Two weeks before Northwest Mississippi Community College was due to open its 2017 season against Hinds Community College, the small school in Senatobia, Mississippi, held a scrimmage.
Among the crowded field was wide receiver Brandin Echols, an offensive star at Southaven High School in Mississippi, where he caught 29 passes for 406 yards with four touchdowns, rushed for 906 yards with eight TDs and had an impact in the return game with four touchdowns. He was a stud. But he was also a zero star recruit after his senior year, and poor grades led him to JUCO 30 miles south down I-55.
During the scrimmage, Echols shook free down the field as a deep pass sailed his way. He lost his defender but dropped the pass. Not the end of the world, every receiver occasionally drops a pass.
The coaching staff changed course. The Rangers were deep at receiver and didn’t need him there. But they wanted Echols on the field and decided to move him to cornerback because of his athleticism.
“I told our coaches, I’m gonna try him at corner and I think he’d be a pretty good corner. Our offensive coaches didn’t like it and Brandin didn’t like it,” Benjy Parker, NWCC head coach said with a chuckle. “We saw how explosive he was and his natural athletic ability. It takes a great athlete to play corner.”
Initially, Echols hated the move.
“It made me feel some type of way. I wasn’t really happy with the decision,” Echols said. “I wasn’t really rocking with the choice, because I never really played DB for real. When they decided that was gonna be my permanent position I kind of teared up that night. I really wanted to shut down.”
Jonathan Webster, NWCC’s defensive coordinator, met with Echols and his parents to convince him that a move to corner was the best move for him.
“I had to sit down with him and his parents because they were really hesitant about him transitioning over from receiver to defensive back, because it was new to them,” Webster said. So, I told him ‘I’ve been doing this thing for a long time. And I think if he buys and he works hard, he’ll have a chance to be a really good DB.’”
One reason Echols trusted Webster was because he spent time as part of the NFL’s Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship with the San Diego Chargers in 2014 and then the Atlanta Falcons from 2017-2018. Another was Webster’s genuine belief that Echols would thrive in the role.
On Echols’ first day at cornerback, that belief was put into action. The staff wanted to see him line up with the team’s best receiver. Echols answered the challenge by putting on the clamps.
“Our best receiver; Brandin pretty much locked him down. We couldn’t complete a ball on him,” Stan Hill, NWCC offensive coordinator said.
Webster was just as impressed.
“I was like God dang his technique is all over the place. But he’s explosive, he’s making plays and he’s playing with great effort, he’s got a chance to be really special,” Webster said. “I told the coaching staff that day ‘He’s got to get a lot better with discipline and technique. But I’ll take him from a physical standpoint, and I take him right back to Atlanta with me and put him in a uniform, and nobody would know that he was a junior college player.”
As the season progressed, the results started to come. Against No.1 East Mississippi Community College Echols made the highlight play of his freshman year.
Late in the fourth quarter, Echols was backpedaling before breaking and intercepted an out route that was thrown by Lindsey Scott Jr. Echols turned on the jets and scored a 66-yard touchdown to help the Rangers win 61-38.
Echols finished his freshman year with 23 tackles and three interceptions.
After being selected in the sixth-round by the Jets out of the University of Kentucky, Echols isn’t guaranteed to make the 53-man roster. But he is built for this challenge.
The 5-10, 190-pound cornerback started his athletic career at a JUCO, where he had microscopic odds of even earning a FBS D-1 scholarship.
The journey to the NFL is long and perilous for any aspiring athlete, but especially so for one whose path runs through the JUCO circuit. The odds are so faint for a player even to earn a D-I scholarship out of JUCO that chasing a dream of playing in the NFL can feel impossible, like you’re entering a lottery for a chance to enter yet another lottery.
“Man, it’s extremely hard. It’s so much at stake. It’s so many distractions in JUCO,” Echols said. “You get bored, you get tired. It’s hard on you mentally that you want to give up.”
A million different aspects need to fall exactly right. Health, grades, playing time, proper exposure and NCAA eligibility are needed for their recruitment to be successful. Players can end up at D-II, D-III or NAIA also, but most players don’t initially want that. Their eyes are set on D-I.
“Not too many JUCO players make it out to go to big D-1 schools,” Echols said. “I was just trying to take my mind off it, praying to God hoping He would bless me with it turned out to be that He did come through for me.”
During the 2018-2019 season there were 121 JUCO football teams, split across two associations. The National Junior College Athletic Association has 57 teams and the California Community College Athletic Association with 64 teams.
The CCCAA had 5,164 football players on the roster and the NJCAA had 4,357 according to their respective websites. And that doesn’t include the plethora of kids that didn’t make their JUCO team because most teams bring well over 100 kids to their training camp. According to 247sports.com only 213 players signed to FBS programs. That’s 2.2%.
There are NFL stars that started at a JUCO like Cam Newton, Aaron Rodgers, Alvin Kamara and many others. But when you start at a JUCO, you’re not supposed to make it to the FBS, much less the NFL.
Echols improved off his strong freshman season and tailed 35 tackles, six interceptions and 12 pass breakups as a sophomore, drawing attention from schools around the country and offers from Kentucky, Ole Miss, Houston and Minnesota.
Parker had a connection with John Schlarman, who was Kentucky’s offensive line coach before he died in 2020. He notified Schlarman about Echols during the spring of 2018.
Ole Miss was the first school to offer Echols on Feb. 12, but Kentucky offered him a month later. It immediately became the best spot for him.
“It made more sense to go to Kentucky because you know they had a bunch of DBs declare for the draft the year before I came in,” Echols said. “I was going somewhere where I could legitimately compete. On top of that, Kentucky always stayed in constant contact with me after they offered me.”
He eventually enrolled on May 21, 2019 and his first day on campus brought joy.
“It was one of my dreams come true because I always said in high school I want to go to the SEC. When I finally made that accomplishment It really brought tears to my eyes the first day I was on campus,” Echols said. “I was like ‘I’m just one step closer to my primary dream.’”
That primary dream when Echols went into JUCO was the NFL and he accomplished it. So whatever happens next is a bonus in the grand scheme.