When Steve Smith arrived at Piedmont as head football coach and athletic director 11 years ago he created a new tradition, a public signing ceremony recognizing Piedmont athletes in any sport who were continuing their playing careers past high school. Taylor Hayes, Krae Keener and Mason Langley added to that tradition on Wednesday of last week, national signing day.

Before a packed house in the expanded lobby area of the Piedmont gym, the trio smiled for newspaper and television cameras then posed for pictures with family members, coaches, teammates and friends. The crowd was the largest in recent memory. Afterwards, Keener recalled being a part of earlier crowds as a freshman and sophomore, wondering if he might be at the center of the attention one day.

“I was telling Taylor today, ‘I can’t believe we’re on the other side of this table right now’. It was a thrill, being one that signed today,” Keener said.         

Hayes and Langley will play for nearby Jacksonville State University. Keener is headed to Olivet Nazarene University, just south of Chicago, in Bourbonnais, IL, also the summer home of the National Football League’s Chicago Bears. Langley had made his decision known almost three weeks ago. Hayes didn’t decide until he made his official visit to JSU the weekend before signing day.

“That place feels like home,” Hayes said of Jacksonville State. “The coaches there – coach (John) Grass, coach (J.R.) Sandlin, coach (Jimmy) Ogle and coach (Kevin) Revis, the offensive line coach –those guys, they’re not only good coaches they’re great men.”

Hayes was a Class 3A first-team all-state selection at linebacker as a freshman and again as a sophomore. Before his junior season he moved to quarterback, a position he played in junior high. That switch paid dividends for both Piedmont as a team and Hayes as an individual. With Hayes at quarterback, the Bulldogs won back-to-back 3A football state championships in 2015 and 2016. Each year, Hayes not only earned first-team all-state honors but was named 3A back of the year.

Hayes said that the opportunity to compete for the quarterback role at JSU was a big part of his decision to become a Gamecock.

“Coach Grass promised me that I’m going to get a fair chance at quarterback,” Hayes said after the ceremony ended. “Even these smaller schools that were offering me – Division II and NAIA – they were all saying they weren’t going to give me a shot at quarterback so I think that turned the table with him saying that he’s going to give me a fair shot. I respect him for that.”  

Hayes said he was thinking of majoring in computer information systems and planned to enroll in summer online courses at Jacksonville State. Summer classes will make him eligible to work out with the Gamecocks and start throwing with some of the receivers.       

In his signing day comments, Grass noted Hayes’ accomplishments on offense and defense.

“It is all about getting him on the field somehow down the road. He will be one that grows up in the program and will find a way onto the field eventually,” Grass said.

Hayes is a three-sport athlete at Piedmont, so good in baseball that some thought baseball would be his sport past high school. He said he would not attempt to play both football and baseball at Jacksonville State.

“I’ve talked to a couple of guys that have done both at JSU and they said that it just kind of wore them out,” Hayes said. “I’m thinking, stick with football and hopefully see how far that takes me.”  

Grass said Langley’s play on the offensive line in the Alabama-Mississippi All-Star game convinced him of his ability.  

“We felt like he held his own against people that were going to the SEC and other big schools. We felt like he was as good as anyone in that game, so we feel like we got a steal in him. … He will figure into the picture really quickly and have a chance to play,” Grass said.

Grass also recognized the Piedmont program.

“(Langley and Hayes) are two local guys from a really great program at Piedmont. They know how to win and know how to win at a high level and we liked that about them,” Grass said.

Keener said he had been contacted during the season by Olivet Nazarene assistant coach Granville LeCroix, an assistant at Madison Academy during Keener’s freshman and sophomore seasons at Piedmont. He visited in October and again over the weekend of Jan. 20th.

“I love it up there. I love snow. I love cold weather,” Keener said.

The Tigers play in the Mid-States Football Association. They were 4-7 for head coach Eric Hehman in 2016, Hehman’s first season as head coach. Hehman apparently intends to turn that around quickly. On Feb. 1, the school announced a 2017 recruiting class of 42 prospective players.

At Piedmont, Keener was an outstanding offensive tackle. He was a Class 3A first-team all-state offensive lineman in 2016 and honorable mention all-state in 2015, also as an offensive lineman. He said he expected there would be “a lot of position openings” at Olivet Nazarene this fall but he was unsure where he would play.

“I’m pretty sure Coach still wants me to be a tackle. I may move to guard because I’m a little shorter than an ideal college tackle,” Keener said. “I’m not really sure yet.”

One thing is certain. Wherever Keener plays, it will be as No. 68.

“I got to keep my number. I get to keep 68. That was one of his selling points,” Keener said with a smile.

Keener, who’s thinking of becoming a dentist, likes Olivet Nazarene’s strong academic reputation.

“It’s a lot like Birmingham-Southern around here in terms of academic level. When you hear Birmingham-Southern you think high academics and that’s how (Olivet Nazarene) is around the Chicago area. I’m really excited to get a good education as well as play football,” Keener said.  

Assured of 68, he’s ready for a new adventure.

“I’m pretty excited. It’s kind of scary going 10 hours away from home but it feels really good up there,” Keener said. “I’m excited to go up there and compete and represent the South and Alabama and show them what I can do.”