John Clay

Already on a recruiting roll, Kentucky football keeps momentum going

With Kentucky fresh off its first 10-win season in more than four decades, the question was whether the Wildcats could build off that momentum.

So far, so good.

We’re still approximately two months away from the Wildcats’ first snap of the 2019 season, but off the field the Cats are on something of a recruiting roll, easing their way up the rankings, one Yahtzee at a time. Or as head coach Mark Stoops tweeted Monday night, “Nothing like a July double YAHTZEE!!!”

That pre-July 4 celebration stemmed from the double play of Samuel Anaele, a four-star defensive end from Miami, and Kalil Branham, a three-star wide receiver from Columbus, Ohio, both making commitments to the Cats. Anaele had de-committed from his hometown school, Miami. Branham had decommitted from Michigan when Al Washington, the assistant coach who recruited him, left Ann Arbor for Ohio State.

With those two on a 13-player commitment list that already included Rivals five-star Justin Rogers and 247Sports four-stars in Lexington Catholic quarterback Beau Allen and Louisville offensive lineman John Young, Kentucky climbed to No. 20 in the Rivals’ recruiting rankings and No. 22 on the 247Sports board.

A 6-foot-4, 314-pound lineman, Rogers remains the plum of the current crop. Recruited by assistant Steve Clinkscale, the Oak Park, Mich., native is rated as the No. 12 overall prospect by Rivals and No. 33 overall prospect by 247Sports.

But Anaele isn’t far behind. The 6-4, 247-pound product is ranked No. 96 overall by Rivals and No. 160 by 247Sports. Rivals has him fifth at his position. He’s 10th on the 247Sports list at strong-side defensive end. He’s currently participating in Nike’s prestigious The Opening Finals in Frisco, Texas, for the country’s elite prospects.

That he would pick Kentucky shouldn’t be that much of a shock. Not now. Not when former UK defensive end/outside linebacker Josh Allen just went No. 7 overall to Jacksonville in the 2019 NFL Draft. Before that, Bud Dupree, who played two seasons for Stoops at defensive end, was taken with the No. 22 overall pick by Pittsburgh in the 2015 draft. And Za’Darius Smith, a junior college defensive end who played for Stoops in 2013 and 2014, was picked by Baltimore in the fourth round of the 2015 draft and just signed a four-year, $66 million contract with the Green Bay Packers.

Nor does it hurt that UK’s new defensive coordinator, Brad White, came to the Cats last year as outside linebackers coach after spending six seasons with the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts. Allen credited White’s teaching of technique with helping him get where he wanted to go.

As far as where the Cats are going, five months remain until the three-day early signing period begins Dec. 18. There will be recruiting wins and losses along the way. The Cats know that all too well. Lamar Goods, a highly-regarded defensive end out of Canada, was an early Kentucky commit only to change his mind and flip to Florida on June 21.

In fact, one of the keys to reaching the next level is to hold onto your recruits. It’s never over until it’s over. And it’s never over until a player’s name is on that dotted line. Until then, if you are a Kentucky, you might have to fight off an Alabama, or a Florida, or a Georgia, or any of the other Power Five traditional powers.

Take the recent case of Rogers, who did not let his May 20 commitment to the Cats stop him from taking a visit to Alabama in mid-June. After all, it’s Alabama. Rogers even tweeted a picture of himself in an Alabama uniform with Crimson Tide staffer and former Tennessee head coach Butch Jones. A week later, however, Rogers tweeted, “I’m 100 percent committed to Kentucky.”

That’s how you keep the momentum going.

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John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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