Mellette travels path less taken

Elon University senior wide receiver Aaron Mellette started playing organized football in his sophomore year of high school. File photo by Al Drago.
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Sanford, North Carolina to New York City. That’s the jump he hopes to make in the coming months. From a first day playing safety to a top wide receiver prospect for the 2013 NFL Draft.  Above it all, he credits his family for everything he has done so far.

“I think family is the No. 1 influence in any kid’s life growing up,” said Elon University senior wide receiver Aaron Mellette. “I’m such a family-oriented guy. If I go home, I’d rather hang out with my family than my friends or anything like that. I’ll just lay around the house, just hang out with my pops and my mom and do nothing.”

From his mother making an important phone call to kick-start his football career, to his high school quarterback Donte’ Alston, his cousin Josh Mellette to teammate and fellow Elon wide receiver and junior Rasaun Rorie, Aaron Mellette’s family has been a huge part of his success on the gridiron. He has put himself in a position to become an NFL draft pick, the first from Elon since linebacker Chad Nkang, picked in the seventh round by the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2007.

Coming from only playing two years of high school varsity football, that’s pretty impressive.

“Couldn’t even put on pads”

Bryan Lee will never forget the moment.

He was the first-year head football coach at the brand-new Southern Lee High School in Sanford. The school was the second high school in the small city located in Lee County. The other school, Lee County High School, or “Lee Senior” in shorthand, had become overcrowded and a new school was built.

Lee was two days into practice with his new team, just a junior varsity team, at West Lee Middle School, not far from where Southern Lee stands today. He got a phone call from a woman who was “incredibly nice,” he said.

“(She said,) ‘My husband is a pastor here in town, and my son wants to play football,’” he said. “As a head coach, you get this phone call a lot.”

It was Aaron Mellette’s mother, Beverly.

Mellette has five receiving touchdowns in three games against Appalachian State University. File photo by Corey Groom.

Mellette had no prior organized football experience, having only played around in the backyard messing around with friends. But Lee said that when he stepped out of his mom’s car, things changed for the Southern Lee program.

“As the car pulls up, you expect the kid to be 5’6”, 100 pounds,” he said. “You don’t expect Aaron Mellette, who has to unfold himself to get out of the car.”

Mellette was initially placed at safety, which was weird for him, but nothing compared to the little things.

“It was all new to me,” he said. “I didn’t know how to put pads on, I didn’t know none of that. It was all new, but it was a fun first day and the best decision of my life.”

Eventually, Mellette was moved to wide receiver and began doing some crazy things, surprising for the wing-T, run-first offense that Lee ran at Southern Lee. But when you’ve got a fast split end standing at 6’4” like Aaron Mellette, you can change things.

“What Aaron allowed us to do, when anybody put eight in the box — we had Aaron Mellette,” Lee said. “He was a great equalizer because he made everybody else on that team better. He was incredibly proficient. He made life for the running back easier and life for the offensive linemen better because he took one guy out of the box.”

In just two varsity football seasons, his junior and senior years, Mellette caught more than 100 passes for over 2,000 yards and 32 touchdowns for Southern Lee, helping them to the state playoffs both years. For a first-year program, Lee said it was “virtually unheard of.”

“Everything we had was new,” he said. “When you start a new school, you get a lot of kids, not unlike Aaron, who give football a try. We averaged 30 points Aaron’s last year there. For a first year varsity program, we were really happy with that.”

Two-sport standout

While Mellette was getting accustomed to playing football, he was also a star on the basketball court. He played in the post and was

Mellette’s jersey from his senior year at Southern Lee High School. That year, he helped lead the Cavaliers to a berth in the North Carolina High School Athletic Association playoffs, where Southern Lee lost in the second round. Photo by Zachary Horner, Sports Editor

mentored on the hardwood by then-assistant coach Gaston Collins, who is now the head boys’ basketball coach for the Cavaliers.

“He was a phenomenal athlete,” Collins said. “We like to press and trap the basketball, and we used to put him right on top of that press and he used to get a lot of steals and take them back down for dunks and all that kind of stuff.”

With the nickname “Big Time,” Mellette grew especially close to his basketball pals, but pursued football instead.

