Who’s up and who is down — from a state of Kentucky perspective — after the NFL Draft:
Up: Western Kentucky University football. Jeff Brohm’s Hilltoppers led the commonwealth with three players drafted, besting the one each from Louisville, Kentucky and Eastern Kentucky.
WKU tight end Tyler Higbee went to the Los Angeles Rams in the fourth round, while both quarterback Brandon Doughty (Miami Dolphins) and cornerback Prince Charles Iworah (San Francisco 49ers) were seventh-round selections.
Western’s draft success lends credence to what many of us believed about college football in the commonwealth in 2015 — the Hilltoppers had the best team in the state.
Down: University of Kentucky football. Over the past four NFL drafts, WKU — which played its first FBS season in 2009 and has moved from the Sun Belt Conference to Conference USA — has had six players chosen.
Over the same time frame, Kentucky, a founding member of the Southeastern Conference, has had five total players selected.
Up: Charlie Strong. When Louisville defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins was chosen in the first round by New Orleans, it meant 15 former U of L players — predominantly recruited by ex-Cardinals head man Strong and his staff — have been chosen the past three years.
Of those 15 players, three were former four-star recruits, but 12 were rated as three-stars coming out of high school. Before he fled for Texas after the 2013 season, Strong did a yeoman’s job of evaluating and developing talent at Louisville.
Down: Joker Phillips. When the Los Angeles Rams chose Kentucky linebacker Josh Forrest in the sixth round Saturday, the ex-Paducah Tilghman wide receiver became only the third player who signed with UK during Phillips’ ill-fated tenure as Wildcats head coach (2010-12) to hear his name called on draft day.
Interestingly, given that Phillips played wide receiver in college and built his coaching reputation on offense, all three players he signed as Kentucky head coach who have gone on to be drafted in the NFL were defenders — Avery Williamson (fifth round, 2014), Bud Dupree (first round, 2015) and Forrest.
Up: UK linebacker recruiting. If Forrest can make the Rams’ roster, the ex-UK middle linebacker could join former Cats inside backers Wesley Woodyard (Tennessee), Danny Trevathan (formerly Denver, now with Chicago) and Williamson (Tennessee) in the NFL.
Add in Dupree, a 3-4 outside linebacker with Pittsburgh, and Kentucky recruiters should be able to do some sweet name dropping with high school LBs.
Down: The “recruiting star system” as it applies to UK and the draft. With Forrest’s selection, Kentucky has had at least one player chosen in every NFL draft since 2008, 17 total.
Of those 17, only three were four-star recruits — quarterback Andre Woodson, defensive tackle Corey Peters and junior-college defensive end Za’Darius Smith. Eight, including Forrest, were three-stars.
Five of UK’s draftees from 2008-16 were two-star prospects and one, John Conner, went from a walk-on fullback to a 2009 fifth-round NFL Draft pick after being unranked as a recruit by Rivals.com.
Up: Noah Spence. The Eastern Kentucky pass rushing specialist did not go in the first round as some predicted, but being selected eighth in the second round (to Tampa Bay) is nothing to sneeze at.
After Spence sabotaged his Ohio State career by failing drug tests, he came to EKU, took care of his business and earned a happy ending.
Down: Not getting drafted. As a draft-eligible player, it has to be a bummer not to hear one’s name called. Nevertheless, our state has seen enough non-drafted free agents make it to the NFL — think ex-UK standout Woodyard and WKU products Bobby Rainey, Antonio Andrews and Jack Doyle — to show that not being drafted does not mean you can’t live the dream.
Two of 2016’s undrafted free agents from Kentucky universities are especially intriguing.
1.) George Fant, the former WKU basketball standout, started to transition to football last fall but was a little-used reserve on Western’s C-USA championship team. But he didn’t give up on playing in the NFL.
While scoring 1,621 career points for the Hilltoppers, the 6-foot-5 Fant carried 250 pounds as a basketball power forward. He showed up for Western’s football pro day this spring, however, at a bulked-up 296 pounds. Yet Fant still ran a 4.83 40-yard dash with a 37-inch vertical jump.
That was enough to entice the Seattle Seahawks to sign Fant. Can the Warren Central High School product become the latest undersized, ex-basketball power forward to make the transition to the NFL?
2.) Dy’Shawn Mobley, the former Eastern Kentucky running back star, transferred from Kentucky after his sophomore season and became EKU’s featured back. Before he left UK, however, Mobley was a stellar special teams player. In 2013, Mobley made 14 tackles and recovered a fumble for the Cats. Mobley played so well in kick coverage, UK head man Mark Stoops publicly mulled trying him at linebacker.
Now that Cincinnati has signed Mobley, it will be fascinating to see if he can reach back to that special teams proficiency to help earn a spot on the Bengals roster.