A look at Cedar Grove High’s pipeline to the NFL draft, including two Falcons

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

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Falcons rookie lineman Justin Shaffer talks about being from Cedar Grove High School

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

Overall, 30 players from Georgia high schools were drafted

FLOWERY BRANCH — Shortly after the NFL draft was completed, the league released a list that showed how well Cedar Grove High and the state of Georgia fared.

Cedar Grove had three players selected, including two by the Falcons, and 30 players from the state were drafted, which trailed only Texas’ 32.

“It’s just a miracle how this whole situation has played out,” said Justin Shaffer, a former Georgia and Cedar Grove guard selected by the Falcons in the sixth round.

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The University of Georgia led all schools with 15 players drafted, and the number could have been 17 if Jermaine Johnson (Florida State) and Cade Mays (Tennessee) had not entered the transfer portal.

Former Cedar Grove quarterback Jelani Woods, who converted to tight end in college, was drafted in the third round (73rd overall) by the Colts. Western Kentucky linebacker DeAngelo Malone was drafted in the third round (82nd overall) by the Falcons.

“I’m excited for the guys,” said Arkansas running backs coach Jermaine “Jimmy” Smith, who was their head coach at Cedar Grove, in a phone interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I kind of knew it was coming. Somebody asked a couple of years ago. … I said we’ve got some guys who will get an opportunity.”

Woods led Cedar Grove to its first state championship with a 13-2 record as a senior in 2016. They won the GHSA Class 3A state title with a 30-19 victory over Greater Atlanta Christian. He went to Oklahoma State as a quarterback. Late in his freshman season, as he was redshirting, Woods was asked to play some scout-team tight end to help prepare for Oklahoma.

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“At Oklahoma State, our last game of season, Bedlam rivalry week we play Oklahoma,” Woods said. “During that time, they had Mark Andrews, so they wanted me to impersonate Mark Andrews for the week.”

Woods did a good job impersonating Andrews, who now is a star for the Baltimore Ravens.

“The next morning, they ended up calling me and asking me to switch to tight end and if I’d have any problem with it,” Woods said. “I ended up switching that same day, and then going into bowl season, I started getting my reps in at tight end.”

Woods was open to the position switch.

“I remember when he was deciding to change positions at school,” Smith said. “They were getting ready for a bowl game, and they changed him to tight end. He was just supposed to give them a good look on the (scout) team. He did pretty good at it, and they talked about moving him.”

Smith remains close with his former players, and they still seek his counsel.

“When he came home, we talked about it, and he wasn’t totally against it,” Smith said. “Since he wasn’t against it, I was like, let’s take a chance and try it. Jelani is one of those guys who’s going to give it his all. He went and did real well at it.”

Woods graduated from Oklahoma State and is two classes from earning his master’s degree in higher education from Virginia. He wanted to play in Virginia’s offense and show that he could catch passes and was more than just an in-line blocker.

“He did good at Oklahoma State and got a chance to transfer to Virginia,” Smith said. “The coaches did a great job with him and put him in some great situations. He took advantage of that, and he kept getting better and better.”

Woods, who’ll team with former Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, was the second tight end taken in the draft behind Colorado State’s Trey McBride, who went to Arizona in the second round (55th overall).

Power Five schools thought Malone was too small at 240 pounds. He went on to terrorize quarterbacks at Western Kentucky. Malone finished his career with 32.5 sacks and 59 tackles for loss over 53 games.

“Debo (Malone’s nickname) is just a phenomenal athlete,” Smith said. “For us, he could have played receiver. He could have played safety. He’s just a great athlete.”

Malone was named to the Georgia Sports Writers Association’s All-State first team and earned All-Metro honors from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He was a three-star prospect.

“I’m obviously glad that he’s got an opportunity because when he was coming out, a lot of people kept saying that he was too small,” Smith said. “I had to almost convince him not to go to some other schools and to go to Western Kentucky. He said he wanted to go to those other schools, but I said, no, you’re better than that.”

At 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds, Malone was somewhat of a tweener.

“Most of the schools that I talked to ... really didn’t feel like he was big enough,” Smith said. “I was like, man, you’re going to be all right. They gave him a shot at Western Kentucky, and he ran with it. He just got better and better.”

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Cedar Grove coach Jermaine “Jimmy” Smith reacts during the Class AAA championship game against Peach County at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Cedar Grove won 14-13. (JASON GETZ/SPECIAL TO THE AJC)

Credit: Jason Getz

Cedar Grove coach Jermaine “Jimmy” Smith reacts during the Class AAA championship game against Peach County at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Cedar Grove won 14-13. (JASON GETZ/SPECIAL TO THE AJC)

Credit: Jason Getz

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Cedar Grove coach Jermaine “Jimmy” Smith reacts during the Class AAA championship game against Peach County at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Cedar Grove won 14-13. (JASON GETZ/SPECIAL TO THE AJC)

Credit: Jason Getz

Credit: Jason Getz

Malone said he wants to get up to 250 pounds in the NFL.

“I know that he’s going to be really good,” Smith said.

Shaffer started 15 games at left guard during Georgia’s national championship season and played 51 games over his career.

