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Knights’ Baldwin ready for fresh start after signing on with Carson-Newman

Posted: June 7, 2017 4:18 p.m.
Updated: June 9, 2017 1:00 a.m.
Tom Didato/C-I

NORTH CENTRAL’S GWENDEN BALDWIN signed a National Letter of Intent to continue his academic and football-playing pursuits at Carson-Newman University while flanked by his parents, Crystal and Kurtis Stukes. Standing, from left, are NC assistant principal Chad Dixon, Baldwin’s sister and brother, Rosemary and Myles Stukes, NC assistant coach Jamie Rodgers, former NC head football coach Louis Clyburn and NC assistant coach Eddie Deese.

In a high school career in which injuries seemed to pile on top of each other, Gwenden Baldwin never lost faith in himself or, his love for his teammates and the game itself.

The injury bug stayed with the North Central lineman all the way through his senior season, limiting the 6-foot-1, 245-pounder to not being listed on the team’s tackle sheet. Now, Baldwin is looking to make up for lost time and he will be doing it at Carson-Newman University.

Baldwin took the next step in his academic and football dreams by signing a National Letter of Intent with C-NU in a ceremony held inside The Castle in Boonetown. Once everything was official, an excited Baldwin sported an ear-to-ear grin.

He said this was a day long in coming.

“Ever since I was young,” he said of how long he had wanted to play football. “The NFL was a big dream but you have to go step-by-step. I made it to college so that’s one dream fulfilled.”

Baldwin’s head coach as a Knight, Louis Clyburn, said the enthusiasm people see in his former two-way lineman is infectious.

“Gwenden is one of the best people that we’ve had in this program at North Central,” said the former NC boss who is now the offensive line coach at Camden. “You talk about adversity; he’s had injuries, shoulder surgeries and has just been as persistent as can be. He loves the game of football.

“He’s had spring or fall seasons where he has been injured and he always asked, ‘Coach, can I come out to practice? Can I ride with the team? Can I be around the guys?’ He just loves it.”

His final campaign in Boonetown was hardly injury free but his lack of playing time did not deter him from trying to play his way onto a college team. At the conclusion of the season, Baldwin wanted to keep playing the game he loves. So, earlier this spring, he had a one-on-one meeting with Clyburn to examine his possible collegiate options.

“He said, ‘Coach, I want to give it a shot. I know I’m not going to get recruited by the ACC’s or the SEC’s. I don’t have any visions of grandeur like that but I do want to go to school and give it a shot,’” Clyburn said of that meeting.

“He and I started looking and made a list of four or five schools. We started calling places where he wanted to go and, quite honestly, where I had some friends coaching college football. Carson-Newman was a place that just jumped out to him. I asked him, ‘Are you sure?’ We called them and went there for a tryout and a visit and they fell in love with his attitude, the respect he has for people and all the intangibles and all the things that you kind of get a sense of as a coach. They fell in love with it.”

The feeling, Baldwin said of his college choice, was mutual.

“Carson-Newman just seemed like it was a good fit for me,” Baldwin said of the school located in Jefferson City, Tenn. “It’s a Christian school. I am a Christian and like the Christian belief so I decided to go to a Christian school. I also wanted to get out of the state, too.

“I went out to Tennessee, saw the school and liked it.”

Baldwin started his high school career as a tight end and linebacker. As he filled out, he was moved to offensive line while also playing end on defense. The Eagles plan on moving Baldwin to either inside or outside linebacker, a shift which is fine with him.

“I would like to be up front but the guys there are really, really tall and I’m really, really short. But I think I will be a stud middle linebacker,” he said of the change in position.

Clyburn said Baldwin’s aggressiveness will serve him well on the field. And not having to block larger players in practice every day will help his shoulders, which gave him troubles in high school.

 Clyburn said C-NU head coach Ken Sparks’ staff was impressed with Baldwin’s foot speed and quickness during his workout on campus. Clyburn said he expects Baldwin to flourish once he gets adjusted to his new surroundings.

“They’re bringing him in with all their other guys and I think he’s going to have a real opportunity there because he’s going to grow as a football player in terms of his body stature,” he said. “Gwenden hasn’t had a 12-month time frame where he was able to lift weights and do all those things. Once he gets that under his belt --- and he’ll probably get redshirted --- he is going to have a chance to play some really good college football.”

Baldwin said another option for him, due to his size, weight and skill set, could be his being employed as a hybrid defensive end who will drop back in pass coverage like a linebacker. Either way, he said, not playing in a three-point stance will bring new responsibilities with it for him in college.

“I’ll have to worry about the quick people now,” he said with a laugh. “I’ll have to worry about wide receivers, the running back going out for a pass. I’ll be playing in coverage while also looking out for the run.”

Under Sparks, the Eagles won five NAIA National Championships and advanced to the 2009 NCAA Division II semifinals. While the program has a winning history on the field, Baldwin said C-NU coaches emphasize being winners in the classroom, as well.

“They really harp on your schoolwork and you have to keep a good (grade point) average,” he said. “I just have to keep the schoolwork all together and focusing on football. Playing football in college takes a lot out of your day. I just have to be ready for it.”

Another thing Baldwin said he is more than ready for is the chance to see a different part of the country. He said he is not nervous about leaving home for Tennessee.

“I’m a pretty brave child, a pretty brave kid. I’m ready to explore and do good,” he said “I’m really excited. I’m ready to get out there.”

Another person who is almost as excited Baldwin is Clyburn, who expects big things from his former player.

“I’m proud of Gwenden and happy for him and his family,” he said. “He has a bright future ahead of him.”



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