To illustrate the arduous task of holding on to a talented recruit in the weeks leading up to national signing day, UK Coach Mark Stoops offered an anecdote Wednesday.
Four-star cornerback Jordan Griffin — a standout player from Jonesboro High School in the Atlanta area — had been committed to the Wildcats for more than a year. He had taken a last-minute visit to Auburn and had other scholarship offers from the likes of Clemson and Stanford. But he had also publicly declared his recruitment finished several days ago, saying he was firmly committed to Kentucky.
The calls kept coming anyway.
“Teams were not letting up,” Stoops said. “It was relentless pressure with him to the point where we talked with him and his mom every day this week. They were just getting absolutely hounded, wore out.”
Griffin was the first player to officially sign with the Cats on Wednesday morning, and when Stoops got him on the phone, just after 7 a.m., he could tell he was flustered and heard his mother speaking in the background.
The high school senior informed his future head coach that a coach from another school — “I’m not going to say who,” said Stoops — was still hounding his mom, trying to convince them not to sign with UK.
“Tell them I got the fax in my hand,” Stoops told him. “It’s over.”
The credit for keeping Griffin in the fold goes to co-defensive coordinator Derrick Ansley, who was already familiar with Jonesboro High — having successfully recruited cornerback Cameron Sutton there during his time on Tennessee’s staff — and made as many visits to the school as NCAA rules allowed over the past two years.
UK targeted Griffin early in the process and was the first program to extend a scholarship offer. His commitment in October of 2014 was only the beginning of the recruitment.
“We stayed persistent on him for two years,” Ansley said. “You have to always be in the school. You get to know people in the school. The AD, the head coach, the principal, the PE teacher, the cheerleading coach, everybody.
“As many people as you can have on your side in that school is going to help you when it gets to the end of the line, when people are calling and coming to see him.”
The stars don’t tell the story, but Griffin and UK’s other two cornerback signees — Davonte Robinson and Tobias Gilliam — could be as good as any position group in the Wildcats’ recruiting class of 2016.
The number one thing you’re going to see coming out of the spring and going into fall camp is depth. You’re finally getting quality depth.
Derrick Ansley, UK co-defensive coordinator
Rivals.com ranks Griffin as the No. 191 overall prospect and No. 15 cornerback in the country. Stoops said it was “critical” to hold on to his commitment, especially coming from a school in “the heart of the SEC” with other big-name suitors.
Ansley said the 6-foot, 175-pound prospect offers a unique blend of size and speed and will be able to add substantial muscle to his long frame.
“He’s got the critical factors that we need,” he said. “The number one thing you have to be able to do is play man-to-man. He can play press man-to-man, bump-and-run. He’s a great tackler because he has tackle radius with his length. And he can play the ball in the deep part of the field, complementary to his ball skills and receiver background.
“So he has all the tools we look for in a shutdown corner.”
His background as a play-making wide receiver in college is also beneficial.
“Anytime you can turn defense to offense, those guys are valued,” Ansley said. “It’s our job to take the ball away. Some DBs can cover with the best of them or are as physical as anybody, but they might not be able to possess the ball like some other guys. And he possesses the ball from a defensive perspective better than anybody I’ve seen in this class. His ball skills are tremendous.”
Robinson — a local star at Henry Clay High School — had scholarship offers and interest from Notre Dame, Georgia, Ohio State, Alabama and several other major programs. He also committed to UK in October 2014 and never wavered.
Despite the interest from college football’s elite, Robinson is rated no higher than a three-star player by any of the major recruiting services. That’s due in large part to the fact that he often eschewed all-star camps — where players usually earn their star rankings — to focus on individual training and his successful track career.
Robinson is one of the state’s best sprinters. He’s listed at 6-2, 180 pounds and runs a 4.3 40-yard dash. “That’s enough said right there,” Ansley said.
No matter what the rankings say, Ansley says UK is getting a five-star talent in Robinson.
“Make no mistake about it, this guy’s an elite talent,” he said. “I’ve coached at Alabama. I’ve been in this league six years, going on seven. Coach Stoops has coached numerous first-round draft picks. And we identified his skill set as being elite.”
Gilliam — a 5-11, 190-pound prospect from Dayton, Ohio — committed to UK more than 11 months ago and also turned away suitors from other major programs to stick with the Cats.
UK’s coaches see Griffin and Robinson as two lockdown defenders on the outside. Gilliam is the type of player that can be used just about anywhere in the defensive backfield.
“Tobias gives you flexibility,” Ansley said. “He has that versatility. We can kick him inside and be a nickel. We can bring him back on the hash. He’s a great blitzer. He’s going to be a phenomenal special teams player from day one.
“And he’s a competitor. He brings the tenacity and the edge to that unit.”
Stoops said Wednesday that he is “very high” on this group of defensive backs, noting that these were the guys UK’s coaches targeted early in the recruiting process as players at the very top of their wish list.
Ansley said he could “absolutely” envision all three newcomers seeing time as true freshmen next season.
These three additions are just the latest in what looks to be a bright future for UK’s defensive backfield. True freshmen Chris Westry and Derrick Baity started at cornerback for the Cats last season — Westry was named to the SEC all-freshman team — and other first-year players like Mike Edwards and Darius West were contributors at the safety spots.
Marcus Walker, Will Jackson and Kei Beckham all got redshirt years under their belts after signing with the Cats in 2015, and the program will return several veteran defensive backs such as Marcus McWilson, Blake McClain and Kendall Randolph.
“The number one thing you’re going to see coming out of the spring and going into fall camp is depth,” Ansley said. “You’re finally getting quality depth.
“I feel really good about where we’re at right now. The guys here have to continue to work their tails off and get bigger and stronger. Some of the freshmen have to get stronger. But once we get to fall camp, I think we have a chance to be a strength on this team.”