Mark Story

How the city of Louisville became the bedrock of UK’s in-state football recruiting

When the University of Kentucky failed to sign a single in-state football player in its 2018 recruiting class, Mark Stoops vowed that would not happen again.

Thanks mostly to the city of Louisville, it hasn’t.

Of the nine home-grown prospects to sign with (class of 2019) or verbally commit to (class of 2020) Kentucky in the past two classes, seven are from Jefferson County.

In 2019, Kentucky landed Ballard outside linebacker Jared Casey, Butler wide receiver Tae Tae Crumes, Doss linebacker Shawnkel Knight-Goff and Moore OLB J.J. Weaver.

Tae Tae Crumes
Former Butler star Tae Tae Crumes (82) says one reason he picked Kentucky is that UK ace recruiter Vince Marrow “keeps it real.” Alex Slitz

So far in the class of 2020, Kentucky holds verbal commitments from Male wide receiver Izayah Cummings, Butler flanker Jordan Watkins and Christian Academy of Louisville offensive tackle John Young.

Even in a period of UK football ascendance, the Wildcats have not had the same success luring the top high school prospects in the rest of the state.

In the class of 2019 and 2020 (if verbal commitments hold), UK has been unable to land highly touted prospects from Frederick Douglass High School (5.4 miles from Kroger Field), Scott County (20.4 miles), Western Hills (31.9 miles) and two from Boyle County (36.9 miles).

The fact that Kentucky has been the dominant recruiting force in Jefferson County in the classes of 2019 and 2020 (if verbal commitments hold) but has had less success elsewhere in the commonwealth flies in the face of our state’s recruiting conventional wisdom.

Historically, UK recruiters are thought to be on home turf when recruiting “out in the state” but to face a more complicated task in Jefferson County, where allegiances are split between the hometown University of Louisville and the “state school,” Kentucky.

At UK’s recent football media day, I asked some of Kentucky’s 2019 Jefferson County signees what has allowed the Wildcats to successfully recruit the city of Louisville.

Part of it is the contrasting fortunes during the 2018 season between UK and U of L. While Kentucky finished 10-3 after beating Penn State 27-24 in the VRBO Citrus Bowl, Bobby Petrino’s Louisville program collapsed in a 2-10 nightmare.

Even before UK demolished U of L 56-10 at Cardinal Stadium last fall, Petrino had gotten the axe.

“Compare what Louisville did last year and compare (it) to what Kentucky did last year,” said Casey, the former Ballard star. “Even a lot of (U of L) fans, they knew why I came to Kentucky. It was an obvious choice.”

Jared Casey tackling Lynn Bowden.JPG
Former Ballard star Jared Casey (6) says Kentucky going 10-3 last season while Louisville went 2-10 was a major factor in his decision to pick UK. “It was an obvious choice,” Casey says. Alex Slitz

UK’s Stoops made a key strategic decision last season and inserted Wildcats ace recruiter Vince Marrow into Jefferson County. Previously, Marrow had concentrated primarily on his native Ohio.

Marrow “keeps it real,” says Crumes, the former Butler star. “He stayed on track of my grades in high school. There was no other college doing that. (Marrow was) keeping on track, making sure I was on the right path.”

Weaver, the ex-Moore High School star, says the fact that there ended up being four class of 2019 players from Louisville choosing Kentucky made it easier than if there had been only one.

“We all had been talking since we were freshmen in high school — me, Tae Tae, Shawnkel and Jared Casey. So we all stayed together,” he said.

The world being what it is in 2019, Louisville high school stars choosing Kentucky do so knowing they are going to endure the inevitable Twitter backlash from disappointed U of L backers.

“My (high school) coach told me, ‘There’s a lot of negative comments going on,’” Crumes said. “I said, ‘I don’t need any of that to pay attention to.’”

Says Weaver: “My Mom made me get off (Twitter) after I committed. It was going crazy. People were hating. You know how it is, some people are happy for you but some are just hating.”

JJ Weaver standing.JPG
Former Moore High School star J.J. Weaver (45) says that after he picked Kentucky over Louisville (and other schools) in recruiting, “My Mom made me get off (Twitter). ... It was going crazy.” Alex Slitz

Presently, Lexington Catholic quarterback Beau Allen is the only “out in the state” commitment in UK’s 2020 class. The Wildcats are still hoping to add North Hardin defensive lineman Octavious Oxendine and defensive back Vito Tisdale from Bowling Green.

Long-term, it will be interesting to see if UK can maintain its preeminent position in Jefferson County recruiting. Obviously, the first key will be for Kentucky, 24-15 over the past three seasons, to keep winning.

New Louisville head coach Scott Satterfield is said to have made a priority of rebuilding relationships with Jefferson County high school coaches that seemed to fray during the Petrino administration.

Time will tell.

For the classes of 2019 and 2020 (if verbal commitments hold), there’s no uncertainty: The city of Louisville has been the bedrock of UK’s in-state football recruiting.

In a case of the world turned upside down, it’s the rest of the state that has been problematic for the Wildcats.

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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.