Three guys on top of an old earth mover parked at the Woodford County Park. Had you passed by and not seen them adorned in full pads and team jerseys with a camera pointed in their direction, you'd have thought it was just three buddies goofing off on a Saturday afternoon. You'd have been mostly right; it was three buddies who happen to be members of the University of Kentucky's latest recruiting class.
Drake Jackson, Kash Daniel and Landon Young are widely considered the three top players in the commonwealth's class of 2016. Along with Davonte Robinson and Zy'Aire Hughes, they make up a contingent of high-profile recruits that will join UK next fall. The entire class of Kentucky seniors might be unprecedented in its wealth of talent.
More than two dozen players have been offered by Division I schools and that number could swell by season's end. The young men come from every corner of the state and are certain to have an immense impact on the gridiron this season. Perhaps more fascinating than the fact that such a deep class exists, though, is that its members are a tight-knit bunch — especially the future Cats.
For example, the Mountain Parkway separates Daniel — a two-way star at Paintsville — from Young, a towering offensive lineman at Lafayette. Despite that distance, the chemistry between the two is akin to brothers who've grown up under the same roof for a decade. You'd be forgiven for thinking they play for the same high school instead of ones 118 miles apart.
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"This class has been tighter than any other class," Young said. "I don't know what it's really about. It may be 'cause we've got a lot of shared interests."
While waiting for Jackson to arrive for the photo shoot, Daniel and Young sat on the tailgate of Daniel's pickup and talked extensively about fishing. The pair are avid outdoorsmen and can't wait to get to Lexington; not just to play for Mark Stoops but to join him out on the water sometime.
Daniel said having common interests like that, in addition to being able to stay caught up with one another through texting and Twitter, helps solidify bonds built during camps, combines and recruiting visits.
Neither Hughes nor Robinson could make the photo shoot but don't mistake that for cracks in the Big Blue foundation. Robinson was emphatic in his commitment to UK in an interview with the Herald-Leader's Ben Roberts recently.
"Oh, I'm all in," Robinson said. "I still want to go on my visits, because that's every kid's dream. But I bleed blue."
Loyalty to his home state played a big role in Hughes' decision to go to Lexington.
"I'd rather help our state compete 'cause that's where I'm from," Hughes said. "No sense in changing on 'em. I'm from Kentucky — why not stay in Kentucky?"
His other visits left Hughes uneasy.
"I didn't feel like I was at home," he said. "At Kentucky I feel like I'm home 'cause that's where I am."
Recruiting websites Rivals.com and Scout.com list Jackson as the No. 2 player in the state behind Young, but there's no question he's the No. 1 glue guy in the class of 2016. Almost every top player the Herald-Leader spoke with in the preseason referenced his presence as being a boon for the state. Spend a few minutes with him in person and you'll understand why he's such an asset to his present and future coaches. The kid oozes charisma.
"He's a great recruiter," Hughes said of Jackson. "I can see him going and having a job as a college coach in recruiting. He does well."
One need look no further than his Woodford County teammates, Seth Joest and Saige Young, to see the sort of impact Jackson's had on the local landscape. "Big kids with raw talent" when Jackson transferred there as a sophomore, he said over the past two years they've stuck with a tough training schedule that included three to four days a week working in Jeremy Armstrong's program at Xcel Sport Science and Fitness in Lexington.
"We saw his work ethic and knew we had to step it up," said Joest, who recently committed to Western Kentucky.
Saige Young, who's considering offers from Troy and Ball State, echoed Joest.
"He's been teaching us a lot of things and it's been really fun working with him," Young said.
Jackson said the process has been a lot of fun. He said the commitment has helped all three of them grow a great deal.
"I wasn't perfect," Jackson said. "I'm still not perfect. But when they came in they had a long way to go and I think they can admit that. You just watch their film and they've turned into Division I football players.
"They just put in the work. In football in order to get better you've got to put work in in the offseason. The offseason is twice as long as the regular season."
'Big Blue Wrecking Crew'
One footnote to the sensational class of 2016 — or key element, depending with whom you speak — was the identification of big-time talent for an eighth-grade all-star team in 2011 by Phillip Hawkins, now the head coach at Doss in Louisville.
