Mark Story

The last man Mark Stoops wants to see recruiting here has pushed into Kentucky

Dabo Swinney opens up about his faith and its role in his life

Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney explains how his faith in Jesus Christ affects his daily life, saying "I know I'm going to meet Him one day and He's not going to pat me on the back and tell me how many wins I had.'
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Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney explains how his faith in Jesus Christ affects his daily life, saying "I know I'm going to meet Him one day and He's not going to pat me on the back and tell me how many wins I had.'

When Rivals updated its class of 2020 rankings of the top football prospects in each state, Walker Parks of Lexington’s Frederick Douglass High School was ranked No. 1 for the state of Kentucky.

A 6-foot-5, 275-pound offensive tackle, Parks is the son of former University of Kentucky offensive lineman David Parks, who earned UK letters in 1991, 1992 and 1993 playing for Bill Curry.

Walker Parks announced last Oct. 21 that he plans to play his college football at Clemson.

With that announcement, current Kentucky Wildcats Coach Mark Stoops learned the lesson that so many of his coaching peers around the United States have been absorbing in recent years:

The last person you want coming into your state and recruiting football players is Clemson head man Dabo Swinney.

The No. 1-ranked 2020 prospect by Rivals in the state of California is quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei.

He is committed to Clemson.

The No. 1-rated 2020 prospect in the state of Florida is running back Demarkus Bowman.

He is committed to Clemson.

The No. 1 2020 prospect in the state of Georgia is strong-side defensive end Myles Murphy.

He is committed to Clemson.

The No. 1 2020 prospect in the state of Maryland is defensive tackle Bryan Bresee.

He, too, is committed to Clemson.

Along with Kentucky’s Parks, that gives Swinney five commitments — so far — for the class of 2020 from players ranked No. 1 in their state.

Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney has led the Tigers to two national championships. Chuck Burton AP

For Swinney, 49, going into other states and extracting the top-rated football prospect is routine.

It’s just what he does.

In its 2019 recruiting class, Clemson signed the No. 1 player from Connecticut (quarterback Taisun Phommachanh) and the top-rated prospect from Pennsylvania (inside linebacker Keith Maguire).

Two recruiting classes back, Clemson took the No. 1 prospects out of the the states of Alabama (wide receiver Justyn Ross), Florida (strong-side defensive end Xavier Thomas), Georgia (quarterback Trevor Lawrence) and Ohio (offensive tackle Jackson Carman).

Swinney and the Tigers also kept the top-rated 2018 player from South Carolina (wide receiver Derion Kendrick) home.

As Clemson hung a 44-16 smack down on Alabama in last season’s College Football Playoff championship game, Ross emphatically showed Nick Saban what he had lost, catching six passes for 153 yards and a touchdown.

Since Stoops came to Kentucky in 2013, UK has signed the No. 1-rated recruit in the commonwealth twice — 2014 (quarterback Drew Barker) and 2016 (offensive tackle Landon Young).

Landon Young
When Lafayette offensive tackle Landon Young signed with Kentucky in 2016, he became the second player ranked No. 1 in the commonwealth to pick the Wildcats in the Mark Stoops coaching era. Pablo Alcalá

By way of comparison, the University of Tennessee has also signed the top-ranked home-state prospect twice since 2013.

Amazingly, the University of Georgia has signed the No. 1 player in the Peach State exactly once (defensive tackle Trenton Thompson in 2015) in the same time frame.

Meanwhile, Clemson has signed or holds a verbal commitment from the top-rated Georgia player twice in the past three classes.

Competition for the best of the best in Kentucky has been fierce in recent years. Alabama has signed the No. 1-ranked football player from the commonwealth twice, landing Madison Southern running back Damien Harris in 2015 and Lafayette offensive tackle Jedrick Wills in 2017. Both Harris and Wills were or are starters at Alabama.

Clemson and Swinney having joined Bama and Saban in battling for the commonwealth’s best backs up what Stoops has consistently said since he came here:

That while the state of Kentucky may not yield a large number of SEC-level football prospects, the best players produced here are good enough to play anywhere.

As a fan base, Kentucky backers place special value on home-state players. It pains UK fans when our state’s best prospects don’t stay home.

Yet a big reason that the arc of the Stoops coaching era has pointed upward is that the current Kentucky coaching staff is not exclusively reliant on in-state talent.

Stoops and recruiting ace Vince Marrow have drawn on their deep ties in their native state of Ohio to get players. Offensive coordinator Eddie Gran has long been known as a top-level recruiter of south Florida. Defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale has gotten UK into the state of Michigan.

Vince Marrow has made the state of Ohio a big part of the University of Kentucky's football recruiting footprint. Ken Weaver Ken Weaver

The ability to get high-level players from other states inures UK somewhat to the poaching of our state’s top prospects by out-of-state college football titans.

Which is good, since Swinney is now a problem that does not seem to be going away.

It seems at least possible that Frederick Douglass offensive lineman Jager Burton will emerge as the top-ranked Kentucky prospect for the class of 2021.

Earlier this month, Burton was offered a scholarship by — wait on it — Dabo Swinney after the Lexington product showed well in a Clemson football camp.


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Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a Herald-Leader sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.