PEORIA — A roar rumbled in the direction of the Belleville West High School student section on Friday night.

The source of the ear-rattling shout was 6-foot-5, 270-pound senior Keith Randolph Jr. He had just led the Maroons in scoring in a Class 4A basketball state semifinal win against Chicago Curie and was one win from his second consecutive state championship, which the Maroons won Saturday night.

Randolph celebrated on the court, did his postgame television interview and had a long embrace with his father, Keith Randolph Sr. After the game, Randolph Jr. sat at the podium for his news conference with the reality sinking in that he had one more basketball game left in his career before he focused his attention to being a defensive end for the University of Illinois football team.

Two years ago, this would have been the start of the next chapter of his basketball career. Football wasn't on his radar. He transferred to Belleville West from CBC in St. Louis as a "hooper." It didn't take long for former West football coach Cameron Pettus and defensive coordinator Brian Cappel to notice Randolph and turn their attention to getting him on the football field.

The coaches had to prod Randolph and convince him to play. It took a little time before the Randolph family was convinced of the idea. The younger Randolph didn't want to get hurt and jeopardize his basketball career. Eventually he came along to the idea of playing and Randolph Sr. encouraged his son to "give it a shot."

"Two years later," Randolph Sr. said from the floor of Carver Arena, "look at where we are: U of I.”

In Randolph Jr., Pettus saw a high-motor on the basketball floor. He dived for loose balls, battled in the paint and played strong defense. Pettus used words like "beast" and "tenacious" to describe Randolph. He knew those skills would transfer to the football field.

They did from Day 1.

"Then like, boom," Randolph Jr. said. "I’m not going to say I started and hit the ground running, but I started jogging a little bit."

On his first day of practice, he picked up an offer from Lindenwood-Belleville, an NAIA school. It opened his eyes.

“I was like, ‘Wow,'" he said. "If I can get that my first day of practice, what can I get if I play this year and next year?’”

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By the time his high school football career wrapped up, he was a three-star recruit according to 247Sports and had offers from all over the country that included Illinois — his first Power 5 Conference offer — along with Michigan State, Iowa, Florida State, Minnesota, Purdue, Rutgers and more.

As a senior he had 56 tackles, nine tackles for a loss and seven sacks. There's still much more to learn. He admittedly still steps in the wrong direction on the field, he just found out what the squeezing technique was last season, and doesn't know the difference between strong-side and weak-side defensive end. His self-evaluation is "just scratching the surface."

That was actually part of his allure to coaches.

"They told me I could go to the NFL," he said. "Every coach that I’ve talked to said with me being so raw and me not knowing what I’m doing on the field, with their coaching and with their training, I could go as far as I want to with the sport."

For two years, Randolph played with his instincts. In a practice early in his junior season, he avoided a cut block and jumped up to swat a ball down at the line of scrimmage. Pettus and his staff hadn't even taught that part of the game to Randolph yet.

In that moment, all of Pettus' suspicions that Randolph could be a special talent came to fruition. Eventually, Power 5 coaches saw it, too.

“They see a kid with that kind of physical ability and talent, a lot of college coaches are willing to take a shot," Pettus said. "He just really proved himself. That first year he came out to play football really got the ball rolling."

Intensity without knowledge got Randolph to the college football scene. Now that basketball season is over, he's turning all of his attention to football. He'll join a deep, talented Illinois defensive line. Randolph Sr. can envision sitting in stands at Memorial Stadium and seeing his son, still a football rookie, in his Illinois uniform and playing with the same fervor that got him to that point and made him a standout basketball player.

Randolph Sr. has always encouraged his son to play with intensity. It's the reason Randolph Sr. wears a sweatshirt with pictures on the front and back of he and his son celebrating milestones. In the upper left corner are four letters: K.T.S.E.

The meaning is simple: Keep that same energy.

"I love him," Randolph Sr. said. "He’s my life. He’s my namesake. I’m proud of him and I know what he’s going to bring to the program. I know they’re going to appreciate him because he’s going to bring everything he has."

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Contact Joey Wagner at (217) 421-6970. Follow him on Twitter: @mrwagner25


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