“I never got into the summer portion of basketball, with AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) and all those camps and things like that,” he said. “I never took out the time to do things like that because I’ve got football stuff to do or I was being lazy at the time.”

Interestingly enough, his cousin Josh is now a star on the court at Southern Lee.

“He’s taken it over,” Mellette said. “If I could, I’d live my basketball life through him just because I couldn’t pursue it and picked up football instead.”

Mellette gives his little cousin advice: work hard and get stronger because college is not as easy. He jokes about capitalizing on Josh’s success.

“That’s my twin brother if he goes somewhere,” he said, chuckling.

Collins said Mellette comes back and works out with the current Southern Lee basketball team sometimes and talks to them.

“He always reminds them to work hard,” Collins said. “He had a great work ethic, he really pushed himself to be where he is now. He always comes in with encouraging words, just tells guys, ‘Hey, I played here at this very school, and if I can make it, with your hard work, you can do the same.’”

The recruitment process

Because Southern Lee was a new school, it was unlikely that any scouts would come calling. But Mellette got a break thanks to a guy named Nick DeMuro.

“The very first recruitment I got was from East Carolina my junior year,” Mellette said. “They came and watched our first game against Athens Drive. They had a quarterback, I think Nick DeMuro.”

DeMuro was a “gunslinger” at Athens Drive High School in Raleigh who was being looked at by East Carolina University. The Pirates were looking at DeMuro, but they ended up seeing Mellette.

“That was the first time,” he said. “After that game, I got letters from East Carolina.”

On a side note, DeMuro ended up attending Jacksonville State University, throwing for 4,050 yards and 41 touchdowns his senior year of high school. In 2009, though, he ended up back at Athens Drive as the quarterbacks coach.

Mellette was also recruited by the University of Virginia, Coastal Carolina University, Marshall University and North Carolina Central University. And by some big ACC football school.

The front page of the sports section of The Sanford Herald the day after signing day, February 7, 2008. Mellette shared the spotlight with former Lee County High School running back Jay Hollingsworth, who signed with Duke University. Photo by Zachary Horner, Sports Editor

“I received a letter from Florida State (University),” he said, laughing. “I was like, ‘Whoa, wow, Florida State, that’s pretty cool.’ Then I was like, ‘Well, I’m a (University of) Miami fan, so I hope Miami comes. I’m going to be a Hurricane when I grow up, I know it.’”

Florida State ended up not doing anything else.

Mellette especially liked the idea of going to Virginia, and East Carolina tried to get him a last-minute scholarship, but it was the Phoenix that stuck out, thanks to an interesting recruiting strategy by then-head coach Pete Lembo.

“When we were (at Elon), recruiting the state of North Carolina was priority No. 1,” said Lembo, who is now the head football coach at Ball State University. “Our goal was to be very thorough to get to every school in the state. When you look at those high successful teams we had there, a lot of those good players were right here in North Carolina.”

A peek at the rosters from the Lembo years shows it. Elon quarterback legend Scott Riddle came from Eastern Randolph High School in Ramseur, current Detroit Lions practice squad center Rodney Austin was recruited from East Mecklenburg High School in Charlotte, and wide receiver Terrell Hudgins attended Rocky Mount High School in Rocky Mount. All players Lembo recruited.

“Aaron is an example of that plan coming to fruition,” Lembo said. “We got on Aaron early. As it turned out, we really didn’t have to compete against any really high level competition for him. If Aaron Mellette is from Atlanta or Virginia Beach, or Burgin County, N.J., there’s no way we’re getting him at Elon. He would have had so many other schools interested in him that we would have had no shot. ”

Elon came calling, saw a quick spring workout and offered him a scholarship a week later. Despite the other offers, the Phoenix quickly became the obvious choice for Aaron Mellette.

“They were really, really dogged, when it was legal, to come watch Aaron work out,” Lee said. “They made him feel like he was their No. 1 concern. He doesn’t have a very big ego for someone of his talent. He knew it was going to be a good school as far as size and liked the way they did things.”

Donning the maroon and gold

Aaron signed his letter of intent to play for Coach Lembo and Elon Feb. 7, 2008, at Southern Lee, becoming the first Division I athlete in school history.

Pete Lembo was the head coach at Elon when Mellette came in 2008. File photo.

