National Signing Day on the first Wednesday of February is just the opening of the period for top senior prep football players to ink with a college program.
On Thursday, three Orangeburg-Wilkinson standouts signed national letters-of-intent to attend their colleges of choice. The media center at O-W was nearly filled with family, friends and fellow students for the occasion.
Wide receiver/defensive back Jalen Darby inked with Presbyterian College in Clinton, while outside linebacker/defensive back Jerry Billups and outside linebacker/defensive end Zion Utsey both inked with Benedict College in Columbia.
The trio moved the total football signees from this Bruins graduating class to four, with wide receiver Zach Felder having signed with South Carolina State on Feb. 7.
"This is truly a blessing," said Tommy Brown, the former O-W head coach through the 2017 season. "It doesn't matter when you sign, as long as you work hard and get the opportunity.
"We've got three young men here today who get to go to the next level. I'm excited for them. It's been a good legacy for us and I hope they continue it. You can do quality academic work and be a quality football player, but things still not work out for you to have a great record in a season. But these young men did what they had to do; so their success is being rewarded with the opportunity to play on the next level. All three will be playing right up I-26, so family can go see them play and I can go see them play."
Darby, who had officially signed his letter-of-intent to play for the Blue Hose earlier, was wearing PC clothing and glad to know where he will play next while he attends college.
"I didn't have another school on my list, it was just PC," Darby said. "It's just a blessing; we came a long way with all the hard work on and off the field, and in the classroom.
"Now we can take our talents and go play somewhere. I sprained my MCL, but now I'm getting back at it and I'm able to squat more. As of right now, I'm going in as a receiver (for the Blue Hose), but there's the possibility that I could be playing a little bit of DB, at safety or even corner. I can cover, and I feel like I have a great football IQ. I'm prepared and ready to go. We went 3-8 here last year, but we learned about getting through trials and having perseverance."
Billups considered several other programs, but Benedict was the right fit for him in the end.
"I was interested in Wofford and USC, but Benedict gave me an opportunity, so I took it," Billups said. "My family can come see me every game, so I can be supported.
"They told me I will either play outside (linebacker) or safety. I like the coaching staff at Benedict and they seem to like to teach the game. I can enjoy the rest of my time at O-W now. I was stressing, but after today I can enjoy it."
Utsey had other programs talking with him the past two years, before an injury forced him to miss some playing time. Since then, Benedict's program and various junior college programs were the best opportunities he had to choose from.
"It's a full (scholarship) ride, and it made my mama happy, so I made this decision," Utsey said. "It's close by; so if I'm hungry, she can bring me some spaghetti or something.
"At one point in time, being injured, I was a little down. But, I had been through so much, I wasn't about to give up on playing again. I always dreamed of this day. They could put me at defensive end and make me a rusher, or put me at outside linebacker. It doesn't matter to me."
Even through some injuries, each member of the signing trio had quality senior seasons as Bruins. Darby made 30 receptions for 425 yards and 5 touchdowns. Billups made 46 tackles, including 4 tackles for a loss, 4 quarterback sacks, a blocked PAT, a fumble recovery, and a forced fumble. Utsey made 69 tackles, including 13 tackles for a loss, 2 quarterback sacks, 5 batted passes, a fumble recovery and 2 forced fumbles.
Not only did Thursday's signees decide on where they will further their education and continue to play football, but all three have basic plans in place for what they will study. Darby plans to study business administration, Billups plans to study pre-law, and Utsey plans to study computer science/information technology.