Darrell “DJ” Harding Jr., star wide receiver for the West Orange football team and a Duke University commit, wants to be known for his success on the field — and in the classroom.
Darrell “DJ” Harding Jr. is very good at football.
Rated a three-star prospect by recruiting services such as Rivals and 247sports, the athletic abilities of the senior wide receiver for the West Orange Warriors have had college coaches fawning for a few years now.
But simply being good at football never has been the goal — not in the Harding household.
“That’s one thing my parents always put an emphasis on — part of me getting good grades is them pushing me,” Harding said. “It didn’t matter if I was good at football, their goal was to make me the best person I could be — not necessarily the best athlete.”
It would seem Harding’s parents — Darrell Harding Sr. and Heather Harding — have been successful on both fronts.
Harding isn’t just committed to play Division I football — he is committed to Duke University. It’s a commitment made possible in part because Harding also has a 4.4 weighted-GPA and scored an 1,130 on the SAT.
He excels in the classroom at West Orange High and, for good measure, is lauded as one of the most pleasant and respectful students on campus.
“I told some people the other day ... I’ve never really had somebody in my program who just does everything right, all the time,” Warriors head coach Bob Head said. “He’s just one of those kids who does everything right and tries to lift up everybody else around him.”
Of course, although being good at football has not been the ultimate goal, it sure is a plus — for Harding and for the Warriors (4-1).
After a junior season in 2017 during which he caught 24 passes for 390 yards and eight touchdowns, Harding has already racked up 16 catches for 332 yards and five touchdowns at the midway point of his senior season. He also has a kickoff return for a touchdown.
His numbers don’t tell the entire story, either.
For instance, two of his touchdowns this year came at pivotal moments for the Warriors in a win against Dr. Phillips. As a junior, he had two crucial touchdowns in a signature victory against Apopka. Time and again, he has played well for West Orange in important moments.
"He's just a big-time player. When the competition gets better, his play gets better. He has a knack for making big plays."
— Bob Head, West Orange football coach
“He’s just a big-time player,” Head said. “When the competition gets better, his play gets better. He has a knack for making big plays.”
Harding was called up to the Warriors’ varsity squad as a freshman in 2015 — he was playing defensive back at the time — just in time for the program’s memorable run to the FHSAA Class 8A State Semifinals. Part of an expanded playoff roster, he did not see the field during the regional playoffs but instead soaked in the experience of playing for a state-ranked team, full of Division I prospects.
It has given him the ability to compare and contrast the two teams — and their outlook.
“That team had a little bit more talent,” Harding said. “But I believe this is the closest team that we’ve had. ... I believe we have the same potential to go far this year.”
It helps, also, that the on-field connection between him and quarterback Elijah Stimmell has progressed as much as it has. In 2017, Stimmell spent most of the season in a position battle with Brenden Cyr — a battle that Stimmell eventually won.
With no doubt about who the starter is this fall — Cyr is a quarterback for Dr. Phillips — the plan of attack put together by offensive coordinator Vernon Mitchell has had the added benefit of familiarity and has been that much more effective.
“It’s a great feeling when this offense is clicking,” Harding said. “Stimmell did a great job of stepping up ... and he’ll be great from here on out.”
The West Orange football team is about to enter the most important stretch of the season. Games against Wekiva, Jones and Apopka will go a long way toward determining its playoff fate.
It looms large for every member of the team, Harding included, but it does not obscure the big-picture goal this senior has so far as his legacy on campus.
“I want to be remembered not just for what I do on the field,” Harding said. “Being able to be remembered on the field and in the classroom is just giving another reason for people to look up to you. I just want to make sure I’m setting the right example.”