Jaren Hamilton’s high school football career is full of accolades of which most could only dream.
He was a four-star wide receiver while shining at P.K. Yonge and Buchholz High School. He blazed the competition in offseason camps and carried that over to his performance on Friday nights with over 1,400 yards and over 20 total touchdowns his last two seasons.
However, his greatest accolade may be something that hasn’t been accomplished locally since the 1980s. In December, he became one of the few players from Alachua County to sign a letter of intent to attend the University of Alabama on a football scholarship.
Despite a rich history that includes multiple NCAA national championships, NCAA All-Americans, record holders, highly touted NFL Draft prospects and a Super Bowl winner, few — if any — local players since Buchholz alumnus Michael Smith in the late 1980s have signed with Alabama, until now.
“It was crazy. It was humbling because nobody from Alachua County ever been out here,” Hamilton said. “Just growing up, you see people you want to be like. Seeing everybody on the field when they were in high school, and you’re like, ‘Dang, I want to be out here one day. Just being able to go out there and showcase my abilities and get this acknowledgment and be on this type of pedestal just means a lot.”
Although he may not be the first to receive an offer from Alabama, it is believed that Hamilton will be the first Alachua County football player since Smith to enroll at the school, according to recently hired Buchholz head football coach Chuck Bell.
Looking back, Hamilton’s journey to this accolade was not as straightforward as one would expect. The receiver began his high school career at P.K. Yonge but played sparingly in his freshman and sophomore years.
He questioned his future at the school and even considered transferring. However, a coaching change for the Blue Wave reunited him with a middle school coach that put all his cards on Hamilton and gave him a chance to succeed.
Kevin Doelling, who had coached Hamilton on the middle school basketball team as a freshman on the football team, returned to P.K. Yonge as the head football coach after spending time in Texas. With his arrival came a vision for Hamilton, who Doelling said he knew could be a top talent in the country.
“We had a sit-down spring of his sophomore year, and I told him he has the potential if he decides to continue up with his work ethic. He had the potential to be an early enrollee,” Doelling recalled. “He really looked at me dumbfounded when I said it. He still talks about how he thinks I was joking with him when I said it. But I told him he’s got the skill set. He’s got every tool that you can imagine. He just needs to fine-tune them.”
Hamilton admitted that he felt a bit iffy at first, but that he could have success with Doelling. Doelling’s vision for Hamilton played out quickly. Before Hamilton got to showcase his skills in the fall, Division 1 interest began to arrive after a strong seven-on-seven camp performance at the University of Florida in the summer of 2021.
“At that time, Florida had been recruiting a defensive back from Forest High School pretty heavily. Jaren made two pretty phenomenal back-to-back plays. He went up and mossed him twice. After that the next drive, [ Florida wide receivers coach] Billy Gonzalez and [then Florida head football coach] Dan Mullen came and basically pulled him out of our huddle and had a chat with them,” Doelling explained.
Gonzalez and Mullen invited Hamilton back for an individual camp later that summer and gave Hamilton his first Power-Five offer. From there, Doelling said the offers were nonstop.
In total, Hamilton received 18 offers, according to his 247 Sports recruiting profile. Thirteen of those offers came from Power-Five schools.
On the field, Hamilton proved he was worthy of the attention he was receiving. Hamilton caught 30 passes for 671 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2021. All were career-highs and helped lead the Blue Wave to an 8-4 record and playoff appearance.
“Basically, the position that I am in now, [Doelling] literally predicted. Literally said that from the start,” he said.
The following spring, Alabama began to show interest in Hamilton. Once again, Doelling and Hamilton had a conversation about his future.
“And at that point, that’s when we really sat down and was like ‘Jaren, we haven’t had an Alabama commit from the Gainesville area as far as my knowledge ever, but you’re gonna be the first one to do it’”, Doelling recalled.
However, Hamilton’s time at P.K. Yonge came to an end prior to his senior year. Feeling the need to challenge himself and face tougher competition, he made the difficult decision to transfer to Buchholz High School.
Buchholz, a member of the Florida High School Athletic Association’s 4S classification, plays larger schools such as state powerhouse Bolles of Jacksonville, Bartram Trail and Vanguard. They also had Division One talent on their roster in quarterback Creed Whittemore, receiver Jacarree Kelly and defensive lineman Gavin Hill.
“It wasn’t about, I know some people thought it was about offers or whatever. When really, for me, it was really about my overall development. Not that I didn’t get developed that P.K., but at Buchholz, I was going to experience more competition, more push,” Hamilton explained.
On June 15, after transferring from P.K. Yonge to Buchholz, Hamilton officially received the scholarship offer from Alabama during a visit on campus. Hamilton posted a picture on Twitter of himself and Alabama head coach Nick Saban, which silenced any doubters about a legitimate offer.
Bell knew once he saw the picture that Hamilton would be a member of the Crimson Tide and explained that despite having offers to in-state schools, Hamilton wanted to be a “trailblazer” for Alachua County football.
“There were people who questioned his offer to Alabama because I think he had had the quote-unquote ‘offer’ prior to visiting. But then he visits, kills it in camp and posts a picture with Nick Saban. And at that point, I believe that sort of put out any questions of that being an illegitimate offer, a non-committable offer to everybody,” he explained. “Once he came back, he was going to be a member of the Crimson Tide football team. There’s no doubt.”
Bell, who was the Bobcats’ defensive coordinator at the time, said it didn’t take long for Hamilton to get acclimated to Buchholz, where he gelled with his new teammates almost immediately. On the field, Hamilton also made his presence known almost immediately.
Hamilton caught 38 passes for 847 yards and 14 scores in his first 12 games as a senior and was a part of a talented senior class that led the Bobcats to a 10-3 record and state final four appearance.
As far as the future of football in Alachua County is concerned, Bell and Hamilton agree that it’s bright and there will be plenty more top recruits that will come out of the area. The 2023 class may have been the kick starter for the trend to begin.
“There are kids back home looking at me like, ‘Dang, I want to be like him one day.’ Or they see what I’m doing, and it’s crazy,” Hamilton said. “It just gives me a feeling like I’m really inspiring the next generation.”
In 2023, Buchholz sent four players, including Hamilton to Division 1 schools with the three signing with SEC schools. The Bobcats will reload with more top talent with three-star defensive lineman Kendall Jackson, who holds offers from Miami and Florida, leading the way.
“I think that with the explosion of talent in Alachua County over the last few years, I think it just makes it to where now these out-of-state schools, it’s a mandatory stop to come through Alachua County,” Bell said.
Additionally, Hawthorne sent three more to Division 1 schools and may have one more in class of 2025 quarterback CJ Ingram, who received an offer from East Carolina in January. At Newberry High School, class of 2025 lineman Jarquez Carter has an offer from UCF.
“It’s a lot of talent in Gainesville and, not that I feel like it gets overlooked, but I feel like a spotlight needs to get put on where I’m from,” Hamilton said. “I feel like from my contributions, a lot more production is going to start happening in the city.”
Correction appended: A previous version of this story left out former Buchholz and Alabama player Michael Smith’s accomplishments in signing with the program in the late 1980s. We regret the omission.