Big school discovers smalltown standouts

WASHINGTON, Ga. - National Signing Day pulsates from the big-time hype generated by the blue-chip prospects.


It's the hidden gems, however, that make or break the success of collegiate programs in the recruiting wars. And sometimes it's the hidden programs that make all the difference for the athletes themselves.

Such was the case Wednesday when Washington-Wilkes and the University of Connecticut formed an unlikely union that should benefit everyone involved.

Tigers running back Kelmetrus Wylie and defensive back Gary Wilburn simultaneously signed letters of intent to become UConn Huskies in the school's media center.

They'll leave in June to travel a long way from home to a Big East program that's been a member of Division I-A for only as long as they've been in high school.

"I believe in a couple of years some ACC and SEC schools will say, 'I can't believe we let them go,' " said Washington-Wilkes coach Russell Morgan.

By the same token, Connecticut coaches might be wondering how they even found two kids from rural Georgia. The Huskies don't come from a football-rich state, so head coach Randy Edsall had to spread out across North America to find talent. The 29 players signed to join UConn in 2007 come from 13 states and one Canadian province.

How the Huskies discovered Me-Me and Gee - as Wylie and Wilburn are known in Washington - is a testament to the word-of-mouth brotherhood of Georgia's high school coaches.

UConn assistant Lyndon Johnson was looking at another Georgia prep player when that kid's coach gave him a heads up that if he was looking for a running back he should look in Washington.

Johnson called Morgan and asked for a highlight tape and game films from Wylie's 2,026-yard, 22-touchdown, team MVP season.

"The day he got the highlight film he told me over the phone they were going to make me an offer," Wylie said.

The big surprise for UConn was another tape in the package Morgan sent. It showed highlights of a cornerback, receiver and kick returner who accumulated 58 tackles, 16 pass breakups, four interceptions, six touchdown catches and two kick return touchdowns last season. Wilburn - who allowed four completions against him in exclusive man-to-man coverage over the past two seasons - finally caught the eye of a Division I program.

"I knew I would be offered by some small schools but I didn't know Division I would come," Wilburn said. "I kept praying that I'd get the opportunity and it came to me."

Wylie and Wilburn - an honor roll student and a student council member, respectively - have been close friends since the first grade and each lettered in football, basketball and track. But it wasn't that friendship that sold them on going to Connecticut together. It was UConn that sold itself.

The Tiger twosome made their official visit to Storrs, Conn., in December and were blown away by what they found tucked away in one of the most northernmost outposts of the Big East. UConn football is a fresh entity with the newest college stadium in the country and an energized fan base.

UConn is poised to be the next rags-to-riches story in the Big East that introduced Louisville and Rutgers as recent interlopers on the big-time stage. The athletic support at Connecticut - situated not far down the road from ESPN's headquarters in Bristol, Conn. - is tremendous.

Now two hidden gems who almost got overlooked will leave in late June for a place that is foreign territory to them and most college football fans. They plan to be roommates, maintaining a comfortable connection to home as they embark on a new phase of life at one of the top public education colleges in the nation.

"I didn't want to leave my mother and sisters, but I thought it was best for me to leave," Wylie said. "Knowing that I've come from not having very much to able to get an education and make a better life means a lot."

These type of stories don't change any of the recruiting rankings on signing day. But for the kids and the up-and-coming program that had faith in them, it's the best sign of all.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or


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