National Signing Day came and went for Cobb County’s high school football players Wednesday.
Between the December signing day and the one in February, the county will send another 70-plus young men to college rosters on scholarship.
One notable exception is Allatoona kicker Jude Kelley.
During the 2019 season, Kelley made a record 19 of 25 field goals — including a career-long and team-record 54-yarder against Cartersville — all 49 of his extra points and averaged more than 41 yards per punt.
Kelley made arguably the biggest kick of his career when he split the uprights with the game-winner in overtime to beat Richmond Hill in the Class AAAAAA state semifinals. It all added up to him being named the top kicking prospect in the country and a first-team All-American by Chris Sailer Kicking.
Yet, Kelley is still without a scholarship. He is going to go to Georgia Tech as a preferred walk-on.
One of the reasons Kelley likely did not get a scholarship from a Power Five school is his late introduction into place-kicking. Unlike North Paulding counterpart Brock Travelstead — another five-star kicker that came through the Sailer program — Kelley did not really start to get noticed until his junior season.
Kelley said Travelstead had been with Sailer since middle school, and that early notoriety helped the North Paulding kicker land a scholarship to Louisville.
“It was definitely frustrating at times,” Kelley said. “I was still fortunate to get offers from a number of Division I schools. There were times I was scratching my head, but It all worked out for the best, and I enjoy being the underdog.”
The second reason Kelley does not have a scholarship yet is because he wants to prove he can do the job on the biggest stage.
“That’s why I was delaying my decision,” said Kelley, who committed to the Yellow Jackets on Super Bowl Sunday. “At the end, it was just Georgia Tech just carries a different load when you say it as a school. The school itself is untouched and the history of the football program is something the other schools didn’t quite have.”
Kelley did have scholarship offers from Middle Tennessee, Marshall and Georgia State, in addition to FCS programs Furman and Wofford. He also had other preferred walk-on offers that came in late in the process from SEC schools Georgia, Tennessee and Mississippi State, along with Pittsburgh and Nebraska.
Kelley, though, was sold on Georgia Tech. He believes it offers him the best option to be successful long term. Plus, he wants to be part of the solution in coach Geoff Collins’ rebuild at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
“When they explained what their situation was like, I felt like I had the best opportunity to come in and get what I want done,” Kelley said. “They have something cool going on in the transition period. I wanted to be part of that and, hopefully, by my last couple of years, we have turned it around and get to where we want to be.”
Kelley is not the first Cobb County player to bet on himself earning a scholarship the hard way at a Power Five school.
Former Harrison running back Robbie Godhigh was often told he would have been a five-star running back if he was 3 inches taller. He had a scholarship offer from Wofford, where he would have likely become a star, but it was Kennesaw State coach Brian Bohannon — then a Georgia Tech assistant — who convinced Godhigh to come to the Flats.
Godhigh ultimately earned a scholarship after his sophomore season and started for two seasons in the Yellow Jackets’ backfield. He finished his career with 1,889 yards of total offense and 17 touchdowns.
Closer to Kelley’s situation is former Sprayberry and Georgia kicker Rodrigo Blankenship.
Now Georgia’s all-time leading scorer, Blankenship was once a preferred walk-on before earning a scholarship his sophomore season. He went on to make 80 of 97 field goals and all 200 of his extra points, and tt’s very possible that he will be the first kicker selected in this spring’s NFL draft.
“Rodrigo’s probably the best example,” Kelley said. “That’s what you hope happens. That’s what you work for. That’s the best route.”
Kelley has one more semester at Allatoona. He is a star on the Bucs’ soccer team, but he is anxious to get to the Georgia Tech campus as start proving he belongs. He already has the proper mental state that says he won’t be a walk-on very long.
“(I’m going to get down there) and go ahead an knock out a class,” Kelley said. “I want to get off to a good start. Get stronger and make friends. But you also have to mentally prepare yourself for the worst. They really don’t have any money invested in me. Even with that being said, the school is such a great place, I’ll get something out of it.
“I just need to go out there and make kicks and everything else will take care of itself.”