Jaylen Samuels, Jerricho Cotchery, Torry Holt.
With six catches against Arizona State in the Sun Bowl on Friday, that would be the order of the names in the N.C. State record book for career receptions.
Cotchery and Holt are two of the best receivers in ACC history and played a combined 23 years in the NFL.
Then there’s Samuels, known to everyone after an outstanding four-year career with the Wolfpack, simply as “JaySam.”
But the legend of “JaySam” almost never happened. Samuels wasn’t the right size (5-11, 228 pounds) to play tight end, wasn’t quite fast enough for running back or tall enough to play a traditional receiver spot like Cotchery or Holt.
A three-star recruit, and unranked nationally, there was a time when the only school that showed real interest in Samuels was Ball State, a Mid-American Conference program in Muncie, Ind.
“A lot of people doubted me,” Samuels said. “That’s why I play the way I play, I want to prove people wrong.”
One-hundred and ninety-five catches and 46 touchdowns later, Samuels has made his point and his mark in the N.C. State record book.
This season, Samuels caught a team-high 69 passes for 551 yards and four touchdowns. He ran 70 times for 384 yards and a team-high 11 touchdowns.
For his career, his catches (195) rank second to Cotchery, who caught 200 passes from 2000-03; and his total touchdowns (46) rank second to legendary running back Ted Brown, who scored 51 times from 1975-78.
‘Dude, what is he?’
With his last game on Friday, the story of how Samuels got to N.C. State is worth retelling. After Dave Doeren was hired in December 2012, one of the first high school coaches he went to visit was Mallard Creek’s Michael Palmieri.
The two coaches had some history together. Palmieri used to coach high school football in Florida and Doeren used to recruit that state when he was an assistant at Wisconsin.
Palmieri told Doeren he had the best player in Charlotte.
“He’s going to walk in this room and you’re going to shake your head at me and say you’re crazy,” Palmieri told Doeren.
The two watched some film of Samuels’ junior season at Mallard Creek. Doeren liked what he saw but didn’t know where Samuels would fit at the college level.
“Well, dude, what is he?” Doeren asked Palmieri.
Neither coach was quite sure. Samuels did a little bit of everything at Mallard Creek, including play safety on defense. The position didn’t matter to Doeren.
“He’s kind of a ‘tweener’ but he’s a great football player and I need more of them,” Doeren told Palmieri.
N.C. State offered a scholarship shortly after and Samuels committed before his senior season. Samuels had an incredible final season at Mallard Creek with 59 touchdowns, including five in a 59-21 state title win over a Wake Forest team that featured Stanford star running back Bryce Love and Clemson star defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence.
Learning the hard way
The goal is to get Samuels six catches in the Sun Bowl so he can break Cotchery’s career record. Whether that will happen or not will be decided on Friday.
Two things that are guaranteed to happen: 1) Samuels will find his parents in the crowd before kickoff; 2) Samuels will talk trash with the Sun Devils.
Greg and Sherrie Samuels have been to all 51 games their son has played for N.C. State. They got into El Paso, Texas, on Wednesday, which is the farthest they’ve had to travel in 25 road or bowl games. Even the commute to the home games, from Charlotte, has its own challenges.
Greg Samuels started his own telecommunications company, G&S Communications and Technical Services, in 2000. Greg and Sherrie had wanted the flexibility to travel with their sons to their AAU basketball games.
The backyard basketball and football games between the Samuels brothers – Brandon (now 29), Brenton (24) and Jaylen (21) – is where young “JaySam” learned to trash talk.
“He’s normally a very quiet person,” Sherrie Samuels said. “But he’s so competitive and once the competitive juices start flowing, he starts talking.
“And his brothers, they picked on him, they knocked him down and they tried to beat him up.”
Those pickup games would usually leave Samuels in tears. He would go inside to find his mom.
“I’m definitely a momma’s boy,” Samuels said. “For real, for real.”
Not so quiet
But Greg Samuels would hear his son crying after those backyard games between brothers, and Jaylen wouldn’t make it to his mom.
“My husband would make him go right back outside and keep playing until he would stop crying,” his mom said.
Samuels can now laugh about the initiation his brothers put him through. He learned a lot about competition and trash talk from them.
Mild-mannered and quiet off the field, Samuels is something different on it. After just about every play, he’ll say something to a defender or the whole defense or, heck, even the whole sideline.
Samuels can’t quite explain the transformation.
“That’s just something I do,” Samuels said. “Before every game, I tell myself and my teammates, I’m not going to talk trash, but I can’t help it. It’s just the competitor in me.”
In the victory formation in the final seconds of a 35-17 win at Pittsburgh on Oct. 14, Samuels started motioning with both hands and waving toward the Pitt sideline.
Was Samuels, who ran for a pair of touchdowns in the game, angry at a specific Pitt player? Did someone from Pitt take a cheap shot at Samuels during the game?
“Nah, I don’t know any of them,” Samuels said. “I just like to let them know, they’re about to walk off with an ‘L,’ ” Samuels said.
A little bit of everything
Samuels never did settle into one position at N.C. State. He played some fullback as a true freshman in 2014. His role, and playing time, expanded as a sophomore in 2015. He lined up at tight end, running back and receiver. He caught 65 passes and scored 16 touchdowns (on only 121 touches).
Last year, Samuels added 13 more touchdowns and 55 more catches, despite playing through a shoulder injury, which required surgery last spring.
This year, Samuels started the season as primarily a slot receiver, and caught 54 passes in the first seven games. An ankle injury to running back Nyheim Hines early in the Notre Dame game on Oct. 28 meant Samuels had to take more snaps at running back. His receiving numbers have slowed down in the past five games, but he has rushed for a touchdown in each of the last four games.
Fittingly, Samuels made the All-ACC team this season as the “all-purpose” player – a spot created by the league to account for a player like Samuels and his unique talents.
Even N.C. State is not sure what to label Samuels. In the team’s game notes, Samuels is listed as the starting “H.” Doeren was right, the position doesn’t matter. Samuels showed what he could do and he has the numbers to prove it.
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio
Jaylen Samuels has a chance to set the N.C. State school record for career receptions in the Sun Bowl on Friday in El Paso, Texas:
1. Jerricho Cotchery, WR
2. Jaylen Samuels, TE/RB/WR
3. Torry Holt, WR
1. Ted Brown, RB
2. Jaylen Samuels, TE/RB/WR
3. Stan Fritts, RB
Source: NC State