winter of his eighth-grade year, McKenzie went to N.C. State’s Carter-Finley Stadium to watch Wake Forest High School take on Mallard Creek in the NCHSAA 4AA championship game. On that cold, rainy night in 2013, Mallard Creek defeated Wake Forest 59-21 to win the state title. But what left a lasting impression on McKenzie was Dexter Lawrence, the Cougars’ large defensive tackle who kept disrupting plays in the Mavericks backfield.
Lawrence was a junior on that Wake Forest team and was quickly emerging as one of the top defensive tackles in the nation. After watching him play, McKenzie decided he wanted to give football another try.
He wanted to be like Lawrence.
So before his freshman season of high school, McKenzie’s family moved from Raleigh’s Brier Creek to Wake Forest.
It was at Wake Forest High where the then 6-2, 250-pound freshman remembers walking into the Cougars’ locker room and coming face to face with Lawrence.
“He walked past me and I was like ‘Oh my god, that’s a beast right there,’” McKenzie recalled. “It was a crazy feeling, walking in there with all those seniors, I had never been around anything like that.”
Learning from Dexter Lawrence, Xach Gill
McKenzie said he spent about “two hours” on the Wake Forest JV football team before head coach Reggie Lucas wanted to move him up to varsity. Lucas said he could tell McKenzie was “head and shoulders” above everyone else on the JV squad, so he thought it would be a good idea to expedite his career.
He wanted him to learn under Lawrence, who’s now a junior defensive tackle at Clemson, and Gill, who’s now a redshirt freshman defensive lineman at UNC.
McKenzie spent one season learning from Lawrence, and played alongside Gill for two. McKenzie, who admitted that as a freshman he lacked aggressiveness, remembers walking into the school locker room and seeing the pile of college letters for Lawrence, so many that they filled his locker.
McKenzie wanted that to be him one day.
Now in his senior season of high school, McKenzie has more than 20 scholarship offers and has narrowed his list to six schools: North Carolina, Wake Forest, Clemson, Ohio State, Tennessee and UCF.
UNC football a good fit?
UNC does feel like home to McKenzie. He has a good relationship with defensive line coach Deke Adams. Four of his former high school teammates — Gill, freshman running back Devon Lawrence, freshman defensive back Javon Terry and freshman safety Drew Homschek — also play for the Tar Heels.
But McKenzie says his final decision will be based on how he feels about the school, football and former teammates aside.
“The atmosphere,” McKenzie said when asked what he was looking for in a school. “Not the game atmosphere, but the program atmosphere. I want to feel like I’m going to be comfortable around those people because I’m going to be around them for four years.”
Lucas, the Wake Forest coach, says it’s important for players to build relationships with college coaches. He said the players want to know if the head coach is going to be around in a few years, and whether or not a school’s curriculum fits what they want to major in.
Lucas says for McKenzie it would probably be helpful for him to know people at UNC, if that’s where he decides to go.
Wake Forest has made a strong push for McKenzie, and ECU has visited lately. But Lucas feels like UNC and Wake Forest are high on McKenzie’s list of in-state schools. And as a coach, he is comfortable with the staff at North Carolina because of the relationships he’s built with them during the recruitment of Love, the Lawrence brothers, Gill, Terry and now McKenzie.
“I try to build the same relationship with any college coach that comes in, but it obviously has to be reciprocated,” Lucas said. “So you can only get as close to a staff as much as they will allow you. I think with UNC and them really wanting these players, they made it a point to come in and get to know me as a coach, and even want to know my philosophy as a high school coach.”