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Can Kentucky’s SEC East middle tier dominance continue?

Since the hiring of Eddie Gran and placing Stephen Johnson behind center, the Kentucky football program has been on a remarkable run. The Wildcats have won 24 games in this time, have been to three consecutive bowl games, and have four top 25 victories. All of a sudden the results are starting to show up for Mark Stoops and we’re starting to see the national media take notice. 

Fresh off their first double-digit win season in over four decades, the Wildcats now appear to be in a great position moving forward. UK has solid roster balance with proven depth at most spots. The coaching staff has a wave of momentum on the recruiting trail with eight home games looming for this upcoming season. It would be hard for things to be in much better shape for the program, but getting to this point has taken some consistent victories over division opponents.

It’s clear that UK still has a ton of ground to makeup to catch what Kirby Smart is cooking in Georgia. Even with the win in The Swamp to end the streak under their belts, the Wildcats are still behind Florida. Despite their struggles this decade, UK has only been able to claim two victories against Tennessee with zero coming away from Lexington. Where the Wildcats have made their hay is against the rest of the division.

Since 2016, Kentucky is an impressive 9-0 against Missouri, South Carolina, and Vanderbilt. However, this process has not come easy. Kentucky has won six of these nine football games by one possession and seven of these nine squads have been bowl teams at the end of the season. This is an incredible run that has been filled with some very dramatic moments.

Kentucky is 13-11 in league play in the last three seasons with nine victories (69.2%) coming against their division foes they have so much in common with. For the Wildcats to get to bowl eligibility, the recipe has always been the same. Take care of business in the non-conference, pick up an upset or two, and beat your common conference opponents. The Wildcats have done this and more during this recent run.

Entering the 2019 season, however, the task will be tall to continue this dominance. Missouri is fresh off a top 15 S&P+ finish with Clemson grad transfer Kelly Bryant in CoMo ready to take over for second round pick Drew Lock. The Tigers will be on nearly every preseason top 25 poll and could very well be undefeated when they roll into The Kroge on October 26th. South Carolina returns fourth-year starter Jake Bentley at quarterback with a defense that should be the best of the Will Muschamp era in Columbia. Vanderbilt loses four-year starting quarterback Kyle Shurmur, but has three NFL talents in running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn, receiver Kalija Lipscomb, and tight end Jared Pinkney. Sooner or later that close game success could start to go the other way.

This run has been impressive, but Kentucky has to start winning consistently against the big three in the SEC East. After going winless against the trio of Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee in his first four years, Mark Stoops finally got on the board and recorded a win in each of the last two seasons. However, he’s currently 2-16 against the trio in his coaching career.

Kentucky’s program is in a very good place. The Wildcats are fresh off three a top 15 finish highlighted by a win in The Swamp and a Citrus Bowl trophy due to the New Year’s Day victory over Penn State. Kentucky just had the best NFL Draft in program history and it’s starting to feel like Mark Stoops and Vince Marrow are putting together a top 2o class for the 2020 recruiting hall. Now the next step is to start consistently collecting victories against the historic divisional blue bloods.

Kentucky has emerged as the best middle tier program in the SEC East by their ability to consistently win close football games against common foes. This has given them a chance to compete for a divisional crown into November and reach two bowl games in the Sunshine State. But for the program to take the next step, the Wildcats have to start consistently collecting wins versus the big three. The streaks against Florida and Tennessee have been snapped, but now the Wildcats must start collecting wins more consistently. Ending the nine-game losing streak against Georgia would help the cause. So would beating Missouri, South Carolina, and Vanderbilt every season.


Was Vince Marrow a fan of Bobby Petrino and the old football staff at Louisville? “No, not at all.”

Over the course of the Mark Stoops era at Kentucky, the coaching staff’s recruiting philosophy has changed quite a bit. At the beginning, they tried to sign any and all of the the top three and four-star prospects they could get their hands on, no matter where they came from.

As they’ve established themselves on the recruiting trail and wins are coming at a more consistent rate, the staff has been able to be a bit more selective with high-level prospects and their focus has shifted a bit.

Among many other areas of focus, keeping Kentucky’s top high school talents in-state has become one of the staff’s biggest priorities as of late.

After signing five in-state talents in 2019, they’ve already got two of the top 2020 prospects in the state committed to Kentucky in John Young and Beau Allen for 2020. And it doesn’t look like it’s slowing down anytime soon.

In an interview with KSR this morning, Kentucky recruiting coordinator Vince Marrow said that Mark Stoops told him specifically that he needed to recruit the state of Kentucky harder and keep them from going to other local schools.

“When Mark Stoops came to me last year, he was like, “We need your presence more in Kentucky.” We were losing a lot of the top guys, they were going other places.”

According to Marrow, that momentum shift happened back in 2016 when Kentucky defeated Louisville on the road with Heisman trophy-winning quarterback Lamar Jackson leading the Cardinals.

Ever since, recruiting in-state talent has come easy for the UK coaching staff.

“I think when we beat Louisville two years ago with Lamar [Jackson] down there, it showed people we were on the right track,” he said. “But still, we had to really get down and recruit harder in Louisville. I think in the past, we were recruiting kids [from there], and they were using negative stuff against us. I’m not going to go into what they were saying, but once I went down there and cleaned that up, it improved.”

Marrow said that in the past, Louisville negatively recruited against Kentucky, which hurt them with some of the local talents. Now, he has found a way to combat that.

“Louisville, being a city school, they were getting a lot of inner-city kids,” he said. “I don’t know what they were telling them, but I tell them now, “Look, we had the first African-American players in this league. We have a very diverse culture.”‘

A big part of that, he says, was Bobby Petrino’s old coaching staff at Louisville and what he was feeding some of the in-state kids on the recruiting trail.

“And that was the old staff, not the new staff,” he said. “I don’t mind some of the guys on the new staff.”

To put it simply, he wasn’t a fan of Petrino and his assistants.

Not in the slightest.

“No, [I wasn’t a fan of the old staff at UofL],” Marrow said. “No. Not at all. Not at all.”

We couldn’t agree more, Vince.


Vince Marrow compares Xavier Peters to Josh Allen, says there is a “very strong possibility” he is eligible this season

Vince Marrow compares Xavier Peters to Josh Allen, says there is a “very strong possibility” he is eligible this season

On Wednesday, the Kentucky football team received a commitment from Florida State transfer and former four-star pass-rushing target Xavier Peters.

Just two days later, Kentucky recruiting coordinator Vince Marrow came on KSR to discuss the newest Wildcat and what he’ll bring to the table during his time in Lexington.

To get things started, Marrow said that the transfer actually just became official earlier this morning, meaning this is the first time he was able to talk about Peters publicly.

“It actually just went legal about 10 minutes ago,” he said.

Out of high school, Peters was committed to Kentucky from July of 2017 through January of 2018, but then flipped his commitment to Florida State right before National Signing Day.

When asked about what changed from his original recruitment to now, Marrow said the newest Wildcat simply got caught up in the hype and didn’t follow through with where his heart truly was.

“I mean, when you get Deion Sanders to recruit him personally, that just tells you how (big of a prospect he is),” he said. “He received negative feedback from fans after his decommitment. He got caught up in it all, (Florida State) was just where he wanted to go. Reality set in that he wanted to be with his family, he missed his son.”

At the time of his announcement, we all knew it was a massive get and that he’d end up being a star for the Wildcats eventually. When he’d be eligible to play due to NCAA transfer rules, however, was the only question at hand.

According to Marrow, though, fans should expect to see Peters on the field this fall.

“There is a very, very strong possibility that he’ll be eligible this season,” he said. “He’ll be a freshman.”

And he didn’t even attempt to slow down the hype train, either. When asked about his potential impact at Kentucky, Marrow said he sees a lot of Josh Allen in his game.

“Oh, he’s going to get minutes this season,” he said. “He’s probably the closest thing to Josh Allen, at least physically, right now. Xavier has that ability. He has the potential (to be like Allen).”

Woah.


I pray to the old gods and the new that NCAA Football comes back

With the NCAA reconsidering its restrictions on student-athletes using their own name and likeness, fans of the old NCAA Football video game series are beginning to dream dreams of a comeback.

It has been 2,137 days since EA Sports last released a new edition of the game, back in July of 2013. Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson was the cover athlete back then and your University of Kentucky Wildcats were the 48th-best team on the game with an 84 overall rating.

