UK Football

Does Florida bowl improve recruiting forecast for Kentucky in Sunshine State?

Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops talked about his team’s bowl bid against Georgia Tech in the Taxslayer Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla., on New Year's Eve.
Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops talked about his team’s bowl bid against Georgia Tech in the Taxslayer Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla., on New Year's Eve. palcala@herald-leader.com

Kentucky’s head coach was a smidge wishy-washy when discussing the benefits of a bowl game in Florida and whether or not that can help with recruiting the talent-rich state.

“It can’t hurt,” Coach Mark Stoops said on Monday.

Stoops’ assistants recruiting the state of Florida — coaches like co-offensive coordinators Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw as well as wide receivers coach Lamar Thomas — all seemed more definitive about whether or not the TaxSlayer Bowl in Jacksonville would help recruit the Sunshine State.

“One hundred percent it does,” Florida native Hinshaw said on Friday. “These Florida kids are like, Kentucky’s here in Florida playing in a bowl game on ESPN, New Year’s Eve, pretty cool. Pretty awesome.”

Gran, who has been recruiting the south Florida area for more than 30 years at various stops, said it will help as UK reaches out to players from Florida.

“I was just down there the last couple weeks and everybody is really excited about BBN,” he said. “People are really excited. So yeah, it doesn't hurt at all.”

The UK wide receivers coach, who barely had a voice bouncing around between Ohio and Florida recruiting the past two weeks, said the energy is unmistakable.

“Aww, man, it’s been a lot of excitement going to Florida, going to Ohio,” Thomas said. “A lot of people watched that Louisville game. A lot of people.

“Getting on the plane and people were like, ‘Hey, that was a great game.’ It’s a lot of excitement. We’re going to try to build on it. This program has been starving for a football team to win games consistently.”

The Cats’ 2016 signing class was the first one that didn’t have a single signee from Florida since 2003. Don’t expect that to be the trend, Stoops said.

Kentucky already has five commitments from that state for the soon-to-sign 2017 class, currently rated No. 35 by Rivals. Those commits are defensive end Chris Whittaker (Hollywood), defensive backs Michael Nesbitt (Lauderdale Lakes) and Cedrick Dort (West Palm Beach) as well as wide receivers Clevan Thomas (Pembroke Pines) and Joshua Ali (Hollywood).

And even though some already are committed elsewhere, at least five more players from Florida are still being targeted by the Cats, including three-star offensive lineman Sebastien Dolcine, who is visiting this weekend.

There’s also three-star defensive lineman Jonathan Ford, three-star wide receiver Jacquez Jones, four-star athlete Bruce Judson, who likely will visit next month. And three-star defensive end Jordan Wright, who visited UK earlier this fall.

While Kentucky’s head coach likes to focus primarily on recruiting within a six-hour radius of campus so UK can get recruits on campus multiple times, there is a lot of talent in Florida.

And he hired the aforementioned assistant coaches, who have given UK a more forceful presence in the Sunshine State.

That’s a key place for Kentucky to find supplemental talent, Rivals anyalyst Mike Farrell told the Herald-Leader in February.

“Florida, to me, quality-wise is the No. 1 state,” he said. “So it makes sense that they get down there and try to find some guys that may be overlooked and turn out to be great players.”

Hinshaw has pointed out several times that in any given recruiting period there are more than 700 players coming out of that state receiving Division I offers.

A little more recruiting talk

It was a big recruiting weekend for Kentucky with lots of large high school players and their families wandering around the football practice facility on Saturday after practice.

Among those roaming was Alabama commitment Jedrick Wills, a five-star offensive tackle, who was seen with Lafayette teammate and UK commitment Walker Wood.

When reporters asked about perhaps revisiting some recruits that committed elsewhere, Stoops laughed.

Are you peeking in our indoor?” he said. “You know we never stop. We’re never gonna stop. We’re going to make it very difficult for somebody to tell us no.”

The coach said he enjoyed having players around for the start of bowl practices this weekend.

“It’s good,” he said. “It’s really good. It’s fun to get them over here, especially today. We didn’t have a basketball game or anything, so to spend some time watching practice was good for us.”

Boom Williams looking at options

While he still has his eyes firmly on bowl preparation, UK running back Boom Williams said on Friday night that he’s had some preliminary discussions with his family about forgoing his final season and declaring for the NFL Draft.

“Conversations and things have started,” he said. “It’s something I’m going to have to think about as well. Like I said, right now my main focus is the bowl game, but after the bowl game my family will talk some more.”

There is a process UK goes through at this time of the year for players with NFL aspirations, including an evaluation done by UK and sent into the NFL.

“(We) see what their experts say, what they could be projected coming out and give them as much information as we can,” Stoops said.

Williams leads the Cats in rushing this season with 1,135 yards with seven touchdowns and a 7.1 yards per carry average. The junior averages 94.6 yards a game rushing.

Gran, who has coached a handful of NFL Draft picks at the running back position, has seen a lot of growth from Williams this season, especially in his patience and pass protection.

“He’s now hitting that thing and he’s not going side-to-side as much,” Gran said. “He does that sometimes on his own because of his vision, and it’s been great and he’s gotten us some unbelievable runs and touchdowns.

“I think he’s improved on his pass protection. We’re not there yet, but he certainly has gotten better, I think, as a north-and-south runner, one cut and go.”

‘That was incredible’

The family of Stephen Johnson has had more than a few reasons to celebrate success on the field this season.

Eight days after Kentucky’s quarterback had a career day in helping the Cats knock off No. 11 Louisville, his sister Sydney won an NCAA national championship in soccer with Southern California.

The seventh-ranked Trojans upset No. 1 West Virginia 3-1 last Sunday.

“That was incredible,” said Johnson, who said he talked to Sydney shortly after the game while she was having pancakes with their parents. “I mean they did a great job at USC. Big underdogs and winning against West Virginia. I was really happy for her. ... It was cool to see that, just how proud and happy she was.”

Sydney Johnson, a 5-foot-8 junior midfielder/forward, had one goal this season and 16 shots on goal, playing in 22 of the Trojans’ 25 games. In her sophomore season, Johnson finished second on the team with five goals and added two assists.

Stephen and Sydney Johnson’s father, Stephen, played college baseball at Oregon.

Unusual injury sidelined tight end

An unfortunate and unusual injury while playing on special teams ended Justin Rigg’s true freshman season early, a Kentucky team spokesman confirmed.

The 6-foot-6, 250-pound tight end from Springboro, Ohio, suffered kidney lacerations while playing on special teams in the second game of the season and was forced to sit the rest of the way. UK likely will seek a medical redshirt for Rigg, a three-star recruit.

Rigg was cleared to start running two weeks ago and will be back in some limited drills as the Cats prepare for the TaxSlayer Bowl. Doctors expect the freshman to be back to full speed by the start of spring practices.

He could’ve been a key contributor this season if not for the injury, tight ends coach Vince Marrow said before the Louisville game.

C.J. (Conrad) and Greg (Hart) have been banged up this season,” Marrow said. “He would’ve been playing a lot. He’s going to be a guy who is going to play a lot next year. Big guy that can run and block. He’s going to be a good one.”

Rigg is among several redshirt players that Eddie Gran said he’s excited to see play next season.

Staff writer Ben Roberts contributed to this report.

Jennifer Smith: 859-231-3241, @jenheraldleader

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