LAGRANGE, Ga. — The resurgence of Kentucky football has been in part due to a growing number of LaGrange High products. Former Grangers have been a fixture on the Wildcats’ roster in recent years and played a key role in three straight bowl wins for the once struggling program.
Kentucky has had a former Granger on its football roster every year since 2004. The roster has four LaGrange players this season: red-shirt sophomore defensive back Randall Burden, red-shirt freshman walk-on kicker Pat Simmons, and freshmen linebackers Qua Huzzie and Tristian Johnson. Huzzie was lost for the season with a shoulder injury and will red-shirt.
Burden is challenging for a starting position in the defensive backfield. Johnson, a defensive end in high school, was moved to linebacker to take advantage of his speed. Simmons is competing for handling the kickoffs. Huzzie was expected to see playing time this season before the injury.
“I think it is a bigger deal because I’m from Kentucky (Hopkinsville) and Joker (assistant head coach Joker Phillips, who is also the head coach in waiting) and I are friends, but you see this at other schools.” LaGrange head coach Steve Pardue said. “A few kids go, then other kids go visit and there is that immediate comfort of a buddy being there.
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“Now the fans up there they just love LaGrange guys. They’ve all done so well that actually there is a little pressure on a guy from LaGrange when he goes up there. He is held to a little higher standard than everybody else.”
The LaGrange-Kentucky connection began in the late ’90s with wide receiver Quentin McCord. Pardue met Phillips through his brother-in-law, who coached high school football in Kentucky. Pardue recommended McCord, who played both wide receiver and defensive back in high school.
Phillips recruited McCord as a wide receiver after seeing game film. McCord started as a freshman and went on to three seasons in the NFL after leaving Kentucky.
After McCord, it would be three years before another Granger headed to Kentucky. Wesley Woodyard, a late bloomer in high school according to Pardue, committed to the Wildcats early in his senior season.
Woodyard became a fixture in the Wildcat defensive lineup as a linebacker. He was elected a team captain as a freshman. Woodyard went on to earn All-SEC honors for two seasons. He made the Denver Broncos as an undrafted free agent last season, playing in all 16 games and starting the final six.
“I tell Joker he’s over-rated, Wesley is the one who recruited the rest of these guys,” Pardue points out.
“Wesley is such a personable person that he knew everyone on that campus. So, when a kid went up, he got to meet a lot of people.”
Because of Woodyard, Braxton Kelly and DeMoreo Ford both committed to Kentucky. Both played four years for the Wildcats. Kelly earned second team all-conference honors from Phil Steele’s College Football. Kelly has followed Woodyard to the Broncos, trying to make the team as an undrafted free agent. Ford will be working as a student coach with the Wildcats.
For most of these LaGrange players, Kentucky is the only SEC school offering them a chance at a scholarship. For those who choose Kentucky, it is the best offer they have on the table.
“They (Kentucky) just kind of gotten where they have fallen in love with us, as much as anything, because the kids had done so well they’ve signed,” Pardue points out.
There could be as many as six former Grangers on the roster in 2010. Michael Bailey is finishing up this season at a junior college and is expected to head for Kentucky. Senior place kicker Joseph Mansour committed to the Wildcats back in May.
The draw to Kentucky for LaGrange High athletes has extended to other sports. Former Granger Chip Aplin will be on the Wildcat swim team this season after transferring from Darton Junior College in Albany.