From Smithfield High to the NFL: Willie Drew signs with Panthers

Published 5:09 pm Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Willie Drew, a 23-year-old former Smithfield High School football standout, has signed an undrafted free-agent contract with the Carolina Panthers.

Drew graduated Smithfield High School in 2018 after leading the Packers to nine straight victories as the team’s quarterback during his fall 2017 senior season at SHS, according to past reporting by The Smithfield Times. He began his college football career at James Madison University, where the two-time SHS Player of the Year played in four games as a freshman, making his first career tackle against William & Mary according to JMU’s website.

When a knee injury seven games into his sophomore year, followed by the Division I school’s decision not to field a team in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, sent his hopes of going pro spiraling, Drew transferred to Virginia State University, a Division II school.

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At VSU, Drew started eight games in 2021, scoring 25 tackles, a tackle for loss and three pass breakups. In 2022, Drew was named first-team Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association after playing in all 10 games with nine starts. In 2023, he was named second-team Associated Press Division II All-American, CIAA Defensive Player of the Year and first-team All-CIAA.

According to Sports Illustrated, Drew was one of only two players from a historically Black college or university invited to this year’s NFL Combine. Around 300 players attend the four-day, invitation-only event each year, allowing NFL scouts to evaluate the top draft-eligible players.

There, he was ranked 5.93 out of a possible 8.0 perfect score for the NFL Draft, which took place April 25-27. He scored third out of more than 200 players nationwide on the 10-yard split, finishing in 1.49 seconds. Despite projections that he could be drafted in the sixth round, he went undrafted over the weekend.

VSU Head Football Coach Henry Frazier III called Drew a “fantastic young man that truly deserves the opportunity of playing in the NFL as well as being drafted into the NFL.”

“Willie was our leader on the defensive side of the ball whom we always could count on to make the big play and shut down our opponent’s best wide receiver,” Frazier told The Smithfield Times.

As an undrafted free agent, Drew will have an opportunity to attend training camp and potentially could still play professionally, though he’ll have to compete with his former high school teammate, Chris Pierce Jr., for a spot on the team.

Pierce, who graduated SHS a year ahead of Drew in 2017, joined the Arizona Cardinals in 2022 as an undrafted free agent after graduating from Vanderbilt University. The Panthers signed Pierce to a reserve contract in January.

It’s the second time in two years that two of former SHS Head Coach Reginald Chavis’ players have become undrafted NFL free agents.

Prior to Pierce, the last time a former SHS Packer made it to the NFL was in 1985, when 1981 graduate Reginald “Reggie” Langhorne was drafted by the Cleveland Browns following his time at Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina.