This story was originally published in the Courier Journal.
When Rob Mallory interviewed for the athletic director job at Kentucky Wesleyan College in spring 2015, school president Bart Darrell boasted to him: “We’ve got a kid in our football program I think is NFL.”
Mallory was once a head football manager at the University of Notre Dame. His response was a blank stare.
“To be honest, I was kind of dismissive of that when he said it,” Mallory said. “I’m thinking to myself, ‘You know, he’s probably really good for this level.’ But then the first time I saw him play, the first time I saw him on the practice field, I was like, ‘Oh wow, OK. He wasn’t lying. This kid is different.’”
Wide receiver Keelan Cole has since continued to prove Darrell correct and so many others wrong.
A Louisville native who didn’t play much as an undersized defensive back at Central High School, Cole is now one game from the Super Bowl. He will play Sunday for the Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC championship game against the New England Patriots, the latest step in an implausible climb from Kentucky Wesleyan to stardom as a 24-year-old undrafted NFL rookie.
“It’s an amazing story,” said Ty Scroggins, who coached Cole at Central. “And he’s making plays. It’s not like he’s just on the roster.”
Cole’s 748 receiving yards during the 2017 regular season led Jacksonville’s team, and most of it came in the final month. He caught seven passes for 186 yards against the Houston and then snagged six passes for 108 yards the following week against San Francisco.
Such a dramatic rise in production delighted Jaguars fans, observant fantasy football owners and plenty on Kentucky Wesleyan’s campus.
They’ve started holding watch parties around Owensboro to celebrate the surprising success of Cole and the Jaguars, who’ve won two playoff games to set up Sunday’s showdown with New England.
“It’s been tremendous to see one of our own have that level of success,” Mallory said. “We all knew he had a very high talent level and was a special football player, but I’m not sure any of us envisioned in our wildest dreams he’d have such an impact so quickly in the league. … It’s just been amazing to see, and the community has been engrossed by his journey.”
According to Cole’s father, there was never a time when his son didn’t want to be a football player.
“He’s doing something that he’s really ate, drank and slept his whole life,” Michael Morgan said, “since he’s been like 5 years old. … There was never that time in his life in his mind that wasn’t what he wanted to do with his life.”
This was more than just passion, Morgan explained, but a staunch belief that never dissipated.
Not in little league when Cole was usually the smallest player on his team taking on far bigger opponents. Not at Central, when much of his playing time for years came as the holder on kicks. Not when he wasn’t recruited out of high school and ended up at NCAA Division II Kentucky Wesleyan, redshirting his first season because, again, he was too small.
How small? Back in 2008, Cole was 5-foot-5, 125-pound freshman at Central, Scroggins said, and in Morgan’s mind it might have been closer to 5-foot-4 “on stilts.”
Cole was a defensive back for Scroggins’ powerhouse program. Early on, he played mostly in blowouts, once Central had built a big enough lead. He started a handful of games as a senior, Scroggins said, and then missed the rest of the season after suffering a concussion.
“He never really played with us,” Scroggins said. “We probably had about six or seven guys that went Division I off his teams when he was there for four years. And Keelan was never one of the guys that we had ever dreamed would make it to the NFL. … He was not the best kid on the team. He was way down the list, actually. We had a lot of players that were a lot better than him in high school, but it shows that hard work and determination goes a long way.”
Cole, who played other sports in high school and initially planned to play baseball in college too, was never viewed as a football recruit. He visited Hanover College in Indiana and then ended up at Kentucky Wesleyan partially because his uncle was the campus minister.
He wasn’t necessarily a walk-on because he did receive a small amount of financial aid via scholarship, but “Was Keelan a top recruit for us? No,” said Kentucky Wesleyan coach Brent Holsclaw.
But about this time, Cole — who is now listed as 6 feet, 1 inch — grew about five or six inches, his father said. In a way, this was expected. There were tall men in his family, but admittedly, “it happened later than he would have liked,” Morgan said.
Still too thin, Cole redshirted his first college season and began adding weight.
“Keelan just took the weight room so serious and what he was putting in his body in terms of nutrition,” Holsclaw said. “It was just a dream for him. He worked and worked and worked.”
“I think in his heart he was thinking, ‘People are going to regret not recruiting me,’” Morgan said. “And I think it showed on the field once he got to Kentucky Wesleyan that he had a point to prove, and he tried to put it to every team that he played against.”
As a sophomore in 2014, Cole took off.
