John Clay: First round of NFL Draft underscores U of L's dominance

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMay 10, 2014 

With ESPN devoting every ounce of its massive attention to Johnny Manziel on Thursday night, you may not have noticed one locally notable bit of news from the NFL Draft.

Three former Louisville football players were selected in the first round.

Not one, not two, but three.

The New York Jets used the 18th pick to select safety Calvin Pryor. The Philadelphia Eagles used the 26th pick to select defensive end Marcus Smith. After trading back into the first round, Minnesota used the 32nd pick to select quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.

You need look no further for evidence why Louisville football has dominated Kentucky football on the field over the last three years.

It has nothing to do with conferences or schedules or even facilities. It has everything to do with players — recruiting players, signing players and developing players.

There is reason to believe Mark Stoops' arrival and Charlie Strong's departure may alter the rivalry's pendulum swing, but there is little doubt the Cats have plenty of catching up to do.

Even before 2014, Louisville had 25 football players drafted in the past 10 years. Kentucky had 13.

Since 2007, Louisville has now had five former players taken in the first round. Kentucky hasn't boasted a first-round pick since 2003.

While three Cardinals were selected in Thursday's first round, Kentucky's last three first-round picks were defensive tackle Dewayne Robertson to the Jets in 2003, quarterback Tim Couch (first overall) to the Browns in 1999 and running back George Adams to the Giants in 1985.

There is a cyclical nature to all this, of course.

During Steve Kragthorpe's ill-fated three years as the U of L coach, the number of Cardinals drafted fell from five in 2008, to two in 2009 to zero in 2010. Enter Strong, who had been Florida's defensive coordinator.

During Joker Phillips' ill-fated three years as Kentucky's coach, the Cats had just four players drafted — Randall Cobb in 2011, Danny Trevathan and Winston Guy in 2012 and Larry Warford in 2013. Enter Stoops, who had been Florida State's defensive coordinator.

According to Rivals.com, Louisville's final signing class under Kragthorpe ranked 77th in the nation. Under Strong, it improved to 48th in 2010 and 29th in 2011.

Smith was from the class of 2010, though the Columbus, Ga., native wasn't a ranked recruit either nationally or in his home state.

Pryor and Bridgewater were from the class of 2011. Both are Florida natives. Pryor was ranked as the 31st-best safety prospect in the nation. Bridgewater was ranked as the sixth-best dual-threat quarterback prospect.

Clint Hurtt, the controversial and now former Louisville assistant coach via Miami of Florida, had plenty to do with the recruitment of both Pryor and Bridgewater, of course.

Since Strong left Louisville for Texas, the Cards have slipped in the recruiting rankings. Louisville's February class was ranked 40th, but that had more to do with Strong than his successor, Bobby Petrino. So far, Louisville's class of 2015 commitments are ranked just 89th nationally by Rivals.

It should be noted that Rivals ranks Strong's 2015 commitments at Texas at No. 23.

Meanwhile, Rivals ranked Phillips' final UK class 63rd nationally. Stoops' first class was ranked 29th. His February class was No. 17. His 2015 commitments are currently 17th on the Rivals rankings board.

In his second stint as Louisville's head coach, Petrino remains a wild card. He obviously recruited well during his first go-around at U of L and he had a pair of top-25 classes at Arkansas, where nine of his former Razorbacks were drafted by the NFL.

And yet Arkansas insiders claim that part of the reason for the Razorbacks' steep drop in the win column since Petrino's ugly exit has to do with sub-standard recruiting.

That hasn't been the case at U of L, however, not over the last three years.

Thursday night's trio of first-rounders just brought more proof.

John Clay: 859-231-3226. E-mail: jclay@herald-leader.com. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv.

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