UK Football

Kentucky kids at heart of what Stoops calls his top class

New football signees like what they're getting into at Kentucky

Incoming players say they like family feel of coaching staff and program
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Incoming players say they like family feel of coaching staff and program

As Kentucky coaches are meeting with prospects from places like Ohio, Florida and Georgia, they’re helping those recruits map out a four-year plan.

But when they meet with prospects from the commonwealth, the conversation is much different.

“For those Kentucky kids, it’s a 40-year decision,” UK recruiting coordinator Vince Marrow said of picking UK. “You’re playing for your state. People are going to remember that. They see how you could go anywhere in the country and you sign here, it’s a 40-year decision.”

That sales pitch was effective for the Cats’ 2016 class of 25 players announced Wednesday as a part of signing day.

While Ohio players make up a large part of the class, in-state players are at its heart.

“Definitely the most important thing is to get the local guys,” head coach Mark Stoops said Wednesday of his fourth class, seven of whom have enrolled early and will practice this spring.

“We are blessed to have some great talent in-state this year. We are blessed to have some guys very close to home here. I thought those guys were critical.”

Like UK’s first five-star player in offensive lineman Landon Young (Lafayette), four-star players in center Drake Jackson (Woodford County) and linebacker Kash Daniel (Paintsville) as well as three-stars like cornerback Davonte Robinson (Henry Clay) and athlete Zy’Aire Hughes (McCracken County).

Signing with their home state was important to them. Most didn’t take many — if any — other visits even though they were recruited heavily from powerhouses up until their papers were signed.

“I want to see this place succeed,” said Jackson, credited by coaches with helping keep the class unified until national signing day. “It’s more than just a football team to me. It means something to me because I grew up in Kentucky.”

The state, normally not known for its multi-star prospects, had a wealth of talent this season including three U.S. Army All-Americans in Young, Jackson and Daniel. The latter two were elected captains, too.

“This is unusual for the state of Kentucky,” said Marrow, arguing that Robinson should’ve been a fourth UK player in the Army game. “This was unreal what Kentucky had this year. Where do you get three guys in the Army game from this state?”

Landing that group was everything. It meant not only another top-30 class, but also a nucleus that wants UK football to be successful.

“To win at Kentucky, you’ve got to have kids who care about wearing Kentucky across their chests,” said Dan Berezowitz, UK’s director of recruiting operations. “You have to want to build something at Kentucky and be willing to be a part of this.”

It was a huge part of the sales pitch for offensive line coach John Schlarman, who is charged with recruiting the state he grew up and played in.

He recalled his own experiences as a Kentucky standout.

“It’s important to you,” he said Wednesday. “You want to go out there and show the rest of the country that, ‘Hey, we’re doing some special things here at Kentucky.’ I think it means a lot. I know it means a lot to these guys that are coming in this class.”

It definitely does to someone like Daniel, a linebacker from Paintsville.

While playing in the Army game, he imagined the NBC commentators announcing a tackle by “Kash Daniel from Paintsville, Kentucky!”

“I bet everybody was like, ‘Where in the world is Painstville, Kentucky?’” he smiled. “So just to put Paintsville on the map and show them what I can do on the field on Saturdays, that really means a lot to me.”

Daniel understood the 40-year sales pitch because he grew up watching in-state players like Tim Couch and André Woodson succeed.

“We want to step in and hopefully be on the wall (of NFL players) out there in the hallway someday,” the linebacker said. “To help put Kentucky football back where it should be.”

When in-state players go on the field, it’s clear that it’s important to them, Marrow said.

“Even to the walk-ons it matters; they’re more prideful,” he said. “And then you look at guys who are four-star, five-star guys and they can go anywhere in the country and they stay here, it means a lot to them.”

Seeing those guys stay home makes others from the state want to help Stoops build something special, Schlarman said. It helped UK keep players who might have balked when approached with offers from more established programs.

“If you see that these guys aren’t going anywhere then why should I go anywhere?” Schlarman said. “And I think that’s really, really important. It really helped us finish up strong.”

Those five players are the heart of a 2016 recruiting class that Stoops said is his best in his four seasons as UK’s head coach.

The class includes other four-stars like defensive back Jordan Griffin, who was getting offers even after his papers were in, as well as a multitude of three-star prospects.

As of Wednesday night, Rivals ranked the class at No. 29 nationally (and 10th in the Southeastern Conference); and ESPN each had UK at No. 34 nationally.

“I don’t know where the numbers stack up; I don’t really care,” Stoops said. “Top to bottom, I feel like it’s the most solid group. I feel like there’s elite talent in this group and I feel like there’s great glue, there’s great players, great program guys.”

And that starts with five Kentucky guys sticking close to home.

“It’s really representing yourself ultimately,” Jackson said of signing at Kentucky. “We’re all trying to work toward being a winning team, winning program.”

Jennifer Smith: 859-231-3241, @jenheraldleader

Signing day at a glance

Impact players

The cornerbacks: Co-defensive coordinator Derrick Ansley said Tobias Gilliam, Jordan Griffin and Davonte Robinson will all play this year.

Stephen Johnson II: The junior-college quarterback will likely be no lower than No. 2 on the depth chart.

Tate Leavitt: Four-star junior-college transfer is expected to compete for one of the starting offensive tackle spots right away.

Naquez Pringle: UK needed more depth in the middle of the defensive line, and the 330-pound junior-college transfer fits the bill.

Landon Young: Five-star prospect from Lafayatte High School could be a starting offensive tackle as true freshman.

In-state signees

LB Kash Daniel Paintsville

ATH Zy’Aire Hughes McCracken Co.

OL Drake Jackson Woodford Co.

CB Davonte Robinson Henry Clay

OL Landon Young Lafayette

Out-of-state signees

Ohio 14, Georgia 2, Alabama 1, California 1, Maryland 1, South Carolina 1.

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