Even in pee wee league and middle school football, they knew.
The feastful crop of Division I talents from the Greater Killeen-Temple area that signed national letters of intent on Wednesday could all see their potential long before the college recruiters.
“Growing up, you think all your friends are going to make it big with you, and just the fact that we can actually do it is great,” said Harker Heights offensive lineman Darius James, who signed with Texas. “We never saw it like this, but we saw it (playing out) like this, know what I mean?”
Some were driven by school pride, others remained true to their boyhood dreams, many — 12 — cemented their commitment to playing Division I college football on National Signing Day. The six Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) and Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) signees from Killeen ISD, alone, made up one of the largest classes since the district split from two to four schools in 2000.
“It just shows you what Central Texas has to offer,” said Killeen defensive back Deric Robertson, who signed with Oklahoma State. “We have dominant players all around at each school and it’s just like a sentiment to show what we can do.”
Big 12 power
Mainly, it was the Big 12 that cleaned up in the area, adding five of the 12 to the rosters of four schools. Harker Heights linebacker Naashon Hughes also signed with Texas, giving the Longhorns three former Knights’ players in the last two seasons.
The Longhorns have been plenty busy recruiting the area after a long hiatus. Since 2011, five area players have signed with Texas. Prior to that, Roy Miller (Shoemaker) was the last in 2005, the Longhorns’ smallest class — which included Colt McCoy, Quan Cosby, Jamaal Charles — prior to this year.
Shoemaker running back Johnny Jefferson signed with Baylor and Temple quarterback Zach Allen signed with TCU. Belton tight end Durham Smythe signed with Notre Dame after de-committing from Texas.
“We’ve been playing with all these guys since we were 8 (years old), so to think all of us are going to a big college now is great for us,” said Hughes, whose older brother Camrhon Hughes (Texas) was one of five Division I signees last February. Smythe’s teammate, cornerback Kyle Battle, was one of two area stars to enlist in a service academy. Battle joined Navy and Copperas Cove center/nose tackle Justin Greene chose Air Force.
“People don’t get to see our practices, but we all know what happens and now I get to show people on national television,” Battle said.
“It means a lot to be a Division I athlete,” he added. “The work I am doing is paying off. It is a great feeling to see so many people sign and that a lot of my teammates are going to be there with me — especially getting to play against them.”
Harker Heights defensive back Tyrel Stokes signed with Sam Houston State; Killeen linebacker Jeffery Banks signed with Texas State; Temple offensive lineman Freddie Jackson signed with SMU and Florence quarterback Kaleb Hardy signed with Division I-newcomer Incarnate Word.
Hardy was the Buffaloes’ first Division I football player in school history. And even he had to accept that he might not get to play quarterback.
The Cardinals recruited Hardy as an athlete and see the senior more as a linebacker or defensive end prospect, although, he could see time at quarterback depending on how he performs once he arrives in San Antonio.
“What I told the coaches was, ‘I would like the shot at quarterback.' I have spent a lot of time working on it, but in the end I just want to play,’” Hardy said.
Trying to find his own role in middle school, Banks adopted a similar philosophy — he was going to do whatever it took to put himself in position to be an impact player, one that Division I recruiters noticed.
“It’s a lot of competition and you’ve got to get hungry,” Banks said. “You’ve got to go for the best, you’ve got keep trying for the best and when you fall, just get back up.”
Belton quarterback Peter Shelbourne turned down Division III offers to take a preferred walk-on opportunity with Rice, in hopes of earning a scholarship.
“I think it will push me harder,” Shelbourne said. “There is always something you have to work for, so the next thing is to work for a scholarship.”
Before the Killeen stars went on to bring nation-wide attention to their respective high schools, they started on pee wee league teams together. When they were eight, Stokes played quarterback while Naashon was center on one team and James and Jefferson were running backs for another.
“Growing up we all knew we were athletes, we all know what we can do, we all knew we were at the cream of the crop,” said James, the No. 1 center prospect in the country. “We knew we were going to make it. But unlike other people, we didn’t just say we were going to make D-1 and didn’t.”