Pleasant surprises highlight Kentucky's signing class

Unexpected signings bolster Cats' recruiting class

jsmith3@herald-leader.comFebruary 1, 2012 

  • Five players to watch

    Patrick Towles: The four-star quarterback from Highlands became what Coach Joker Phillips called "the face of this class," but also could become the face of the program by the time he leaves UK.

    DeMarcus Sweat: At 6-foot-1, 192 pounds, has good size and speed to be a solid SEC wide receiver. He could have an immediate impact on a team that looked less than consistent at that spot last season.

    Khalid Henderson: Surprise late signee could be key to rebuilding a defense that lost a lot of talent to graduation. Henderson reportedly will wear No. 22 in an attempt to continue the legacy of fellow linebacker Danny Trevathan.

    Zack Blaylock: Intercepted 11 passes as a senior, returning five for touchdowns. A big-play safety was exactly what UK was looking for and that appears to be what it got.

    Jordan Watson: This 6-4, 315-pound lineman was hounded by bigger schools looking to steal him away from UK late, but he stayed firm and could be the bedrock of the offensive line for the next few years.

    In-state signees

    DL Thomas Chapman Manual

    DT Patrick Graffree Central Hardin

    DB Josh Harris Mason Co.

    QB Patrick Towles Highlands

    Out-of-state signees

    Georgia 8, Florida 4, Indiana 3, Ohio 2, South Carolina 2, Tennessee 2, Alabama 1.

    Signees by position

    Defensive back 9, offensive line 5, defensive line 3, linebacker 2, running back 2, wide receiver 2, athlete 1, kicker/punter 1, quarterback 1.

In these days of instant information about players and coaches and commitments, there aren't often many surprises.

But there were for Kentucky on Wednesday in the form of two late pickups to complement a solid recruiting class.

"We had heard, had a couple of ideas that these kids were probably going to sign with us, but you never know," Coach Joker Phillips said as he introduced his third recruiting class at Kentucky to a room crowded with media. "You don't want to get too excited, but there is some excitement in your belly. It erupts when the fax comes through."

The two mostly unexpected faxes came in from two highly rated prospects — linebacker Khalid Henderson and running back Justin Taylor who formerly were committed to Southeastern Conference foes.

So what happened to the room of sleepless coaches when those two faxes came through with the other paperwork from the class rated No. 31 in the nation by Scout.com?

"Lit up," Phillips said of the Cats' so-called war room. "It lit up."

Kentucky's class, despite the new additions and the signing of four-star quarterback Patrick Towles, was still rated as the 11th-best out of 14 in the SEC by Scout.com.

Rivals.com did not have UK's class rated in its top 50 nationally and put the Cats' class last of the 14 schools in the league.

But none of those rankings mattered much to Phillips on Wednesday, the first day commitments can make it official.

Phillips said he "doesn't value the star system" used by nationwide recruiting services. He values the evaluations of his assistant coaches and staff.

Stars or no stars (and for the record he has four), Patrick Towles was the star of this class.

The Kentucky Mr. Football from Highlands will be able to compete for the starting job with returning players like Morgan Newton and Maxwell Smith. Towles' early commitment made him the cornerstone of the recruiting class, Phillips said.

He called Towles "a big athlete, takes charge, he's a film-room junkie, winner ... He's the guy that's the type of leader that we need to be the face of this program."

Phillips said he knows that Towles got calls from other schools with maybe more tradition or more success than Kentucky, but the quarterback never wavered (Towles will wear No. 14 as a tribute to his grandfather, Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Bunning).

In fact, Phillips believes many of his new signees were tempted by other programs, especially when UK struggled at times last season.

But the coach said it shows the high character of the players who stayed with their commitments.

"Late in this process there were a lot of kids that were getting hammered by other teams, and (offensive lineman) Jordan Watson was one of those guys getting killed by other teams, trying to get him to turn his back on the University of Kentucky, and Jordan stood strong," Phillips said.

Kentucky was able to fill needs at specific spots, including offensive line, wide receiver and all over on defense, where the Cats graduated their top two tacklers and most of the secondary.

"It really was a class that addressed a majority of our needs," defensive coordinator Rick Minter said.

He spoke highly of the athletes that have signed to play defense, saying they will fit well in UK's system, specifically mentioning players like twins Zack and Daron Blaylock and Shawn Blaylock (no relation), as well as players like Josh Harris and junior-college signee Kory Brown.

Minter was a big part of getting Henderson to commit late after he initially committed to Tennessee.

The 6-foot linebacker was in part sold on the idea of replacing Danny Trevathan, the SEC's leading tackler the past two seasons.

Minter and Henderson spent a long time studying film of Trevathan, Phillips said.

"We are looking for football junkies, and that's what Khalid is," Phillips said. "He saw the potential to be put into the position that Danny Trevathan was in making plays for us."

Nearly every coach on staff had a hand in grabbing up Atlanta running back Justin Taylor, who originally had committed to Alabama before reportedly being asked to gray shirt (delay his enrollment) after injuring his knee and missing his senior season.

Phillips said UK trainers have looked at Taylor's knee and are confident he will be fine.

"He really runs strong," UK running backs coach Steve Pardue said of the 5-10, 200-pound back who ran for 1,500 yards and 10 scores as a junior. "He has a good burst. He was injured last year and didn't play, but watching his junior tape is enough to get you excited."

The offensive line got a boost from players like Watson (6-4, 315 pounds), who was one of five signed to play in that group.

Offensive line coach Mike Summers likes what UK got.

"They all are kind of a similar personality, guys who have done very well in the classroom, guys who have excelled on the field; they're effort guys, high-character guys, guys that fit well with the guys we have," Summers said. "Physically they're off the charts as far as their height and their size as they start out."

All of them are a part of a class that has Phillips smiling, especially the late surprises.

Notes

■ J.D. Harmon of Paducah Tilghman is headed to Kentucky but did not sign Wednesday. His coach, former UK wide receiver Randy Wyatt, said the 6-2 defensive back plans to arrive on campus in the fall and pay his own way first semester before earning a scholarship in January.

■ Mason County defensive back Josh Harris underwent surgery recently on a foot, Coach David Buchanan said, but Harris is hoping to fully recover in time to play basketball and run track later in the spring.

■ Austin Sheehan of Highlands, who originally committed to Kentucky as a preferred walk-on, is still weighing his options, Bluebirds Coach Dale Mueller said. The 5-10 wide receiver did not make any decisions on Wednesday.

■ Defensive end Daniel Ross of Jeffersontown, who committed to Kentucky but did not sign, probably will look into junior college options.

Herald-Leader staff writer Mike Fields contributed to this report.

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