Offensive linemen are often the most overlooked players on a football team.
In the University of Kentucky’s recruiting class of 2016, no position has been more celebrated.
The quartet of O-line commitments Mark Stoops has coming in next season is without a doubt UK’s most highly touted in the era of recruiting rankings.
They’re well aware of that fact.
Two of the four — Drake Jackson and Tate Leavitt — have already enrolled in classes at UK and met with local reporters for the first time Thursday morning. The two others — Luke Fortner and Landon Young — will officially sign with the Wildcats next week and join the program in June.
Leavitt — the only junior-college player in the bunch — spoke Thursday of the “huge expectations” he knows UK fans have for this class of linemen. He says the expectations the players have for themselves are even higher.
According to those who have evaluated these players over the past few years, this group could be a program-changer for Stoops.
“I think it’s going to make or break a lot of things,” Rivals.com national analyst Mike Farrell told the Herald-Leader this week. “Leavitt is going to jump in right away. He’s going to be counted on as a guy who’s ready to play from day one and make an impact. Landon could compete for one of those starting tackle jobs. And Drake’s a specialist. At center, it’s hard to find guys that are able to snap and make the line calls and do all of the smart things that offensive linemen are known for doing.
“This is an important group. We’re going to see this group in a few years either take Kentucky to the next level or not, and by next level, I mean possibly pushing for nine wins. I think this offensive line will help them compete a little bit more, especially late in games.”
Rivals.com recently bumped Young — a standout at Lafayette High School — to five-star status after his performance at the Army All-American Bowl this month.
The 6-foot-7, 300-pound tackle is UK’s first five-star commitment (according to the Rivals rankings) and was the first member of the Cats’ recruiting class of 2016 — pledging to the school in the summer of 2013.
Starting on the offensive line as a true freshman in the Southeastern Conference is not a normal occurrence, but Young has a legitimate shot. Farrell mentioned him alongside Clemson’s Mitch Hyatt, who started at left tackle as a true freshman this past season and helped the Tigers advance to the national title game.
Young, like Hyatt, is ranked as the No. 3 offensive tackle in his class.
“If Mitch Hyatt could do it at Clemson, he can definitely do it at Kentucky,” Farrell said. “There’s no reason to think that Landon couldn’t compete for that job.”
Jackson — a former Woodford County standout — is ranked by Rivals as the nation’s No. 3 center. UK will return three-year starter Jon Toth at that position in the fall, so it’s unclear what Jackson’s immediate contribution to the Cats will be.
He could slide into one of the guard spots, he could back up Toth, or he could redshirt.
Whatever happens in 2016, his future in Lexington is bright, says Rivals analyst Josh Helmholdt.
“Drake Jackson has that offensive line mindset that you want,” Helmholdt told the Herald-Leader. “He plays with a healthy degree of nastiness.”
Leavitt — one of the top offensive linemen in the juco ranks — is expected to be UK’s biggest instant-impact addition for 2016, regardless of position.
He had scholarship offers from the likes of Alabama, Auburn and Oklahoma, and he turned down those opportunities for the chance to start right away for the Cats.
Leavitt is coming to town with a healthy attitude.
“I’m going to do my best to (play right away),” Leavitt said Thursday. “I’m going to come in here and work my butt off in the weight room. And once spring ball comes around, I’m going to try and earn a spot. But I’m not guaranteed anything. I’m just going to try and win the guys over, win the locker room over and try to earn a spot.”
Fortner — a 6-5, 280-pound prospect from Sylvania, Ohio — often gets lost in the shuffle among the star rankings assigned to the other three linemen in this class, but Jackson was talking up his ability Thursday.
Helmholdt said his experience playing the center position makes him an attractive (and versatile) interior line prospect.
“When a guy has the ability to play center, that’s a bonus,” he said. “Most teams have to try and convert a guard or a tackle to center. It’s a lot easier to convert a center to a guard.”
The final Rivals.com rankings released this month had 58 offensive linemen with a four- or five-star designation. Kentucky has three of those 58 — Jackson, Leavitt and Young — and no other program in the country has more.
Baylor, Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Penn State and Southern Cal are the only other schools with three such commitments, meaning — as of Thursday — UK has more O-linemen ranked four stars or higher than any other program in the SEC.
That’s certainly a switch from the past, and possibly a sign that the future holds better results for the Wildcats.
“That’s where it all starts,” Jackson said Thursday. “To play in the SEC, you have to have a good offensive line.”
Cats land commitment
Under-the-radar defensive end T.J. Carter announced late Thursday night that he has committed to UK for the class of 2016.
Carter — a 6-foot-4, 250-pound prospect from Mableton, Ga. — took an official visit to UK last weekend. He also had scholarship offers from Memphis, Samford and Wyoming and was scheduled to take an official visit to Central Florida this weekend.
None of the major recruiting services have given Carter a star ranking. Derrick Ansley and Jimmy Brumbaugh were his primary recruiters at UK.
The Wildcats now have 25 commitments for the class of 2016 with national signing day less than a week away. Rivals.com ranks UK’s class at No. 20 nationally.
Schools with multiple 4- and 5-star O-line commitments