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High school football: Ingrained ambition and continuous support from family, friends and coaches have guided Shad Dabney to a Division-I football future
Cherokee Bluff High senior will be signing with Kansas University on Dec. 15
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Cherokee Bluff's Shad Dabney takes down Gilmer County running back Kobe Stonecipher Friday, Oct. 9, 2020, during the first half of their game at Cherokee Bluff High - photo by Scott Rogers


Shad Dabney has never been fearful of taking on a challenge. 

That’s one of the main reasons the Cherokee Bluff High senior has all the components to be successful in life. Dabney has been a natural in athletics and has always done well academically. 

He might end up playing in the NFL or chase his other passion of becoming a sports broadcaster. 

In a perfect world, he’ll be able to do both.

First, however, he will get a chance at playing Division-I college football, which he will make official next week by signing a scholarship as a cornerback with Kansas University. Dabney made his commitment to the Jayhawks on August 24. He was drawn to the opportunity to play for Jayhawks defensive backs coach Chevis Jackson, who played four seasons in the NFL, and head coach Les Miles, who guided LSU to a national championship in 2007.

Many times, Dabney has lined up against bigger players and never once backed down. That’s the key to an undersized player blossoming into an elite defensive back with limitless potential, said a number of his coaches.

“Shad’s a tremendous athlete,” said Riverside Military Academy coach Nick Garrett, who coached Dabney in 2018 and 2019. “He’s got great body control, fluid and great change of direction. Shad’s got tremendous ball skills, which stems from his basketball background.”

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Dabney’s first priority after college is to play professionally, in football, then transition into a career in front of the camera, maybe with ESPN or TNT. Even though he has had the most success in football and basketball, he’s comfortable talking about any sport for a television audience.

Dabney said his success is a direct result of a strong network of men, including his father, Carlton Smith, brother, Jamel Dabney, uncle, Derrick Caldwell, and all the coaches who’ve poured into his development. His mother, Shannon Dabney, has also been one of his main guiding forces in his life, implementing a drive for making good grades and character development.

Dabney is a 4.0 student. He said his only B came in biology his freshman year at Gainesville High. 

“Words can’t describe how proud I am of Shad,” his 23-year-old brother, Jamel Dabney, said. “I can’t wait to turn on the television and watch him playing for Kansas.”

And since Dabney is a self-described people person, he hasn’t had any trouble making friends. Growing up with a year at Gainesville High, two years as a day cadet at Riverside Military Academy and his senior season at Cherokee Bluff High, they have all equally played into his development. 

With every turn in his life, Dabney has met change as a new challenge. 

And every step along the way, he’s flourished.

As a freshman, Dabney worked his way on the field in Week 3 and started the final eight games of the season at Gainesville High. Following a move across town, much due to the interest of the private-school setting by his mother, Dabney’s legacy started to blossom in the fall of 2018 at Riverside Military Academy — not just in football, but also basketball and track and field.

In 2019, Dabney was part of the Eagles’ state championship track and field program and was key to the Eagles making it to the state quarterfinals in basketball. 

There, he forged what was called the ‘Big 3’ with Khalid Duke, now a starting linebacker at Kansas State, and Isaac Teasley, also a talented three-sport athlete for the Eagles. 

Jamel said his little brother has never stopped studying the game and is always the most well-prepared when it comes to knowing the opponent on the football field. 

He said Shad would spend hours preparing by watching highlights of future opponents on hudl.com, a recruiting-based website, and listening to every word his coaches said in the meeting room.

“Shad’s not the biggest or strongest on the field, but he’s one of the smartest,” Jamel said. “He’s like Richard Sherman. He knows what every wide receiver on the other team is going to do.”

Following his junior year, Riverside Military Academy announced in wouldn’t have fall sports in 2020, due to coronavirus concerns, prompting Dabney’s move to Cherokee Bluff High. Devastated to hear that Riverside Military wasn’t going to have a football season, in 2020, he said it was the right decision to go to Cherokee Bluff. 

“I have to thank all the people who have been so supportive of me in my life for the continuous love and support,” Dabney said.

Once he moved to the third-year program in Flowery Branch, Dabney continued to develop and was a slot wide receiver, who compiled 400 yards of offense, and continued to dominate on the defensive side of the ball for the Region 7-3A champion Bears. In 2020, Dabney was a lockdown cornerback, not allowing a touchdown in his direction for the Bears. He said, however, his priority at Cherokee Bluff, in 2020, was helping pour his knowledge of the game into the younger talent, while making a close new network of friends.

“Shad had an extremely high football IQ and accepted different roles,” Cherokee Bluff coach Tommy Jones said. “Having Shad in the secondary allowed us to take away the other team’s best wide receiver.”

