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Football: West alum A.J. Erdely makes most of 'second chance' at UAB
Former West Forsyth standout AJ Erdely has combined for 29 touchdowns this season with UAB. /// Photo courtesy of UAB Athletics

A.J. Erdely has become a more patient quarterback in college, one less willing to go for the huge plays he could sometimes will into existence during his time at West Forsyth.

That patience has been just as important off the field, though.

Erdely’s time at West established him as one of the best football players in Forsyth County history, a true dual threat for the Wolverines and one of the main players responsible for the program’s rapid rise to prominence under head coach Frank Hepler. He signed with Middle Tennessee State out of high school but had SEC programs moving in on him late in the recruiting calendar.

“I was privileged to have coached some pretty good quarterbacks in my time as a head coach, and he had the qualities of all those guys all rolled into one,” Hepler said of Erdely.

Success in college didn't come quickly for Erdely, though. He scarcely played with the Raiders and transferred after two years in Murfreesboro. He spent the 2015 season in junior college at Mississippi Gulf Coast and then another waiting for UAB, his new program, to restart after a one-year hiatus. The wait has been worth it: Erdely has started all season for the Blazers, leading them to an 8-4 record and a berth in the Bahamas Bowl against Ohio on Friday.

“It took kind of longer than I hoped it would,” Erdely said. “But it finally worked out.”

The Blazers hadn’t recruited Erdely when he was at West, but he had established a relationship with Les Koenning, UAB’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, when Mississippi State was recruiting him. Erdely also heard good things about UAB head coach Bill Clark from Dustin Gayton and Ty Anderson, two former Wolverines teammates who played for Clark at Jacksonville State.

Those connections, along with the opportunity to focus on academics for a year without losing any eligibility, lured Erdely to UAB and outweighed the program’s unconventional circumstances. The school late in 2014 eliminated the football program, and while that decision was reversed the following June, the program still had to take a two-season hiatus to restart. This year’s team is composed largely of first-year college football players and transfers like Erdely.

“I looked at it as a great opportunity,” Erdely said. “A lot of these players on the team, this is their last chance, kind of like it was my last chance to come back to D-I. So we've kind of looked at it as a good thing, saying we're all given one more chance.”

The Blazers’ offense has been distributed evenly betweent the run and pass games this year, with 2,282 yards rushing and 2,093 yards passing, and Erdely’s role has reflected that balance. He has gained 508 yards on the ground, leads the team with 13 rushing touchdowns, and he has thrown for 2,077 yards and 16 touchdowns.

Accuracy wasn’t always Erdely’s strong suit back at West, but Hepler remembers him developing a particularly strong touch as a senior and having stints with his completion percentages over 80 percent. On Nov. 4 of this year, in the win that clinched a bowl berth for the Blazers, Erdely put in one of the best individual performances in college football this year, completing 20 of 21 passes, setting a Conference USA record for single-game completion percentage.

“We've got receivers all over the place that are just extremely talented,” Erdely said. “It makes it pretty easy on me. I've just got to give them a chance, and they'll make a play.”

Erdely hasn’t met the new coaches at West yet, but he still keeps in touch with Hepler and current Milton head coach Adam Clack, his offensive coordinator in high school, as well as Wolverines defensive coordinator David Rooney. He’s set to graduate in December and has another year of eligibility with the Blazers, though he’s zeroed in on the bowl game for now.

Hepler knew Erdely would find success at the college level, and his resilience through the obstacles along the way was just evidence of what Hepler already knew about his former signal-caller.

“Just seeing how he did things tells you a lot about A.J., because most kids would have said, ‘The heck with it, I’m going to just go to school, and it’s just not meant to be,’” Hepler said. “… It tells you a lot about A.J., the determination, the drive (and) the want-to that young man has.”