UK Football

Can UK go into Ohio State’s backyard and pluck a top football recruit from the Buckeyes?

Wayne High School wide receiver L’Christian “Blue” Smith is one of the top football recruits in the state of Ohio.
Wayne High School wide receiver L’Christian “Blue” Smith is one of the top football recruits in the state of Ohio. Dayton Daily News

The recruitment of UK’s top football target for the class of 2018 — four-star wide receiver L’Christian “Blue” Smith — is entering its final weekend, and it’s not looking good for the Wildcats.

Smith — a 6-foot-6 prospect from Dayton, Ohio — landed his first scholarship offer from Kentucky and has been doggedly pursued by Vince Marrow, UK’s ace recruiter. Smith has visited Lexington on numerous occasions. He’s close friends and high school teammates with Alex Reigelsperger, one of the Cats’ top commitments for 2018. And UK’s coaches have said throughout the recruitment that they view Smith as a wide receiver, his preferred position, at the college level

That’s a lot of points in the Cats’ favor.

It might not be enough to land his commitment Sunday.

“It’s just hard to beat Ohio State in their backyard,” analyst Josh Helmholdt told the Herald-Leader. “And that’s not just for Kentucky, but it goes for anybody. For any team coming into Ohio, if they want a kid in their backyard, it’s difficult. That kid goes to school and hears about (Ohio State) from other kids in school. He hears about it from teachers in that school, parents of kids in that school, that he should go to Ohio State and be a Buckeye.

“That’s a tough thing to overcome for any team coming in.”

Sadly for UK, this is what it’s come down to.

Smith is set to announce his college decision Sunday during ESPN’s live telecast of his team’s season opener. The game is set for 1:30 p.m. and the star player will pick either the Buckeyes or the Wildcats during that broadcast.

Helmholdt spent some time with Smith and his family last month over a weekend that corresponded with Ohio State’s biggest camp of the summer. Helmholdt said he came away from those conversations thinking that Kentucky — not the home-state powerhouse — was the leader in Smith’s recruitment.

“Over the last month, I think it has trended back toward Ohio State’s favor,” he said. “And that would be my pick as I sit here today.”

So, what happened?

As Helmholdt said, it’s simply tough to beat the Buckeyes for an Ohio kid that they really want, and OSU really wants Smith.

Coach Urban Meyer met with Smith during a recent visit to Columbus and laid out the Buckeyes’ plan for the young prospect. While there had been some debate over where Smith would play at Ohio State — tight end, at one point, seemed the most likely spot — Meyer made it clear that his program projects Smith as a wide receiver, assuming he stays in the ballpark of his current weight — around 205 pounds — and doesn’t grow into the 230+ range, which might make tight end more likely.

That clearing of the air — along with the typical “home-state” pull that Smith was destined to receive in the final weeks of his recruitment — might have been enough.

“If you think about it in horse racing terms: Ohio State is a closer,” Helmholdt said. “They close down the stretch, and it’s tough for kids in their own backyard to say no.”

The recruiting analyst compared Smith’s upside to former NFL star Calvin Johnson, one of the league’s best wide receivers in recent years. Earlier this month, analyst Bill Greene told the Herald-Leader that he sees Smith as a “Dez Bryant-type,” mentioning another one of the game’s current greats.

(For the record, Greene is among many recruiting analysts who have logged picks in favor of Ohio State on Smith’s 247Sports Crystal Ball page, which is now tilted almost entirely in the Buckeyes’ favor). ranks Smith as the No. 29 overall player and No. 7 wide receiver in the 2018 class, and he’d easily be the Cats’ top-ranked commitment if he were to pull a surprise and announce a UK pledge Sunday afternoon.

Despite all of the momentum seemingly being on the side of Ohio State, none of the recruiting insiders that have spoken to the Herald-Leader in recent days have expressed a “certainty” that Smith will pick the Buckeyes.

“Oh yeah, I don’t have enough intel to tell me he’s for sure going to Ohio State,” Helmholdt acknowledged. “It’s certainly been nip and tuck. Even Ohio State people aren’t going to say that, over the last five months, it’s been all Ohio State.

“It’s been a back and forth battle. So, it would not surprise me if he went with (UK) on Sunday. I don’t expect it. But, it wouldn’t surprise me.”

UK recruiting coordinator Vince Marrow talks about how Ohio State's recruiting strategy is helping the Wildcats.