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C.J. Avery was amidst a lengthy recruiting process, where he was being scouted as one of the nation’s top safeties, when head coach Ashley Kuhn needed a replacement quarterback. Then a junior at Grenada (Mississippi) High School, Avery had been going to college camps to be looked at by various programs’ coaching staffs. Grenada’s starting quarterback went down with an injury, and Avery’s athleticism made him the top candidate to take over.
In his first start at the new position, he engineered all 15 of the Chargers points in a 37-15 loss. Balancing quarterback with safety, he led Grenada to its third-ever district title. He was a better quarterback than the original starter, defensive coordinator Chip Foster said.
“I was like, ‘Good lord, why hadn’t he been playing quarterback the whole time?’” Foster said. “If he did not play quarterback, we probably wouldn’t have scored.”
At the time, Avery was a four-star recruit, ranked 84th in the nation and seventh highest among safeties, according to ESPN. Now a senior at Louisville, Avery is being scouted again — this time by NFL teams. Halfway through his freshman season, then-head coach Bobby Petrino and Louisville’s defensive staff began another positional shift for Avery to inside linebacker.
Avery’s co-captaining the Cardinals and is the bright spot on an otherwise struggling 2-6 Louisville team that allows 29.8 points a game. At linebacker, he’s likely to be an NFL Draft prospect.
“He was (already) big and I knew he was going to get bigger and I figured he would be a linebacker,” Foster said. “He’s so involved in the weight room and so dedicated to strength.”
Avery gained 16 pounds during his sophomore year, up from 205 the year prior, and tripled his solo tackle tally. He finished second on the Cardinals with a total of 56 tackles in 2018, and nearly doubled that number during his junior season, leading the team with 93 tackles as the Cardinals beat Mississippi State 38-28 in the Music City Bowl that year.
During the offseason, Avery trained with his cousin Genard Avery, a defensive end for the Philadelphia Eagles, who converted his grandmother’s garage into a miniature gym. Genard, who also attended Grenada, has heavily influenced his cousin’s football ambitions. In previous years, Genard — then at the University of Memphis — would return to his former high school and help Avery train.
“Just as C.J. entered 10th grade, you could tell he had something different about his work ethic,” Kuhn said.
The Avery’s are a football family that spans three generations. C.J.’s father had stints in the Arena Football League and the World League of American Football in Spain. His grandfather also played at the University of Virginia. His mother, Claudette, refers to their legacy as the “generational curse,” with family influencing Avery to stick with football.
“In ninth grade, when they decided to move him up to varsity is when it really kicked in. Like ‘Okay, I can do this. I’m going to do this. It’s in my genes, it’s in my blood,’” Claudette said.
At Grenada, Avery broke into a starting role halfway through his freshman year, something Kuhn has never seen from someone Avery’s age. The then-safety played a significant role even as an underclassman, Kuhn added.
Avery’s shifts from safety to quarterback to inside linebacker over his career highlight his versatility and all-around abilities, Foster said. The defensive coordinator felt confident that his team would be “safe” no matter where Avery was on the field.
“I wish we had more Averys,” Foster said.
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