Last week, Kentucky faced Alabama, the football recruiting kings of the Southeastern Conference, and the Wildcats fell 34-6 to the superiorly talented and No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide.
This week, UK takes on the SEC’s polar opposite — as far as recruiting goes — by hosting Vanderbilt, which has had the league’s worst recruiting class in each of the past three years.
The Commodores’ coaching transition from James Franklin (now at Penn State) to Derek Mason (in his third season at Vandy) has included a stark change in recruiting. Franklin managed the nation’s No. 30 and No. 20 overall classes in 2012 and 2013, respectively, unheard of success for the Commodores.
Since Mason took over for Franklin less than three weeks before national signing day in 2014, Vanderbilt has taken a step back in recruiting. The Dores’ classes were ranked No. 51 in 2014, No. 45 in 2015 and No. 54 in 2016 — all 14th and last in the SEC. Continuing that trend, Vandy currently has the No. 80 recruiting class nationally for 2017, and that group is also ranked last in the conference.
Still, there are some talented holdovers from the Franklin era, as well as a handful of top recruits who were brought in under Mason and have blossomed since.
Here’s a breakdown of where Vanderbilt’s players were ranked as recruits, with some comparisons to how they stack up — recruiting-wise — to UK’s roster (all rankings from Rivals.com):
Vanderbilt has 10 four-star players, 51 three-star players and 22 two-star players on its roster.
By comparison: UK has one five-star recruit (true freshman offensive lineman Landon Young), 14 four-star recruits, 49 three-star recruits and 10 two-star recruits on its roster this season.
Vanderbilt has four four-star recruits, 17 three-star recruits and one two-star recruit (true freshman wide receiver Kalija Lipscomb) listed as starters. The Commodores’ four-star starters are QB Kyle Shurmur, WR Trent Sherfield, DL Nifae Lealao and ILB Zach Cunningham.
By comparison: Among UK’s expected starters (going by last week’s lineup and this week’s outlook), the Cats have four four-star starters (TE C.J. Conrad, RB Boom Williams and safeties Mike Edwards and Marcus McWilson), 13 three-star starters, four two-star starters (including QB Stephen Johnson) and one starter who was not ranked in high school (LT Cole Mosier, who is expected to return this week after missing the past few games due to injury).
The only Kentucky native on Vanderbilt’s roster this season is former Trinity standout Ryan White, who was ranked as the No. 4 prospect in the state out of the class of 2013. White — Vandy’s starting strong safety — was actually ranked by Rivals.com as the No. 40 cornerback nationally in that class. He was committed to hometown Louisville early in the recruiting process but flipped to the Commodores before the start of his senior season. UK’s previous coaching staff extended a scholarship offer to White, who was already firmly committed to Vandy by the time Mark Stoops was hired by the Wildcats a few weeks before national signing day 2013. White, a junior, is fourth on the team with 27 tackles this season.
One that got away
Vanderbilt inside linebacker Josh Smith was one of Kentucky’s biggest recruiting targets in the class of 2015, and he’s the Commodores’ highest-ranked signee in the Rivals era. Smith — the No. 103 prospect nationally in 2015 — committed to Vanderbilt during the summer before his senior season, but the UK coaching staff continued to pursue the Murfreesboro, Tenn., native after that and secured the first official visit of Smith’s recruitment in December 2014. Working against the Cats was the fact that Smith’s older brother, Emmanuel Smith, was already a member of the Vandy football team. Josh Smith went on to take official visits to Oklahoma and Oregon — Georgia and Mississippi were among the others that recruited him — before staying firm with his commitment to the Commodores. He ended up being the highest-ranked Vandy signee in the history of the Rivals.com rankings, which date back 15 years. Smith played in all 12 games as a true freshman and is listed at No. 2 on the depth chart at one of the inside linebacker positions this week.
The UK defense spent the past two weeks facing off against true freshman quarterbacks (Alabama’s Jalen Hurts and South Carolina’s Brandon McIlwain). This week, the Cats will face a sophomore QB who earned the starting job last season as a highly touted true freshman. Kyle Shurmur — a 6-foot-4 native of Philadelphia — was ranked by Rivals.com as the No. 14 pro-style quarterback in the class of 2015 and is the son of former Cleveland Browns head coach Pat Shurmur, currently an assistant with the Minnesota Vikings. Kyle Shurmur took over the Vandy starting job last season — helping the Commodores beat UK in his one of his first starts — and is 67-for-130 passing for 696 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions so far this season. He will play Saturday despite being knocked out of last week’s loss to Florida with an eye injury.