NCAA Football 14 is still played today with updated rosters that are available for download, but it is way past time for an update. Even Kirk Herbstreit is pushing for NCAA Football 20; he tweeted, “So [Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith] if all goes well is there a chance we get our NCAA Football video game back?!? Just asking for a few 100k friends that have missed the game desperately for 5 years—including former and current players. Haha!! Be a hero!”

In a new story on ESPN.com, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said a new NCAA Football  is not inconceivable, “but we’d have to look at it in light of modern circumstances and in light of what this task force recommends.”

A spokesperson from EA Sports had no comment, but it seems like the game may have life again with this new NCAA working group revisiting the issue that killed it.


Pilgrim’s Insider Notes: Jaden McDaniels, Kerry Blackshear Jr., and RJ Hampton

Pilgrim’s Insider Notes: Jaden McDaniels, Kerry Blackshear Jr., and RJ Hampton

(Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports)

After taking the week off last week, we’re back for another edition of Pilgrim’s Insider Notes. I graduated from the University of Kentucky last weekend, and as a graduation present, my dad took me on a surprise trip to the Bahamas for the week. After a hectic end to basketball season and a strenuous last couple of weeks finishing up my degree, it was a much-needed break and I certainly appreciated the patience while I took some time off to rejuvenate.

Side note: If you’re ever planning an exotic trip, specifically to the Bahamas, avoid Nassau and go straight to one of the smaller islands. I spent two days in Nassau, explored the city, did the Atlantis thing (waterpark, casino, “private” beach), etc., and while I enjoyed my time there, it just didn’t compare to our next stop, Crooked Island. With only a few hundred people on the island, it was a complete disconnect from the world. No stress, no traffic, flawless scenery, incredible food, tight-knit community of locals, etc.

Can’t recommend it enough. Absolute paradise.

Now onto the good stuff, and goodness there is plenty of it.

We’ll break down the latest rumblings with Jaden McDaniels, the status of Kerry Blackshear Jr., where RJ Hampton stands in his recruitment, and the NBA decisions of Nick Richards and EJ Montgomery.

Let’s dive right in.

Jaden McDaniels

Last time I did my insider notes, it was a two-parter with closing out the class of 2019 on May 1, and looking ahead to 2020 on May 2. In both of those posts, I added brief tidbits on 2019 five-star forward Jaden McDaniels and the latest on his recruitment (If you want to go back and catch up on both, I linked each post above).

To give you a quick SparkNotes, though, I essentially said that McDaniels was finally ready to get into the nitty-gritty of his recruitment and we should expect to see some movement in the coming days/weeks. In terms of a decision, while no one is certain of a final date set, what we do know (and did know even back then) is that it will come in the form of a post on either Twitter or Instagram and nothing more. And when that time comes, the general thought was that the hometown Washington Huskies would win out in the end based entirely on his quiet demeanor and tendency to shy away from the spotlight. He has always loved Kentucky, even called them his dream school at one point, but after talking with him at several different events, I just never got the vibe from him that he’d ever leave the comfort of his own home.

Just a day later, though, word leaked out that Kentucky was picking up momentum and may actually end up being the choice. In fact, I had heard at the time that the UK coaching staff not only felt confident in their position, but genuinely felt they had done enough in this recruitment to come out on top.

From there, the momentum has been all Kentucky, with nearly all major recruiting analyst (Evan Daniels, Jerry Meyer, Andrew Slater, etc.) picking the Cats to be the final choice. Daniels went as far as to say that he would be “shocked” if McDaniels ended up anywhere but Lexington this weekend. After talking to some people on both sides of the equation, while I’m not sure if there was ever an actual commitment from McDaniels behind the scenes as rumored, the UK coaching staff felt late last week that they were the pick. Whether that is why the recruiting experts flocked to make UK predictions, I’m not certain, but what I am very confident about is that the Kentucky buzz was legitimate.

Moving on to the next aspect of those rumors circling around social media that McDaniels had submitted his National Letter of Intent to Kentucky, I was told from the jump that while the smoke surrounding UK’s status was real, the signing talks were bogus. Daniels then confirmed that with the five-star prospect himself late last night.

Those in his inner circle, namely Cartiea French-Toney, his trainer, have actually pushed recently for McDaniels to not sign a LOI and only sign financial aid paperwork. As a side note, with the deadline being tomorrow to submit a letter of intent, this means that he could ultimately opt to wait a bit longer before making his announcement.

