“We’ve had NFL players. I’ve seen NFL players. I’ve never seen a kid dominating like he dominated. … He could just take over a game. If he decided it was time, he was unblockable.”
Apopka later lost the state championship game on a two-point conversion. But Carter continued his ascent into one of the more coveted recruits in the country. These days, he’s flipping switches such as in the national championship game last season against Alabama or against then-No. 1 Tennessee in November.
Carter is Georgia’s best player. He might’ve been last season, too, when the Bulldogs had five first-round NFL draft selections. The only question about Carter, whom quarterback Stetson Bennett recently called “superman,” is whether he’s the best player in America.
The last time we saw this behemoth, he sacked LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels late in the first half of the SEC Championship game as Georgia distanced itself. The play’s result wasn’t as relevant as what it represented.
Carter, after discarding offensive linemen like used tissue, corralled Daniels and hoisted him like a trophy. Carter held Daniels aloft in his left arm as he flashed the No. 1 sign with his right hand.
“I think it just happened with the moment,” Carter said Thursday at Georgia’s media day leading up to its Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl matchup against Ohio State Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in his first public comments since spring practice. “I was just going with the crowd and the team flow. Everybody was already juiced up getting them to third down. I was just ready to play.”
There perhaps is no better moment to illustrate Georgia’s place in college football – and Carter’s. What a beautiful statue it would make, a monument to this time so cherished by Bulldogs fanatics.
“In high school on Fridays, I’d send him my little pep text message, and I still do it every Saturday morning,” said Toni Brown, Carter’s mother. “That morning, I said, ‘Jalen, you better get to that quarterback.’ And I probably said you better lay him on his back or something. I didn’t say put one finger up in the air.
“I asked him, ‘Jalen, what did that mean?’ He was like, ‘I was telling you I got him.’ I was super proud of that moment and the way he handled the situation and did not just sack that quarterback and lay him on his back, which is like what I probably said.”
Carter said his flashing the No. 1 sign was instinctual. By the time he returned to the sideline, he realized his play might have some lasting power.
“A couple of my teammates came up to me and were like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa,’” Carter said. “That’s when it really hit me like, ‘Yeah, I just did that.’”
During an era when Georgia always seems better, there’s no one who’s perfected their art like the pride of Apopka. Carter’s hulking dominance hasn’t been secret. It simply has been subdued when Carter joined the Bulldogs as the No. 18 prospect nationally, per 247Sports Composite rankings, in the 2020 class. He was a part-time player because of Georgia’s defensive riches.
Defensive linemen Travon Walker, Devonte Wyatt and Jordan Davis all were first-round NFL draft picks in 2022. Carter was selectively mixed in. He led SEC interior rushers with a 13.6% pressure rate last season.
Wyatt promised Carter will be “amazing.” Walker, who was drafted No. 1 overall, said during ESPN’s broadcast of Georgia’s spring game that Carter is “a force to be reckoned with.”
Having players like Walker, Wyatt and Davis as teammates “helped me a lot because I like to play against players who are better than me or who I see as better than me,” Carter said. “It just motivates me because I want to be as great as those guys. As you see those guys went first round, they’re in the league right now doing their thing and I just want to follow behind them.”
Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart emphasized Carter’s conditioning in spring with an increased snap count looming. Smart: “The talent is oozing. It’s a matter of: Can he play every play with maximum intensity and be able to sustain it?”
Eight months later, the answer is “yes,” even though Carter dealt with injuries. He twisted his ankle on the first play from scrimmage in the season opener against Oregon and sustained an MCL sprain a few weeks later against Missouri.
Carter missed a month before returning limited against Florida. Finally, when Georgia hosted top-ranked Tennessee in early November, he was unleashed.
The results: four tackles, two tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, one sack, and one shell-shocked Volunteers offense that appeared immortal entering that fateful Saturday. Georgia had six sacks after having 10 across its previous eight contests. Pro Football Focus graded Carter’s performance a 92.3, his career-best outing by its metric.
Carter said being sidelined was “kind of rough,” as he had never suffered a major injury before.
“But I had the team on my side, teammates telling me I’m good, let’s do this, let’s work,” he said. “It motivated me to come back and finish out the season.”
While sitting out the remainder of the season to risk further injury and prepare for the draft was a conceivable option given his lofty draft status, Carter said he paid no mind to anyone who suggested it.
“I didn’t want to opt out on the team,” he said. “I wanted to finish with my guys.”
Teammates genuflect to Carter’s impact. The tour de force against Tennessee encapsulated his value. Even when he’s not compiling the numbers – he has only three sacks – he’s creating them for others.
Carter exceeded 40 snaps in only the national championship game last season. Since playing 48 snaps against the Volunteers, he’s played 40, 46, 45 and 45, respectively, to close this season.
