Defensive lineman Kelijiha Brown finishes his spring practice rep and wheels around to the back of a line of linemen waiting to get their shot in a drill.
But the soon-to-be Saluda junior, who holds an offer from South Carolina, didn’t fade into the background.
He’s only had one year playing varsity football, but for almost every teammate who took a rep, he had a hand out for a high five, a joke or a word of encouragement. He had nearly a constant dialogue going through the practice, not something expected from a player that young.
“I see my role as to be the leader,” Brown said. “Even though I’m a junior, I still see it as being a leader. Show by actions.”
The push to take on a bigger role came after his play on the field and his recruiting had already moved to a larger stage. A week before his birthday this year, Gamecocks wide receivers coach Bryan McClendon told Brown he’d share the Tiger’s sophomore film with the rest of the staff.
A week later, the offer came.
Saluda coach Stewart Young said his staff has been expecting this for a while. They didn’t know when it would start, but they knew it would get rolling. You don’t find too many high school sophomores who can move at 6-foot-3, 305 pounds.
It’s not often a player’s first offer comes from an SEC program, but Brown caught the staff’s eye, even if he had a little fun with them soon after.
“He’s a Clemson fan and he told Will Muschamp that,” Young said. “I started shaking my head, no. But that’s when Muschamp was just sort of cutting up with him and said, ‘Well you’ve got an offer from South Carolina.’ ”
Brown also has an offer from East Carolina and interest from Clemson, North Carolina and Appalachian State.
His coaches praised his development, some of his technical skills and the way he came along in a region heavy on big, physical offensive lines. He took lumps early but improved. He still has things to work on, especially sticking to technique when he gets fatigued and maintaining his relentlessness to the football.
But when the motor is going, he shows a lot for a player his age.
“He’s got real good hands, real good hands,” Saldua defensive line coach Stephen McMillan said. “He probably needs to work on staying low, keeping his pad level down.”
Brown is part of a Saluda program in the midst of an impressive rise. The team had only reached the eight-win mark twice since 1971, and after a few seasons at or near .500 from 2011-2013, the squad slipped to 2-8 when Young took over from Doug Painter.
Then the Tigers went 10-3.
A big part of that has been an influx of large and talented defensive linemen at a school with fewer than 600 students.
That started with current Gamecock lineman Dexter Wideman and teammate Kwamelle Barnes (S.C. State) and carried on with Cedric Herrin (North-South All-Star, S.C. State signee) and then his brother Cortez Herrin (now at East Carolina and a close friend of Brown). And the next man up came as a surprise.
“They called me to the guidance office and said, ‘Coach, we have a kid in here that wants to play football,’ ” Young said. “And you go over there and you see him, you say, ‘Is this a joke? Wow.’ He actually played fullback for us in JV. He’s just athletic. He can throw it, he can kick it, he can run really well. It was interesting to get somebody of that caliber.”
Brown lived in Saluda for the first two years of middle school, then transferred to Ninety Six in eighth grade and returned a year later (costing him a chance to play varsity).
He said he looked up to Wideman growing up. They know each other well and the young Gamecock reached out when the team offered Brown. They text every now and then, just to check in.
Brown doesn’t know how his recruitment will progress, as it’s still too early to set any timelines. But he’s got that big offer in hand and looks back fondly on watching the former Saluda star who made his way to Columbia.
“My sixth- and seventh-grade years, I used to love coming to the games on Fridays, watching them play because I never knew anything about them,” Brown said. “But I would hear so much about them.”