At one time Nathan Jernigan didn’t know what his contribution would be on Cumberland University’s football team.
Four years later, his role is unquestioned leader — on the field and in the classroom.
Jernigan, a former Eagleville standout, recently competed his junior season after redshirting his first year at the NAIA school. He’s earned multiple accolades, most recently being named a First Team Academic All-America for the College Division.
Jernigan ranked second in the Mid-South Conference in tackles (104), leading Cumberland for the third straight year.
Athletes must be a sophomore or higher academically, maintain a 3.30 GPA and be nominated to be eligible for the academic award. They must also be a starter or key reserve.
“Coming in as a young guy, I was a lot smaller then,” said Jernigan, now a 6-foot, 195-pound linebacker. “I wasn’t sure if I could make it because I knew it was a higher level. And I was coming from a much smaller school at Eagleville.”
But the transition was seamless.
He also recently was named the Mid-South Conference West Division Co-Defensive Player of the Year.
“There are a lot more athletes out there at this level,” said Jernigan, 21, who was the District 9-A MVP his senior season at Eagleville. “I wasn’t always the most confident person in regard to thinking if I was going to be able to play.”
Jernigan said the key was just being given his chance. That’s all he asked for when he signed with Cumberland.
He wanted a chance to show that a football player from Eagleville could make key contributions at the next level.
Jernigan said he benefited from being redshirted his freshman year. It allowed him a chance to not only concentrate on his academics but focus on getting stronger in the weight room.
He’s rarely come off the field on defense since.
“That first game of my redshirt freshman, we played Tennessee Tech,” said Jernigan, who will graduate in May but plans on starting graduate school in the fall in business management. “I was second on the depth chart at my position. The guy in front of me got injured, so they put me in.”
He quickly proved himself to the coaching staff and hasn’t been replaced.
Jernigan said his play on the field is proof that good players can come from smaller high schools.
“You get what you put into it,” Jernigan said. “Even the little guys from the little schools can make an impact on a bigger scene.
“I’m an example of that, I guess. If you just put in the time, it doesn’t matter where you come from.”
Reach Tom Kreager at 615-278-5168 and on Twitter @Kreager.