Kentucky Wesleyan has never had a former football player make it into the NFL — based on Pro Football Reference’s database — throughout its 35 season history. The only member to come close to the field is former Chargers’ general manager A.J. Smith.
While the Panthers have fielded many great teams and seen their fair share of star players, not a single soul was able to stick on a professional roster following their departure from KWC. That is, until now.
Nothing is official just yet as we sit two weeks into the NFL Preseason, but Keelan Cole will be the first KWC Panther to ever suit up for a regular season NFL game. This isn’t just some bold claim to make headlines for a former D2 star, there is real traction here for the speedy receiver to break camp on the final 53-man roster for Jacksonville.
Why so confident you ask? Because Cole has been the talk of town for Jags brass and coaches, at least according to ESPN Monday Night Football announcer Sean McDonough during the broadcast of the Tampa Bay-Jacksonville game Thursday night.
But besides being able to fuel the conversation, Cole has been able to walk the walk and show on-field that his contributions can be much more than a potential practice squad gem. From the first week of camp, “Air Cole” has made play after play to continue to be noticed by Jacksonville media.
— Zach Goodall (@zach_goodall) July 28, 2017
But everyone should look good on the practice field without any contact similar to what you’ll feel from the opposition right? So the real test came when Cole first put on his number 84 jersey in New England for the Jags’ first preseason contest versus the defending Super Bowl champs.
Unfortunately for Cole though, he was relegated to facing second and third-stringers for the Pats who — like every other team in the league — rested most of their important names in a meaningless exhibition. But this game had every bit of meaning it could for Cole, as he was looking to make his mark in a real game scenario.
Coming into the game in the second quarter, Cole immediately burst onto the scene with a 97-yard touchdown bomb from possible starter Chad Henne to give Jacksonville its first lead of more than a field goal on the night. Adding one more catch later in the contest, Cole would finish with 108 yards and a touchdown in his preseason debut.
— Brian Chojnacki (@BroadcastingBri) August 11, 2017
That performance was so electrifying that we featured it on HERO as one of the best Week One Performances for D2, and I then highlighted the 2016 G-MAC Offensive and Special Teams Player of The Year as a guy to keep an eye on in week two.
The second week performance for Cole did not match the astounding start from week one, but he did enough to secure himself firm consideration for the roster still. Only hauling in two catches for 20 yards — with one dropped touchdown — the special teams area of Cole’s game shined brightest with a 31-yard punt return, arguably the lone bright spot of the contest against the Buccaneers.
So where does that leave the D2 All-American with two weeks to go before final cut-downs? If we are being honest, it should leave him firmly on the roster with some work still needed to be done to completely secure his fate.
Dropping a touchdown won’t kill his momentum, but it will be a mark against the KWC product. But if we have learned anything about Cole throughout this entire process from his first practice during rookie minicamp in Jacksonville, it is that he knows how to shine when he needs to.
Fail to get drafted, sign with a team that can use your talents. Drop a touchdown, run back a punt. Make your debut, score a long-bomb touchdown from the potential starting quarterback.
Cole is the next great secret weapon to come out of Division II, and the first to do so from Kentucky Wesleyan. But as he continues to build up his name and play the way he has, he will be anything but a secret for much longer.