The fact that UK signed zero football players from inside the state to its 2018 recruiting class wasn’t lost on many fans who like to see the top local stars stay close to home.
It also wasn’t lost on UK Coach Mark Stoops, who has largely excelled at signing top in-state talent during his tenure in charge of the Wildcats.
“I was disappointed in that. I’m not going to lie. I want in-state guys,” Stoops said on national signing day this month. “We’re recruiting hard on the 2019 class right now, out there beating the pavement, making sure we’re evaluating the right guys.
“There always is good quality here. We have to make sure we get the quality players to stay home.”
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The quality of this 2019 class of Kentuckians is as good as the state has seen in years.
“Yeah, it’s a good year,” 247sports national analyst Steve Wiltfong told the Herald-Leader this week. “There are guys with unique traits.”
These are also guys with higher national rankings than the in-state players that have come before them in recent years.
Seven high school players from Kentucky are listed among the top 500 national recruits for the class of 2019, according to the most recent 247Sports rankings. To put that in perspective: it’s the only time it’s ever happened in the nine years that 247 has been ranking football recruits.
In three of the previous eight classes, Kentucky didn’t even have seven players ranked among the top 1,000 recruits nationally. The 2011 class was the only one in that span that had seven Kentuckians among the nation’s top 750.
The problem for UK in this 2019 class won’t be lack of SEC-caliber talent in the state. It’ll be beating back the elite football schools that also want to sign that talent.
The list of possible favorites for next season’s top Kentucky seniors is a who’s who of college football.
Starting at the top of the list, 247Sports has Louisville Christian wide receiver Milton Wright ranked as the No. 1 prospect in Kentucky for the 2019 class. Wiltfong called Wright, who has a UK offer, “extremely fast” but he also said he thinks Ohio State will be his ultimate destination.
No. 2 on the 247Sports list is South Warren defensive tackle Jacob Lacey, who committed to Notre Dame last year and seems firm with that pledge.
Next is Trinity defensive end Stephen Herron — the No. 1-ranked Kentuckian in the 247Sports composite rankings, which includes input from other recruiting services. Herron is currently committed to Michigan, though Wiltfong recently predicted that he will flip to Stanford. UK has offered, but the Cats appear to be long shots, at best.
The group of more realistic UK recruits starts at No. 4 on the 247Sports list with Glasgow offensive lineman Tanner Bowles, who is a major priority for the Wildcats but also has early scholarship offers from Florida State, Louisiana State, Oklahoma, Penn State, Tennessee and Louisville, where his older brother was a former player. Alabama extended an offer Wednesday.
UK has a shot at Bowles, but the Cats also have some heavy-duty competition there.
247Sports ranks Hudson as the No. 174 prospect nationally, but Wiltfong said he isn’t high on UK’s chances to land him against, again, some stout competition.
Virginia Tech has emerged as a major threat in his recruitment. Notre Dame just came through with a scholarship offer last month. LSU, Ohio State and Alabama are among the other major programs that have offered.
UK recently offered the No. 6 player in the 247Sports’ rankings for Kentucky — Moore defensive end/linebacker J.J. Weaver — but he’s originally from south Florida and just picked up a scholarship offer from Miami, in addition to a new offer from Georgia. And U of L, the current hometown school, is making him a priority.
All six of those players are ranked by 247Sports as four-star recruits. No other in-state class since 247 started ranking recruits in 2011 has had more than four four-star prospects.
Sitting at No. 7 in the state rankings is the in-state prospect that local UK fans might most like to see in blue and white: Western Hills star Wandale Robinson, the speedy, elusive, 5-foot-8 offensive threat from nearby Frankfort.
Robinson ran for 2,330 yards and 33 touchdowns last fall and will be one of the favorites for Mr. Football honors this year. He’s rated a little lower than his peers mentioned above — No. 416 nationally — but his impact at the college level could be considerable.
“Obviously with a guy like that — our rankings are based on an NFL projection, and, ‘Who does he look like on Sunday?’” Wiltfong explained. “But we obviously like him a lot and have him as a high three-star and the No. 5 all-purpose back in the country.”
Robinson has been seen as a possible UK lean for a while, but Wiltfong logged a Crystal Ball pick in favor of Duke after scouting him at the Best of the Midwest camp in Indianapolis on Monday and told the Herald-Leader that he was confident in that prediction.
There are several other three-star recruits in the state for the class of 2019 — including Doss defensive end Shawnkel Knight-Goff, the No. 8 player in the local rankings — but if the UK coaches hope to keep the elite talent close to home for college, they’re going to have their work cut out for them in this cycle.
Top 500 national recruits from Kentucky in Stoops era
Player, high school
Rondale Moore, Trinity
Tahj Rice, Waggener
Jairus Brents, Waggener
Jedrick Wills, Lafayette
Landon Young, Lafayette
Kash Daniel, Paintsville
Drake Jackson, Woodford Co.
Zy'Aire Hughes, McCracken Co.
Keion Wakefield, Male
Damien Harris, Madison Southern
Eli Brown, Warren East
Matt Elam, John Hardin
Drew Barker, Conner
Lloyd Tubman, Seneca
Reggie Bonnafon, Trinity
Adrian Middleton, South Warren
*Hunter Bivin, Apollo
James Quick, Trinity
*Kyle Bolin, Lexington Catholic
Ryan Timmons, Franklin Co.
Jason Hatcher, Trinity
*-Committed before Stoops was hired at UK
Note: 247Sports rankings