VIENNA, Ga. — When Jimmy Hughes started his first football practice at Dooly County High School in the spring of 2010, he had two flat footballs, zero mouthpieces and no money to fix either problem.
But he had a Montravius Adams.
Hughes had heard about the quiet lineman who had just finished his freshman season from the previous coaching staff. Those coaches told him Adams could be a “good offensive guard” for Dooly County High, which sits in Vienna, Georgia — a town of a little more than 4,000 in the south-central part of the state.
That previous staff didn’t get much out of Adams as a freshman. He had an “unspectacular” year both athletically and academically, as Hughes recalls. He missed a lot of practices. Adams can’t remember playing more than three snaps as a ninth grader.
The way Adams moved, though, stood out to Hughes and his defensive coordinator, Shelton Felton. They saw much more than a solid high school offensive lineman.
“Shelton said, ‘He’s going to be a really good player. I’m going to have to stay on him. But he’s going to be a really good player,'” Hughes told SEC Country. “We really didn’t have any idea that he would be this good.”
Over the next three years, Adams grew into one of the most dominant players the Peach State has ever seen. He went from standing on the sidelines in the smallest classification of Georgia high school football to playing in the Under Armour All America game as one of the 10 best recruits in the entire country.
That progress continued into Adams’ high-profile college career at Auburn, where he’s become an All-SEC candidate at defensive tackle and a potential early-round pick in the NFL draft.
It all started with a decision Adams made in 2010, when tough love from his new coaches and tender love for his family came together in a life-changing way.
The frustrated freshman and the promise he made
From the time he started playing sports, it was obvious Adams was a special athletic talent in a special town.
Vienna might look like the typical rural Georgia town at first glance. There’s a single stoplight in the downtown area. The Dooly County courthouse overlooks a historic town square that includes a couple of insurance offices, a bank, a post office and a bait shop.
The city is surrounded by peanut and cotton fields, including one that sits right behind Dooly County’s football field. A giant Tyson Foods chicken plant near the site of the Big Pig Jig — Georgia’s annual state barbecue championship cook-off — employs many Vienna residents.
One of those is Debbie Young, Adams’ mother.
As a single mother, Young worked late hours at the plant to take care of Adams and his three older sisters. From an early age, a football-loving Adams told his mother he one day would make it to the NFL and get her out of those long shifts.
“He always talked about that he was going to go on to the NFL. He’s always said that’s what he’s wanted to do. He just wants to go play football,” Adams’ sister, Lonchella, told SEC Country. “He would always tell Mom, ‘You ain’t gonna have to work at that Tyson plant anymore! I’m going to make it so you can stop working.’
“And she would just say, ‘OK, Mon, OK. I believe you.'”
Adams’ NFL dreams might have seemed like a long shot out of Vienna. But the town produces a lot of athletic talent for its size.
The Dooly County High School field house where Adams used to train is named after Roger Kingdom, who won two gold medals in the 110-meter hurdles at the 1984 and 1988 Summer Olympics.
When Adams was a freshman, he watched Dooly County wide receiver Keith Mumphery sign with Michigan State. Mumphery now is playing for the NFL’s Houston Texans.
Adams’ cousin, Antonneous Clayton, signed with Florida as a 4-star defensive end recruit earlier this year. The list of Division I players out of Dooly County grows yearly.
“We’ve been lucky,” Hughes said. “We’ve got a lot of kids playing all over the country. We’ve been blessed to have some good players. A lot of good athletes come through here.”
A young Adams had the potential to be the best football player to ever come from there. He always was playing some sort of sport — football, basketball, baseball or track and field.
“Always playful, but always quiet,” Lonchella Adams said. “He’s laid back, like he is now. Just whatever happens, happens.”
On the football field, Adams grew up playing running back as a kid but grew into a lineman frame. That natural athleticism stayed with him.
“When we first saw him, we saw that he was a freak of nature,” Felton, now the head coach at Crisp County (Ga.) High School, told SEC Country. “He was a real big, playful kid that could do anything. He was one of the fastest guys on the team. He could throw the ball a mile. He could catch. He could punt. There wasn’t anything he couldn’t do.
“It was just that he was a kid. He just wasn’t serious about football.”
That mindset changed thanks to the fresh start provided to him in his sophomore season by Hughes, Felton and the rest of the new Dooly County staff.