Hawkins, who was instrumental in the formation of the Kentucky Middle School Football Association while at Frankfort Middle, coached that all-star team. Daniel and Jackson were among its members, as were at least 10 other kids now headed to Division I schools.
"When I identified the kids, I was not too shy about telling them that I was trying to identify Division I football players," Hawkins said.
The team made it to the national semifinals of the U.S. Army Game's first middle school tournament and became known as the "Big Blue Wrecking Crew."
Hawkins said they probably would've won it all if not for some travel complications that led to little rest time. They settled for third place.
"Looking back on it we were clearly the best team down there," he said. "We literally were bigger, stronger and damn near as fast as every team we played."
The friendship between Daniel and Jackson was forged through that team. In an interview with the Herald-Leader at Daniel's college announcement last month, Jackson said the two dreamed of playing in the Southeastern Conference way back then.
"We just didn't know we'd be doing it together," Jackson said.
More than just Cats
While fans in Lexington are eager to see their next recruiting class hit the field, plenty of other campuses are awaiting the arrival of Kentucky-born football stars to boost their programs.
Will Ulmer of Madison Central and Quinton Baker of Ashland Blazer will join forces at Marshall. Louisville boasts commitments from in-city stars Keion Wakefield (WR, Male), Rodjay Burns (CB, Trinity), Derek Dorsey (DT, Manual) and Austin Johnson (P, DeSales).
Tre Hornbuckle, an all-state defensive end at Murray, will suit up for Duke next September. He credited Jackson's high profile as the No. 1 center in the nation as part of the reason Kentucky kids got "put on the map" this year.
"Everybody in this class, we love the game," said Hornbuckle, who plans to study sociology and wants to go into law enforcement. " ... It's awesome seeing other kids from this state do just as good as you or even better. Representing the state is awesome. It's a great feeling watching some of the dudes I talk to getting offers and committing."
Caldwell County star Dee Cain won't travel too far from home when he arrives at Western Kentucky next year. He thinks it's special that the state has so many seniors going to so many different colleges.
"All of us know each other and play against each other and wanna be better than the other," Cain said. "At the end of the day it's a family and we wanna show the Alabamas, the Floridas, the Georgias that Kentucky can play too."
On the other side of the state at Prestonsburg, Dalton Frasure will play his senior season knowing a scholarship at Austin Peay is waiting for him. He was a member of that eighth-grade all-star team and said it was great for him "to see where I compared to other top players."
"I'm real glad to see that a lot of other guys like me get the opportunity to play at the next level!" Frasure told the Herald-Leader via Twitter.
Drew O'Bryan, an Ashland Blazer linebacker who originally committed to Ball State but is now a future Hilltopper, said it's nice not to worry about the recruiting process anymore so he can focus on helping the Tomcats land a state title. He said "it's kind of cool" being from Appalachia and getting to play at the highest level of college football.
"Like Kash always says, coming from Eastern Kentucky and getting recruited is harder than being out there in the big cities," O'Bryan said. "We kind of take pride in that and make sure everybody realizes that."
While the light shines brightest on those with big-school offers, there are plenty of guys in the senior class who will influence the 2015 season and are still writing their futures.
Ray Zuberer, the only quarterback in the state to throw for 300 yards a game last season, will again be under center for Owensboro Catholic. He sports baseball offers from U of L and WKU so football is out of his future after the season ends.
Joquise Buford, the state's leading rusher at Henry Clay last season at 184 yards per game, returns. Pikeville's Daric Pugh, who at times last year put up mind-boggling numbers, should have a say in how the Class A playoff picture unfolds.
Keith Guy, a workhorse at Scott County in whom EKU, WKU, Morehead and Central Michigan have shown interest but has no reported offers, should have a sizable influence on the Class 6A race. Guy said he's not worried about the battle for Mr. Football, which could be one of the most exciting yet.
"I just wanna get my team back to where we belong and that's down in Bowling Green," Guy said. "Then everything else will fall in place."