Earlier this year, Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops called an audible on the program’s in-state recruiting efforts. He put the Wildcats’ top salesman, Vince Marrow, on the case.
“I’ll tell you this,” Marrow said with a smile last week, “they sure knew I was coming.”
Marrow, the team’s tight ends coach, also has the official title of UK recruiting coordinator and has long been known for his role in bringing some of the best high school talent from Ohio across the border to play for the Wildcats in the Southeastern Conference.
Before Marrow took on a larger role in recruiting Kentucky a few months ago, the Bluegrass had primarily been the territory of offensive line coach and former UK player John Schlarman, who recruited his home state quite well. Nationally coveted prospects Landon Young, Drake Jackson and Kash Daniel, among others, were brought in on his watch.
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Schlarman also teamed up with UK assistant coach Dean Hood to successfully recruit West Jessamine offensive lineman Eli Cox, who this spring became the program’s first in-state commitment in more than two years.
Part of the reason for the drought that preceded Cox’s commitment had to do with the fact that UK simply didn’t target many in-state players in the 2017 and 2018 recruiting classes.
That’s changed with the 2019 class, and most of UK’s top targets in the group are from Louisville, a city the Cats haven’t had much luck recruiting over the past few cycles.
Over the previous five years, Louisville churned out 17 recruits who were considered top-10 talents in their respective classes. Ten of those players signed with Power Five programs. Four of them ended up at U of L. Only one, Lloyd Tubman, picked UK, and he was expelled from campus before ever playing a game for the Wildcats.
After UK missed on a few local targets early in the 2019 cycle — Scott County’s Bryan Hudson (Virginia Tech) and Glasgow’s Tanner Bowles (Alabama), among them — Stoops switched things up and turned Marrow loose on the state of Kentucky.
“It’s really been a blast to recruit this state, and to recruit Louisville,” Marrow told the Herald-Leader. “I think for a long time there’s been a misconception that Louisville kids should go to Louisville because it’s more of a city (environment). That might have been years ago, but now this is the No. 1 school in the state. And how do you not want to play for your state university?
“When you get a chance to play for your university — your true state university, in the SEC — it’s priceless.”
UK is giving that chance to several players in the 2019 class, and Marrow’s efforts have already paid off with an early commitment from Butler wide receiver Demontae Crumes, a three-star prospect who decommitted from hometown U of L and ended up with the rival Wildcats after Marrow took over.
As it stands, five of the top 10 recruits in the state for 2019 — according to the 247Sports composite rankings — remain uncommitted. Marrow is recruiting all of them.
That list includes Louisville Christian wide receiver Milton Wright, Moore defensive end JJ Weaver, Western Hills playmaker Wandale Robinson, Ballard linebacker Jared Casey, and Doss defensive end Shawnkel Knight-Goff.
All of those players have major out-of-state options in addition to their UK scholarship offers, but Marrow is telling them to focus on the next four decades as much as the next four years.
“My message to them is, ‘You’re playing for people that are going to see you 40 years after this.’ And I think our message has been pretty good,” he said. “Before, we weren’t even in their top five, and now we’re in their top two or three. And we mean it. Come and play here, and the people of the state of Kentucky will not forget you.
“Don’t let football use you. You’ve gotta use football, and what we’re telling these state kids: ‘Come and play for your home state, and some businessman — some company — will watch you play in this stadium and they’re going to want to hire you after this.’”
Marrow said that message of reciprocal home-state loyalty has resonated with this bunch largely made up of Louisville residents — Robinson, a Frankfort native, is the only player on that list who isn’t from a Louisville high school — and UK has indeed made up ground in those players’ recruitments.
College coaches are not permitted to talk about specific recruits until they’re signed, but Marrow did project general confidence in the Cats’ chances with their in-state targets for 2019.
Wright, a top-150 national player according to 247Sports, has narrowed his list to UK, U of L, Ohio State, Alabama and Purdue and is in the process of setting up official visits. He’s likely the biggest long shot on this list to end up in Lexington, but the Cats are still a possibility.
Weaver, a Florida native, is a four-star talent, and UK, U of L, Purdue and Miami are often the schools most mentioned with his recruitment. He’s been in Lexington for multiple visits since Marrow took the lead on his recruitment.
Robinson is a do-it-all offensive star who has narrowed his choices to UK, Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan, Nebraska and Purdue. The Cats had been downgraded to long shots before Marrow got involved. Now, they appear to have a legitimate shot to keep him close to home for college.
Casey, one of the top 20 inside linebackers nationally, could be tough to get out of Louisville, but the Wildcats will keep fighting the Cards — along with Oregon and Tennessee — for his services.
Knight-Goff actually committed to Marrow once before, announcing that pledge in May before re-opening his recruitment two weeks later. It’s rare for a school to get a second commitment from a player who has previously decommitted, but UK isn’t giving up on Knight-Goff, who was actually back in Lexington a few weeks after the decommitment for a recruiting visit.
Last week, Stoops reiterated his wish to keep the state’s best high school players home for their college careers. Asked if the program needed to “make a dent” in Louisville — and gain some momentum for recruiting that city in the future — by landing a couple of top prospects in this 2019 group, Marrow leaned back, smiled and doubled down.
“Make a dent? Our goal is to get ‘em all,” he said. “You know, Coach Stoops wants ‘em all. I want ‘em all. I think we’re going to get some good news in the next couple of months, and that’s going to send a significant message to the younger guys, 2020, 2021. I mean, let’s be honest, Kentucky doesn’t produce a lot of SEC players. But when they do, you’d be crazy not to come to your state university. That’s how I see it. There aren’t any ifs, ands or buts about it. You go other places, athletes come from all over, but after those four years, what are you doing?
“If these guys stay home, it’s going to benefit them a lot.”
Top recruits from Louisville high schools (2014-2018)
*-transferred to Louisville; ^-attended junior college and now at Utah