“From when I was young, I was like this great player,” Adams told SEC Country. “Then, in middle school, it wasn’t that way. Then I never really played my whole ninth grade year. Going into 10th grade and us getting new coaches, I felt like it was a new opportunity for me. I just wanted to prove to myself and my family that I could be that dominant player.”
The reserved recruit and his dedicated coach
Adams flashed signs of that dominance as a 10th grader as Dooly County doubled its win total from the previous season. Over time, he grew a few more inches, gained 40 more pounds and got more opportunities in a defensive system that put a lot of emphasis on linemen making plays.
“That sophomore success let him know that in his junior year, he could be awesome,” Felton said. “Me and Coach Hughes just gave him that hard love, that tough love. He realized how much potential he had. Once he saw that he could make those plays, he fell in love with the game.”
But Adams needed to do more than just star for Dooly County in order to get noticed as a special player. So Hughes drove him to camps and combines all over the Southeast in the following spring and summer.
“I think there’s a lot of players in these small schools that are underrated, and that’s an understatement,” Hughes said. “They just haven’t gotten any exposure, for one reason or another. Maybe it’s on their coaches, or maybe they play in a league that’s way out there and nobody gets there. A lot of it has to do with coaches getting their kids to a place where they can get exposed.”
Hughes made it his mission to get Adams on the path to achieving his goals — playing football at a high level and paving a way for a better future for his family.
The scholarship offers started rolling in during a dominant junior season. By the beginning of 2012, he was a 5-star recruit. Twenty different schools offered him scholarships.
“That was a circus, though. God knows it was,” Hughes said. “That was something serious. That was a mess. There were people everywhere. People snooping everywhere around. There was a time where one day, we had Derek Dooley, Nick Saban, Gene Chizik and Mark Richt and all four of their airplanes sitting on the tarmac at the small airport over in Cordele. Coach (Dabo) Swinney came in later.”
Adams still got his opportunities to show those coaches his moves in the open field. At a school with as small of an enrollment as Dooly County, players such as Adams had to do a lot of different things.
“He never really came off the field for us,” Hughes said. “You play here, you’re going to play 100 plays or more per game. He punted. He kicked off. He played offensive line. He played fullback. He played tight end. He played a lot of places for us and did a lot of things for us. He was capable of doing all of them.”
On the defensive side of the ball, Adams was putting up absurd stat lines for the Bobcats. He recorded 45 tackles for loss as a junior. As a senior, he had a truly jaw-dropping performance in a 10-7 state semifinal win over Lincoln County.
“We played Lincoln County in the semifinals, and when I say he took over — he took over,” Felton said. “He … took … over. He was unblockable. He probably had 15 tackles, and at least nine of them were for a loss. He was un-block-a-ble.
“And the best thing about Montravius that people don’t know is that his whole senior year, he called the defense. He was a defensive lineman calling the defense. He knew the whole defense, secondary and all.”
After his senior season ended, Adams’ recruitment became a full-blown frenzy. But he remained the same quiet kid from Vienna who wasn’t used to all the attention.
“When he was getting recruited, he was always laid-back,” Lonchella Adams said. “But he still couldn’t help but be amazed at the whole process. It was like, ‘I can’t believe all this. It’s just like, wow.'”
Adams often spent his time with some of the best coaches in college football trying to get other players from Dooly County their shot in the spotlight.
“Guys would come in from Alabama, Georgia and all across the country, he would tell them about his teammates,” Felton said with a laugh. “And we would be like, ‘Mon, this kid can’t play at Tennessee.’ But Mon would always tell them, ‘Coach, he looks awesome.’
“We had this kid we called Tay-Tay. He was very small. He was a great high school football player, but he was small in size. But Mon would do everything he could to try to get those big schools to look at him. That’s the kind of kid Montravius is.”
Five days before his own recruitment wrapped up, Adams made a last-minute decision to take his final official visit to Auburn, which had recently fired Chizik and hired Gus Malzahn. The new staff included Rodney Garner, who recruited Adams to play at Georgia.
When he came back, he was tight-lipped. His own family didn’t know where he was headed until he picked the Auburn hat on the table in front of him in the Dooly County High School gym on national signing day.
“We kept asking him like, ‘Mon, where are you gonna go?’ And he would just say, ‘I’m ain’t gonna tell y’all. Y’all are just going to have to see on signing day.'” Lonchella Adams said. “We thought he was going to go to Clemson. But when he pulled out that Auburn hat, we were like, ‘Wow.'”
