The hype of their high-profile recruitments behind them, UK’s five in-state signees from the class of 2016 hit the Commonwealth Stadium field Friday for the program’s annual media day, and their focus was squarely on the future.
Kash Daniel, Zy’Aire Hughes, Drake Jackson, Davonte Robinson and Landon Young were much celebrated during their high school careers. Daniel was the state’s Mr. Football, Young finished the recruiting cycle as a five-star prospect, and the other three were pursued by some of the most prestigious programs in the country.
Now, they’re all Kentucky Wildcats, low in the pecking order and eager to climb the ranks.
“I’m really excited,” said UK offensive line coach John Schlarman, the team’s primary in-state recruiter. “You got guys from Paintsville all the way out to Paducah. And every one of those guys that we signed from in state, we’re really excited about.
“All those guys have huge upsides. I think they’re going to have bright futures. Getting them in here and keeping them in Kentucky — now it’s time to go to work and let’s see what they can do to help our football team.”
Young and Jackson were considered to be two of the best high school offensive linemen in the country last fall, and UK fans will be eager to see what they’ve got.
They both played the diplomatic role Friday.
Obviously, in the SEC, it’s hard to come in and play as a freshman. I think you just have to kind of control your expectations for those guys. Let’s see how they do once they get into pads.
John Schlarman, UK offensive line coach
Jackson, a former star at Woodford County High School, spoke of how beneficial it was for him to enroll at UK last January and go through spring practice with his new teammates. He also deflected questions about his immediate, individual role on this team. The 6-foot-2, 302-pound center is third on the preseason depth chart behind senior Jon Toth, who has started 35 consecutive games for the Cats, and sophomore Bunchy Stallings.
That could lead to a redshirt year for Jackson, who said he hasn’t had any such conversation with the coaching staff yet and wanted to keep the focus on the team.
“All I want to do is help us get better,” he said. “I’d love to see us get to that bowl game. We have all the tools, so we just need to put it together.”
Young, a multi-sport star at Lafayette High School, joined the team in June and is also listed at No. 3 on the depth chart (at left tackle). He said he’d be just fine with a redshirt if that’s what the coaches decide is best for him, but like Jackson, he’s out there to compete for a spot this fall.
The 6-7 lineman has already been working hard off the field. He came to campus at 307 pounds, got down to 290 and has put back on 15 pounds of muscle to get to his current listing at 305.
“This is definitely a different experience than I’ve ever had before,” he said. “It was pretty rigorous and very challenging. But it’s (been) rewarding.”
Schlarman knows UK fans want to see the two local linemen contribute right away, but that’s not usually how it works with newcomers, especially in the Southeastern Conference.
He noted that George Asafo-Adjei is the only true freshman to play on the offensive line for the Cats in his tenure.
“You just have to let things take care of themselves,” Schlarman said. “Don’t put too much pressure on these guys early on. They’re freshmen. Obviously, in the SEC, it’s hard to come in and play as a freshman. I think you just have to kind of control your expectations for those guys. Let’s see how they do once they get into pads.
“Let’s see how they pick up on things and let’s see how they progress.”
Robinson is a local star who could see the field right away.
The 6-2, 187-pound cornerback was recruited by Alabama, Ohio State, Notre Dame and others, but he decided to play his college career less than three miles from where he lit up the field as a do-everything star for Henry Clay.
“It’s very exciting,” Robinson said. “It’s always been my dream to play in the SEC. And I’m happy I’m playing here at home. It’s really a great feeling. I love it, and I’m excited to get started.”
Robinson — No. 3 on the depth chart at cornerback — says he’s gotten stronger and faster in his two months on campus, and UK defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale says Robinson has the talent to contribute in the defensive backfield this season. Whether that happens will depend on how well he adjusts to the college game, and Robinson said he’d also like to give special teams a try.
A reporter noted that his track-star speed and quickness would make him a good fit as a return man. “And hopefully blocking some kicks,” he added with a smile.
Hughes — a 6-1, 190-pounder from McCracken County High School — is still listed as an “athlete” on the official roster, but he’s projected as a slot receiver at UK.
With so many talented and more experienced receivers ahead of him on the depth chart, Hughes acknowledged that his role on this season’s squad is to be supportive of his teammates while preparing for a time when he can make an impact.
He’s already in watch-listen-and-learn mode.
“To be honest with you, it would be nice to get some playing time, but that’s not really what I’m concerned with right now,” Hughes said. “I’m concerned with playing my role. We have the upperclassmen, we have the cats that are going to do what they’ve got to do and do what they’ve been doing. … My time will come.”
And then there’s Daniel, the star of Paintsville High who went from a little-known prospect outside of eastern Kentucky to one of the most coveted linebacker recruits in the country.
The always chatty and candid freshman — listed at No. 3 on the preseason depth chart at middle linebacker — said he’s 100 percent healthy and “ready to rock and roll” after suffering a concussion as an early enrollee during UK’s spring practice.
Daniel’s immediate goal is to work his way into the special teams rotation and then prove to the coaching staff that he deserves time at linebacker.
He knows this isn’t high school anymore.
“People have talked about us. Now it’s time to put up or shut up,” Daniel said. “We’ve had a lot of hype built around us. It’s time to own up to that hype. It’s time to get to work.”