DALLAS — Before he was LSU’s top-rated defensive signee for the class of 2018, 4-star defensive end Jarell Cherry was an electric running back with a toy collection the size of Tom Brady’s trophy case.
Dating back to elementary school, Cherry’s blend of speed and size has always been a perfect match for the gridiron. But his parents didn’t want him playing full-contact sports yet. So they signed him up for flag football, and in less than two years, Cherry was already a star.
Recognizing his son’s potential, Derrick Cherry offered him an incentive. For every game Jarell scored at least four touchdowns, Derrick promised he’d buy a new Transformers toy. One of the big ones. None of that cheap stuff. Four touchdowns deserved a ransom.
“I told him I’d buy you a Transformer, thinking I’ll have to buy maybe one or two,” Derrick Cherry said. “Nah. Ended up buying the whole collection.”
The Jarell Cherry tree
Dallas always has been a hotbed for football talent. From Tim Brown to Matthew Stafford to Von Miller and countless others, the city has been producing pigskin heroes for nearly a century. And in that city, there’s one high school football team that’s remembered above the rest: The 1988 Carter High School Cowboys.
Best known as villains from the book and film “Friday Nights Lights,” the 1988 Carter Cowboys featured an absolutely loaded roster. Twenty-eight players earned college scholarships. Eight went on to play professional football. It was a team so good that ESPN produced a documentary about it in 2017.
Derrick Cherry was the starting right defensive tackle on that 1988 Carter team. So when it came time for his son to play high school football, there was only one destination that made sense.
“With roots like that, I would say it’s pressuring,” Jarell Cherry said. “But it’s a lot of pride you’ve got to have going into Carter High School. Knowing not only that you’re a part of the team, but you have a kind of legacy behind you that is going to have to show through you as well. And with that being said, you have to put forth the effort to try your best.”
In every phase of life, Jarell leaned into that pressure. He played for the same pee-wee team as his father, the Oak Cliff Redskins. He played at the same middle school, Atwell, as his father. And he continued on to Carter.
Heading into his freshman year, Cherry wanted to play running back. But his coaches didn’t see things the same way. Carter coach Patrick Williams joked he had no need for a 6-foot-2 running back — and he should know, having been a running back on the 1988 Carter squad. What he needed was a defensive end. So like Derrick before him, Jarell assumed his destiny as a Carter defensive lineman. And even as a skinny freshman, he rose to the top of the depth chart.
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Because if there’s one thing that’s always stood out about Cherry, it’s his speed. He runs the 40-yard dash in 4.64 seconds. That’s the same time as Myles Garrett, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. Cherry also anchored Carter’s 200-meter relay team, running his split in under 24 seconds.
That’s just not something defensive ends should be able to do.
When Cherry was in eighth grade, he started working with DeMarquis Brooks at True Buzz Athletics. A Dallas native and former high school coach, Brooks and his staff train athletes and help them navigate the recruiting process. And when Brooks met Cherry, he marveled at how much speed the kid had.
He describes it as a powerful speed, one that explodes early and builds over straight-line distances thanks to the strength in Cherry’s legs. Likewise, Derrick remembers sitting slack-jawed when his son would break 20 and 30 yards ahead of pee-wee opponents into open field, maintaining top speed as defenders tried to chase him.
Cherry won’t be able to rely solely on speed in the SEC. Brooks said he’s looking forward to seeing how LSU’s coaches develop his longtime student’s agility in tight spaces — especially since that agility will require a body transformation. If Cherry wants to compete at the college level, he likely won’t be able to do it at 225 pounds. Heck, that’s barely bigger than Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.
But Derrick believes Jarell has an innate desire that drives him to get better, one that he’s only seen before from Carter teammate Jessie Armstead, a two-time national champion at Miami and a five-time Pro Bowl linebacker with the New York Giants.
“A lot of the things I saw Jessie doing, I see [Jarell] doing it now,” Derrick Cherry said. “Now I understand why Jessie had that drive and that motivation. Because he got it embedded in him.”
Learning from loss
In May 2017, tragedy befell the Carter High School community.