He played 141 snaps from Week 9 through the conference championship last season. He’s logged 243 snaps over that same period this season. Carter has proved, even in a season interrupted by injury, he’s worthy of larger responsibilities.
“I’ve always got to prove myself,” he said. “Every day you’ve got to work. Anybody can take your position. That’s my mindset.”
Carter keeps a low profile off the field. Prior to Thursday, he had spoken with reporters once in college. He isn’t a showman. His one public appearance: returning to Apopka in August to host a youth football camp.
“It takes a village to raise a child,” Brown said. “The entire community, the entire city of Apopka, has been my village. They supported us then, and to this day they still do.”
Those around Carter describe him as quiet with a good sense of humor. (“He’s a funny guy, always joking around,” teammate Smael Mondon said.) He’s a change of pace from Wyatt’s and Davis’ gigantic personalities. Carter’s demeanor apparently already is a talking point.
ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay recently mentioned Carter potentially having “character issues.” He didn’t elaborate further, but teammates dismissed the comments. Defensive tackle Zion Logue: “A lot of guys were just laughing at it. They don’t know the real him.” The NFL will dive into every detail down to Carter’s preferred cologne, so the discussion will continue.
“He has the heart of gold,” Brown said. “Nobody could say harsh things about him. When we heard the comment, I really had to listen to it and make sure that they were talking about my Jalen.
“But I understand the logistics and the things that happen and how it goes. And I know this is one of many comments that are not true that are going to come out about him. So our focus is just to make sure that his head is on strong and he does not let any of that interfere with him. He is a big teddy bear. He loves children. He’s a big kid at heart himself.”
Carter said he shrugged off the characterization.
“I didn’t take it any kind of way,” he said. “I’m just trying to be the best teammate I can be. That’s it right there.”
McShay’s colleague Mel Kiper, the long-time scouting guru (if there is such a thing), has Carter ranked No. 1 overall on his board. While a quarterback is likely favored to go first – for the same reason that they’ve hijacked the Heisman Trophy – Carter should get consideration. Even with the quarterback hoopla, Carter should go in the top five.
Carter has been compared with NFL veteran Fletcher Cox and up-and-comer Quinnen Williams. He’ll strive for a career like another Apopka High product, Warren Sapp, who was one of the great interior rushers in NFL history.
“Obviously, I think their careers you could parallel (at this stage),” Rolson said. “Warren did it in the NFL, too, so I wouldn’t disrespect him and say that Jalen is going to be what he was.
“Could he? Yes. But we’ll see.”
That’s a high bar. Carter’s ability means it’s not an impossible one to reach. Like Sapp, Carter played some tight end, among everything else, at Apopka. Like Sapp, Carter’s athletic ability seems preposterous for a man blessed with such a build.
“A kid with that size, strength, speed, explosiveness,” Rolson said. “He was throwing down windmill dunks and catching footballs. He punted for us. He could do anything. Literally anything. He could’ve played middle linebacker, tailback, tight end. There was no hiding it. You knew. The only thing that would keep him from being successful would be (himself) or (an) injury.”
While the NFL is his dream, Carter said he has tried to block out talk about the draft.
“I see (mock drafts), but I see it and I go right past it,” he said. “We’ve still got a season and I just want to finish out with my guys before I think about the NFL, stuff like that.”
Carter’s versatility has continued in the SEC, where he’s played fullback, tight end and on special teams. He changed the national title game when he blocked Alabama’s field-goal attempt.
NFL teams won’t ask for so much flair. There’s no need being a renaissance man when your premier skill is paramount. Carter can get to the quarterback from anywhere. Evaluators and coaches have preferences in quarterbacks, receivers, cornerbacks, but what Carter offers is universally adored.
There are few professional players who can even be theorized like him. Aaron Donald, whose timely quarterback hit made the Rams the Super Bowl champions in February, is the modern best-case outcome.
Donald flipped the switch and decided the result that Sunday evening, just as Carter’s block against the Crimson Tide might’ve altered that outcome. Carter aims for an encore in the coming weeks.
“Now it’s just let win this week and win the next week right now,” Carter said. “After that, I think I’ll be thinking more about the NFL.”
“I’ve heard this since Jalen stepped foot on a football field at the age of 6,” Brown said. “I’d always heard ‘Hey, he’s special. Hey, he’s definitely going to the NFL.’ Even as his mom, some of the things that he has done, I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness, he’s definitely going to be a professional athlete’ sometimes. So I always thought it for 20 years. And now it’s coming to pass.”
The Bulldogs potentially have two more games before Carter becomes the heart of someone else’s defense. It’s up to him, and them, to maximize it, starting with the Peach Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the same venue where Carter a few weeks ago provided this season’s Kodak moment.
-Staff writer Ken Sugiura contributed to this story.