Kentucky Wesleyan’s statistical archive reads as follows for the final three seasons of Cole’s college career: 4,323 receiving yards, 205 receptions and 53 touchdowns.
He was consistent, too. He topped 1,300 yards in all three seasons and averaged at least 127.4 receiving yards per game in each of them.
“His humility combined with incredible work ethic and drive, I haven’t really seen that combination before,” said Darrell, the school’s president. “… Everything looked different when he touched the ball. He just continually made plays where you just thought, ‘How did that happen?’”
It was maybe the second year of that run, during which Cole had a game with 278 yards and five touchdowns, that Holsclaw — a former college quarterback who played at Trinity in Louisville — truly began to realize what he had.
Sensing a future in the sport for Cole, Holsclaw began asking around outside the program for advice on how to best market his player to NFL teams.
“I knew the biggest hurdle this kid is going to have is the fact that he plays at Kentucky Wesleyan,” Holsclaw said. “Certainly, we’re not an NFL factory by any means. … His stats and his film were good enough to where the scouts started showing up at the end of his junior year in the spring.”
The Jaguars, Holsclaw said, were the first NFL team to show up to scout Cole. Ultimately, however, “every team came in.”
Cole was able to participate in Western Kentucky University’s pro day last year, getting him in front of more NFL teams. Scouts had concerns about Cole’s weight, but there was sincere interest in him as well.
By the time the 2017 NFL draft rolled around, Holsclaw said he was hopeful that Cole might get drafted late, maybe in the sixth or seventh round. It didn’t happen, but as soon as the draft ended, teams began calling with free-agent offers.
“There were a few other teams interested,” Morgan said, “but Jacksonville was definitely more interested than the other teams.”
Cole agreed to join the Jaguars on the same day he graduated from Kentucky Wesleyan. But like all undrafted free agents, he was still a longshot to make the team. Jacksonville’s offseason roster reached 90 players in early May. The final active roster before the first game would have 53 players on it.
Offseason camps turned into preseason games, and Cole was still there, making plays, earning praise and ultimately making the team.
“I really felt like that year he was a senior I had the best player in the state of Kentucky,” Holsclaw said. “The problem is, I’m at Kentucky Wesleyan. I’m not in Lexington. I’m not in Louisville. I’m not in Bowling Green. … I was very confident in his skill set. It was a no-brainer. The key was just getting him in front of people, I felt like, and I know Keelan was confident. His comment to me was, ‘Coach, I just need a chance.’ We were able to get him a chance, and he’s taken full advantage of his opportunity. And I think the people in Jacksonville are smart enough to see that.
“Obviously, they’re in Jacksonville getting ready to play in the AFC championship game.”
Cole played right away this season, but his role for the Jaguars gradually increased as the season progressed. And as he has emerged, so has his team, going from one of the league’s worst squads in 2016 to Super Bowl contender in 2017.
During last weekend’s upset victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, Cole made highlight reels by jumping between two defenders for a key 45-yard reception.
Keelan Cole for 45 yards!
— NFL (@NFL) January 14, 2018
Watch parties in Owensboro the past two weeks for NFL playoff games have numbered 40-50 people, according to Mallory, who said with a laugh that “Owensboro, Kentucky, is now a hotbed for Jacksonville Jaguars merchandise.”
“It’s not just because he’s a good football player,” Mallory said. “He’s playing on Sundays and in the NFL playoffs because he’s a good football player. He’s getting that level of support here in Owensboro because he’s a tremendous young man who made an impact on and off the football field.”
Through it all, Cole hasn’t claimed to be doing much special this season.
“I’m just doing what I’m supposed to do,” he told reporters recently in Jacksonville. “They picked me up for a reason. They’ve got faith in me. They call my number, I’ve just got to make plays.”
During another interview, Cole explained that, yes, “I feel like I’ve gotten better, and I felt like that’s what I worked for anyways. I come to practice to get better. I don’t come to practice to just get through or anything like that. I don’t come here at all to just get through. Everything I do is trying to get better.”
It sounds a bit like a rehearsed line, but those close to Cole suggest otherwise.
“There’s a lot of people with talent. But he made it because of the kind of person he is,” Darrell said. “There’s just no question about it. He was the first one in, last one out, the most humble guy. He never big-timed anybody, even though he could have. … I’m more happy for him than I am proud of him because I’m not surprised he’s done it.
“I’m just happy that it happened.”
AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
Jacksonville at New England
3:05 p.m. Sunday