Kentucky’s recruiting message has evolved over the last few years from coming be the start of something great, to helping us become a regular contender in the Southeastern Conference to now a simpler, “Let’s go beat Georgia.”
“We’ve climbed up the hill, beaten some of these other teams, but we got to get Georgia, we got to win the SEC East soon,” recruiting coordinator Vince Marrow said on Wednesday. “So that’s our message now.”
And to six brand new Cats — Marquez Bembry, Taj Dodson, K.D. McDaniel, Quandre Mosely, Travis Tisdale and Tra Wilkins — that message likely resonates a little bit more because that’s their home state.
After signing just two players from Georgia in each of the past five classes, the Cats pulled in six from there for the class of 2019. It’s more than from any other state, including Kentucky (five), Florida (four) and Ohio (three).
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It was by design.
“It’s the heart of the SEC in there, and everybody goes into Georgia,” Coach Mark Stoops said. “There’s a lot of good football players in there. But we were definitely dead set on going in there and making sure we get the right players and getting good football players out of that state.”
There was a mandate from Stoops to make a splash in Georgia, Marrow said, noting that the area produces a huge number of college and professional players annually.
“It’s a state that we wanted to get into,” Marrow said.
And Kentucky having some success on the field against teams like South Carolina, Missouri, Florida and Mississippi State has made the Cats a more viable option to players from that area.
“When I was recruiting a quarterback years ago and I went in there and started taking over his recruitment, Kentucky was looked as, ‘Why do you want to go there?’” Marrow said. “If you’re from the South, why do you want to go there and skip over all these schools and go to Kentucky?”
Most parts of Georgia fit in Stoops’ overall plan of recruiting players who are six hours or fewer away from Lexington.
“There’s good football there,” said defensive coordinator Matt House, one of the primary recruiters in that area, “and Coach has made a big point of emphasis and recruiting our footprint and getting out a little bit.”
Five of the six signees are on the defensive side of the ball in linebackers Bembry, McDaniel and Wilkins and defensive backs Dodson and Mosely. Four of them are enrolling in January, too.
And for the second straight season, UK grabbed a highly rated running back from that area in Tisdale. The Cats signed Chris Rodriguez out of McDonough in the 2018 class.
“I really think this kid is going to be a home-run hitter,” Marrow said of Tisdale, a four-star recruit listed as the nation’s No. 18 running back by ESPN. “I’m very excited to see him play.”
Behind Eddie Gran, Kentucky has made a big recruiting push in Florida in recent years, getting several key players from a place where the offensive coordinator has been recruiting for more than 25 years.
Playing in a bowl on Jan. 1 in Orlando, where UK co-offensive coordinator Darin Hinshaw also recruits, can only help the Cats in a state with loads of speed and talent every year.
“I don’t think it ever hurts to get down there and play,” Stoops said. “And most importantly to play on New Year’s Day in such a big bowl against a quality opponent, and that exposure is really going to help you. But playing down there definitely helps as well.”
And seeing a huge Kentucky crowd will be great, too. The Cats’ coach said he wasn’t surprised to hear that the school had sold out its Citrus Bowl allotment of 9,000 tickets before the holidays.
“We greatly appreciate it and look forward to seeing a bunch of blue down there,” Stoops said, and then clarified since the Cats are playing a navy-clad Penn State: “Our color blue.”
‘I felt like he’d regret it’
It wouldn’t be surprising to see an extra gift under Stoops’ Christmas tree from UK baseball coach Nick Mingione after the football coach brought in quarterback Amani Gilmore, who plans to try his hand playing for two Kentucky teams.
Kentucky’s football coach encouraged the 6-foot-2, 200-pound dual-threat quarterback to not give up one sport for another.
“I felt like he was too talented,” Stoops said of Gilmore, a left-handed pitcher and outfielder for Amite High School in Louisiana. “I felt like he’d regret it. I was a dual-sport player coming out of high school and wanted to do that in college. I never got the opportunity.”
In the spring when baseball will pull Gilmore away, UK is allowed only a specific number of practices and the Cats do that every other day, which allows for some baseball time.
“There’s no reason where a guy with that kind of talent shouldn’t go explore it and go throw a little bit,” Stoops said. “He could throw the baseball. And I’m sure Nick can use an arm.”
No. 14 Kentucky vs. No. 12 Penn State
When: 1 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 1
Where: Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Fla.