Around the same time of Daniels’ aforementioned tweet, he also made headlines by changing his Crystal Ball pick from Kentucky to “undecided,” which usually isn’t a good sign when it comes from arguably the best source of recruiting news (93.51% all-time prediction success rate) in the game. To put the cherry on top, 247 Sports’ Josh Gershon, another plus-90% predictor, also changed his pick to “undecided.”

So where did this change of heart come from?

“New information would probably be the best way to put it,” he told Matt Jones on KSR this morning.

After trying to work the phones today, I genuinely think this is nothing more than a high school kid being torn between staying home and being the hometown hero or making the first legitimate leap of faith in his basketball career. It’s down to Washington and Kentucky, without question. Those close to him want him to stay home one more year before heading to the NBA, though I’ve also been told that his parents have opened up to the idea of him landing in Lexington. As for McDaniels himself, I genuinely believe he knows Kentucky is the best move for his future, but doesn’t know if he’s ready for the spotlight that comes with being a UK basketball player. The former part of the argument is why the Cats gained so much steam recently, and I think the latter is why it has since cooled off.

I’ve also heard a theory that this could be McDaniels and his camp telling recruiting folks to back off their UK predictions to add intrigue to the decision, but I seriously don’t think that carries much weight, if any at all. This is a group of people that try to stay as tight-lipped and low-key as possible, so I just don’t see a benefit in that method of thinking at all. Maybe they simply just want to let McDaniels have his moment? While that may true, I don’t see a correlation there.

At the same time, we’ve also seen situations like Julius Randle, the Harrison Twins, and Trey Lyles in the past, where Kentucky was seen as the consensus favorite, we saw some last-minute rumors and momentum shifts, only to find out it was UK all along. That could come into play here, as well.

At this point, while I do not believe he will sign a letter of intent and will only sign financial aid paperwork, I still anticipate a decision this week, with Wednesday still being a legitimate option. His high school coach, who says he talked to McDaniels last night, also feels an announcement could come tomorrow.

Before yesterday, I planned on writing an incredibly optimistic post about how I would be surprised if it’s anything but Kentucky and it was time to pencil McDaniels in as a future Wildcat. Now, I’m genuinely conflicted and feel it could go either way. Unlike the Keion Brooks Jr. decision where it became apparent the Indiana native thrived under pressure and loved the spotlight, I don’t know if I can say the same for McDaniels. I keep going back to my conversation with him at the Jordan Brand Classic, where he said, “There’s nothing like playing at home.”

While I’m not certain where McDaniels is going, I do know that he is now in the process of coming up with a final destination. As we’ve seen throughout his entire recruitment, it could go back and forth over the course of the next few hours, let alone days, and neither Kentucky nor Washington would shock me at this point.

I’ll stick with the Cats based on just how much pro-UK smoke there was over the last several days, but it’s nothing more than a gut feeling.

Above all else, I’ll be happy when this recruitment is finally over.

Kerry Blackshear Jr.

The other major frontcourt prospect Kentucky is rumored with right now is Virginia Tech graduate transfer Kerry Blackshear Jr.

When word leaked out originally that the 6-foot-10 forward was putting his name in the transfer portal, Kentucky was immediately associated, with the UK coaching staff even making a trip down to Florida to meet with Blackshear’s family. Texas A&M and Florida were the two other schools that seemed to be the strongest contenders to land the former Hokie big man.

But the biggest question right now isn’t which school he’ll be transferring to, but whether or not he’ll be going back to school at all.

Right now, I’m told that the hope for Blackshear is that he works his way into NBA Draft contention or at least feels he can find the right fit as an undrafted free agent. If that’s the case, I think he says goodbye to college basketball and begins his professional journey.

Corey Evans of Rivals.com also added this morning that while his camp is relatively quiet right now, the general thought right now is that he keeps his name in the NBA Draft.

“Sources have told Rivals.com that Blackshear seems to be leaning toward keeping his name in the NBA Draft,” he said. “While he may go undrafted, the feeling is that he would be OK spending a year in the G-League instead of spending next year at a new college program.”

If he doesn’t receive the feedback he’s looking for (and he only has two more weeks to figure that out), sources tell KSR that Kentucky is in a great position to land Blackshear this offseason. In fact, before the recent developments of McDaniels, there was serious momentum that the Wildcats could have landed all three of McDaniels, Blackshear Jr., and Johnny Juzang to close out the class of 2019.