“I knew that Justin was going to be OK because Justin is one of those hardworking kids who just works and gets better and better every day,” Smith said. “I think he’ll be a kid who’ll get an opportunity.”

Shaffer lasted until the 190th overall pick.

“He’s not going to turn back,” Smith said. “He’s going to be a guy who’s going to stick and stay for a long time. I think just because he’s a great kid, and he’s going to work hard.”

The Falcons need help along the defensive and offensive lines.

“(He has powerful hands) and has got good feet,” Smith said of Shaffer. “He’s going to learn and get better. I think he’ll be good for them.”

Smith was at Cedar Grove for 12 years and was head coach for six seasons. He led them to state titles in 2016 and 2018 and semifinals berths in 2015 and 2017.

He coached running backs at Georgia State in 2019 and was a part of the Panthers’ historic upset at Tennessee when the Panthers outrushed the Volunteers 213 yards to 93 to win 38-30. It was Georgia State’s first win over a Power Five program.

Smith has been at Arkansas for the past two seasons.

He had six prep All-Americans and put more than 30 players in college. But it still was a stunner to have three of them drafted by the NFL in one year.

“You can see the talent and their ability to be coached,” Smith said. “Those guys were talented guys, but I just knew, if they didn’t make it, it (wouldn’t be) because they weren’t being coachable or trying their best and not giving great effort. It was just going to be that it was not meant to be.”

There are more Cedar Grove players in the NFL pipeline.

“There will be others, but we are blessed to have three guys in one year,” Smith said. “We had a couple of guys that got free-agent opportunities. It’s been a good year.”

Shaffer said, “Coming out of Cedar Grove, it’s a small school in (Ellenwood). We always had that dog mentality. The whole mentality was to just have the killer instinct on both sides of the ball.”

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051322 Flowery Branch: Atlanta Falcons outside linebacker DeAngelo Malone (51), from Western Kentucky and Cedar Grove HS, participates during rookie minicamp at the Atlanta Falcons Practice Facility on Friday, May 13, 2022, in Flowery Branch, Ga. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

051322 Flowery Branch: Atlanta Falcons outside linebacker DeAngelo Malone (51), from Western Kentucky and Cedar Grove HS, participates during rookie minicamp at the Atlanta Falcons Practice Facility on Friday, May 13, 2022, in Flowery Branch, Ga. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

caption arrowCaption
051322 Flowery Branch: Atlanta Falcons outside linebacker DeAngelo Malone (51), from Western Kentucky and Cedar Grove HS, participates during rookie minicamp at the Atlanta Falcons Practice Facility on Friday, May 13, 2022, in Flowery Branch, Ga. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

GEORGIANS IN NFL DRAFT

Pos., Player, Team (round), College, High school

DB, Andrew Booth, Minnesota (2), Clemson, Archer

RB, Brittain Brown, Las Vegas (7), UCLA, Cherokee

P, Jake Camarda, Tampa Bay (4), Georgia, Norcross

DB, Tariq Carpenter, Green Bay (7), Georgia Tech, Long County

LB, Kingsley Enagbare, Green Bay (5), South Carolina, Hapeville Charter

G, Joshua Ezeudu, N.Y. Giants (3), North Carolina, Archer

TE, John FitzPatrick, Falcons (6), Georgia, Marist

DB, Kyle Hamilton, Baltimore (1), Notre Dame, Marist

RB, Kevin Harris, New England (6), South Carolina, Bradwell Institute

TE, Connor Heyward, Pittsburgh (6), Michigan State, Peachtree Ridge

DB, Christian Holmes, Washington (7), Oklahoma State, McNair

LB, DeAngelo Malone, Falcons (3), Western Kentucky, Cedar Grove

DB, Christian Matthew, Arizona (7), Valdosta State, Chattahoochee

TE, Chigoziem Okonkwo, Tennessee (4), Maryland, Hillgrove

G, Dylan Parham, Las Vegas (3), Memphis, Carrollton

RB, Dameon Pierce, Houston (4), Florida, Bainbridge

LB, Mark Robinson, Pittsburgh (7), Ole Miss, Lee County

DE Myai Sanders, Arizona (3), Cincinnati, Camden County

G, Jamaree Salyer, L.A. Chargers (6), Georgia, Pace Academy

G, Justin Shaffer, Falcons (6), Georgia, Cedar Grove

G, Lecitus Smith, Arizona (6), Virginia Tech, Fitzgerald

LB, Baylon Spector, Buffalo (7), Clemson, Calhoun

LB, Quay Walker, Green Bay (1), Georgia, Crisp County

LB, Travon Walker, Jacksonville (1), Georgia, Upson-Lee

WR, Montrell Washington, Denver (5), Samford, Cherokee

DB, Jaylen Watson, Kansas City (7), Washington State, Laney

DB, Damarion Williams, Baltimore (4), Houston, Community Christian

QB, Malik Willis, Tennessee (3), Liberty, Roswell

TE, Jelani Woods, Indianapolis (3), Virginia, Cedar Grove

DT, Devonte Wyatt, Green Bay (1), Georgia, Towers

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