With injury to starter, Belleville’s Randolph can make Illini roster as true freshman

Seven scholarship offers in four days for West football player

Belleville West defensive end Keith Randolph Jr. discusses the college football scholarship offers he has received in the past week.
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Belleville West defensive end Keith Randolph Jr. discusses the college football scholarship offers he has received in the past week.

Keith Randolph Jr. was one of the big men on the Belleville West campus during the 2018-19 season.

On the football field, the charismatic 6-5, 255-pound Randolph was playing in just his second season in shoulder pads, yet became one of the most highly-recruited defensive ends in the state. He helped lead the Maroons to a 7-3 record and a berth in the IHSA Class 7A playoffs

Blessed with raw athletic ability and quickness, Randolph had offers from Iowa and Michigan State of the Big Ten, along with Missouri, Wyoming, Virginia and national power Florida State. In the end, Randolph stayed true to to his home state and signed on with the University of Illinois.

Seven months later, Randolph is enjoying some parts being a college athlete and competing for playing time on the Fighting Illini’s defensive line.

“I”m not sure I would say I’m enjoying it,’’ Randolph said last week. “I like getting better, of course. It’s just that the road to getting better is rough sometimes. (Strength and conditioning) coach Lou (Hernandez) is a tough guy and both in that weight room and on the field, there have been some pretty rough days.

“But there are a lot of freshmen who are going through the same things. I have to realize that I’m not the only one who thinks what we’re going through is hard.’’

Randolph was still unsure of his status for the 2019 season last week. Illinois, which opens its season on Aug. 31 when it hosts Akron, suffered a big loss earlier this summer when junior defensive end Bobby Roundtree suffered a spinal injury in a swimming accident in Florida.

Keith Randolph, a graduate of Belleville West, is adjusting to life as a college athlete at the University of Illinois. The 6-4 defensive end is trying to earn a spot on the Illini’s 2019 roster as a true freshman. Robin Scholz The News-Gazette (Champaign)

An honorable mention all-Big Ten Conference player a year ago, Roundtree had started 20 of 24 games in his first two years . He had 66 tackles and led the team in both sacks (7.5) and tackles for loss (12.5). The Fighting Illini defensive front still has juniors Owen Carney (21 tackles, 2.5 sacks), Isaiah Gray, Jamal Woods and Lere Oladipo returning along with several seniors.

Randolph, who won’t turn 18 until early September, said the subject of him being red-shirted for the 2019 season has not been discussed.

“Nobody has talked to me about it,’’ Randolph said. “We’re all out here doing our best every day. It’s about performance. Those who come out and perform well every day will play. It’s pretty straightforward.

“I’ve got a lot to learn. But I’m working on becoming a better player every day.’’

Randolph was an All-Southwestern Conference first team member and Belleville News-Democrat Defensive Large School Player of the Year when he had 65 tackles and eight quarterback sacks.

He also was a two-year stater on the Maroons basketball team which captured back-to-back Class 4A state championships. On that team, high school All-American EJ Liddell signed with Ohio State and point guard Lawrence Brazil III will play college basketball at the University of Missouri at St. Louis.

Like Randolph, former Maroons teammate Will Shumpert opted to play college football. Earlier this summer, Shumpert signed with Eastern Illinois University.

“I talk to those guys all the time,” Randolph said. “When Will was gong through the recruiting process earlier this summer he was worried that he couldn’t handle it. I just told him to listen to his heart.

“I’m looking forward to this season and the future. It was difficult at times in high school having to concentrate on both football and basketball. I think not that I’m focusing on just football it will help me.’’