Lembo knew he was getting more than a good player.

“I spent a lot of time around (Mellette’s family) in the recruiting process,” he said. “When you’re recruiting close to home, you have so much more of an opportunity to interact with the parents. We saw Aaron and his parents quite a bit. Just very, very down to earth people. You knew that, when he decided to come on board, we were getting a great family, not just a great kid.”

Mellette arrived on campus and was redshirted his freshman year. His 2008 recruiting class was filled with key pieces of future Elon football teams. Quarterback Thomas Wilson, kicker Adam Shreiner, wide receiver Darrius McQueen, running back Jamal Shuman, defensive lineman/linebacker Dale Riley, defensive lineman Olufemi Lamikanra and tight end Andre Labinowicz all came to Elon in the 2008 recruiting class.

“I’m never going to forget our first summer up here,” Mellettte said. “We didn’t know what we were doing, sitting in health class joking around. We used to call Thomas ‘Sweet T.’”

Wilson had met Mellette through various camps in North Carolina during the pair’s junior and senior years of high school.

“I’ve been completing balls to him from freshman year on the scout team to now our fifth-year senior year and we’re playing with the (first-string),” said Wilson, a product of Leesville Road High School in Raleigh.

Mellette became fast friends with Riley and Shuman, who became his roommate.

“If we got in trouble, it’d be (Shuman) and me doing something crazy together if anything, throughout our four years together,” he said.

Wilson and Mellette’s connection began their redshirt freshman year in 2008, sitting on the sidelines.

“Me and Thomas were just sitting back, waiting, saying, ‘Man, I’m ready to hit the field,’” he said.  “Of course, he was behind Scott Riddle and I was behind Terrell.”

Record-setting wide receiver Terrell Hudgins was the No. 1 receiver when Mellette came to Elon in 2008. File photo.

Riddle and Hudgins were the two stars of the Elon football team in 2008 and 2009, helping the Phoenix to a 17-7 record over those two years and a Football Championship Subdivision playoff berth in 2009.

The relationship between Hudgins and Mellette was a friendly competition. Lembo described the two as different types of receivers.

“Terrell was playing wide receiver with almost a tight end-size body, where Aaron has got a little bit more wiggle and he might be a little more explosive than Terrell,” he said. “Terrell, on some of those screens we would throw to him, he might run somebody over for a seven or eight-yard gain, while Aaron might make some guy miss and turn that into a 28-yard gain.”

Mellette also noted fellow receivers Sean Jeffcoat and Lance Camp, Class of 2011, as inspirations.

“From (Terrell) to Sean and Lance, those three guys were the guys I paid attention to in practices and meeting rooms and on the field, trying to learn as much as possible,” he said. “I told Terrell, ‘I’m going to break your records.’”

He also credited Keith Gaither, Elon’s receivers coach from 2009-2010 and now in the same position at Ball State, for helping him develop his game.

“When I first got here, no disrespect, but I had Coach Lembo,” Mellette said. “And when he was talking, I was like, ‘I’m lost.’ I had no idea what he was talking about. I just remember blocking every day, so I got really good at run blocking. But when Coach Gaither came in, we did more receiver-oriented drills, like footwork drills and catching drills. I started coming into my own and learning things.”

Replacing a legend

Mellette called 2010 “a year of expectations.”

The Phoenix was coming off a 9-4 year in which it reached the FCS playoffs, where Elon lost to No. 4 University of Richmond 16-13.

Quarterback Scott Riddle completed 94 passes and 14 touchdowns to Mellette during their two years together. File photo.

Mellette played in 12 games in 2009 as a redshirt freshman, grabbing eight receptions for 117 yards and two touchdowns. But in 2010, a significant piece of the Elon offense from the previous four years, Hudgins, was gone.

Jeffcoat and Camp were still there, but the No. 3 receiver spot, which belonged to No. 19 before, needed to be filled.

“At the time, it was between me and Rasuan Rorie, competing in the spring,” Mellette said. “Even going into camp, he and I were competing for that job. He pushed me to where I needed to be pushed because I wanted to be that guy. If it wasn’t for him during spring ball and camp, I don’t know if I would have taken the extra step to unlocking my potential so early. I’d like to thank him for that.”

