MOBILE, Ala. – What would the University of South Alabama football’s defense look like without junior Keith Gallmon Jr. roaming at free safety?  As Kane Wommack ponders the question, an astute observer can detect a little bit of pain behind the smile usually on display when visiting with the Jaguars’ first-year head coach.

“We are not the same in terms of the confidence and the consistent execution back there.  Instinctive players who are fast enough and big enough to operate at a high level are very valuable, and that’s exactly what Keith is,” he responds.  “He is not the biggest, but he’s big enough.  He’s not the fastest, but he’s fast enough.  And he is incredibly instinctive, and those players have always thrived in this defense.”

Thriving is what Gallmon is doing in the secondary, entering Homecoming weekend at South tied for the team lead with 34 total tackles including 2½ behind the line of scrimmage, which is already a career-high figure.  He’s also the only individual on the Jaguar defense to both intercept a pass and recover a fumble — accomplishing the latter feat last time out at ULM, returning it 26 yards — and for a time his 38-yard gain on a fake punt against Louisiana was the team’s longest run from scrimmage.

But go back nearly four years, and it was not certain that Gallmon would become a part of the program.

“We had talked, but our relationship wasn’t that strong so I wasn’t committed to coming here,” he says.  “I was kind of disappointed, I always felt that South was a school that would be good for me and my career, that being around town I could help get other players in Mobile to commit to come to South Alabama but the relationship just wasn’t there.”

Wommack was on the Jaguar staff at the time, but following the resignation of Joey Jones — the only head coach South football had had at that time — in late November he departed for a position at Indiana.  When Steve Campbell was hired to replace Jones the next month, one of the first calls he made was to Gallmon, who ended up making it official by signing his National Letter-of-Intent just prior to the Christmas holiday.

“I remember both myself and Colin Hitschler — who is now the safeties coach at Cincinnati — had numerous talks about Keith, and to be honest with you we were concerned about an undersized frame and weren’t sure he was the guy we wanted to replace Jeremy Reaves; that was a high standard, obviously, with him still playing in the NFL,” says Wommack.  “It’s a credit to Steve Campbell to pull the trigger and bring him in, and boy am I glad he did because Keith has done a tremendous job.”

Asked what he would’ve done had he not received an offer from South Alabama, Gallmon still can’t say with certainty what would’ve happened.  Maybe because in the end he had offers from over a dozen NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision schools, a list that included programs from the Power 5 such as Wake Forest and Purdue, two service academies and multiple Sun Belt Conference schools.

Oh, and a potential opportunity to walk-on at Stanford.

“I’m not sure.  I had a lot of offers, but I wasn’t talking to a lot of coaches,” Gallmon recalls.  “You know how the recruiting process is, a lot of coaches will offer you but you won’t be able to communicate well with them so I was kind of in a flux.  I could’ve ended up at Southern Miss or at UCF, but the education part of it was going to be big for me in the end.”

The difference in the Jaguar defense without Gallmon would not have been noticed immediately.  He did play in 11 of 12 contests as a true freshman in 2018 — making him one of only two players on the squad to not use a redshirt year — but was only credited with a pair of tackles while primarily playing just on special teams.

After earning all-state honors each of his last three seasons at the prep level at Mobile Christian School, playing in a limited role was something that Gallmon was not used to.  “It was weird, but it was a growing up and maturing process,” he remembers.  “When you come into college you’re able to watch the other older guys and see how they do things and what happens on the field in order to learn from them.  It was big for me, and it helped me become more vocal today.”

He learned enough to become a starter in the fall of 2019, ending the year among the top five on the team with 59 tackles including two for loss.  But that wasn’t all he contributed, as Gallmon also added four pass break ups, intercepted a pass, forced one fumble and recovered another.  And he saved his best performances for the Jaguars’ biggest opponents, totalling 10 stops and a pass defensed against No. 21 Appalachian State, nine — all solo — at UAB and a game-high eight to go along with an interception against Memphis.

After essentially taking a year off, count Gallmon among those who may have been caught by surprise by the performance.

“It definitely surprised me, you never know how that first year playing is going to be,” he says.  “But getting under the lights, it felt like high school again where I was just playing ball.”

That was just a prelude to Gallmon’s 2020 campaign.  Having that first season as a starter under his belt, it gave him an idea of what he needed to do to do to become a bigger factor on the back end of South’s defense.

“I tried to do a good job of taking care of my body, after that first year starting I knew how many snaps I was going to be playing every game,” he explains.  “You get into a flow where you try to be better every year, and taking better care of your body is just going to help you in the end being able to play games and be available to your teammates.”

Gallmon was more than available last fall, racking up 84 total stops and 10 passes defensed — both career-best figures — including three outings with 10 or more tackles.  He was the only player to rank in the top 10 in the Sun Belt in both categories, earning not just third-team all-league honors from coaches and media covering the conference but first-team All-American recognition from Pro Football Focus.

But following a 4-7 season, it wasn’t all good news for Gallmon.  The man responsible for bringing him to South, Campbell, was relieved of his duties the day after the final game of the year.

“It was weird.  I was thankful for everything I got and all the recognition, but as a player I was just trying to figure out what was going to happen next,” says Gallmon.  “You just never know in that situation — it was my first time ever experiencing that — so it was just waiting to see what was going to happen.”

With Wommack and his new staff arriving over the Christmas holidays, little time was wasted getting back to work.  It didn’t take long for South’s defensive coaches to be thankful he was a part of the program.

