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July 16th, 2018

Josh Allen and CJ Conrad looking to build off mid-season slumps in 2018

The Kentucky football team had several major NFL draft decisions this past offseason, where every player on the fence announced a return to Lexington for senior campaigns.

Two of the most important pieces? Star linebacker Josh Allen and tight end CJ Conrad.

Both of them are expected to build toward elite draft status for the 2019 draft, but in order to do that, they have some things to fix this summer. As stars on both sides of the football, the opposition locked in on each of them last season, causing slight mid-season slumps they each had to overcome. Double-teams were the norm, and it affected both mentally.

At SEC Media Days this afternoon, Allen and Conrad addressed those adversities and how they’ll build off of them in 2018.

“I definitely learned a lot,” Conrad said of his mid-year struggles. “It was kind of the first time since I’ve been here that I’ve had a target on me. You know, I couldn’t tell defenses were scheming toward me, I wasn’t used to that before. A lot of that was the mental prep during the week. I acted like I was surprised by it last year, and I think that’s why I had about two or three games where I didn’t have a catch. And I wasn’t even just not catching the ball, I actually wasn’t blocking that well either. I was struggling all around.”

Conrad failed to pull in a reception in four consecutive weeks, ranging from September 30 to October 28. He didn’t have another catch until his breakout performance against Ole Miss on November 4, where he caught five balls for 75 yards and a touchdown. He had 286 yards and four touchdowns on the year.

“I just had a tough stretch there, my body was beaten up, but I think that just comes with maturity. As the season went on, I got a lot better with it, and I plan on taking that into this year,” Conrad said.

And with that, 6-foot-5 tight end out of LaGrange, OH says he expects that to translate to major success in the win-loss column.

“My personal expectations this year is to get this team to play in the SEC Championship game,” said Conrad.

As for Allen, he was able to overcome being a key target on the defense by establishing a professional mindset. He asked himself how the pros beat the attention year after year and tried to emulate that, something he’ll continue to do as a senior.

“I had to become a professional, become a pro,” Allen said. “My mindset is ‘I bet in the NFL they do the same thing,’ the superstars at their positions, they were getting double-teamed, they were getting chop-blocked. They were getting all that. But how did they get over it? That’s my mindset, how can I get over that? This year I’m expecting a lot, but I expect our defense to pick up this year so I won’t be getting all the attention. I have to get better, I have to know that it might come. So what do I have to do to beat that?”


SEC Football Preview: Running Backs

For the next few weeks leading to the start of the College Football season, I will be previewing different teams, players, and more from the SEC. This week I rank the top running back UNITS in the conference. This isn’t a ranking of the best individual running backs. Instead, this ranking is judging each team by their overall depth and talent at the position.

1. Alabama

With the departure of Bo Scarbrough to the NFL, senior Damien Harris is now the leader for the Crimson Tide ground attack – which is great news for Alabama.

Scarbrough was indeed talented, but both Damien Harris and Najee Harris are better overall running backs. The fact that they will see considerably more carries this season is simply addition by subtraction for Alabama.

Last season Damien Harris notched over 1,000 yards rushing while also becoming the all-time leader at the school in yards per carry. That kind of career speaks for itself. I’m expecting a huge year from the Berea, KY product which could even include a Heisman candidacy.

However, don’t be surprised if Najee Harris steals the spotlight some this season. Like Damien, Najee was also the No. 1 running back in his class and for good reason. Also, who could forget the way he played in the National Championship game as a true freshman against the vaunted Georgia Bulldog defense?? As always, Nick Saban has an abundant of riches in the backfield.

2. Georgia

Personally, I think it’s completely unfair how Georgia loses both Nick Chubb and Sony Michel and they will still manage to roll out D’Andre Swift this season.

Even with both Chubb and Michel running for over 1,200 rushing yards last year, Swift still managed to run for over 600 yards while averaging 7.6 yards per carry as a freshman in the SEC.

I expect Swift and Damien Harris to be two of the best running backs in the conference this year. In fact, I think it’s completely within reason to expect that Swift may get close to tripling his rushing total from last season. He honestly has that much talent.

Behind Swift is an absolute stacked stable of backs. They also return Elijah Holyfield and welcome in freshmen Zamir White and James Cook. All three of these players were ranked in the top 10 in their classes at their position, and White was ranked as the No. 1 running back in this year’s class.

This kind of depth is truly special. It’s the deepest in the SEC, and if Swift had more experience and production to judge from then Georgia would be my No. 1 running back unit.

3. Kentucky

I know this ranking may upset Kentucky fans who were expecting UK to be either No. 1 or 2 on this list as Benny Snell has the best stats out of any running back in the conference returning from last season.

But just by looking at the depth and overall talent that both Georgia and Alabama have at the position, it’s obvious they have better units than the Wildcats do. It is just that simple.

However, Mark Stoops may just have the best starting running back not only in the SEC but in the entire country. Snell is on track to break a truckload of UK records this season and even some conference ones as well.

Simply put, Snell is the best running back in the history of the school and he should be selected in the first couple of rounds of the next NFL draft.

