About an hour before kickoff Saturday night, Kentucky’s top recruiting target — and one of the highest-ranked, in-state football prospects in recent years — walked onto the Commonwealth Stadium field.
Lafayette offensive lineman Jedrick Wills, who was expected to be publicly committed to a college by now, came through the tunnel with high school teammate Walker Wood, who has already committed to the Wildcats and would like Wills to join him in blue and white next season.
Wills had planned to announce a college decision before the start of his senior season, and most recruiting analysts were predicting that he would pick national powerhouse Alabama over his hometown school. But Wills’ season began with no announcement, and there’s still no timetable for him to publicly declare his college choice.
Rivals.com ranks Wills as the No. 4 offensive tackle and No. 16 overall recruit in the class of 2017. The 6-foot-4, 316-pound prospect earned scholarship offers from UK, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana State, Michigan, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Tennessee and several other major programs.
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UK has long targeted Wills as its No. 1 recruiting priority for the 2017 class, and Coach Mark Stoops and offensive line coach John Schlarman attended Lafayette’s game Friday night, a 45-7 loss to No. 1-ranked Trinity.
Wills and Wood weren’t the only high-profile recruits on the field before UK’s season opener against Southern Miss.
Trinity defensive end Stephen Herron — ranked by 247Sports as the No. 15 recruit nationally in the class of 2019 — made the trip from Louisville along with Trinity wide receiver Rondale Moore, who has a UK scholarship offer for 2018.
Four-star defensive back Tyrell Ajian — one of UK’s top commitments for the class of 2017 — traveled to Lexington from Ohio. Also coming from Ohio was four-star recruit Alex Reigelsperger, who ESPN ranks as the No. 12 defensive end and No. 156 prospect nationally in the 2018 class.
Reigelsperger told the Herald-Leader that this was his sixth trip to UK. He’s planning to return for the Wildcats’ home game against Vanderbilt on Oct. 8.
Not quite full
The announced attendance for Saturday’s season opener was 57,230, shy of last season’s first game at the “new” Commonwealth Stadium but otherwise the highest-attended home opener since 2011.
UK had an announced crowd of 62,933 for the 2015 season opener against Louisiana-Lafayette. It was the program’s first sellout since the 2010 season. The official capacity at “new” Commonwealth Stadium is 61,000.
The announced attendance for the previous three home openers: 50,398 vs. Tennessee-Martin in 2014; 54,846 vs. Miami (Ohio) in 2013; and 48,346 vs. Kent State in 2012.
There were four “either or” listings on UK’s game week depth chart, and those were cleared up in the game’s opening minutes.
The only uncertainty on the defensive side was over who would start at weakside linebacker between redshirt freshman Eli Brown or sophomore Jordan Jones.
Jones got the start and came out hot, leading the Wildcats with 11 tackles (10 solos) and one quarterback sack in the first quarter alone. Brown played on special teams and got a few reps on defense.
Senior running back Jojo Kemp got the start over junior Boom Williams (though Williams played a lot early), and redshirt freshman Tavin Richardson started over junior Dorian Baker at one of the wide receiver spots.
Freshman Grant McKinniss apparently won the fall-camp punting battle over sophomore Bryan Kirshe. McKinniss’ first college punt was partially blocked and rolled 24 yards.
Junior wide receiver Blake Bone was on the field but not fully dressed in uniform for Saturday’s game. Bone missed both scrimmages this fall with a hamstring injury and was not listed on the two-deep on Monday’s depth chart.
Available to play
Former Cincinnati quarterback Luke Wright was cleared by the NCAA to play (because of his walk-on status, UK explained) and was dressed out for Saturday’s game. Even when he wasn’t expected to be able to play, Wright was a big help to UK’s quarterbacks learning the new offense under Darin Hinshaw and Eddie Gran.
The 6-foot-4, 206-pound sophomore transfer played sparingly in four games last season for the Bearcats.
Junior wide receiver Garrett Johnson became the 25th player in program history to surpass the 1,000-yard mark in receiving with his 43-yard touchdown catch-and-run in the first quarter. Johnson was UK’s leader in receiving yards last season.
Attendance for UK’s past 10 home openers