By Tim Gayle
Raycom Media Camellia Bowl Writer
MONTGOMERY - The announcement came a day after a heartbreaking loss to Troy cost the Red Wolves a Sun Belt Conference championship.
Arkansas State would be making its first trip to the Raycom Media Camellia Bowl to play Middle Tennessee State on Saturday in Cramton Bowl at 7 p.m.
"The first text messages I had were, 'Can you get me tickets?'" Tallassee's Dijon Paschal said. "I'm just excited all my coaches from high school and past teammates finally get to come see me because Arkansas is a good little ride up the road. It's just a great feeling, being back in front of everyone."
For Paschal, a tumultuous journey is coming to a close, one that has seen three different head coaches through the early part of his collegiate career.
"We've been through a lot, seen a lot," Paschal admitted. "But one thing we learned was to stick together. It became a business when we got to college so we understood that, bonded and that relationship will keep us together the rest of our lives."
Paschal was an underappreciated wide out at Tallassee High, accounting for twice as many (884) rushing yards as receiving yards (450), but a gifted athlete whose speed made him a return specialist for the Tigers and caught the eye of the Arkansas State coaching staff and its head coach, Gus Malzahn.
Malzahn would leave for Auburn soon after recruiting Paschal, the third Arkansas State coach in as many years. But it would get worse, not better, for Paschal as Malzahn's replacement, Bryan Harsin, left the following December for Boise State.
"After (Malzahn) left, Coach Harsin was the first coach I was under but I redshirted," Paschal said. "So this group of coaches was the first group I was under that I played and they've treated me like I was one of their recruits. It was a bond we made."
Anderson, a former offensive coordinator at Middle Tennessee, Louisiana-Lafayette, Southern Mississippi and most recently
North Carolina, would have a difficult task in those early days at Jonesboro, rebuilding the trust and confidence of a group of players that would ultimately become a standout unit of fifth-year seniors on a Camellia Bowl participant.
"Once we really established the fact that we were really going to be there, I think the guard came down and they really bought in to becoming family," Anderson said. "I think at first they had been through so many transitions that it was hard to truly believe that we were going to stay put. There's four guys in that senior class that signed five years ago – Dijon Paschal, Mark Johnson, Jonah Hill and Ja'Von Rolland-Jones – that have gone through three coaches, but you wouldn't know it. They have accepted us as family. Even though we didn't recruit them, they treat us as if we did.
"There's four good (former) walk-ons (Ben Gallagher, Katon Hill, Johnston White and Clifford Thomas) in that class as well, so really eight total guys that went through that transition. They all earned scholarships before their careers were over and all have contributed in different ways."
Paschal is one of seven Red Wolves that has 20 or more receptions this year, catching 23 passes for 298 yards and a touchdown. Although his numbers aren't as flashy as the trio of Justin McInnis, Chris Murray and Blake Mack, Paschal's status as one of the elder statesmen commands respect.
"He's a great kid, great teammate, guys love him," Anderson said. "Big smile, the guy never has a bad day. He's had a great career. His name's going to be in the record book in some spots, I know his yards per catch has been through the roof. Mainly, he's just been a great teammate. No matter what the day's like, he always seems to be positive. The guys love being around him."
Paschal ranks seventh in school history in receiving yards (1,769), eighth in touchdown receptions (11) and ninth in career receptions (109), but more importantly he has a bachelor's degree in sports management and is working on a master's degree in sports administration, with hopes of becoming an athletic director one day.
This week, he'll have to settle for being the tour guide for the visiting Red Wolves.
"I was basically the uber," Paschal said. "It was little spots here and there they had been hearing about or wanted to know about, try some good food."
On Saturday, he hopes to end his career on a high note in his first game at Cramton Bowl.
"It feels amazing, being home in front of all my family and friends," Paschal said. "Everyone gets to see me and meet all the lovely friends I've made."
SWEET HOME ALABAMA
A total of 19 players in the 2017 Raycom Media Camellia Bowl call Alabama home
Middle Tennessee has nine players on its roster from the state of Alabama
Freshman RB Brad Anderson (Bob Jones HS) is the team's leading rusher in 2017
He has 89 rushing attempts for 419 yards for the Blue Raiders
He had nine carries for 137 yards and one TD at UAB on Oct. 14
Freshman safety Reed Blankenship (West Limestone HS; Athens) is the team's fourth leading tackler
He has recorded 63 tackles, seven TFLs (-24 yards) and two interceptions
He made his first career start in the win at Syracuse; he finished the game with five tackles and one interception
Blankenship also leads the team with six punts returns for 69 yards in 2017
Redshirt junior defensive end Walter Brady (Florence HS)
Brady has recorded 38 tackles, five TFLs, four pass breakups and three sacks this year
He played the 2015 season at Missouri before transferring to Middle Tennessee
Brady was a 2015 Freshman All-American at Mizzou
Junior right guard Chandler Brewer (Florence HS) has started 11 games in 2017
Redshirt sophomore RB Terelle West (Clay-Chalkville HS) has 267 rushing yards and three TDs this season
Middle Tennessee Players from Alabama:
RB Brad Anderson (Bob Jones HS; Huntsville)
S Reed Blankenship (West Limestone HS; Athens)
DE Walter Brady (Florence HS; Florence)
OL Chandler Brewer (Florence HS; Florence)
CB Justin Brown (Parker HS; Birmingham)
LB Caleb Felton (Muscle Shoals HS; Muscle Shoals)
P Matthew Stephenson (Bob Jones HS; Madison)
RB Terelle West (Clay-Chalkville HS; Pinson)
DT Je'Kerrius Wright (Autauga Academy; Prattville)
Arkansas State also has 10 Alabama natives on its roster
Sophomore defensive back B.J. Edmonds (St. Paul's HS) is the Red Wolves second-leading tackler
Edmonds has 76 tackles and four pass breakups this season
He posted 13 tackles against UL Lafayette and South Alabama
Sophomore linebacker Trent Ellis-Brewer (Daphne HS) had a season-high nine tackles against SMU
Ellis-Brewer has 35 tackles, 3.5 TFLs (-17 yards), two pass breakups and one interception this year
Senior defensive lineman Dee Liner (Muscle Shoals HS) originally signed with Alabama
He played at Alabama in 2013 and 2014 before transferring to ASU
Liner has 53 tackles and 13.5 TFLs in his two seasons in Jonesboro
Redshirt senior receiver Dijon Paschal (Tallassee HS) has 109 catches for 1,769 yards and 11 TDs in his career
He has 22 receptions for 278 yards and one TD this season
Arkansas State Players from Alabama:
LB Caleb Bonner (Pickens County HS; Reform)
OL Lanard Bonner (Shades Valley HS; Birmingham)
DB Brandon Byner (Bessemer City HS; Bessemer)
DB B.J. Edmonds (St. Paul's HS; Mobile)
LB Trent Ellis-Brewer (Daphne HS; Daphne)
DL Dee Liner (Muscle Shoals HS; Muscle Shoals)
OL Alex Novak (McGill-Toolen HS; Fairhope)
WR Dijon Paschal (Tallassee HS; Tallassee)
DE Griffin Riggs (Auburn HS; Auburn)
DB Larry Wooden (Spain Park HS; Hoover)