It’s a science about as exact as astrology.
Scouts, recruiting services and coaches at every level have different ways to assess talent and decide what player to take a chance on and what player to pass on.
There are only so many hours in a day to watch highlight video of a player and decide whether he is a good fit.
So I asked the Kentucky staff just how it goes about assessing players before offering scholarships. Do the coaches prefer to see highlight videos? Do they prefer to attend high school games? Do they prefer in-person analysis? Are practices the best places to judge attitude and effort?
“All of the above, preferably,” head coach Mark Stoops told the Herald-Leader recently. “A lot of time you can rip through a bunch of highlight tape, but that’s just to get a fix on whether they have the athletic ability.”
If a player passes the eye test on his highlight reel, that’s when the real work begins.
“Then you go watch the film to see if they play hard all the time and what their habits are like on the field and all that,” Stoops continued. “And then in-person evaluations, there’s no replacing that.”
It’s the method of choice for Kentucky recruiting coordinator Vince Marrow, who spends many weekends of the year driving the roads of Ohio watching prospects in person.
“That’s the great thing for me because Ohio is right there,” he said. “We see the film and then I want to go see them actually play.”
Once the Kentucky staff gets a second look at a player, they work hard to get them on campus for one of the Cats’ camps.
“Those kids come to camp and you get to see the whole makeup of them,” Marrow continued. “You can put them in stressful situations and put them in our atmosphere.”
Getting the players for camp and for Junior Day helps the UK coaches get a player’s “true size and their true dimensions and then hopefully their true character,” explained Dan Berezowitz, UK’s director of recruiting.
It’s how Kentucky came to offer Zy’Aire Hughes, a three-star prospect from McCracken County, early on. “He was just so dynamic in camp,” Berezowitz recalled.
It’s how Kentucky got in quickly on Henry Clay defensive back Devonte Robinson, who ran a speedy 4.29 in the 40-yard dash, and caught the eye of Stoops, a longtime secondary coach.
“He’s as good as anyone I’ve ever worked with at DB,” Berezowitz recalled Stoops saying after watching Robinson at camp. “When Coach Stoops offered him (as a sophomore) he was in shock.”
By Berezowitz’s and Marrow’s count every player who signed with Kentucky in 2016 attended at least one of the Cats’ camps with the exception of late add T.J. Carter, a defensive end. Offensive lineman Tate Leavitt attended camp on his official visit but didn’t participate.
Getting players on campus for camps is not always an easy task with nearly every school scheduling its camp within a two-week window.
But it’s pivotal for both sides to see what the other is about, Berezowitz said.
“You’ve got to get the kids on your campus,” he said. “It’s a chance for them to show you what they can do and for you to show them what you can offer.”
Camps have helped UK get in on the ground floor for much of the top-rated talent it’s signed the past few years, Marrow said, noting that players like safety Darius West and tight end C.J. Conrad were offered as sophomores.
Kentucky’s coaches aren’t afraid to make early offers and then hang on tight as other teams come after the top players.
“We’ve been very good at identifying players young and offering them early,” Marrow said. “And people think we’re taking chances by doing that, but every one of them has had BCS offers and have turned out to be pretty good players.”
Plethora of play callers
When Kentucky hired new defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale, it hired yet another coach with experience calling plays on the defensive side of the ball.
Clinkscale served as the main defensive play caller at Cincinnati last season and he joins Stoops, defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot and outside linebackers/special teams coach Andy Buh as guys who have led a defensive attack.
The more guys in that defensive room with coordinator experience the better, Clinkscale said.
“The biggest thing that helps our staff is nobody is in there trying to say they have all the answers,” he said. “Everybody has different takes on the defense and what can be successful, and we’re all willing to learn from one another. So I think it’s a tremendous help.”
Stoops noted that the lone defensive coach without full-time coordinator experience, line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh, is getting close to being at that level, too.
“He’s got such good experience, he’s close with that, too,” Stoops said. “With Coach Brumbaugh as well, I feel like we have great experience in that room.”
The head coach noted that the newly created quality control assistants are aiding in game planning as well.
“We’ve already seen that benefit and some of those guys have been here just a couple days and they’ve really helped us,” Stoops said last week. “So I feel like we’re getting some really good experience on the staff.”
Technically, the offensive side of the ball picked up an extra play caller as well since both Darin Hinshaw and Eddie Gran have called plays previously. While at Cincinnati, the two worked in tandem to call plays. Hinshaw was an offensive coordinator previously at Middle Tennessee and Georgia Southern.
When asked recently if that ever led to some butting of heads between the two, Gran said it’s rarely an issue.
“We agree to disagree,” he told the Herald-Leader recently. “I’m really big into arguing is a waste of time. We’ll go for a little bit, but after that, whatever decision we come up with, everybody’s pulling the same rope and that’s when it becomes really good.”
The assistant head coach for the offense said he’s been in many rooms where the coaches will sit there for hours arguing, trying to hash something out. He’s not one of those coaches and neither is Hinshaw, Gran said.
“You can waste a lot of time on some frivolous things,” Gran said. ”I’ve been in both of those rooms where coordinators make the decisions and you go and guys where you sit and argue and go round and round for two hours and nothing’s been done. I said when I became a coordinator I wasn’t going to do that.”
A kicking nose guard?
If Austin MacGinnis battles any of the same groin issues he had last season, don’t be surprised if a defensive lineman volunteers himself to be the Cats’ kicker.
When 6-foot-3, 330-pound Naquez Pringle was playing youth football, he served as his team’s place-kicker. And then when he got to high school, his Carvers Bay team “needed a kicker bad,” the UK mid-year enrollee said. “So I decided to do it, put on the boot and go ahead.”
Pringle said he did not kick extra points or field goals, but was able to place kickoffs “out of the end zone every time.”
So would Pringle be able to kick it out of the end zone now, a few years later, should MacGinnis be unavailable?
“I believe I can if I get a few warmups,” Pringle smiled.