Seven scholarship offers in four days for West football player
In his two years playing defensive end for the Belleville West Maroons, Keith Randolph Jr. went from football neophyte to a player who could compete for a starting position at the University of Illinois.
Blessed with natural athletic ability, the 6-foot-5 255-pound Randolph earned all-state recognition this past season as one of the defensive leaders on a team that finished 7-3 and once again qualified for the Class 7A Playoffs.
Three years ago, Randolph’s focus was basketball.
“When I was in the eighth grade, I had it all figured out what I was going to do. I was going to go to CBC (Christian Brothers College Prep) in St. Louis, start as freshman on the basketball team and have an offer from Duke by the time I was a senior,” Randolph said. “Football? I played once when I was 10 and I ended up quitting. I didn’t like the football pants and I didn’t like wearing a helmet and shoulder pads.”
But after transferring to Belleville West for his sophomore year, and with the encouragement of former Maroons head coach Cameron Pettus and his staff, football took on a sudden allure.
Named as the Belleville News-Democrat large school defensive player of the year for the 2018 season, Randolph was a force on the defensive line, finishing with 65 tackles, eight quarterback sacks and three fumble recoveries. There were metro east players who had more tackles and more quarterback sacks, but none can match Randolph’s development into a top NCAA Division I recruit.
“I never would have believed I would have come this far this fast,” Randolph said. “Coach Pettus, coach (Brian) Capell and a couple of the other coaches, they are the ones who talked me into trying out.
“The entire coaching staff were talking football. My sophomore year I had Coach Capell for PE and he was always bringing up football. Coach (Brian) Edgar told me that he’d play me one-on-one in basketball and if he beat me I had to come out for football.
“And he beat me.”
Basketball is still a big part of Randolph’s life. One of the top players on a Maroons team which won the Class 4A state title a year ago, Randolph is having another exceptional season as a senior. The Maroons are currently 20-1 and ranked first in the Class 4A state basketball poll.
But from the time Randolph entered West, the football coaches saw Randolph’s size, speed, quickness and potential and knew he had a chance to be a special player.
“When I first saw him? I saw the size, the speed, the frame and a great deal of natural ability and potential,” said Capell, the Maroons defensive coordinator. “He’s a great kid and he’s very coachable, but because he was new to the sport, I think it took a little time for him to take in what we wanted him to do.
“Hes a nimble kid. I don’t think you see an athlete with his size do the things that he can do very often. Keith has the world of potential and I think that once he gets to Illinois, he’ll get even better. There’s no doubt in my mind that his best football is in front of him.”
Randolph has been pleased with his progress as a Maroons football player. He feels he has come a long way from the first day of practice two years ago.
“The toughest part for me was getting use to the contact. Fortunately for me, my body is the type that can absorb a lot of contact and I can keep on playing,” Randolph said. “I remember the first day of practice my junior year. I really didn’t know what I was doing that well and one of my good friends, who is an offensive guard, just leveled me. But I got up.
“This season I felt like I got better in all areas of the game. We had another good season, made it to the playoffs. It was great to be out there with all of my buddies every night and every week. Guys like Jack (McCloskey) and Will (Lanxon) and several others we’re close.”
Randolph will leave for Champaign and the University of Illinois in early June where he will take summer school classes and begin his training for his first season on coach Lovie Smith’s team.
“I know I have to get bigger, stronger and quicker, but I’m looking forward to getting there and getting started. I’ve talked to some of the players and they say it’s a great place and they have fun. But that when its time to work, they work. I like that,” Randolph said. “My long-range goal is to be an all-American and to win the Heisman Trophy when I’m a senior.
“I know no defensive end has ever won the Heisman. I want to be the first.”