L.D. Cox was one of Cherry’s best friends. Together they managed Carter’s program. Derrick credits Cox, a year Cherry’s elder, with teaching his son how to lead. They were an odd couple of sorts – Cox the flashy wide receiver and prom king; Cherry the reserved, lead-by-example type – but not a day went by that the two didn’t talk.
Hours after Cox graduated high school, he and three friends visited a convenience store in Irving, Texas. According to an arrest affidavit, Cox was shot and killed in a drive-by outside of that convenience store after an attempt to de-escalate a situation between a female friend and strangers in another car.
The morning after the incident, Cherry woke up to the news. He was devastated.
“One thing I kind of took in off that is you don’t have that much time on this earth,” Cherry said. “Nothing is promised. Tomorrow isn’t promised. You only have time with what you’ve got right now. … Just knowing that not everything is promised, it makes you take advantage of the greater points of life.”
On April 1, 2017, Cherry committed to LSU. And with that, Cherry’s recruiting saga came to an end. There would be no de-commitment. No wavering. No outside force could change Cherry’s decision.
After he made his commitment, Cherry stopped taking visits to other schools. If a rival coach reached out, he’d take the call. He didn’t want to burn any bridges. That’s a lesson he learned from Brooks; you never know when a coach might come back into your life. But Cherry didn’t let that affect his choice.
“He’s old-fashioned,” Brooks said. “A man of his word. Whatever he says he’s going to do, he’s going to do. … He’s not the flashiest guy. He has a normal haircut, doesn’t have the wild haircuts like you’ve seen. Doesn’t have any tattoos or earrings. He’s just a quiet young man who handles business like a man should.”
For Cherry, this was nothing new. Throughout high school, bigger programs tried to recruit him to move up from Carter, a 4-A school, to play 5-A or 6-A ball. But even though Carter struggled to a 3-8 record his sophomore year and a 5-5 record his junior year, it was also where Cherry’s friends were, which made the 9-4 record and playoff appearance in 2017 all the more satisfying.
“We started off at Atwell since the sixth grade,” Cherry said. “Even before that, we came up through elementary. I’ve been knowing those guys for the longest, like since I was little. They’ve been the guys that stuck up with me and let me stick up for them. We always watched out for each other. Those are my real-life brother’s keepers.”
Cherry applied similar logic to college recruiting. He’d been around the circuit for years. Cherry attended camps and visited colleges as early as his freshman year. He had a “good relationship” with former Texas coach Charlie Strong and visited Texas A&M and Oklahoma on multiple occasions.
But everything changed when he met LSU coach Ed Orgeron and defensive assistant Dennis Johnson. After early meetings with LSU coaches, Cherry said he believed they had his best interest in mind. Orgeron in particular, Cherry said, treats his student-athletes as if they’re his children. LSU was willing to show Cherry loyalty, so he said it was only fair to reciprocate.
On Dec. 22, 2017, Cherry fulfilled his commitment. He signed his national letter of intent to play for the Tigers at one of the most anticlimactic events you’ll ever watch. Cherry signed his paperwork wearing a purple shirt that read “Geaux Tigers” in big gold lettering in front of three silver balloons that spelled out “LSU.” No diversion tactics. No mystery. No second guessing.
The earliest homecoming
Orgeron made one thing clear to Cherry: If he wants to, he can play as a freshman. He’ll need to work for it, of course. He’ll need to bulk up and prove he can compete with players such as K’Lavon Chaisson and Ray Thornton. But if Cherry does that, he’ll play.
True Buzz coach Joey Moss said LSU’s coaches compared Cherry to two former LSU stars: Arden Key and Barkevious Mingo. With his length and speed off the edge, the comparisons make sense. But Key and Mingo weighed around 240 pounds. To reach those heights, Cherry will have to grow into his frame.
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If he needs extra motivation, LSU opens its 2018 season at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. As a Dallas native and lifelong Cowboys fan, it’s only fitting that Cherry’s first college game will be 20 miles down the road from his high school.
It’s a perfect storyline. Hometown kid returns to show everyone how he’s grown. But it’s a story that’s on Cherry’s mind. Even seven months in advance.
“It’s going to be a big experience,” he said. “I’m going to pray and hope on that day that I can show off for my family and my coaches. Everything just going to LSU and showing that progress from the beginning and playing as a freshman.”