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Clemson's Ajou thanks Edmonton coaches for wanting 'the best version of me'

Ajou Ajou (6), seen here playing receiver with the Harry Ainlay Titans, stretches for a pass under coverage from the Bellerose Bulldogs' Travis Heggart (86) during the Alberta Tier 1 regional final at Clarke Stadium on Nov. 18, 2017.
Ajou Ajou (6), seen here playing receiver with the Harry Ainlay Titans, stretches for a pass under coverage from the Bellerose Bulldogs' Travis Heggart (86) during the Alberta Tier 1 regional final at Clarke Stadium on Nov. 18, 2017.

The top-ranked NCAA Div. 1 football program in the nation down south is finding out what the high-school football community in Edmonton has known all along.

Not only is Ajou Ajou proving he knows his way around a gridiron, he also has an affinity for the microphone.

The charming and unassuming Harry Ainlay Composite high school Titans product is well on his way to becoming a media darling at Clemson University, where he held court over video conference for a full 25 minutes this week with not only the usual suspects from the South Carolina city, but a half dozen news outlets from across Canada, as well.

“It’s funny, I’ve had a few people that maybe didn’t know him as well as we do say, ‘Hey, he’s really a well-spoken kid and an eloquent interview.’ He’s an extremely charismatic kid, he’s always been that way, and thoughtful,” said Titans head coach Tyler Greenslade, who, one week earlier, watched his former receiver score the first touchdown of his promising collegiate career in highlight-reel style, and have another one as equally impressive narrowly overturned upon review. “It’s fun. It’s been a fun experience to have people texting and reaching out saying, ‘I saw Ajou Ajou, and, man, he’s doing a great job.’

“I know myself and Brock (Ralph, offensive co-ordinator) and (Titans basketball) coach (George) Hoyt and everybody that coached him at Ainlay, we knew that before but it’s been a fun experience to see everyone else kind of finding out too.”

Ajou is the first Canadian recruit of the Clemson Tigers program, and one in a growing number of talented student-athletes who have springboarded from Edmonton into the upper echelon of NCAA football recently, including Oklahoma State University running back and Heisman candidate Chuba Hubbard (Bev Facey) and University of Connecticut defensive lineman Lwal Uguak (Harry Ainlay).

“I remember I was at home in Edmonton, and I’m watching Chuba get his first touchdown. And it’s like, ‘Wow, one day – I promise you – I’m going to be there and they’re going to be talking about me like they’re talking about him,’” Ajou said. “Fast-forward a year later, and I’m getting all these offers and stuff. It happened so fast.

“I really want to put on for my friends and family back home.”

They really want it, too. But that hasn’t changed since his two years of high-school football, basketball and track and field in Edmonton.

“Oh, it meant a lot,” said the 18-year-old native of Brooks, Alta., who ascended to a bigger stage, once again, in going from Edmonton to Florida’s Clearwater Academy International for his Grade 12 year. “(Edmonton) was my first big move, so they really prepared me in the sense of moving to a new place and making new friends. And even in the football aspect, coach Greenslade and coach Brock Ralph, they would always be like, ‘Come on, Ajou.’ They knew that I could be something bigger, so they would push me to my limits like never before.

“If I would be late to class, they would make me sit out he first half of the game. They really wanted me to be the best version of me, so I thank them.”

But it’s not like Ajou just showed up and they knew right away he was destined for a top NCAA school.

“I’d say the tough part in identifying right away is, and I’ve been saying this for a long time having played, is if some of us had addresses south of the border, our football experience might have been a little bit different,” said Greenslade, the fifth-year coach who played linebacker with the University of Alberta Golden Bears. “It’s just the knowledge and awareness there’s some really, really good football players that, based off their nationality, never ended up playing NCAA or NFL.

“And it’s no different now for high school. There’s always been good high school Canadian football players, but the tough part is how do you get the attention of – let alone a Clemson ­– but maybe some of these smaller schools that could really benefit from having some Canadian talent on their roster?”

It certainly helps having someone pave the way down there.

“We had one kid go to the University of Connecticut, Lwal Uguak, so that’s a success story of a kid, kind of similar to Chuba, that played all three years of high school here in Canada,” Greenslade said. “But then Ajou goes down to Florida for a year and gets 20 offers. And we’ve got another kid, Albert Reese, he played three years of high school and then he reclassified and he’s at the same prep school that Ajou went to. He’s got 10 or 12 offers now

The six-foot-seven, 295-pound offensive tackle is the son of Albert Reese, a defensive tackle out of Grambling State who played five seasons with Edmonton’s Football Club beginning in 2000.

“So, it kind of feels like a mixed bag,” Greenslade said. “Some guys are just getting the attention up here and some guys are maybe needing to go and find a little bit more limelight to get that.”

E-mail: [email protected]

On Twitter: @GerryModdejonge

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