(Stats Perform) - As a running joke within the East Tennessee State football program, somebody will point to a player in a photo from 25 years ago and claim it's Jared Folks, who's currently starring for the Buccaneers defense.

Folks takes it in stride, sensing the good nature of it because, well, he's 25 years old -- older, he says, than perhaps young assistant coaches in the program.

This fall, Folks will cap a long, winding college career which has been extended by medical redshirts and the COVID-19 pandemic. The NCAA recently identified him as the first student-athlete to reach an eighth season of eligibility.

"Eight -- that's kind of like two careers in one," Folks said.

His status has grown to the point that he gets called "Coach Folks," a title that appears to be part of his future anyway. For now, the FCS-level program in the Southern Conference is glad to have the 6-foot-1, 230-pound inside linebacker line up in the middle of its defense, calling on-field signals and leading by example.

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In this year's unique spring season, Folks was named SoCon co-defensive player of the year by conference coaches after he led the Bucs with 50 tackles over their 4-2 campaign.

Folks never imagined his college career would be extended when he entered Temple University in the fall of 2014, considered a key recruit out of the Pennsylvania capital of Harrisburg. The coaching staff redshirted him, allowing for time to get acclimated to college and to develop physically. That's common for true freshmen in college football because the NCAA gives student-athletes five years to complete four seasons of eligibility.

A year later, though, Folks remained sidelined when shortly before the 2015 season he tore his right labrum and required season-ending surgery.

His debut occurred in 2016, when he contributed to the two-deep over 13 games, although he finished out the season with a left labrum tear. Also, shortly before Temple played in the Military Bowl, Matt Rhule stepped down as head coach to take over at Baylor, and a new coaching staff came aboard.

Folks had offseason surgery for the second labrum tear and felt he never fully meshed with the new staff while missing spring practice and most of the 2017 season due to his recovery from it. He graduated early with a communications degree that December.

A transfer down from the FBS level to ETSU moved onto Folks' radar after Marcus Satterfield, a former Temple assistant coach who helped recruit Folks to the school, briefly joined ETSU coach Randy Sanders' staff in January 2018. Folks accepted a scholarship offer without taking a visit to campus.

Once in Johnson City, though, Folks thrived in defensive coordinator Billy Taylor's system as a starter on the Bucs' 2018 team that earned a share of the SoCon title and the program's second all-time playoff appearance. He totaled 80 tackles and six sacks in what should have been his fifth-year senior campaign, but over time the NCAA afforded waivers for two extra seasons of eligibility due to his past injuries.

While finishing his graduate degree in brand and media strategy, Folks played again with a sixth season of eligibility in 2019, although he was be limited to five games by a groin injury.

Back home in Harrisburg in 2020 and thinking his career was over while he joined the workforce, the pandemic changed Folks' plans. He decided to pursue a second master's degree in business administration, so he returned to ETSU last fall and rejoined the football program with the seventh season of eligibility, something that had been reached previously by only a small number of student-athletes who also had injury-filled careers.

ETSU's fall season was postponed to the spring semester by the pandemic, and in the meantime, the NCAA decided the 2020-21 school year would not count toward any student-athlete's eligibility timeline. That afforded Folks, who is two semesters shy of finishing an MBA, an eighth season of eligibility.

"I think it's a testament to my journey," Folks said. "I've always thought I knew what was going to happen; I always thought I knew what was coming around the corner. When Coach Sanders came to me the first time and told me I got a seventh year, I thought, 'I'm not going to need that.' Then it turns out I needed it. It looks like I need my eighth, too. It's just really been a blessing."

While Folks harbors dreams of playing in the NFL, his future after the fall season figures to involve finishing off his MBA and remaining in the Bucs' program as a grad assistant coach.

The latter is something he's basically doing already.

"I kind of find myself in like a weird medium between coaches and players," Folks said, "because the coaches expect me to really be an extension of them. But then at the same time, there's 18-year-old freshmen who want to be buddy, buddy with me. So I have to try to play my role and set the example, having fun at the same time, but showing up to work, like we should. Being that guy that somebody can look up to and see what to do and not what to do, and how you need to handle yourself as a student-athlete."

Said Sanders: "He brings so much leadership, so much energy, so much maturity to the field. It's easy to see. A leader has to affect people, and that's one thing he does when he's on the field."

While joking that at his age "me and the ice tub are really good friends," Folks actually has found the fountain of youth with his career, saying that being injury-free is rejuvenating.

ETSU is expected to be in the SoCon title mix this fall, and Jared Folks will be right in the middle of that opportunity, drawing on his perspective and talent.

"I just try to set the example," said "Coach Folks," who will turn 26 in mid-November, "every snap, every practice, every play."