Sports

Staying the course: Jonathan Wallace pursues dreams on and off the field

Central High School alum Jonathan Wallace will dress out today for his last Iron Bowl. His last start as a quarterback came in the Iron Bowl two years ago.
Central High School alum Jonathan Wallace will dress out today for his last Iron Bowl. His last start as a quarterback came in the Iron Bowl two years ago.

"A lot of times it's hard for people to accept maybe you just weren't good enough."

Jonathan Wallace's words hang there for a second.

Wallace looks to the floor, scratching his palm. He keeps his hands busy as he sits outside the F. Steve Taylor Family auditorium at Auburn's athletic complex.

The senior wide receiver just wrapped up the first practice of the week geared toward Idaho.

Wallace is wearing a crisp, burnt orange Under Armour jacket. He's relaxed while sitting down for an interview about a playing career at its two-minute warning.

The senior flashes a self-conscious smile as he finishes his thought.

"Don't get me wrong, I'm not short-selling myself in football, but there may be someone else out there better than you," Wallace said. "Are you going to let that affect your outlook on life? Are you going to think, that's all I got? That's not all I have, that's not all I'm about."

Wallace's ability to see the big picture has unquestionably come at the expense of his playing career or at a minimum his potential playing time.

Wallace knows he's taken a path some people might have a hard time understanding, but he heads into today's Iron Bowl with no regrets.

Headed to Florida

The Wallace family was ready for signing day on Feb. 1, 2012.

A turbulent recruiting process led Jonathan Wallace to verbally commit to the University of Central Florida.

The youngest of Anthony and Michelle Wallace's four children, he's the first in the family to receive a full Division I athletic scholarship.

While Jonathan Wallace's older brothers, Anthony Jr. and Joshua, and sister, Melissa, are as athletically gifted as their baby brother, luck or lack thereof prevented the family's other children from reaching the same heights.

Joshua Wallace, a former Central running back, injured his ankle on his first carry the opening week of his senior season. The injury put him on the shelf during a key recruiting window.

After a year as a walk-on at Georgia Tech, hamstring injuries ultimately forced him to hang up his cleats.

Melissa Wallace might have earned a Division I scholarship in basketball if she hadn't torn both her ACLs in high school. Wallace ended up playing for a year at Huntingdon College, a small liberal arts college in Montgomery, Ala.

The oldest of the Wallace children, Anthony Wallace Jr., avoided injury, but the former Central wide receiver's passion was outside of football. He was a standout track star for the Red Devils and went on to run at Alabama A&M.

"We told them their whole life to get their school work done. You got to have that to get in school and they all were honor students, but sports will help you get that full ride and it was like we are down to the last one,"

Michelle Wallace said. "Lord, can we just get one? Please, can just one child get a full scholarship?"

The family color-coordinated their attire in UCF's black and gold colors for the event at Central High School's auditorium. Michelle Wallace went shopping to pick a suit out for her husband just for the occasion.

It was a special moment for the family; all Central alums except for Michelle, they shared a level of anxiety at odds with the celebratory nature of the event.

Jonathan Wallace wasn't in the auditorium with his family. He wasn't in line with a dozen of his fellow teammates eager to walk on stage. The quarterback was outside on the phone quietly letting UCF assistant coach Danny Barrett know that there'd been a change of plans.

Big-time potential

Former Central High School coach Ron Nelson sent in the play call from the sidelines. He could feel curious glances at his back from Red Devils' assistant coaches at Garrett-Harrison Stadium.

"They probably thought I was crazy," Nelson said with a laugh.

Nelson dialed up a vertical pass on the offense's first play of the game for an inexperienced sophomore quarterback Jonathan Wallace.

Central's starter went down with an injury the previous game, and Nelson wanted to show the opposing defense it was going to be business as usual for the Red Devils' offense. Nelson's confidence wasn't misplaced as Wallace immediately found J.D. McKissic down Central's sideline for a 50-yard gain.

"He performed so well in practice I knew he would throw the ball on the money," Nelson said. "We didn't miss a heartbeat with him in."

Wallace made similar throws and runs the next 2½ years, capping his Central career off with a region championship as he threw for 1,761 yards with 13 touchdowns and rushed for 905 yards and 28 touchdowns.

"Jonathan was a dynamic runner, accurate passer and very, very, very intelligent when it came to reading coverages," Wallace's former offensive coordinator and position coach Ryan Nelson said. "He wasn't just a running back that could throw a little bit. He could spin it, had fantastic feet in the pocket and was so ahead of the learning curve understanding football."

