Football recruiting

Mark Story: Kiffin, Kelly make visits to recruit Dawson

Coaches line up to see Dawson

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJanuary 28, 2011 

As you read this, five days remain until high school football stars can sign binding scholarship agreements with college programs. Around that storm, gale-force winds gather.

In Georgia, the recruitment of the state's top-ranked player, running back Isaiah Crowell, by Auburn, Alabama and the home-state Bulldogs, ginned up so many media phone calls that his poor high school coach had to ask the county school system's director of communications to start screening them.

Here in Kentucky, our state's top-ranked prospect, Boyle County linebacker Lamar Dawson, will announce his college choice next Wednesday. What, I wondered, is life like now for his coach, Larry French?

"I've never seen anything like this thing with Lamar," French said Wednesday. "This one's different."

French says the media inquiries in Dawson's recruitment have been manageable. What's been head-turning has been the revolving door of big-name college coaches passing through Danville.

On Monday, it was Tennessee's Derek Dooley. Tuesday saw Southern California head man Lane Kiffin. Wednesday brought one of the coaches from this month's national championship game, Oregon's Chip Kelly.

"The last three weeks, seems like we've had (college) coaches coming to us every day, sometimes two at a time," French said. "I've never seen anything like this."

As you process that, remember French is one of our state's best high school football coaches. He is the winner of back-to-back 4A state titles and 30 games in a row at Boyle. He's been working the sideline on Friday nights for 39 years.

Part of the fascination with Dawson's recruitment is that no one seems to have any real, first-hand insight into what the 6-foot-2, 235 pounder is thinking.

"This young man, he's got a good poker face," French said. "Even when we try to kid him and find something out, he doesn't give up much of anything."

French says even he doesn't know which of Dawson's five recruiting finalists — in alphabetical order, Central Florida, Kentucky, Oregon, Southern Cal, Tennessee — holds the upper hand.

Does the coach think Dawson knows right now where he will go?

"At this point, I don't think so," French said Wednesday.

The presence of Dawson, ranked the 45th-best player in the country by the recruiting analysts at Rivals, has allowed French and his coaches "to sit down and talk football with some of the best minds in the game," the Boyle coach said. "And (the college coaches) ask us to share things about our program. That part of this has been fun."

From being exposed to a Who's Who of college football coaching, French says he's made some observations.

"All these guys, they're down to earth, just people like you and me," the Boyle coach said. "They're all good talkers, they all know that you need to like them and they know how to handle themselves."

This weekend, Dawson is slated to make his final, all-expenses-paid recruiting visit to Tennessee. When the linebacker gets back, French says his plan is to sit down with his star player Monday "and go over the pros and cons of his choices, try to help him make a decision that is right for him."

Among the points French plans to make to Dawson "is take a long, hard look at the position coach you would be playing for. It's great to have a good relationship with the head coach, but you won't really be spending that much time with them. It's the position coach you need to know and have some idea if that guy is gonna be there."

If Dawson picks Kentucky, his position coach as a linebacker would be Chuck Smith. The same Chuck Smith who is a Boyle County football legend after coaching the Rebels to five state championships from 1999-2003.

Says French: "We think of Chuck as one of us."

Still, "Lamar has to go where he thinks is best for him," French said. "He's the one who lives with this decision, no one else."

One thing Dawson is not lacking for is advice on what he should do. Few towns in the commonwealth are more loyal to UK than Danville.

"He has a lot of people telling him how much they'd like to be able to see him play in person in college," French said. "He's also got people telling him if he goes to Tennessee, he'll become the most hated person in this state. Lamar just smiles at all of that."

For Larry French — and Lamar Dawson — T-minus five days and counting until life gets back to normal.

Reach Mark Story at (859) 231-3230 or 1-800-950-6397, ext. 3230, or mstory@herald-leader.com. Your e-mail could appear on the blog Read Mark Story's E-mail at Kentucky.com.

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