The process on the Plains
The growth couldn’t stop for Adams once he left Vienna for Auburn. He had to get ready to make the jump from high school football to the SEC in a hurry.
“He had some growing up to do when he got there,” Hughes said. “He was so young. When he went over in late May, he actually finished all his tests up and went over to enroll early. He had to get in that first session. He missed the last week of school here, came back and graduated Friday. He was just 17 years old. He didn’t turn 18 until the 24th of July.
“So the season was nearly ready to start, and he was out there playing against 22-, 23-year-olds. A lot of those offensive linemen are 23 years old by the time you get redshirted. He paid for that a little bit, physically and mentally … There was probably some deprogramming he had to go through, because all those stars don’t mean anything now.”
Adams also met his real position coach at Auburn during those first few weeks. Garner wasn’t the same person on the recruiting trail as he was on the practice field.
“I use the example as (Auburn’s defensive linemen) meet Rodney Garner when they are a recruit,” Adams said earlier this year. “But when they get there — that’s Coach G … I don’t think you’ll ever be comfortable, because he’s always going to coach you hard. If you’re comfortable, then he ain’t doing his job.”
As Adams went through that adjustment period, Garner got him ready to play at the SEC level. Adams made that impact from the first snap of his college career, when he sacked Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday in the second quarter of what would be a close win.
He became a vital reserve on Auburn’s defensive line rotation in what would be an SEC championship season. Adams finished his true freshman year with 20 tackles, 7 quarterback hurries and 1.5 tackles for loss. Any fears that he would struggle in the big step-up in competition quickly disappeared.
Adams became a starter in 2014, finishing the year with the most tackles and tackles for loss of any Auburn lineman. Auburn lined him up some at defensive end, where he attacked opposing offensive tackles with his rare mix of size and agility.
“In my personal opinion, 1A, 5A, 6A — football is football,” Felton said. “When you’re 300 pounds and you run like a running back and you can change directions like a receiver, you’re going to be successful. In our program, he lacked a lot of stuff. But he got good coaching. Once he adapted and learned the playbook at Auburn, he didn’t have any problems.”
He even got his hands on the ball like he did at Dooly County, picking off a pass and recovering a fumble in the same game against Louisiana Tech.
But playing defense at Auburn wasn’t the most stable situation. Auburn changed defensive coordinators each of Adams next two seasons — Ellis Johnson to Will Muschamp to Kevin Steele.
“Coach G” remained on the Plains, though, to push Adams to new heights in new systems.
“Rodney being there the whole time through all the coordinator changeovers, it’s really been a big help for him,” Hughes said. “Rodney has been like a father over there to him. There’s a lot of good men over there. Good people … He’s been lucky to be around some doggone good coordinators.”
The maturation of ‘Mon’
After Auburn’s lackluster 2015 season and another coordinator change, Adams had another huge decision to make. He could cash in on the promise he made to his mother by entering the NFL draft early.
But Adams decided to do something that was bigger than quickly becoming the next NFL talent out of Dooly County — he wanted to be the first in his family to graduate college, which he’ll do in December with a degree in interdisciplinary studies.
“We cried and cried,” Lonchella Adams said. “We were just so happy for him. He always said that he wanted to get his degree. They wanted him to go to the draft last year, but he said he wanted to graduate. I just can’t believe it.”
The defensive tackle who played only three snaps as a high school freshman still had room to grow, though, after two seasons of starting in the SEC. Adams could’ve gone pro, but it would have been fresh off a low-production junior campaign for the Tigers. He only had 3 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks in a 7-6 season.
“We challenged him in the spring with some things that he needed to improve on,” Steele said last month. “He was a good player — very good player and very talented — but everybody can improve. And we made a list of those things, in terms of pad leverage and use of hands and holding point and being effective in the pass rush and affecting the ball game.”
The physical gifts that made Adams one of the nation’s most-coveted high school prospects were still there. Having a better 2016 meant working on the finer details that would make him a better all-around player.
“I just think it’s more of a mental mindset and just trying to get better at all the little things the coaches say and all the little things you see wrong with yourself,” Adams said. “Just being able to take coaching better and really just being better at your fundamentals.”
As a senior, Adams has doubled most of his stats from his junior year. In nine games, he has 28 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 3 sacks, 13 quarterback hurries, 2 pass breakups, 2 blocked kicks and 1 fumble return for a touchdown.
