E.A. Sports Today

Looking to the future

Piedmont’s Alexander, Blanchard find fits in college programs with eyes on the future

By Al Muskewitz
East Alabama Sports Today

PIEDMONT – National Signing Day is all about the future – for the players and the programs that get them – and it was the future that led Piedmont seniors Bayley Blanchard and Neonta Alexander to the choices they solidified Wednesday.

Blanchard, the Bulldogs’ reliable senior receiver-defensive back, signed with Division II West Alabama while Alexander, their dependable senior linebacker, signed with FCS Austin Peay. Both announced their intentions in ceremonies attended by family, friends, teammates and coaches in the lobby of the school gym.

Even though they’ll be playing on different teams for the first time in years, they do have a common thread at their separate schools. Assistant coach Max Thurmond recruited Blanchard for UWA and then recruited Alexander for Peay after moving there a couple weeks ago.

For Blanchard, the choice of West Alabama gives him a chance to reunite with former Piedmont teammates C.J. Savage and Austin Bishop while reconnecting with the several former Calhoun County players Thurmond signed for the Tigers last year.

“That was a big deal to me,” Blanchard said. “It felt like a family. It almost feels like I’m playing with Piedmont again, and that’s going to make me feel comfortable. It’s gong to fun getting to play with my boys again.”

Blanchard looked hard at Western Carolina, UAB and JSU, but what turned his head was the Tigers saying they weren’t going to take a high school receiver until they checked him out.

That, and their plan to carry nine receivers, put a four-wide up-tempo offense into their future and the school having his academic pursuit. He also may have a chance to play baseball there.

“West Alabama is a great place and I saw myself as a great fit there,” he said.

It was all about looking forward for Alexander. If he looked behind, he’d see a team that went 0-11 last fall and has won one game in the previous three seasons combined. But the Governors have a new 30-year-old head coach and that has Alexander focusing forward as a potential freshman starting middle linebacker and nickel back.

The Class 3A Lineman of the Year finalist said he made his decision only Tuesday night after weighing among Navy, Alcorn State and Mississippi Valley, with no consideration given to Peay’s past.

“I did not look at it; I’m just focused on the future of Austin Peay,” he said. “We just want to help establish something new to the program.

“I chose Austin Peay so I could help build a franchise. I love what the coach is doing; he’s trying to establish something, leave a legacy there, too.”

Piedmont coach Steve Smith, who has watched Blanchard develop from a sophomore special teamer to a smart, sure-handed senior over multiple sports, said the Tigers are getting a player “whose best football is in front of him.”

He said Blanchard’s skill set combined with his team-first attitude and the single-sport 24/7 commitment he’ll get in a college football program is “a perfect recipe for a guy I think you’re going to see explode the next four years.”

Speaking of commitments, Smith believes Peay couldn’t find a better fit than Alexander for its drive to the future.

“Neonta is one of those kids who plays hard every play regardless of the score,” he said. “He didn’t take it easy on anybody – ever. Every day to him, every snap, was the Super Bowl, so when you have that kind of mentality I think Neonta was able to see past Austin Peay’s 0-11 last year, because whether they’re 0-11 or 11-0, if he’s on that team, he’s going to play the same way every day.

“He hasn’t missed practice, he hasn’t a workout, he never missed a snap; he doesn’t miss anything. He’s Mr. Dependable. You know what you’re going to get every day and I think when you have a program that’s struggled a little bit like Austin Peay has in the past, what you need from the people in your organization are those who are dependable, who are going to be loyal.

“He brings those kinds of traits to the table and by bringing that he’s going to be one of those guys who is going to accelerate the process. If they’re able to keep Neonta off the field, they’re going to have some really good players.”

On the cover: Piedmont’s Neonta Alexander (L) and Bayley Blanchard share a moment after announcing their college choices Wednesday. Alexander is headed to Austin Peay, while Blanchard is headed to West Alabama.

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