Rorie won the No. 3 slot at wide receiver in 2012 behind Mellette and senior Jeremy Peterson.

Mellette earned the spot. But he felt he had not earned his teammates’ respect until Sept. 18 that year, against those same Richmond Spiders the Phoenix had lost to in the playoffs the year before.

“The first day of our meeting for game planning, their star linebacker, (senior Eric McBride), was talking about, ‘We’ll lock up man (coverage) and our cornerbacks will have more catches than them,’” he said. “It just awoke the inner monster inside of me. That whole week, I was like, ‘Let’s play, let’s play.’”

The inner monster had the game of his life, grabbing an Elon-record 18 catches for 195 yards and two touchdowns, including a 25-yard game-tying score from Riddle with no time left in the fourth quarter.

“A bunch of guys were like, ‘Yeah, yeah, Merle (Mellette’s real first name), yeah, Merle. I got your back,’” he said. “I think that was the chance where finally the other guys on the team respected me, and the question of who was replacing Terrell was answered.”

Becoming a star

Although the Phoenix lost the Richmond game 27-21 and finished the season out of the playoffs at 6-5, Mellette garnered personal accolades for his productive sophomore season. He was a first-team all-SoCon selection by both the conference’s media and coaches and second-team All-American by The Associated Press, finishing with 1,100 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns.

Mellette, shown here during a preseason scrimmage in 2011, has worked with several Elon Phoenix stars during his career. File photo by Heather Cassano.

“It was a goal of mine accomplished,” Mellette said about the all-SoCon selection. “Before I came here, I had a set of goals that I wanted to achieve within my four or five years here, and it was just one of those goals to be the best receiver in the conference, and be an all-conference guy, and get a plaque. I just like getting plaques and stuff, so I wanted that.”

In 2011, despite a 5-6 record as a team, things just got better for the wideout. He said he had more motivation. The all-SoCon selection was nice, but “it was about (former Appalachian State wide receiver) Brian Quick and (wide receiver Joel) Bradford from (the University of Tennessee at) Chattanooga,” Mellette said. “They’re still coming back next season. They’re still the top two guys. I was like, ‘Well, now I’ve got to go out and do it again, because I’ve got nobody’s respect but my own teammates.’”

And he earned that respect. He led the FCS in receptions per game (10.27) and receiving yards per game (149). He set a new SoCon record (previously held by Hudgins) with 1,639 receiving yards. He racked up 12 touchdowns and had 100-plus receiving yards in Elon’s last nine games.

Recapping 2011
See what Mellette had to say at the end of the 2011 season.

All those garnered him first-team all-SoCon again and a first-team All-America choice by The Associated Press, The Sports Network, the Walter Camp Football Foundation, College Sporting News, Phil Steele, College Sports Madness and College Sports Journal. Mellette also finished fifth in voting for the Walter Payton Award, the FCS’s version of the Heisman Trophy, given to the best player in the nation.

All of this with a new coach, a new system and a new quarterback.

Current Elon head coach Jason Swepson joined the Phoenix in 2011. File photo by Al Drago.

“I saw the film when I first got hired and I just didn’t know the competition that he was playing with and that he had a great quarterback throwing him the ball,” current Elon head football coach Jason Swepson said. “I didn’t really get my hopes up too high.”

But all it took was a rainy February morning to change Swepson’s mind. The team was running 40-yard dashes on the track, a wet and cold surface. Four coaches clocked Mellette’s 40-time below 4.5 seconds.

“And we all went, ‘Okay, okay,’” Swepson said. “‘He’s running this in early morning at 6 a.m. on a cold rainy track. This kid can run.’”

His new quarterback wasn’t exactly new either. Wilson came with Mellette in the 2008 recruiting class, but didn’t take over the starting quarterback job until his junior season.

“It was huge,” Wilson said about having Mellette already established in the No. 1 receiver role when he took over as the starting quarterback in 2011. “He’s a playmaker that almost every offensive coach wants on their side of the ball. He can do just about anything for us.”

But it took nearly four years for Wilson to do something every quarterback must do.

“He took me out to eat this summer,” Mellette said. “Finally got him to do that, lazy guy.”

