High School Recruiting

Grandmother encouraged him to play football. And now, he is a top target for Gators

Jaren Handy grew up playing basketball, but entering his junior year of high school, his grandmother Linda persuaded him to give football a try. She passed away about a month later, but thanks to her advice, he has become one of the most sought-after players.
Jaren Handy grew up playing basketball, but entering his junior year of high school, his grandmother Linda persuaded him to give football a try. She passed away about a month later, but thanks to her advice, he has become one of the most sought-after players.

Jaren Handy carries his weight well.

Not just in the literal sense of a 6-5, 260-pound high school junior who can rush the passer off the edge, but also in the figurative sense of a man who carries an emotional burden he can’t escape.

A good place to start is right now. A rising senior at Perry Central High School in New Augusta, Mississippi, Handy is one of the top recruits of the 2019 class. The 247Sports Composite rates him 96th overall and seventh at strongside defensive end. He wields offers from SEC powers like Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, LSU and, yes, Florida.

A year ago, none of those schools had heard of him. A year ago, Handy had never played football.

That changed when his grandmother Linda approached him in May 2017. While her grandson grew up playing basketball, her son — Handy’s father, LeRoy, who died in 2011 — was a standout football player at Southern Miss.

He played receiver, and he still ranks fourth in receptions (138) and fifth in receiving yards (1,890) in the Golden Eagles’ record books. But at 6-1, he wasn’t a huge receiver. His son, though, had the size and the athleticism of someone who played a much quicker sport.

“You might be good at it,” Linda told him, “and you might be able to get me outta this house.”

Handy didn’t like the idea. Not at first. He was tired all the time, he said, and he thought about quitting.

But on June 26, he was preparing to take his grandmother to a dialysis appointment. Linda had diabetes, so it wasn’t new. But something about that day was different.

Linda told her grandson that she wasn’t feeling well and needed to lie down. He placed her right there on the floor of their home and called paramedics as well as a close family friend who lived nearby. Neither could help Linda, and she passed away that day at age 66.

Her grandson retreated into his thoughts and his bedroom. He spent his days wondering about what he could’ve done differently or why she died so soon. He emerged with a passion for the game Linda always wanted him to play.

Handy wanted to play defensive end, but his team had seniors at both spots. He asked to move to nose tackle, and the success came immediately.

His sheer strength is the first thing that jumps out about his highlight film. It’s as if just touching someone else’s body gives him complete control over them, which he uses to toss them up and down the grass.

He’s raw, as anyone would be when they’ve only played for a few months, but his talent was obvious, and those big programs noticed.

“I was really surprised,” he said of the flood of interest he received once the season ended. “It’s been crazy.”

Handy’s No. 1 factor for deciding on a school is education. He wants to get a degree in sports medicine. He also cares about having good teammates, playing within a family atmosphere and “just something different.”

Florida checks all those boxes so far.

“I really like Florida,” he said. “They’re top. They’re up there.”

He hasn’t visited the UF campus yet, but he’s planning an official visit to Florida this fall along with Georgia, Tennessee, Louisville and one other school. His plan for now is to decide on National Signing Day, but he admitted he could choose before then to enroll early.

He wants to enjoy the ride for now because as Handy’s chosen major suggests, he loves the game. And when he turns in his shoulder pads for the final time, he still wants to be around it any way he can.

“I like hitting people,” he said. “I like playing against competition every day.”

And he has his late grandmother Linda to thank. Does he think about that impact? About the radical change in trajectory his life took because of her?

“Every day,” he said.

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