A.J. Smalls' football highlights helped start the conversation, but he sold in person.
The Beaufort High School defensive back took a proactive approach to his recruiting process, contacting several schools and setting up visits. He traveled to Limestone College on Feb. 21 and left with the offer he wanted, a chance to play for the Saints.
Smalls signed on Wednesday to play football at the Gaffney school where his former teammate, JaClay Mixon, is a running back. The Eagles senior had an offer to walk on at Newberry and interest from Illinois Wesleyan and was accepted at Georgia Southern, with no football guarantee.
Limestone provided the fit and offered enough athletic and academic money to pay Smalls' way.
Never miss a local story.
Beaufort High football coach Mark Clifford said Smalls' best attribute is his maturity. Going full-speed on film helped, he said, but Smalls was most impressive face-to-face.
"A lot of these schools don't only recruit athleticism, they recruit leadership," Clifford said. "And he just exudes leadership when you talk to him."
Smalls visited the school in February for an open house and talked to receivers coach Joe Stockton. He talked with Mixon, who asked how he liked the school and told him there was a chance to compete.
The Saints liked his hustle and ability as an all-around player, Smalls said. He expects to play cornerback.
"I just want to try to stand out and be a good ballplayer and let them know I'm here to contribute," Smalls said.
As a senior, Smalls finished with 35 tackles, an interception and a blocked kick. Clifford said defensive coaches could trust Smalls to be on the field the entire game and that his personality helped lighten up an Eagles' unit that helped Beaufort High reach the second round of the Class 4-A playoffs.
When Clifford and the Eagles' staff heads into the offseason, they remind players the importance of year-round work in the weight room and the self-motivation needed to return the following year better than the last.
Smalls was a model there, Clifford said. He said for future college hopefuls at Beaufort High, Smalls' story of resourcefulness would serve as a guide.
"He's arguably one of the most positive guys we had on this football team," Clifford said. "That really just rubbed off on everybody on that defense. He runs to the ball; he takes care of his responsibilities. I was very confident having him on the football field all night long."