Every Thursday Night ON AIR takes a look at Prep Athletics here in the #912
We honor 36 deserving Student athletes as the Plauer of the Year in their chosen Sport
By Kevin Price
Photography by Jackson Gorbutt
Matthew Fuller has long dreamed about playing college football in the Southeastern Conference.
And, the standout running back for Wayne County will get that chance. Fuller, a senior and the key cog in the offense for the Yellow Jackets, committed to South Carolina this summer in advance of his final high school season in Jesup.
He is excited about the opportunity that awaits him in Columbia, S.C., home of the Gamecocks who entered their own 2023 season on the upswing after two years with Shane Beamer as head coach.
“I’ve got family there,” Fuller said. “It’s close to home, so my family can go see me play.”
Before he turns his full attention to playing for the Gamecocks, Fuller still has business to tend to in Wayne County. Coming off a huge junior campaign when he starred on both sides of the ball for the Yellow Jackets who made a surprising run to the Class AAAA state quarterfinals in head coach Jaybo Shaw’s first season with the team, Fuller is looking to close his prep career with a big finish.
He got his senior season off to a monster start on Aug. 17 when the Jackets hosted Bradwell Institute in the season opener. Fuller carried for a career-high 291 yards and four touchdowns including one on an 80-yard run as Wayne routed the Tigers 49-20 at Jaycee Stadium. He was chosen by 912 Sports the next week as the first Coastal Pines Technical College Player of the Week for the current season.
That was the only game the Jackets had played when this story was written on deadline.
“He loves football, loves everything about,” Shaw said of his star player. “He’s the ultimate competitor. He’s a guy who wants to win at everything he does. Pound for pound, he’s probably the strongest guy in our weight room, and he’s just real explosive when he has the ball. Most of the time, something good is going to happen when he touches the football.”
Last season, he carried the ball a lot for the Yellow Jackets who finished the previous season with an embarrassing 0-9 record but flourished in the first season under Shaw who was brought in to rescue a proud program that had suddenly floundered.
The Jackets won 10 games including two in the playoffs before falling in the state quarterfinals at North Oconee which ended a season that far exceeded the expectations that even the most diehard fans of the team had when the season kicked off.
Fuller played a huge role in helping the Jackets pull off at least a mild upset in the second round when they knocked off Perry on its home field, 14-7. The Panthers were ranked third in the state going into the playoffs and had scored at least 34 points in every game while holding all but one of its previous 11 opponents to 14 or fewer points.
“I think he carried it almost 30 times that night and scored the two touchdowns to win it,” Shaw said.
A workhorse back for the Jackets all season after their starting quarterback was lost for the year early on with an injury, the 6-foot, 215-pounder had many big games for the team last fall. He ran for 1,757 yards and 22 touchdowns while having 10 games in which he rushed for at least 100 yards.
For the season, Fuller had 257 carries in the Jackets’ 13 games to average almost 20 attempts a game while going for an average of 135.2 yards a game and nearly seven yards a carry.
A starting linebacker as well, Fuller also finished the 2022 season at Wayne’s leading tackler. He was credited with 90 total tackles, averaging almost seven a game while recording 18 tackles for loss.
Shaw referenced his size, strength and speed which all combine to make Fuller the big-time player that he is on both sides of the ball. He bench presses more than 320 pounds, squats about 550 and cleans about 315. He also runs the 100-meter dash in 10.8 seconds.
“The games he carried it 30 times, he just got better and better,” Shaw said. “He was better on carry 28 than he was on carry three. He’s built for it. He’s thick and strong and can take that wear and tear, but obviously he’s just not a bruiser. When he gets in open space, he can run away from everybody. He’s an every-down back and one who can hit a home run at anytime.
“He just has a knack for getting to the football,” the coach said as he went on to talk about his defensive prowess. “He’s just a football player. That’s the best way I can explain it. He has natural instincts to get around the football. It comes very easy to him, and he can close the gap in a hurry, whether he’s coming downhill or helping us in the passing game from a coverage aspect. He plays with great eyes and he’s extremely physical.”
When Shaw took over the Wayne program, it wasn’t like he knew he was inheriting a major-college prospect in the offensive backfield. Fuller played very little at running back the previous season. He played mostly on the defensive side of the ball and that’s where he lso spent most of his time when Shaw took the Jackets through spring practice for the first time in 2022.
“He hardly took any running back reps,” Shaw said. “He was in the running back rotation and was one of the guys we were trying to figure out. The more football we played, you could definitely see what he could do, and pretty much toward the end of last summer, you saw him really develop. Ever since then, he has really taken off. It didn’t take long last season to see he was the bell-cow and we were going to go as he goes.”
This season, the Jackets are still using Fuller on defense, but have moved him into the defensive secondary. The reason is two-fold. The Jackets have developed depth at linebacker which gave them the liberty to make the move, but they also needed a boost at the last level of their defense after the departure of two starters at safety due to graduation.