“First of all, Keith is a pretty gifted athlete; he had that when he got here,” says defensive coordinator and safeties coach Corey Batoon.  “I think he possesses a really good work ethic, he understands the game — he is a coach’s kid, so he has been around the game quite a while — and he has a high football IQ.  He has a sense for making checks, being vocal and being in the right place at the right time.

“I know Keith played a couple of different positions last year.  In our defense as that boundary safety Keith brings those communication skills that we need, he brings the ability to fit up in the box and knock those run fits out, and athletically he is still able to get out there and cover,” he continues.  “That’s kind of a unique skill set that we are blessed to have, you could see that pretty quickly.  Watching his film from last year you could see the physicality, but the box awareness was something that really showed up in the spring.”

Which led to the staff issuing a new challenge for Gallmon to take on as he entered his fourth season at the collegiate level.

“Keith is pretty quiet, he is one of those lead-by-example guys, and that’s probably been good enough for him up to this point,” Batooon explains.  “We’ve talked to him about taking the next step in terms of his development being not only a guy who leads by example but being a vocal guy; a lot of times if you’re leading by example not everybody is watching.  When you can open your mouth and lead not only by example, you’ll have the locker room’s respect because they know what type of player you are and how you handle your business.  When you can vocalize those things, I think the younger players in particular really tend to listen.

“Keith is a pretty easy-going guy, he has a good personality.  He is vocal in meetings, he just isn’t that brash personality.  He might not be as comfortable speaking to or mentoring others, but that’s something that we’ve challenged him with since the spring and he has gotten better at that.”

“From a leadership standpoint Keith is not the most vocal player out there on the field, and yet at the same time the example that he sets as an older guy who people trust because he is out there on the field he has to become a vocal leader,” adds Wommack.  “I think he has done that in his way, he is great one-on-one connecting with other players and when he does speak up they know that he is speaking not just to the overall unit but directly to those guys because he cares about them deeply.  From a football standpoint, we really are structured defensively to funnel a lot of things back to that free safety position, he is such a trusted tackler and is so instinctive both in the run and the passing game that you want to force the ball back to your playmakers and that’s exactly what we’ve been able to do.”

Adding to the expectations of Gallmon were the preseason accolades that rolled in throughout the summer.  Considered by Pro Football Focus to be one of the top 10 returning safeties in the nation, the organization along with Pro Football Network named him a preseason All-American.  He was also the only member of the Jags’ defense to be selected preseason all-Sun Belt by the league’s coaches and media.

Did the weight of those honors affect his preparation for the season?

“Not necessarily, I just felt more pressure to be a better leader and to make sure our whole team was going to be good as a collective unit every time we go out on the field.  I know that I’ve been getting looked more as a leader with the new coaches coming in, so I had to focus on pushing everyone to be better.”

What if the Gallmon family had not relocated to Mobile just as Keith was entering high school.  Would he currently be anchoring the Jag defense while making his way up the program’s career record charts in multiple categories?

It’s not likely, according to Gallmon.  “The biggest schools when I lived in Tallahassee were always Florida, Florida State and FAMU,” he says.

He began playing the game to follow in the footsteps of older brothers Alexander, Antonio and Kevonte, starting first in flag football before moving up to Pop Warner.  He not only attributes his interest in the sport, but also his success to the point, to those three.

“I’ve always been around sports and wanted to play, I saw my brothers play football growing up and I’ve always wanted to do it,” he explains.  “I think it helped a lot, when I was younger I used to always play with my brother [Kevonte] and was around his teams even though he was three years older than me.  Playing after school with all those older guys helped me become a better player.”

It wasn’t until his sophomore season at Mobile Christian School that Gallmon first began to believe playing at the collegiate level was a possibility.  And after experiencing success both with the Leopards — where he helped the team go 32-8 his final three seasons highlighted by a berth in the state 3A playoffs championship game his junior year — and the Jaguars, it is his hope to continue in the game as long as possible.

“Definitely want to play in the league and be a great player, and also be someone who kids can look up to,” says Gallmon.  “And I know I definitely want to be around football whether it is coaching, being a general manager or trying to get into football operations.”

Moving to Alabama just a few years ago didn’t just offer Gallmon a chance to play for Coach Ronnie Cottrell at Mobile Christian School, it led to a new hobby he still tries to find time for now.  “I try to fish every now and then, I definitely don’t get a chance to as much as I used to,” says Gallmon.  “Coming to high school after we moved to Alabama, I got used to going fishing with everybody I met.  I just like being outdoors, I’m a big scenery guy so just looking out there whether it’s on the docks or if we’ve gone somewhere else the views definitely interest me.”

Wommack’s view of the Jaguar defense is one he feels a lot better about with Gallmon anchoring the unit in the secondary.  Which is why he can smile not just when thinking about an alternative scenario a few years ago, but when watching film on Sundays.

“When you are coming in, especially in year one of a program, somebody who can communicate at a high level and operate at a high level of consistency is going to give you an opportunity to be a better defense,” he says.  “Having a guy like Keith — who is instinctive, understands what we are trying to do and can help communicate to other guys on the back end — we have not given up a lot of explosive plays at the end of the day because we have a guy like him back there who can get people down.  That to me is why we’ve operated at a high level defensively; we don’t make a lot of mistakes, we create enough negatives of our own in their backfield and we are able to create takeaways.”

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