Montravius Adams gets an excellent jump here and simply manhandles Ethan Pocic into a big TFL on Leonard Fournette. pic.twitter.com/3uhSIWyDOI
— Justin Ferguson (@JFergusonAU) September 25, 2016
LARGE MAN TOUCHDOWN: Carl Lawson beats Rankin with ease, Montravius Adams scoops and scores, and Maurice Swain dusts off the big guy. pic.twitter.com/KeB1xVTiCz
— Justin Ferguson (@JFergusonAU) October 9, 2016
Montravius Adams rips through a double team on special teams and swats down a field goal. He's an equal opportunity destroyer of lines. pic.twitter.com/E5dSgjp5nn
— Justin Ferguson (@JFergusonAU) October 2, 2016
Those impressive numbers come despite a lot of attention from opposing offenses. Adams routinely takes on double teams for Auburn. He sometimes fights through them to make big-time plays.
“He’s a different player this year,” Malzahn said. “Now, he was a really good player before, but he’s really raised his level. He’s becoming a man. He’s growing up, he’s more mature. (Adams improved) his approach to practice, approach to games, and (he’s) just one of our best players. He’s an impact player.”
The hometown hero
Adams will return to his home state this weekend when Auburn faces Georgia in Sanford Stadium. Adams has just one win in three tries against the Bulldogs.
“It’s really important to me,” Adams said. “Coming from Georgia and never having won there at their house, it’s just really important for me. I just want my team and myself to elevate to another level.”
But crossing the line back into the Peach State is something Adams does often as an Auburn Tiger. Whenever he gets a chance, Adams goes to Vienna to see his mom and his sisters and catch up with the people of his hometown.
“He’s proud to be from here,” Hughes said. “It means a lot to him, being from here. It means a lot for him to come back home. He comes back home whenever he’s got a few days off.”
Adams returned to Dooly County last month, when Auburn had its off week. He stood on the sidelines for the Bobcats’ homecoming game, which was a 40-6 blowout win over Crawford County.
He stood on the sidelines during the game, encouraging the next generation of talent to come out of Vienna. He likes to hang out at the school — usually showing up at the school cafeteria right around lunch time, Hughes jokes.
“He shoots ball with the guys,” Hughes said. “He goes down and lifts weights with them in the afternoon, puts them through drills and stuff. He exposes them to some things that we haven’t exposed them to yet.
“He wants to do good not just necessarily on the football field but in life. He wants people to have it better than he had it … He didn’t grow up with a silver spoon in his mouth. But he did have a lot of people helping him. A lot of our kids do.”
— Keith Niebuhr (@Keith247Sports) May 19, 2015
Whenever the All-SEC candidate shows up in Vienna, he becomes a magnet for high-fives and well wishes.
“Everybody just comes up around him and goes, ‘Montravius, Montravius! How you doing, man? Good luck!'” Lonchella Adams said. “Nobody really watched Auburn football here a few years ago. But everybody’s into it now. That’s all because of him.”
Hughes says Adams still gets shy during all the attention from the town when he comes home. But he’s had plenty of practice dealing with it.
In addition to his high-profile recruitment out of Dooly County, Adams has spent plenty of time in front of cameras, microphones and voice recorders at Auburn. He represented the program at SEC Media Days earlier this year — where he made sure to wish his mother a happy birthday in front of the entire country.
“He’s still the same playful person, but he’s become so mature at Auburn,” Lonchella Adams said. “I’m just so proud of him.”
A few weeks after he plays Georgia for the final time — his mother, sisters and Hughes will all be there — Adams graduates from Auburn. A few months after that, he’ll likely hear his name called at the 2017 NFL Draft.
“When he talked heading into his senior year, he wanted to make life better for his mom and his sisters and his nieces and nephews,” Felton said. “Mon is not the average young man. He takes care of his family. He has a big heart. It’s really important for him to do well so he can make it in the NFL and take care of his family.”
When Adams gets to sign his first NFL contract, he’ll fulfill the promise he made to his mother years ago when she was sacrificing long hours for him and his sisters at the Tyson Foods plant.
He’ll give hope, motivation and support to Dooly County players who were just like him several years ago.
“Just even thinking about having an opportunity to go to the NFL is great,” Adams said. “I do that for my momma, too. I love the game, but it’s really a chance that God gave me to help other people and give back.”
That NFL money could help buy a lot of footballs and a lot of mouthpieces for the Dooly County Bobcats.
It could also help them develop the next Montravius Adams.