This month’s TaxSlayer Bowl provides the Louisville-Mississippi State matchup that Jaylen Smith and Keith Joseph Jr. often dreamed about during their senior year at Pascagoula High School.
The game features the two programs that the players signed with on Feb. 4, 2015. Smith inked with Louisville and Joseph joined the Mississippi State program that his father starred for as a linebacker. Another Pascagoula senior, defensive tackle Jauan Collins, signed with Southern Miss that same day.
All three wore broad smiles and the colors of their new schools as they posed for a photo in front of the red and blue “Pascagoula Panthers” banner in the high school’s lobby.
“Their families were just so proud to watch them sign their letters of intent and to see them finish strong and go off to their new schools,” Pascagoula coach Lewis Sims said. “Those were three phenomenal Panthers.”
Smith, now a standout junior receiver at Louisville, will jog onto the field in Jacksonville, Florida, on Dec. 30, knowing that there will be a glaring absence for he and many of the Mississippi State players who became friends with Joseph in the short time he was a member of the team.
Keith Joseph Jr. died at the age of 18 along with his father in a single-car wreck near Leakesville on Nov. 6, 2015, while driving from Starkville with plans to attend the Gautier-Pascagoula football game that night at War Memorial Stadium in Pascagoula.
Joseph was sitting out his freshman season that year in order to receive a redshirt, but his future was bright with the Bulldogs.
“I’ve been thinking about it a lot today actually, how cool it would have been to play against M.J.,” Smith said Thursday, using the nickname that Joseph was tagged with while growing up in Jackson County. “We talked about it leading up to signing day. Being that we were going to two different conferences, we thought we might actually be able to play in a national championship game. We plotted and hoped it would happen one day.”
Smith changed his jersey to No. 9 ahead of his sophomore season to honor his fallen friend. It’s the same number that Joseph wore as an extremely athletic defensive end at Pascagoula High School.
Joseph doesn’t stay far from Smith’s mind.
“I think about little stuff every day,” Smith said. “We were so tightly knit. A lot of the stuff I get, I think about how it’s the same thing he wanted. I’ll always remember the things we did together.”
Mississippi State continues to keep Joseph’s memory alive as well.
“I went to MSU coaching clinic (in March) and one of the things that impressed me the most was that they still have M.J.’s locker and his shoulder pads are hanging in there,” Sims said. “I know that made me proud as a coach. I know that would make his family happy knowing that he was not forgotten.
“I know when Jaylen puts on that No. 9 he says a little prayer that M.J. will watch out for him.”
Smith is realizing a dream at Louisville that the Joseph family had in mind for Keith Jr. The 6-foot-3, 219-pound receiver was named First-Team All-ACC in November despite missing three games with a wrist injury.
Smith became the main target this season for 2016 Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson, who had a strong junior season with 42 touchdowns total. Smith caught 53 passes for 873 yards and six touchdowns while helping lead the Cardinals to an 8-4 campaign.
“This season was a learning experience,” Smith said. “Coming in, we had one of the better teams in the country. We returned a lot of players, but people still doubted us. It got to a point where we were fighting to stay afloat for a bowl. We buckled down and won the last three games.”
Smith, who is on track to graduate in December 2018, has gained some traction as an NFL prospect. He can improve his case as a prospect with a strong showing against Mississippi State, which is also 8-4.
Smith hasn’t decided yet if he wants to test the waters for the NFL Draft after this season.
“I really just want to finish out the season strong and be as close as possible to 100 percent as I can,” he said.
While Smith looks forward to taking on a Mississippi State team full of familiar faces from his high school days, he hates that he never got to play his good friend on the college level.
“I just think it would have been a fun game,” Smith said. “It’s something we would have loved to experience.”