Wilson explains the story.

Quarterback Thomas Wilson was in the same recruiting class as Mellette and threw 12 touchdowns to him in 2011. File photo by Al Drago.

“We went down to (North Carolina) State (University) for a seven-on-seven (scrimmage),” Wilson said. “On the way back, I took him and a few other guys to Cracker Barrel, and we had dinner.”

Despite Mellette describing Wilson as “weird,” he said there is nothing ill between the quarterback and receiver combo.

“We always joke around about everything,” Mellette said. “I joke more than he does, he jokes around a little bit. It’s a really good relationship. It’s nothing that’s going to tear the team apart, it’s all positive when it comes to me and him.”

Playing in the Pros
Curious about where Mellette really stands in the NFL Draft ranks? Check out our story from the 2012 Fall Sports Preview.

Staying grounded

Despite being a guy with serious NFL prospects, Mellette tries to keep himself humble.

“I don’t let it get to me, make me a primadonna or anything of that nature,” he said. “I’m just one guy, there’s tons of guys out there getting looked at by the NFL, the same stuff told to them. It doesn’t make me more special than anybody.”

The primary ways he stays grounded are his family and the way he handles his social life.

“My family, they let me know how real it is and make sure I stay grounded,” he said. “I don’t put myself out there because I don’t want to get caught up in the wrong situation at any given moment. I would stay in my room and play Call of Duty before going out to a party any day of the week, just try and keep a low profile.”

Mellette, shown here at a men’s basketball game with a young fan, says he tries to keep himself grounded and not let the attention get to him. File photo by Al Drago.

Lamikanra, who was in the same recruiting class as Mellette, notices his way of flying below the radar.

“Aaron will stay in his room and play his video games,” he said. “He doesn’t go out that much. He really focuses on what he has to do football-wise and academic-wise. He stays close to his family, plays video games with his friends back home.”

Mellette credits that to his upbringing and the people back in Sanford. When he goes home, whether he hangs out with his friends or his immediate family, his presence is known. Needless to say, it would make an impact on his home town if he was drafted.

“Future NBA Superstar”

Part of his Southern Lee family is former principal Hans Lassiter. Now the principal at Hillside High School in Durham, N.C., Lassiter went to church with Mellette.

Lassiter is enthusiastic about his former student. He tells of an Aaron Mellette who had a different professional sport in mind at a younger age.

“Aaron and I attended the same church, so I met him before the (first Southern Lee) school year commenced,” Lassiter said. “I spoke at the church for their Youth Sunday, and he had this dog tag that lit up in red that said, ‘Aaron Mellette, Future NBA Superstar.’ I told him that day that football was in his future.”

Lassiter spoke of watching Mellette play in high school and the Southern Lee athletic director looking over at him and saying, “We better enjoy watching him play now while it’s free.” He keeps up with his former student, who made him a promise.

Mellette struggled in 2012’s first game, catching only two passes for nine yards against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in a 62-0 loss. Photo by Al Drago, Staff Photographer

“He and I chat on Facebook often, and I remind him of a pledge he made to me while he was in high school that I would be on his guest list at the NFL Draft,” he said. “I am certain that we are looking at an excellent NFL prospect, sure-fire Elon Hall-of-Famer and potential NFL All-Pro receiver.”

Reminded of that promise to his former principal, Mellette stays true to his well-grounded ways.

“He’s been right on a couple things that I wouldn’t believe,” he said. “If I do get called up to sit in the green room, he would definitely be there. I always keep my promises. I don’t want anybody calling me a liar.”

And his teammates would be proud of that name being called.

Senior kicker Adam Shreiner, recruited with Mellette in 2008, notes a growth into superstardom.

“From day one, when he was on scout team, he was one of the best players on the field,” Shreiner said. “Just watching his confidence level and his ability to really command a presence on the field, and being that dominating presence has really changed from even last year to this year. He’s really kind of accepted that role and became that superstar that we all knew he could be.”

They may not be calling him a liar, but soon, they may be calling Aaron Mellette’s name in the NFL Draft in April 2013. Maybe even on the first day, in the first round.

From Sanford to New York City. The two-year high school player to taking snaps on Sundays. Not exactly your typical story of an NFL prospect.

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