Wallace separated himself early in his career from kids his own age on the football field and put himself on an accelerated path going into middle school.

When Ron Nelson watched Wallace throw in the seventh and eighth grade, he knew the young quarterback wouldn't need to spend time on Central's freshman or junior varsity teams.

"We had a college scout come in spring training his eighth-grade year that saw him play and immediately said that's going to be a big-time QB," Ron Nelson said.

It wasn't long before scouts from around the country started recruiting Wallace and extending scholarship offers.

Auburn was a program that flirted with seriously recruiting Wallace but didn't pull the trigger early on. Wallace attended the football program's yearly camps and kept in contact with members of the coaching staff.

As Wallace was preparing for the Alabama-Mississippi All-Star game after his senior year, he had a dozen scholarship offers and felt good about his decision to verbally commit to Southern Miss with his childhood dream of playing at Jordan-Hare Stadium comfortably fading into the background.

The first crack in those plans came when Southern Miss head coach Larry Fedora accepted the same position at North Carolina.

"When coach Fedora left, he was like, 'What do I do now?'" Michelle Wallace said. "They were telling him not do to anything crazy. 'You commit to the school not the coach.' It was stressful; that last month was so stressful on Jonathan."

Wallace weighed his options, ultimately deciding to de-commit from Southern Miss. A visit to UCF provided a brief moment of clarity.

"My dad and I took a visit down to South Florida, loved the visit, loved the coaches, loved the players down there," Wallace said. "I committed to them and was sold. I was set."

A last-minute phone call from then-Auburn head coach Gene Chizik once again turned Wallace's world upside down.

Favorite team calling

Michelle Wallace points at the chairs where everyone was sitting four years ago huddled in the dining room at their family home in Phenix City.

It was a meeting thrown together at the last second under unbelievable circumstances -- Chizik wanted an opportunity to talk with Jonathan the night before signing day.

Jonathan Wallace got home from a basketball game well after 10 p.m. and was joined by his father, brothers and coach Ryan Nelson.

Despite Wallace's verbal commitment to UCF, Auburn offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler spent the previous two days aggressively pitching the program.

Wallace rebuffed Loeffler's efforts to flip his decision and in less than 12 hours was expected to sign a national letter of intent with UCF.

"I get the call from Auburn and remember talking to coach Chizik," Wallace said. "He wanted to offer me a scholarship, and I told him no, knowing deep down it was a really good opportunity."

The conversation ended cordially without Wallace accepting the offer.

"I really wanted to see if they wanted me. I knew I was one of the last guys they were looking at as far as quarterbacks," Wallace said.

Wallace went to bed without a concrete plan for the morning and his family still under the impression they would be taking regular trips down to Florida.

The back-and-forth with Auburn and UCF went on throughout the morning, all the way up to the time Wallace took the stage where he announced his intentions with two words -- War Eagle. Wallace lists a number of factors that went into picking Auburn over UCF -- playing close to home, competing in the SEC and the opportunity to play early among them, but the emotional pull of Auburn was something no other school could match.

"Everything was right; the only thing missing was the opportunity," Wallace said.

It wasn't the last time Auburn's lure significantly impacted Wallace's life.

No future at QB

Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee called Jonathan Wallace into his office.

The Tigers just wrapped up a surprising run to the 2013 national title game with quarterback Nick Marshall at the helm.

Marshall, a transfer from Garden City (Kan.) Community College, won the starting job over Wallace and Jeremy Johnson in fall camp. He excelled in turning a 3-9 Auburn team into a championship contender in mere months.

Wallace started four games as a true freshman the previous season, but his audition was for a different coaching staff.

Auburn cleaned house following the 2012 season and brought back former offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn as coach. When Lashlee and Wallace meet, they both knew the team's current plans didn't involve Wallace under center.

"If he wanted to play quarterback and have a chance to go somewhere, we wanted what's best for him," Lashlee said.

With four SEC starts under his belt, Lashlee knew Wallace would make an attractive target for another FBS program. Auburn might have been shutout in two of Wallace's starts -- 38-0 to Georgia and 49-0 to Alabama -- but experience in college football's best conference is hard to come by.

"If you are good enough to start four games in the SEC, it doesn't matter what your record is," Ryan Nelson said.

Wallace had the added benefit of being able to redshirt at another FBS school following a potential transfer. He would be able to sit out a season without losing a year of eligibility. Those details didn't matter.

The conversation with Lashlee never traveled down that path. Very little time was spent discussing a transfer once Wallace declared, "I want to be an Auburn Tiger."