“It’s less pounding on his body in the box, but he’s still our run-fitter at safety. So, he’s still going to be around the ball,” Shaw explained. “He’s still a starter, but we will give him a blow when he needs it because of his production on offense.”
Fuller received more than 20 scholarship offers, but the Gamecocks were among the first from the larger schools to show him significant interest in the recruiting process. He spurned other Power-5 offers from Georgia Tech, Iowa State and Minnesota when he verbally committed to South Carolina in late June.
Of course, Connor Shaw, younger brother of Wayne’s coach, was a former quarterback for the Gamecocks and played at least a small role in the team pursuing the Wayne star.
“Connor saw a couple of our games in person last year and has a great relationship with Coach Beamer and all the guys there,” Coach Shaw said. “I’d be a fool not to think Connor put in a good word for Matt, but Connor would be the first to tell you Matt’s game also speaks for itself.”
And the Gamecocks will be getting more than a guy who can do wonders when toting the ball, according to his coach. Shaw said Fuller is a great teammate and model student-athlete.
“He has a ‘We over Me’ mentality,” the coach said. “He also takes care of his business. He’s not one to skip a class or one that I’d get an email from a teacher about because of a problem they have with him.”
By Kevin Price
Photography by Charles Smith
Zach Pearson towers over most everybody when he walks the hallways at New Hampstead.
At 6-foot-6 and 270 pounds, the senior offensive tackle for the Phoenix stands out in a crowd and also in the team huddle on the football field.
Put his size and skills as an offensive lineman with his smarts, and Pearson is deserving of the spotlight as a scholar-athlete among the schools 912 Sports covers regularly here in Southeast Georgia.
Set to be the valedictorian of New Hampstead’s current senior class, Pearson possesses a 4.0 grade-point average and is an attractive recruit for several colleges because of his prowess on the gridiron and in the academic arena.
“He’s just a mean sucker,” said New Hampstead head coach Kyle Hockman about his standout lineman. “Really, for being a really nice kid and also a really smart kid, he’s a serious competitor. He competes. He’s a real, real competitor. He doesn’t want to lose a rep. Every play, he’s gonna fight to the whistle.”
Pearson comes from a true football family, and New Hampstead football is very much a family affair for the Pearson clan. His dad, Andrew Pearson, is the defensive coordinator for the Phoenix while Zach’s younger brother Nate is a sophomore tight end on the team.
And soon, another Pearson, Luke, will be playing football for New Hampstead as well. Luke is currently in eighth-grade and will likely be a future quarterback for the Phoenix in due time.
“We love football in our house,” said Zach Pearson. “Every Saturday and Sunday, and most Fridays when we aren’t playing, we’re watching football. We watch College GameDay on ESPN on Saturday mornings, the late-night game on Saturday night, and it makes for a fun Sunday afternoon after church when we watch the NFL games.”
Pearson was actually watching film from the New Hampstead practice earlier in the day when he was contacted to be interviewed for this story. It’s something he does on a regular basis to critique himself as he strives to improve his individual skills.
It’s not unusual, though, for Pearson to watch film with his brother and father. They’ll often discuss their own team and will break down an opponent together as well.
“He’ll ask me what I see from his defensive line, or what I think about another team’s offensive line,” Zach said of his father who played college football at Wheaton College, a liberal arts college located outside of Chicago which has long been ranked among the country’s top academic institutions.
Though football is important to the Pearsons, the game takes a backseat to academics. Doing good in school is something that mom and dad have always stressed to their three boys and two daughters.
Both Zach and Nate were home-schooled prior to high school with their mom, a former classroom teacher, teaching them every step of the way.
“Mom and dad have always put it into our brains that to give yourself the most options you need to do well in school,” Zach notes.
And Pearson certainly does well. He is a member of the National Honor Society and has made the honor roll in each of his first three years at New Hampstead. Pearson also has taken several Advanced Placement courses and has earned college credit through each of those.
Pearson is actually a history buff, noting that he really enjoyed his AP U.S. History course. He might even choose history as his college major but mentioned an interest in mechanical engineering, too.
“I like learning how the world used to be and seeing how history repeats itself,” he said about his love for history.
He also has studied the history of football. An avid reader, Pearson has read a biography about Pop Warner, a legendary coach whose early influences on the game are still apparent today.
“I enjoyed learning about what he did for the game,” Pearson says.
One of Pearson’s favorite books involving football was a gift from his grandfather. “I can’t remember the name of it,” he says, “but it was about the greatest minds from the Super Bowl. They talked about what they did in winning the Super Bowl.”
Pearson also enjoys reading what he called “true-story books,” historical fiction and fantasy novels.
It looks like Pearson will have the chance to further his football career along with his education after he graduates from New Hampstead which is part of the Chatham County school system.
An All-State player a year ago as a junior, Pearson has already received interest from several schools including Stetson University and Mercyhurst University in Pennsylvania which have both offered him a scholarship. Hockman added that Georgia Tech has also expressed an interest in Pearson and adding him to their team as a preferred walk-on.
