Rated as a three-star prospect and highly sought-after strongside defensive end, Belleville West senior Keith Randolph Jr. had college scholarship offers from many of the top college programs in the nation.
Iowa and Michigan State of the Big Ten, along with Missouri, Wyoming and Virginia were among those hoping to land the athletic 6-5, 250-pound Randolph run stuffer.. Florida State was a late entry into the Randolph sweepstakes.
And Randolph has played football for just two seasons.
On Wednesday, with his parents Keith Sr. and Kim Randolph, teammates and coaches looking on, Randolph signed his national letter of intent to join Lovie Smith at the University of Illinois.
He donned an Illinois baseball cap and sweatshirt after immediately after announcing his decision.
“It feels great. Illinois is a great school, it’s (NCAA) Division I and I’m going to be playing a Division I sport at a Big Ten Conference school.,’’ Randolph said. “I’ve wanted this for so long, since I was three or four. To finally have it come true and to be going to the University of Illinois, its a big-time dream come true,’’
One of five high school standouts to sign with Illinois as of early Wednesday afternoon, landing Randolph has been a priority of head coach Lovie Smith who is yet to have a winning season in Champaign. In three years under the former Chicago Bears head coach, Illinois is just 9-27.
The Illini haven’t had a winning season since 2011 when it finished 7-6 and won the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.
But it was Smith’s pursuit of the Maroons all-state defensive end that swung his decision.
Randolph, who made a visit to Michigan State a week ago and also considered Iowa as part of his final three schools, was in Champaign over the weekend. Florida State offered Randolph a scholarship on Tuesday night.
“Did Florida State’s offer make me think about my decision? Not really. I’ve known it was Illinois for a couple of months,’’ Randolph said. “Coach Smith was the only coach to come to one my my games. He came to watch me at East St. Louis and was wearing No. 88. He’s a great football coach who coached in the NFL and he wants to take the Illinois program to the top.
“I have been part of two very good football teams here at Belleville West and we were able to work hard and make it to the playoffs both years. I was part of a basketball program that won a state championship last year. I didn’t want to go to a college program that was really successful. I wanted to go to a a program that is rebuilding and help make it a winner. At Illinois I want to be part of the team that does that.’’
Randolph, who transferred from CBC High School in St. Louis prior to his junior year at Belleville West, was credited with 56 tackles, including 30 solos this past season. He also had seven sacks and was a first team all-conference player for coach Cameron Pettus’ squad which finished 7-3 in 2018.
Pettus said he knew Randolph was special from the time he saw him two years ago.
“We talked about getting him out for football and I’m sure he’s glad that we did,’’ Pettus said. “He’’s got a lot of potential and we’re not only looking forward to the great things that he can do in the future, but we’re glad he’s going to do them close to home where we can have a chance to see him play.’’
With the biggest decision of his life made, Randolph can get back to enjoying his senior year and hopefully helping the Maroons defend their Class 4A state basketball championship.
“Man, I’m glad the decision has been made and I go back to enjoying my senior year,’’ Randolph said. “I’m really excited about playing at Illinois and next four years.’’