John Clay

Upcoming NFL Draft is a reason to be encouraged about Kentucky football

UK Coach Mark Stoops liked his team’s explosive plays

Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops talks to the media after his team’s annual Blue-White Spring Game on Friday, April 12, 2019. Stoops said he was happy with the way his first-teamers performed on offense and defense.
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Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops talks to the media after his team’s annual Blue-White Spring Game on Friday, April 12, 2019. Stoops said he was happy with the way his first-teamers performed on offense and defense.

When you get good, you want to stay good.

That’s the trick for Kentucky football. You know the story. Once a steady diet of disappointments, the Cats broke through in 2018, winning 10 games, losing three. Normally a spectator, Big Blue was invited to the New Year’s Day party and defeated traditional power Penn State in the Citrus Bowl to cap the program’s best season in more than 40 years.

Now for the encore. Avoiding the predicted regression to the norm won’t depend on the replacements for the graduated stars on defense, or finding another ram-tough running back on offense, or the quarterback’s development.

Kentucky football’s continued success depends on the continued success of Mark Stoops’ evaluation efforts.

At a school like Kentucky, evaluation is what it’s all about. Sure, recruiting is important. But Kentucky isn’t Alabama or Georgia or Florida. The Cats are never going to rank among the top names among the various recruiting services. Thus, they have to be smarter in their evaluations of just who they are recruiting.

If you’re a Kentucky football fan, this should give you a sense or encouragement about the future. Judged on their recent track record, Stoops and recruiting coordinator Vince Marrow have done a terrific job of finding, evaluating and developing players who were not at the top of the recruiting rankings. For proof, you need only look to this month’s NFL Draft.

Expected to be among the first three or four names called is former UK outside linebacker Josh Allen. You know, the SEC Defensive Player of the Year and winner of numerous postseason individual awards. As you remember, Allen was a two-star recruit out of New Jersey whose only other lead-pipe scholarship offer was from Monmouth. Later this month, Allen becomes a millionaire.

Take Lonnie Johnson. The former UK cornerback was a former Ohio State commit who took the junior college route before arriving in Lexington. His draft stock skyrocketed during the week of the Senior Bowl in Mobile. ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr., The Godfather of draft gurus, has Johnson going to New England in the third round with the 73rd pick overall. His ESPN colleague Todd McShay has Johnson going in second round with the 60th overall pick by the Los Angeles Chargers.

Take Benny Snell, who was a three-star running back out of Ohio when he signed with UK. Three years later, he leaves school as the program’s all-time leading rusher. Kiper has Snell ranked as the 10th best running back in the draft. He appears destined to be a third-day (rounds four through seven) pick. CBS Sports ranks Snell as the 116th best player in the draft.

Other ex-Cats are not far behind. CBS ranks safety Mike Edwards at No. 156, cornerback Derrick Baity at 229, safety Darius West at 252 and Bunchy Stallings at 291. There are 254 picks in the draft. The last year UK had more than two players selected was 2010. The last year UK had more than three was 2008.

Kentucky wide receiver Lynn Bowden said after UK football’s Spring Game on Friday, April 12, 2019, that he and quarterback Terry Wilson have a bond like peanut butter and jelly. Which one is the peanut butter and which one is the jelly?

That’s something to keep in mind after Friday night’s Blue-White Spring Game at Kroger Field. Divided into the 1s (Blue) vs. the 2s (White), there appeared to be some disparity among the ranks. But most of that had to do with young talent that, as of yet, lacks the experience necessary for development.

There are budding stars on the 2019 roster — linebackers Chris Oats, Boogie Watson and De’Andre Square, defensive linemen Quinton Bohanna and Marquan McCall, kicker Chance Poore, safety Davonte Robinson, running backs A.J. Rose, Chris Rodriguez and Kavosiey Smoke. Those are just to name a few. And there are plenty more yet to be revealed.

So when the draft happens on April 25-27 in Nashville, don’t be discouraged by the number of excellent UK football players now gone. Instead, be encouraged that the coach who found them, and developed them, is still here.

Kentucky football place-kicker Chance Poore kicked a 52-yard field goal in the team’s annual Blue-White Spring Game on Friday, April 12, 2019. Poore’s kick might have been good from 60 yards out as the redshirt freshman showed a strong leg.

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