Garrett said that one of the main draws for college coaches to Dabney (who racked up nearly 40 college offers) is his former player’s coachability. 

Before leaving Riverside Military Academy, Dabney had a 2019 season where he accounted for more than 2,600 yards of offense for the Eagles. 

“It’s beautiful to see a young man who receives and accepts coaching, receives and accepts a challenge, and receives and accepts a critique and rises up to it,” Garrett said. 

Jason Pleasant knew when he met Dabney as a 4-year-old running around the Boys & Girls Clubs of Lanier, in Gainesville, that Dabney was drawn to athletics and would probably be pretty good. 

He didn’t know, however, that football was going to be where Dabney was going to become such a highly coveted prospect, stemming from a breakout sophomore season at Riverside Military Academy. Pleasant, who coached three seasons at Riverside Military (2017-19) and was cornerbacks coach at Cherokee Bluff this season, saw Dabney, as a kid, far more interested in playing basketball and baseball. 

However, it became evident in high school that football would become his most likely path to success in college. 

In the fall of 2017, Pleasant was in his first season coaching linebackers at Riverside Military and saw a 6-foot-tall, 150-pound Dabney get on the field early in the season as a starting cornerback for the Red Elephants. 

There, he never backed down from a challenge, one of which was guarding Jefferson High tight end Garmon Randolph, now a defensive end for Baylor University. 

“I told Shad that football was going to become his ticket,” said Pleasant. “He could roll out of bed and cover people. And he has continued to hone his craft ever since then.”

In 2018, Dabney had two interceptions of Prince Avenue Christian quarterback Brock Vandagriff, the nation’s No. 1 quarterback in the Class of 2021, who will play at the University of Georgia. Dabney said that Vandagriff threw to his side four times that game, two of those resulting in a pass breakup.

His offensive plays were even more explosive. 

Garrett said that with space and a couple steps, Dabney could almost always get to the end zone. 

Even if the defender had a better angle, Dabney would still find a way to get to the sideline and turn it upfield. 

Riverside Military’s head coach said the first time he knew Dabney was going to be a top-tier prospect was in the scrimmage against Pinecrest Academy — his first time on the field with the Eagles — when he took a zone-read play, right off the bat for a 60-yard score. 

“I remember Shad was so fast getting to the corner,” Garrett said. 

Once the season ended, Mercer University was the first to offer Dabney. Then Arizona State. After that, it was an avalanche of schools that wanted Dabney to fortify their secondary, according to Pleasant. 

Pleasant said that Dabney has an attention to detail that can’t be taught. 

His position coach for three seasons recalls a game against Lakeview Academy when Dabney was defending 1,000-yard receiver KJ Millwood. 

During the game, Dabney figured out quickly that any time Millwood tugged on his glove at the line of scrimmage, they were about to throw him the ball. 

So, Riverside Military Academy’s defense gets to the line. Dabney noticed Millwood started tugging on his glove before the play. 

Pleasant said Dabney immediately called out that he was about to pick it off and return it for a touchdown, which he did. 

“I remember that he took it back 60 yards for the score,” Pleasant said. 

Dabney said that Garrett and Pleasant are steadfast in their support of his development and all three talk regularly. 

At Cherokee Bluff, Dabney said he forged great friendships with his teammates Sam Stribling, John Bazemore and Deakon Phillips, among others. 

Pleasant said that Dabney continued to evolve as a person this season playing at Cherokee Bluff.

“Shad’s been a team player at Cherokee Bluff and really wants to help make his teammates great,” Pleasant said. “He wanted to see them get on the map.”

Dabney said that former Riverside Military Academy track and field coach Tim Cummings was critical in his development as a sprinter and part of the 400-meter relay team for the Eagles. 

Dabney said he always had an interest in becoming a sports broadcaster, but that passion was furthered through the broadcast program at Riverside Military, which is taught by Zack Garrett. 

He was heartbroken the day that his mother delivered the news to him last spring that Riverside Military canceled the 2020 season. Shad remembers his mother called and said she would come pick him up to tell him what was going on and not to answer any of his text message. Right away, he had messages from other top prospects in northeast Georgia asking where he was going to play.

Dabney was confused, thinking they were all asking about his college plans. 

Then, when his mother delivered the news, he found out they were asking about his senior season of high school. 

He didn’t want to deal with having to leave his Riverside Military Academy family, but, naturally, wanted to be able to play his senior season. 

He said that Cherokee Bluff was the right fit. 

There he’s been reunited with many former coaches from his Red Elephants days, including Bears boys basketball coach Benjie Wood and baseball coach Jeremy Kemp. 

Dabney said he played in the outfield for the baseball team through middle school with the Red Elephants. 

Overall, they see a bright future for Dabney. 

“It has been great to see Shad develop as a person, and we want nothing but the best for him in the future,” Pleasant said.


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