"Knowing Jonathan, I wasn't surprised at all," Lashlee said. "He said, 'Coach, I love Auburn. This is where I want to be. I choose to come to Auburn, I want to get a degree at Auburn and I want to finish here.' We were happy about that."

For Wallace, there wasn't a specific moment he made a decision to stay. He never felt conflicted or had an internal debate about what to do.

There was no hesitation in his voice as he described his feelings at the time as if he'd been asked to defend the decision in the past -- a decision even his parents have had to explain to people.

"I had people pressuring me to talk to Jonathan," Anthony Wallace said. "A pretty reliable person told me about who was looking at him and asked me to reach out. I said 'I'll ask, but I already know the answer.' "

While Wallace can see the road not taken -- a scenario where he transferred and had a chance to start on another campus -- that dream never beat the reality of being an Auburn Tiger.

"It showed a great deal of courage," Anthony Wallace said. "He said 'I'm not a quitter. I'm a part of this team. I want to continue to be part of this school.' "

Natural leader

Auburn's locker room is buzzing.

The Tigers just finished the final practice session of fall camp in August and are inching closer to facing Louisville at the Georgia Dome.

Malzahn addresses the group to make an announcement about the team's captains.

It's no surprise when Malzahn reads Carl Lawson's name off the list. The defensive lineman returning from injury is expected to be one of the conference's top defenders.

The other name is "a complete surprise."

"I was at a loss for words when I was chosen," Wallace said. "When you think about it, a guy that hasn't really played much at all in two years all of a sudden is the team captain. I'm just so thankful for coach Malzahn, the rest of the coaching staff and even my teammates for believing in me and looking to me for leadership."

While Ron Nelson couldn't recall a single instance during his long coaching career of a team electing a non-starter as a captain, he wasn't surprised to hear Wallace earned the honor. The former Central head coach remembers Wallace as a 14-year-old freshman getting players four years older looking to him for leadership.

"You could see it in his eyes, kids just respond to him," Nelson said. "Every one of those guys look up to him."

Wallace being named Auburn's co-captain is only part of a final chapter that hasn't played out quite as expected.

After switching positions in the spring to wide receiver, Wallace was back in the mix at quarterback in September due to injuries at the position and has balanced multiple roles all season.

Wallace even made an appearance at quarterback for the first time in two years in a 56-34 win over Idaho. In recent weeks, he's also seen an increased number of snaps at receiver mostly as a blocker.

"Jonathan is a special kid," Lashlee said. "He's a guy that's repping at quarterback, he's repping at wide receiver, at special teams and is our backup holder. There's probably other things he's doing that I don't even know about."

Lashlee can't think of many players capable of switching positions on a rep-to-rep basis in practice or in pre-game warmups like Wallace did against Texas A&M.

"I saw pretty quick that Sean (White) wasn't capable of doing much, so I had to bring him over from the receivers to start throwing," Lashlee said. "As soon as I realized Sean wasn't able to go, I told Wally get going. It's kind of the way his hats have been worn this year, and he's done a great job with it."

No one is more surprised with how the season has played out than Wallace himself.

"It being my last year and my last opportunity to play for Auburn, I just wanted to make the best of it no matter what I was doing," Wallace said. "A guy doing four or five different things, it's not something you see often at the SEC level."

The future

A week before the Iron Bowl, Wallace hasn't thought about what it will mean suiting up one final time at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

His family will be in attendance Saturday, as they have been for all but one of his games the last four years.

Wallace knows there will be plenty of emotions, but his schedule rarely allows him a spare moment as he prepares to graduate in December with a degree in physical education.

When he's not at Auburn's athletic complex, he's a full-time intern at a local junior high and spends countless hours volunteering for local community organizations.

His work with Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Youth for Christ and the Auburn/Opelika Boys and Girls Club earned him national recognition this year as one of the select college football players selected to the 2015 AFCA Good Works Team.

Community outreach will be part of Wallace's future plans regardless of his career plans.

Wallace hasn't worked out the exact details of his next step, but he's interested in staying on with Auburn as a graduate assistant next year. The interest is mutual as Wallace looks into a possible future in coaching.

"He wants to coach and there's no one I think can do a better job than him," Lashlee said.

Wallace puts the brakes on that discussions as his focus remains on the present. He wants to help his fellow seniors close out the season on a positive note.

"It's really winding down," Wallace said. "Who knows? Maybe between now and then (Iron Bowl), I'll really break down thinking about it, but I don't know. I've had such great experiences this year. It's been a really great adventure."

Michael Niziolek covers Auburn football for the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer. Email him at mniziolek@ledger-enquirer.com or follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Google+

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