Woodford County is home to about 25,000 people, according to the latest U.S. Census estimate. Three of those individuals are just a bit bigger than the rest.
Drake Jackson, Seth Joest and Saige Young help comprise an offensive line at Woodford County High School that's not just huge but unprecedented in school history.
All three are Division I college football prospects.
Jackson committed to the University of Kentucky last winter. Joest committed to Western Kentucky just ahead of this season's kickoff. Young holds offers from Ball State and Troy.
Jackson's move to Woodford County — he played at Lexington Catholic as a freshman — helped spur the development of Joest and Young, whom he recognized as having the builds and raw talent to become high-caliber athletes.
"I came in and was like, 'Guys, we've got a chance to do something special,'" Jackson said. "The three of us — me, Seth and Saige — we stuck with it the whole time. They've put in a lot of work. It's been rough, but they were able to get themselves to a Division I level."
Of course, with recruiting success comes expectations on the field. Woodford County is abuzz with the arrival of former UK standout Dennis Johnson as head coach and ready to see its football program post a winning record for the first time since 2007.
This season, the Yellowjackets stumbled out of the gate at home against North Bullitt, 37-32, but had a chance to win at the end. Last week, they crushed West Jessamine, 48-20.
The big line — the Division I trio plus fellow seniors Matt Stratton and Ryan Mix, the former a 6-foot-5, 320-pound hulk who coaches think could play his way into a D-I offer by year's end — helped DeVontre Winkfield rush for nearly 200 yards and four TDs on only eight carries in the victory.
Woodford hosts undefeated Franklin County in a border battle Friday.
The weight of the community is shouldered on the practice field as much as it is under the lights.
"Every day you step out on the field now, even practice, you've got this set of standards and they've all risen," Joest said. "You gotta work twice as hard. It's tough, but it's fun. It makes it all worth it."
Jackson said he "can't come out to practice and throw kids around like" he used to when he first arrived at Woodford County. That internal competition is invaluable.
"We go in there with the expectations that we're the big bad guys and we're going to dominate everybody," Jackson said, "so it's good that we go out there and give each other a good look and we're making ourselves better."
A 5-foot-8 Lloyd Memorial graduate has been crucial in the development of the Yellowjackets' line, believe it or not.
Jeremy Armstrong, who went on to study at Morehead State and UK, started Xcel Sport Science & Fitness with a friend in 2011. Since then he has trained everyone from middle school football players to Olympic fencers to bobsledders at their facility in the Champions Sports building in Nicholasville.
"About every sport you can imagine, I've worked with," Armstrong said.
Jackson started training at Xcel with Colin Carpenter, now a senior at Lexington Catholic, while the two were in middle school. Former UK and NFL player Ellery Moore helped out at Xcel at that time. He and Jackson's dad, Brian, helped hone the lineman's skills initially while Armstrong focused on strength, speed and conditioning.
When Jackson transferred to Woodford County, he brought the entire starting offensive line and several skill players to Xcel. He, Joest and Young were the three who stuck around and have gotten the most out of their three- to four-day-a-week program.
Armstrong said Jackson's always had "it." He recalled Moore saying when Jackson was in eighth grade that if Jackson stayed focused, "he's gonna be something special" and could play anywhere he wanted to.
For Joest and Young, it was clear they were physically built to succeed but needed a push in the right direction.
"They definitely had the foundation and the framework," Armstrong said. "Just putting in the work and getting there was the challenge for them. They've obviously both done it."
While Jackson has no problem speaking publicly now — a post-football career in media seems inevitable — that wasn't always the case. Armstrong remembered Jackson's first radio interview a few years ago, in which Jackson was so nervous he couldn't remember Armstrong's last name.
"He just called me 'the other guy,'" Armstrong said with a laugh. "He said he worked out with Ellery Moore and the other guy. I gave him crap about it, so then they started calling me O.G., Other Guy. So they just call me Coach O.G. all the time or they just say O.G."
It's all in good fun. The bond between the four is cemented, especially now that Armstrong is the strength and conditioning coach at Woodford County. He coached under Johnson at Jessie Clark Middle School and trained the former UK star during part of his NFL tenure.
Armstrong has a 2-year-old son named Jaxson. He said Jackson is convinced Armstrong named his son after the UK-bound lineman.
"We've all become close," Armstrong said. "They're like three giant children that I have."
"The smart guy"
The recruiting process was long and stressful, but Young said it all feels worth it when that first offer comes. Joest agreed.
"Sometimes you don't think anything's going to happen, then something comes out of the blue and amazes you," Joest said.
Through it all — from the sacrifice of time to giving up sugary drinks to gain healthy weight — the guys have been there together, and it's made the experience all the more memorable.
"I was really excited to see them go through the recruiting process and get theirs," Jackson said. "I think when Saige got his first scholarship offer I was more excited than anybody else."
The group's collective intelligence impresses their current coaches and those at the next level. Their fine-tuned pass-blocking ability has set them apart from many high school players, they said. All of the college coaches with whom they've spoken said it's a possibility they'll play center for their teams because they've each proven they can be "the smart guy," Jackson said.
For now, though, they're dressing in Woodford's black and yellow uniforms and taking the field for one last season together. That's one last season to play on both sides of the ball and with longtime friends. It's also one last season to gather the entire line for dinner at El Tapatio in Versailles every Thursday before each game.
"They've made so much money off us," Jackson said. "... We love it there. It's really good Mexican food."