ALBEMARLE –– Although no players from Stanly County were selected in the 2020 NFL Draft last month, three former standouts have since inked free-agent deals with NFL franchises.
North Stanly’s Antonio Williams signed with the Buffalo Bills, North Stanly’s T.J. Smith signed with the San Diego Chargers, and Albemarle’s Lee Autry signed with the Chicago Bears.
That brings the number of Stanly players in the league up to six. The other three are two former Albemarle Bulldogs — Indianapolis Colts defensive end Denico Autry (Lee Autry’s older brother) and Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman R.J. Prince — as well as former West Stanly Colts standout and current New York Giants defensive tackle B.J. Hill.
Williams becomes the first four-year player from North Stanly to sign a free agent deal with an NFL team.
“So blessed to be joining the Buffalo Bills, can’t wait to get to work!” Williams tweeted shortly after being signed.
Williams’ head coach at North Carolina, Mack Brown, posted on Twitter about his former player making to the NFL.
“(Antonio) faced so much adversity during his career, but all he did was show up with a positive attitude, be a team leader and do anything he could do to help our team,” Brown tweeted. “He’s a physically gifted running back but also played on almost all of our special teams. He’s worked really hard over the last year to put himself in this position and he deserves all the success he can get.”
During his time at North Stanly, Williams became the school’s all-time leader in rushing yards (8,012) and sits sixth all-time in North Carolina High School Athletic Association history. He spent his collegiate career as a running back for two schools; his first two years were with the Ohio State Buckeyes before he spent his final two years with the Tar Heels.
Smith played collegiately at Arkansas and was with the Comets in high school before transferring to Colquitt County High School in Georgia before his senior season. College scouts took notice of his performance on an undefeated Packers team that won 6A state playoffs and he ended up playing 27 games as a defensive tackle with the Razorbacks.
Smith received many honors during his time at Arkansas, including the 2019 Broyles Razorback Award, the 2018 Fall SEC Academic Honor Roll selection, and the 2018 SEC Community Service Team selection.
The third Stanly player to join the NFL last week was the younger Autry, who played defensive line for Itawamba Community College before eventually becoming a starter for the Mississippi State Bulldogs, mirroring the path to the league that his brother, Denico, took.
Autry saw action in 18 career games with Mississippi State and was a starter for six of them. The 6-foot-2, 310-pound defensive tackle went undrafted but signed with Chicago. He is one of 11 undrafted free agents that agreed to terms with the Bears.