SALUDA — The road to Saluda from Columbias airport is about 53 miles, 30 of which are down Highway 378. Four lanes turn to two, and views of Lake Murray change to trees and green grass for the final 10 miles. Its a path college coaches from across the country have taken the past year.
The road out of the town with a population of under 4,000 is more complicated. Saluda seniors Dexter Wideman and Kwamelle Barnes are ready for that journey.
I love Saluda, but Im ready to leave, Wideman said. Im ready to start over.
Wideman and Barnes are four- and three-star football recruits, respectively, according to the 247Composite rankings. Outside of family vacations, neither player has done much traveling before they started taking visits to colleges and participating in various camps. Though their recruitments have been different, Wideman and Barnes have used the familiarity of their small, country town as an escape.
The Tigers havent had a major Division I recruit like Wideman, whos committed to Florida State, on the team since the 70s. A new experience for the town, the players and the coaching staff, Saluda coach Doug Painter was initially worried about how everyone would handle the sight of college coaches visiting from as far as Michigan to as close as South Carolina at practice to watch Wideman.
At 6-foot-4 and 255 pounds, Wideman was told at a young age that it wouldnt be long until colleges came calling. Widemans natural quickness makes him an attractive prospect. He recently was selected to the Under Armour All-America game, and he had 58 tackles and 6.5 sacks last season.
Though coaches were there for Wideman, Painter told the Tigers it was an opportunity for everyone.
Dont be jealous of Dexter because that gives you an opportunity, Painter said he told the team. The big-time coaches that were here in the spring were not going to see just him, but other players, too. The thing about it is that they may not offer you, but the coaching fraternity goes from top to bottom. They know other coaches and other coaches are going to call them if theyve seen anybody.
Devonta Brown and Maurice Howard have heard from college coaches, in part because coaches who came to see Wideman also saw them. Its especially benefited Barnes. He garnered interest from smaller surrounding schools such as South Carolina State and Appalachian State and also has visited USC and LSU. A switch from the defensive line to the offensive line, where colleges think hes a more natural fit because of his size (6-4, 280), could bring more offers in his final season.
While Barnes still is trying to get more attention from coaches, Wideman committed to Florida State to distance himself from recruiting and focus on academics and Saludas season. The Tigers have their homecoming this week against Branchville, but their goals extend to the postseason, where they hope to advance farther than the second round.
Wideman gets asked everyday why he didnt commit to an instate school, and the door is still open for that. He said its 50-50 between Florida State and South Carolina. He felt that if he went into his senior year too focused on his college choice, then other things such as school and his on-field performance would slip.
I wanted to go into this season open-minded and wanting to just focus on school and playing football for the Saluda Tigers, Wideman said. The seniors weve got this year, we really want to do big things. I wasnt really worried about college. I know thats going to take place.
He and Barnes try not to talk about football. In a small town where everyone is asking them about their future, its easier to avoid the subject when theyre together. Barnes has a passion for cooking that started when he was an 8-year-old making french fries. Wideman likes to spend time with his friends, going to the movie theater. A topic that always comes up for them? Girls.
Said Wideman: Theres nothing else to do.