Central Kentucky doesn’t lack for talent on the gridiron, even when you remove Lexington from the equation — nearly a fifth of the players named among the top 50 in the preseason hail from programs in the region.
Here are 10 local names you’ll be hearing a lot this season, excluding those from Lexington schools (those will be on another list) and limiting each school to only one selection.
Matthew Barber, RB/LB
School: Paris (Class A)
Profile: Barber was incredibly efficient as a sophomore, rushing for 960 yards and 14 TDs on only 95 carries. At 6 feet, 210 pounds, he’ll continue to be one of the most punishing players in the state’s smallest class. Expect him to well exceed his 2017 output as the Greyhounds seek their fifth winning season in the last six years.
Charles Collins, RB/LB
School: Anderson County (Class 5A)
Profile: Collins as a sophomore rushed for 2,004 yards and 29 TDs in a Montgomery County uniform, helping the Indians finish 10-3, their best record this century. Now the 170-pound junior will pair with Zach Labhart, who nearly had a 1,000-yard sophomore season as a Bearcat. That should make for one of the best 1-2 punches in the area.
Eli Cox, OL/DL
School: West Jessamine (Class 4A)
Profile: Cox, a 6-foot-4, 295-pound senior who has committed to the University of Kentucky, returns for a West Jessamine team that’ll look to win a district title for the first time in the history of its program. The Colts went 6-5 last season, finishing with their first winning record since 2010.
Ethan Hahn, WR/RB/DB
School: Madison Central (Class 6A)
Profile: As a junior, Hahn led the Indians with 550 yards and seven TDs on 20 pass receptions (a third of the team’s total). He also had four rushing TDs and was second on the team with 650 yards on the ground (on 63 carries, half that of the top rusher). Coach Mark Scenters believes his size — 5-9, 175 pounds — has held him back on the recruiting trail but believes he’s one of the best players in the state.
Bryan Hudson, OL/DL
School: Scott County (Class 6A)
Profile: Twenty seasons have passed since Dennis Johnson, the only lineman to ever win Mr. Football, won the state’s highest individual honor. It seems like a long shot for Hudson to break that streak, but his case by season’s end should be as compelling as anyone with Scott County being a title contender in the state’s largest class. The 6-4, 292-pound senior has committed to Virginia Tech, and is going to throw shot put and discus in college, too; if multi-sport exceptionalism matters, Hudson’s a favorite.
Dane Jackson, OL/DL
School: Madison Southern (Class 5A)
Profile: Jackson wasn’t in the headlines much as Madison Southern made a run to its first state championship game, but have no doubt: the younger brother of UK center Drake Jackson was very much a part of that historic season. The 6-1, 270-pound brute will start his third season on defense for the Eagles, who return a wealth of interior experience.
Wandale Robinson, RB/WR
School: Western Hills (Class 3A)
Profile: The state’s top uncommitted recruit and, if preseason coaches’ rankings are an indicator of how the media will vote this season, the likely winner of this year’s Mr. Football award. Robinson is mulling offers from the University of Kentucky, Duke, Michigan, Alabama, Nebraska and Purdue. He rushed for 2,330 yards and 33 TDs as a junior last season, averaging 194 yards a game. He also had 22 catches for 314 yards and five TDs.
Reese Smith, WR/DB
School: Boyle County (Class 3A)
Profile: One of several standouts in the Rebels’ junior class, Smith racked up 1,037 yards and 14 TDs on 50 receptions last season to help Boyle County win its first state title since 2010. He was a fiend in the defensive backfield, too, nabbing nine interceptions, twice returning them for TDs. Cincinnati, Troy, Austin Peay and Ball State have offered Smith, whom 247Sports has ranked as a three-star prospect.
John Tillman, QB/WR
School: Frankfort (Class A)
Profile: Tillman probably will be the Panthers’ primary option at quarterback this season, and at 6-6 he’ll be among the tallest signal callers in the state. He was 6-for-14 with a TD pass last season and was among the team’s leading rushers with 399 yards and four TDs.
Zach Thornton, QB
School: Danville (Class 2A)
Profile: It’ll be exciting to see how Thornton responds to life without the dynamic weapons he was able to throw the ball to last season, chief among them Mr. Football winner D’mauriae VanCleave. Still, you don’t throw for more than 2,500 yards by accident — he’s a strong decision-maker who can take off when necessary (he was Danville’s third-leading rusher with 495 yards and 11 TDs as a junior). Any coach in the state would take his TD-to-interception ratio (37:5) and 65 percent completion percentage from last year, too.