A year ago at this time, Swansea linebacker/running back Johnathan Sutton was on the recruiting radar of college football heavyweights such as Florida State, Ohio State and UCLA.
But a lot changed on one play in an early-season game against Chapin. Sutton took a hand off around left end and, as he planted to make a cut, his knee buckled. He wasn't touched on the play, but it was enough to end his season with a torn ACL, MCL and meniscus.
The rehab process has been painful and excruciating but he's back to doing what he loves.
“I don't want to say I'm 100 percent, but I'm pretty confident coming back from the injury,” Sutton said. “I'm getting stronger, and it's been nice to put on the pads and hit some people. I want to keep the same mentality that I had before with the leadership and not letting it fall off.”
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Sutton is one of the highest-ranked players in the Midlands and has been selected as one of The State's Elite 11 senior players to watch during the 2014 season.
And despite the injury, several schools stayed on board in the recruiting process. The 6-foot-1, 220-pound Sutton narrowed his choices to Clemson, North Carolina, N.C. State and Virginia Tech before selecting the Tar Heels. He expects to play Mike or Will linebacker at Chapel Hill, but he wants to get back on the field with his Swansea teammates for one last season.
“A lot of the top schools backed off, but the ones that stayed with me really helped me mentally,” Sutton said. “My goal is to work hard and play hard and, hopefully, lead this team to a championship.”
Swansea coach Chad Leaphart had to rally his players after losing the heart and soul of his defense last year.
“It was a big blow to us,” Leaphart said. “In that ball game itself, it took the air out of the entire team. He was our leader even though he wasn't a senior. We lost that game and had to really do some soul searching and regrouping to get it back together as strong as we did.”
Sutton has been a four-year player for the Tigers. He started as a freshman and has seen his role on both sides of the ball increase each season. How much that continues this year is uncertain. Leaphart doesn't want to push things with the knee injury so he expects to use Sutton in spot duty on offense. Both said they feel that will be best in the long run.
Before going down in that first series of the third game, Sutton had rushed for 182 yards and four touchdowns on 24 carries. He also had registered 9.5 tackles and two tackles for loss from his linebacker position.
“I like to play both sides, but I've taken off a little bit of the offense,” Sutton said. “I know once I get to North Carolina they want to look at me at linebacker first, so it's all good.”
But his value to the team goes far beyond numbers.
“Everyone looks up to him and he leads our tempo and attitude in practice and stuff,” Leaphart said. “But away from that, he knows how to get everyone lined up on defense. We had to simplify things after we lost him.
“Not only did we lose a D-I player but we lost the guy that allowed us to do many different things on defense. It was a huge loss for us last year, so it's just great having him back. He can change momentum of the game with a big hit.”
That big-hit mentality was evident during his sophomore season. He finished with 74 tackles, 21 tackles for loss and six forced fumbles.
The Tigers are switching from a traditional 4-3 look on defense to a 3-5 set. Leaphart said Swansea has more guys with the ability to stand up rather than put their hand in the dirt, and that will help utilize Sutton's skills to the max. He runs in the 4.5 range and will play in the middle so teams can't run away from him.
Sutton is more focused than ever and hopes his senior season lasts well into November.
“It's been amazing,” Sutton said. “I'm just glad to be able to get back out with the guys and play. I feel good about where we are as a team and can't wait to get it started.”