“I’m just going to wait and see how the season goes and see what my options are,” Pearson said when asked about playing at the next level. “Then, I’ll make a decision about that.”
Until then, he plans to enjoy his senior year with the Phoenix and playing alongside his brother on the offensive line one last time. He also has played basketball for the Phoenix in the past and has played basketball at the school the last three years. Last spring, he was an all-region player on the baseball diamond.
“It’s pretty awesome. We have a lot of fun with it,” he says of playing football with his younger brother. “We know each other’s job and what each of us is supposed to do. When he’s lined up on my side, we have a blast with it. He’s a really good run-blocker. He makes my job easier, too.”
The Phoenix are hoping for a big season this fall. Last year, they finished 6-5 and were the No. 4 seed from Region 3-AAAA which was won by eventual state champion Benedictine with Wayne County finishing second before marching to the state quarterfinals and Burke County taking third.
New Hampstead was just days away from beginning its 2023 season when this story was written on deadline.
“We’re returning a lot of starters and a lot of seniors,” Pearson said. “I might be a little biased, but this might be our best senior class since we’ve been here. And, that speaks to the job that Coach Hockman and all of our coaches have done developing the players.”
By John Dupont
Photography by Charles Smith
Among the highest rated linemen in the state and beyond, 6’5”/280-pound Elyjah Thurmon of Bradwell Institute has seen his stock rise as the Tigers turn the page to a new era. In the 2022 season finale, Thurmon and his teammates turned back Greenbrier, 20-9 for the program’s first football victory since 2019, an achievement he lists as the highlight of his prep career thus far. “Everybody was just all over the place after the game, and stayed around for another hour,” says Thurmon. “Even though Greenbrier had been losing (0-9 coming in), people were doubting us. ”Still silencing doubters, Thurmon and the Tigers acquitted themselves well in the 2023 season opener, albeit in a 49-20 loss to Wayne County.
The 20 points scored by the Tigers’ offense matched an output achieved only three times in the past three seasons. Furthermore, it came against a unit that yielded just 16 points per game in 2022. “Elyjah was part of our program when we were at our lowest, and he’s still here now that we’re turning the page and trying to make the playoffs,” says Bradwell’s head coach, Deshon Brock. Playing wherever needed, the blue chip lineman looks to plug in at center, guard, tackle, and defensive end this season. “Defensively, it will be how we need the help,” Thurmon says. “I’ll be mostly focusing on center, but when we play certain teams, I’ll probably switch to tackle.”Quick, strong, and smart, Thurmon runs the 40-yard dash in 4.85 seconds. In the weight room his max lifts are as follows: bench (280), cleans (505), and squats (275). He also carries a 4.2 gradepoint average and scored 21 on the ACT. All-Region since his freshman season, Thurmon has already been selected to play in the 2024 Polynesian Bowl next January in Hawaii. He recently narrowed his list of 22 college offers down to Clemson, LSU, South Carolina, Missouri, UCF, Georgia Tech, Duke, and Florida. His intended major of either mechanical engineering or sports medicine ranked among the criteria upon which his school choice hinged. “It’s a combo of the culture of the school, its tradition, the coaching staff and the education ,”Thurmon said. Coach Brock describes Thurmon as a “consummate professional” in all areas.“Every camp he went to, he was an underdog,” says Brock. “The other guys were rated and had stars and then Elyjah would walk away as camp MVP. He’s no longer a big fish in a small pond. While many times kids his size think they’re beyond the program, that’s not the case with Elyjah. That is a testament to both him and his mother. ”Thurmon says his mother is his primary inspiration due to “The amount of motivation she gives me to give it my best and do the right thing at all times.” “Elyjah is very humble, and with all the attention he’s getting, he doesn’t brag or boast,” says Tammie Williams, Thurmon’s mother and a retired military veteran. “He’s a great child and really disciplined. He has his head on straight. I want him to get the education and degree foremost, to enjoy life, and to stay focused. ”A solid fan base also resides in Mississippi, where family members have been cheering Thurmon’s exploits since he took up flag football at age five. Supporters include grandparents Walter and Hattie Williams as well as older brothers Randy Williams and Darrien Williams “My grandparents watch me via streaming internet and come to see me play a couple games a year,” says Thurmon. “My grandpa was the one who made me want to play football. The stories he and my uncles told me drove me to want to play. My grandmother has been like another mother to me. My brothers have always just told me to strive, be great, work hard, and keep myself out of trouble. ”Additional praise is reserved for Coach Brock, of whom Thurmon says, “Coach has always played a motivator role, always telling me I could be an SEC guy and a guy who could play on Sundays. He is just always getting me to play my best.” “I hope he gets an opportunity to develop and play, and not just be a number,” says Brock. “I hope he’s in a program that nurtures him and develops him as a young man.”
Sign up to hear from us about new stories and podcasts
A weekly look at High School Athletics from around the #912.