Athletes from small high school making big impact at Georgia

semerson@macon.comAugust 13, 2012 

ATHENS -- The campus is sprawling. The football ambitions are small. The Wesleyan School never has harbored ambitions to be a feeder program to SEC football teams.

“In our high school there were, like 436 (students), and I graduated with, like 100,” said Merritt Hall, a member of the class of 2011. “It’s a fairly small school.”

And yet out of those 100 in that small graduating class from the school in Peachtree Corners, three are members of the sixth-ranked team in college football, Georgia, and two of them are starters on offense.

Incredibly, only one of them started out on scholarship. It wasn’t Hall, but he was just awarded one, having risen to the top of the depth chart at fullback, barely a year after coming to campus wondering if he could even hang with the team at practice.

“It has happened kinda fast, hasn’t it?” Hall said after Monday’s practice.

If Hall maintains his starting spot, he will take the Sanford Stadium field on Sept. 1 along with former Wesleyan classmate David Andrews, who has been named the starting center. And Kyle Karempelis, still a walk-on, already had his moment in the sun last year, but don’t rule him out yet, either.

So how did this happen? How did a trio of classmates from a small private school end up together at Georgia?

“It certainly was not a package, by any stretch,” Wesleyan head coach Franklin Pridgen said. “It was three distinct situations. Each took their own path to Georgia. But all three had in common that they knew that’s where they wanted to be. For each, they each wound around meandering for other opportunities.”

Wesleyan had an enrollment of 456 in its high school last year, according to its website. Although a private, Christian-based school, it competes against public school program in the GHSA.

And its teams have won. Pridgen points out that while Hall, Andrews and Karempelis were in school, the team went 9-2 in the playoffs. But only Andrews was offered a scholarship, and even he wasn’t highly recruited.

Andrews also had offers from Michigan and Duke, but it was his childhood dream to go to Georgia.

“He got an offer, and he committed in maybe three seconds,” Pridgen said.

Hall’s recruitment was much different. In fact it was “frustrating,” in Pridgen’s words. The Wesleyan coaches pushed him to college coaches, but few were biting because he was an undersized middle linebacker and didn’t play much running back because Karempelis was there. Georgia Southern and Jacksonville State offered Hall as a preferred walk-on.

“I got, like, one letter from Wake Forest,” Hall said.

Finally, Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo called. The Bulldogs had been looking at Karempelis and said they were only bringing in six preferred walk-ons for 2011. They wanted Karempelis -- and they’d take Hall if he switched to fullback.

“He was thrilled with that, and said he’d do whatever they want,” Pridgen said.

Part of the reason Bobo might have gotten the fullback idea was that Pridgen told Bobo this story: Before a playoff game, when Karempelis was hurt, Wesleyan put Hall there. On the final drive, he carried the ball seven times for 50 yards to lead to a game-winning field goal.

“I told Mike that the kid is a winner. You can put him anywhere on the field, you can put him at offensive guard, and he’s gonna excel,” Pridgen said.

Hall has made that impression this preseason, at one point knocking the foam off of a blocking sled.

“He has shown a knack for putting his hat in there, not flinching, and brought a toughness to that position,” Bobo said. “So that’s why he’s the starter right now.”

“So many people talk about him being 216 pounds, but he has a fight,” Georgia freshman fullback Quayvon Hicks said. “It doesn’t matter how big you are, what you look like, his fight, and he’s perfecting his game. He’s mastering this position. I take after him and everything he does.”

When Karempelis was at Wesleyan, he drew interest mostly from Ivy League schools and service academies. None of the big schools even wanted him as a walk-on, except Georgia, so that’s where he went.

Last year he took advantage of the chaos at tailback. When three key players were suspended for the New Mexico State game, he got 13 carries, rushing for 63 yards and a touchdown.

The tailback spot is more crowded now, but Karempelis is still getting some reps there, as well as special teams.

“He’s doing all the right things,” Hall said. “He might even be starting on special teams. That would be three of us (from Wesleyan) on the field, so that would be pretty cool.”

Hall was asked what he would tell people like himself two years ago, who figured if the major colleges weren’t calling, they have no shot.

“Never sell yourself short. Keep working hard no matter what, because you never know,” Hall said. “You never know when that opportunity is gonna come about.”

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