Mark Story: The in-state UK football recruit flying beneath the hype machine

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistFebruary 3, 2014 

Adrian Middleton

Before Matt Elam spurned Alabama to pick Kentucky, the John Hardin defensive tackle's recruitment featured more twists than any two seasons of Downton Abbey.

Once Drew Barker said no to "Steve Superior" and yes to Mark Stoops, the ex-Conner High School quarterback had a larger presence in the social media than Mark Zuckerberg.

Adrian Middleton's name does not carry a similar level of fame.

The South Warren defensive lineman is, barring a late recruiting surprise (Seneca's Lloyd Tubman, anyone?), the other in-state prospect who will join Barker and Elam as part of Stoops' ballyhooed 2014 recruiting effort.

With Wednesday's national signing day drawing near, I found myself curious about the one UK in-state commit who has seemed to fly under the radar of the recruiting-hype machine.

The 6-foot-4, 260-pound Middleton is proof that, even in football, less can be more.

As a South Warren junior, he played at 280 pounds. Last off-season, with help from South Warren assistant coach Brandon Smith, Middleton took things up several notches in the weight room and remade his body.

"He weighed about 275, 285, a lot of baby fat," said Mark Nelson, a former Western Kentucky University quarterback who stepped down as South Warren head coach after leading the Spartans to an 11-2 record and the third round of the Class 3A playoffs last fall.

"Coach Smith got him into a good weight program, and Adrian really embraced it. This is a player who, when he gets to UK, they will not have to teach him how to work. He already knows how to work like they do in college."

By last summer, South Warren coaches believed the "reduced" Middleton was a high Division I-level prospect. Smith, the ex-Boyle County QB and son of former UK assistant Chuck Smith, reached out to Kentucky offensive coordinator Neal Brown, also a former Boyle County standout.

"Coach Smith got my tape to Coach Brown," Middleton said. "I guess they liked what they saw. They started recruiting me and they offered me."

Louisville, Missouri, Western Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana and Auburn were schools that also pursued him, Middleton said.

Things came to a head after Nelson and Smith took Middleton to a camp last summer at Tennessee. According to Nelson, the Volunteers brain trust liked the way the lighter Middleton ran. "They were like, 'Wow, he can move,'" Nelson said.

However, Tennessee did not offer a scholarship. "The three of us were in the car coming home talking about his recruitment," Nelson said. "Adrian said, 'Coach, it doesn't matter (on Tennessee not offering). I already know where I want to go.'"

On June 15, Middleton went public with a commitment to Kentucky.

"I picked Kentucky because of the new coaching staff," Middleton said. "Coach Stoops is a defensive coach, and I liked that. He's changing Kentucky into more of a football school. I wanted to be part of that."

That allegiance was tested. WKU ruined Stoops' debut as Wildcats head man with a 35-26 defeat of the Wildcats in the 2013 season opener. In the following week, let's say there were some challenges to being a Kentucky commitment living in Warren County.

"After that game, the Western coaches made a big recruiting push on me, said I should 'Let the scoreboard be my guide,'" Middleton said with a laugh. "I just told them I was going to UK."

Last fall, Middleton was the anchor of what was, statistically, one of the best defenses in Kentucky high school history. South Warren did not give up a point until the season's fifth game and allowed only seven TDs in 13 contests.

Nelson said Middleton often faced double, even triple teams. He still had 67 tackles, 27 for loss, and forced three fumbles.

At Kentucky, some have speculated Middleton could end up playing defensive tackle if he packs good weight back onto his 6-4 frame. However, he expects to line up at defensive end, at least at the start.

Is it possible the in-state recruit with the lowest public profile in Kentucky's Class of 2014 could leave Lexington with the biggest name?

"Look, I'm biased, he was my player, but I also played college football," Nelson said. "Adrian Middleton is just scratching the surface of what he will be. I think he'll have a great four, five years at Kentucky."

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230.Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com.

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