Derrell Bailey Jr.’s dream of playing football at the Division 1 level in the Atlantic Coast Conference came true Dec. 18 when he signed his letter of intent with Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in front of friends, family and coaches in the Greenback School gymnasium.
He is the first Cherokee to sign with a Power 5 school since Kayne Roberts signed with the University of North Carolina in 2017.
“It was special, it was special — it felt different,” Bailey Jr. said. “I guess probably one of the most exciting times I’ve ever felt in my life. Like it felt special, I don’t really know how to describe it in words. It felt really good.”
His passion for the game started at a young age when his father, Derrell Bailey Sr., pushed him to never give up while playing in the backyard in Montgomery, Ala.
“My dad, he comes to every football game, and he’s been with me ever since I was a little kid,” Bailey Jr. said. “To see him be there with me every step, it felt special. I wanted to quit at first, but my dad said, ‘You ain’t going to quit.’ He put bricks in the trashcan and made me run around the yard until I wanted to say, ‘I’ll keep playing.’ I told him I wanted to keep playing, and that’s when I just fell in love for the game. All my brothers and sisters played football and basketball, and I just kind of fell in line.”
He made the move to Greenback shortly after his eighth-grade year.
“When I met Derrell six years ago, he was a 6’1”, 260-pound chubby kid,” Greg Ryan, Greenback head football coach, said. “From day one, Derrell loved football, so that made me instantly love him. At that young age, he expressed a desire to become a great football player. He asked to be pushed by the coaching staff. He knew he wanted the opportunity to continue his education and football career at the next level if anyway possible.”
Ryan knew he had a special talent on his hands but admitted it was going to take time and work to develop.
“It hasn’t come easy for Derrell,” he said. “He’s transformed his body into 6’6”, 265 pounds of good weight. He constantly works hard in the weight room and on his own, developing speed, quickness and strength. He sent me a film of a critique he took of himself working on footwork drills and other explosive movements in his yard at his house. In the classroom, he’s like most of us — strong in some areas, weaker in others. He realized those weak areas and drastically improved them. Derrell Bailey deserves what’s happening to him today and all the recognition he gets because he’s earned it.”
Bailey Jr. capped off his senior year with 40 tackles, 46 assists, 11.5 tackles for loss and an interception as one of the Cherokees most explosive defensive players. He played a pivotal role all four years at Greenback, helping the Cherokees claim a state title and four consecutive Region 2-1A championships.
He is currently ranked the No. 39 strongside defensive end in the country by Rivals and received more than 30 offers over the summer from numerous Power 5 schools, including Arkansas, Florida, LSU, Missouri, Mississippi State, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina and Virginia.
Before receiving a slew of offers and interest, Bailey Jr. faced personal doubt and questions prior to his senior season until a phone call before a basketball game made all the difference.
“It was hard because like junior year, I kind of felt down on myself,” he said. “Before I started getting offers, I went to Kentucky one time, and I didn’t think it was that serious and I didn’t think I had an opportunity to play at the next level, and then one day before a basketball game, a dream came true and got an offer from Virginia. The next day, I got six in a row, so that’s then when I started realizing I have an opportunity. Before that, I thought my dream was over.”
His decision to sign with Virginia Tech came down to a simple feeling of being “home away from home.”
“It was special, it felt like everything was built in, so it was a small country,” he said. “Everybody had been in the program for years, they bring alumnae back to coaching this and that and the community, everybody loves each other. With the tradition they have to enter the game, it was crazy, and it was my type of style to play defense.”
Virginia Tech head football coach Justin Fuente was looking for lengthy, quick defensive linemen and found the perfect fit in Bailey Jr.
“I’m just excited about what we were able to add today along the defensive line, preparing kind of for our future there,” Fuente said in a press conference. “I do think relative speed and relative length is important, and we have made a concerted effort to get longer. ... When you’re trying to keep people off of you, offensive players want those guys in there tight when they’re blocking, and defensive players want them far away. That’s over simplifying it, but that’s part of it. ... I think you can restrict some space.”
Bailey Jr. credits his father for pushing him to persevere and improve, even when schools were throwing down offers left and right.
“To be honest, I told my dad I got my first offer ... he wasn’t into it like that,” he said. “I told him I got my first offer and he looked at me and said, ‘OK, you’ve still got school work to do.’ And then I told him, ‘Dad, I got offered by Mississippi State,’ and he was like, ‘Well, that’s good, but you’ve still got to work on your footwork, I don’t think you’re fast enough.’ When I got my offers from LSU and Florida, he was like, ‘You’re still not good enough.’ I have not yet heard my dad say, ‘Good job,’ after a game ... I never said anything because I haven’t heard, ‘Good game,’ yet, but it’s going to come one day.”
Bailey Jr. is an early enrollee and will officially begin practice with the Hokies on Jan. 17. He hopes to make an immediate impact his freshman year, beginning with the first game Sept. 5 against Liberty University.
“I hope I can come out and be the next big thing to walk through Virginia Tech,” he said.