John Clay: Joker eyes recruiting diamonds in the rough SEC

it's harder for UK to crack the top 10

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistFebruary 1, 2012 

It's not getting any easier.

Two SEC football teams suited up in New Orleans' Superdome on Jan. 9 for the BCS title. Alabama whipped LSU 21-0. LSU was ranked No. 1 for most of the season. It was the Tide, however, who carted home the SEC's sixth straight national championship.

Prior to national letter-of-intent day, various recruiting services ranked the nation's prospective signing classes. Numerous top-10 lists included the SEC's 13th member. That would be Texas A&M, the Big 12 escapee that begins SEC play next season. It will do so with a talented rookie class.

Then Wednesday, the actual signing day, the nation's top prospect, a wide receiver named Dorial Green-Beckham out of Springfield, Mo., signed with the SEC's 14th member.

That would be Missouri, newest inhabitant of the SEC East. Kentucky plays in the SEC East. In fact, the Cats play at Mizzou next Oct. 27.

Maybe that's why Kentucky signed nine defensive backs.

"This is the toughest league, no doubt about that," said Kentucky Coach Joker Phillips on Wednesday at a news conference to discuss his 2012 signees. "We've proven that we've been right in the mix. This (holding up the list of signees) gives us plenty of hope. Plenty of hope."

The recruiting gurus, as C.M. Newton used to call them, have their own opinions.

Rivals.com placed UK at the bottom of the now-14-team league. The scouting site 247sports.com concurred. Scout.com is more bullish on UK's talent haul. It ranked the Cats' collection 31st in the nation, 11th in the shark-infested SEC.

Rivals ranked eight SEC schools among its top 20 classes, with Alabama at No. 1. Scout placed 10 league members in its top 24.

"We don't care about that," Phillips said. "What I value is the evaluations of those guys in the back of the room."

He was talking about his staff, most of whom were sitting behind the TV cameras in the Nutter Field House meeting room.

In fact, Phillips opened his remarks Wednesday by talking about that staff, about changes he has made since succeeding Rich Brooks as head coach. Those with prominent Brooks connections are no longer around, replaced by those with strong Phillips ties.

"I heard a statement that 'Coach Brooks' guys are out of here,'" Phillips said. "It's not about Coach Brooks' guys. It's about Joker's guys. That's important."

His is an experienced staff, one that has fought plenty of recruiting wars before. It knows the situation. It knows the competition. It matters who plays for your team, yes. It may matter more who your team plays against.

So when Phillips listed the various attributes of his new players, he repeated familiar themes. This player was an "SEC running back" or that player was an "SEC lineman" or an "SEC linebacker."

Example: "We got a couple of SEC backs,'' said Phillips of running backs Dyshawn Mobley and Justin Taylor.

He believes he got an SEC quarterback in Patrick Towles out of Fort Thomas Highlands whom the head coach was not shy about labeling as a player who could be "the face of our program."

He called Jalen Whitlow, a former Arkansas State commitment who switched to Kentucky in the final 48 hours, as "a Randall Cobb type."

Cobb was a two-star recruit, remember, whom the recruiting experts and home-state Tennessee ignored.

Phillips referenced former UK guard Dermontti Dawson, who went on to All-Pro status as a center with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Dawson, said Phillips, didn't have any stars coming out of Bryan Station. Many think his bust deserves residence in Canton.

With his competition and task expanding, Phillips needs a few of those in the class.

This is, after all, the SEC. The ever-expanding, never-easy SEC.

Reach John Clay at (859) 231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com.

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