If McDaniels does opt for Washington, I fully expect the Kentucky coaching staff to go all-in on Blackshear and will ultimately find themselves as the favorites (if they aren’t already) to land the talented graduate transfer if he decides to head back to college for one final season.

RJ Hampton

Two weeks ago, five-star combo guard RJ Hampton announced he would be reclassifying from 2020 to 2019 and was down to four schools: Kansas, Kentucky, Memphis, and Texas Tech.

From the start, most major recruiting analysts felt the local Texas Tech Red Raiders weren’t serious contenders, leaving just the Jayhawks, Wildcats, and Tigers.

From there, former Duke commit Boogie Ellis and graduate transfer Rayjon Tucker (who may end up keeping his name in the NBA Draft) both committed to Memphis over the last week, leaving just one scholarship spot for the Tigers. If five-star forward Precious Achiuwa commits to Memphis this weekend, as expected, they’re out of roster spots. The way things are looking now, there just isn’t room for Hampton to sign with Memphis, ultimately leaving just Kansas and Kentucky, right?

Well, not exactly.

Last night, Evan Daniels added that he doesn’t believe it will be Kentucky, either.

Interestingly enough, I’ve heard over the last two weeks or so that Kentucky was in a better position than most believed, and that Hampton’s inner circle actually prefers the Wildcats over all the schools involved. The reality of the situation is that UK’s backcourt is simply too loaded and while Hampton feels he could start no matter who is currently on the roster (he has said as much), the logjam would make things just a bit too complicated. In fact, if Ashton Hagans had decided to put his name in the NBA Draft, I genuinely believe Hampton would be a Wildcat.

Using process of elimination, and that leaves Kansas as the winner, the school most believe has been either the No. 1 or No. 2 school on Hampton’s list for several months now. As of today, I would be shocked if he ends up anywhere other than Lawrence, KS next season.

One thing I will say to watch out for, however, is Hampton heading overseas for a year before turning pro. While I still strongly believe he ends up at Kansas, I’ve been told that the overseas route is intriguing for the five-star combo guard, and there’s an outside chance that he considers it.

In terms of when we’ll hear a final decision, Hampton told his followers on Twitter yesterday to check his profile bio, which says “Your question will be answered soon.”

Expect him to announce for Kansas sooner rather than later.

Nick Richards/EJ Montgomery

The last two current pieces on the Kentucky basketball roster with NBA decisions to make are former five-star forward prospects Nick Richards and EJ Montgomery.

For the former, the situation is a bit more simple. He is going through the NBA process simply learning from professional scouts and personnel about what he needs to work on next season in college. The expectation is that Nick Richards returns to Kentucky for a junior season, just as it has been since he originally put his name in the draft back in April.

As for Montgomery, it’s not as simple.

From the start, the working assumption was that while they may test the waters, UK would eventually return both Richards and Montgomery. That being said, there is growing concern that while the latter isn’t necessarily looking for a reason to leave, he’d jump on the opportunity in a heartbeat if one presented itself. To take it a step further, KSR’s Matt Jones said last night that a team guaranteeing a two-year deal in the second round would likely sway him to leave.

While Montgomery’s draft stock is extremely low right now and most teams are likely telling him he needs to return to school, it only takes one. We’ve seen it plenty of times before in the past, including last year with Jarred Vanderbilt, that teams take chances on players based solely on potential alone. Montgomery would likely, unfortunately, fit in that category.

I still think it’s more likely than not that Montgomery returns for a sophomore season at Kentucky, but it’s certainly not a clear-cut decision and we’ll likely have to wait at least another week before we hear anything.

No matter what happens with the key targets in the immediate future, the UK coaching staff has a backup plan in place. If the “nightmare” scenario happens where McDaniels goes to Washington, Blackshear Jr. stays in the NBA Draft, and Montgomery leaves his name in to explore his professional options, look for Kentucky to push for a reclassification from 2020 prospects N’Faly Dante and/or Makur Maker. And though Isaiah Todd has said on multiple occasions he wasn’t making the jump, he also said at the Nike EYBL event in Atlanta that he wouldn’t rule anything out if a team came calling at the last minute needing immediate help.

In short, Kentucky will be fine.