Behind Snell is senior Sihiem King who I believe is underrated. He is extremely elusive and might even be faster than Snell. While other parts of his game need to improve, King is the definition of a dependable backup to an absolute workhorse.

After King, Kentucky’s depth at the position is pretty much a question mark which is why, despite having Snell, the Wildcats are below Georgia and Alabama.

4. Florida

This may be a surprising ranking to many considering just how disappointing the Gators were last season. However, expect Florida to be a team that will really surprise fans this season.

One area that will be a major strength for the Gators will be their ground game. It starts and ends with junior Jordan Scarlett. Scarlett has a bit of a troubled past as he was suspended last season, but as a freshman he managed to run for almost 1,000 yards while averaging five yards per carry.

Add Scarlett back into the equation along with Lamical Perine and Malik Davis who each ran for over 500 yards last season and you have one of the most experienced tailback units in the conference.

Just in case injuries become an issue for this unit this season, the Gators also signed Dameon Pierce and Iverson Clement in this year’s recruiting class. Both were considered among the top 20 running backs coming out of high school.

Florida finished 76th in rushing offense in all of college football last season. With the return of Scarlett and the addition of Mullen’s new offense expect that number to drastically improve in 2018.

5. Mississippi State

Question: After Benny Snell, who is the second leading rusher in the SEC returning from last season? Well in case you didn’t know, let me introduce you to Mississippi State’s Aeris Williams.

Williams carried the ball 236 times last season for 1,107 yards. Even with quarterback Nick Fitzgerald getting the ball a ton on the ground, it’s crazy that Williams was depended upon that much.

Former head coach Dan Mullen knew exactly what kind of talent he had with Williams, however. Good things just happen when he has the ball. Expect an even bigger season in his senior year at Starkville.

Backing him up is Kylin Hill who notched five yards a carry last season as a highly touted freshman. Because Fitzgerald is coming off a gruesome injury, I expect that new Head Coach Joe Moorhead will run the ball primarily with Williams and Hill early in the season which means better numbers for both.

Honorable Mentions:

Texas A&M

Missouri

Auburn


Ray Allen chose UCONN over UK in ’92 because of Rick Pitino

Photo: Fox Sports

If it weren’t for Rick Pitino, Jesus Shuttlesworth would have been a Kentucky Wildcat.

In his autobiography ‘From the Outside: My Journey Through Life and the Game I Love’ released back in March, NBA shooting legend Ray Allen said his college decision came down to Kentucky and Connecticut, but one final visit to Lexington during Big Blue Madness sealed the fate of the Cats… in the wrong direction.

Why? Because Pitino wouldn’t even talk to the future NBA all-time leader in three-point field goals.

On the visit, Kentucky legend Jamal Mashburn took Allen and his roommate Derron Sheffer out to lunch at a restaurant owned by Pitino. During the meeting, the former UK head coach was sitting just a few tables away, but didn’t say a word to the prized recruit.

“[Coach Pitino] happened to be there that afternoon, sitting with some friends a few tables away,” Allen said. “Perfect, I figured, he’ll stop by for a few minutes to say hello, and I’ll learn more to help me make my decision. Only he didn’t stop by. He waved, and that was it. Coach [Jim] Calhoun would never have ignored us. He and I, in fact, enjoyed several meals together on my visit to Storrs.”

In fact, Allen said Pitino’s approach proved he wasn’t valued as a recruit at all. Instead, the future Hall of Famer wanted to go somewhere “where it’s clear somebody wants you to be an essential part of what they’re doing.”

It’s not the first time Allen has talked about his recruiting process and Pitino’s lack of dedication during it.

Pitino, he’s so high on a pedestal,” Allen said in a past interview at UCONN when asked about Kentucky. “He does everything and talks about himself. It’s “I” before his players or the team. He’s always talking about himself and what he has.”

He also told the same story about Pitino’s restaurant and the Kentucky head coach not paying him any attention while visiting.

“He had a restaurant… Jamal Mashburn was taking me around on my visit and I went in there and Rick Pitino, he sat with his friends on the other side of the bar. Me and Derron joke about it; we said if it were Coach Calhoun, he would be sitting down at the table and getting our food for us because he really wanted us.”

You can see the full interview here:

Could you imagine the UK Alumni Game with arguably the greatest shooter of all time participating? Allen’s jersey hanging in the rafters?

Thanks again, Rick.


Aaron Torres Sports Podcast Ep. 61: Mega-Recruiting Recap with T.J. Walker + Corey Evans

It’s a new week and with it a new Aaron Torres Sports Podcast – and after the biggest recruiting weekend of 2018, Aaron brings in two of the biggest experts to break it all down. First, it’s KSR’s T.J. Walker, then Rivals.com’s Corey Evans.

After Aaron breaks down Day 1 of SEC Media Days and the new Final Four sites announced, he turns to T.J. The guys do a deep dive on the following subjects:

James Wiseman: Wiseman is the biggest name in recruiting circles and Aaron gives you the inside scoop on everything you need to know. Does either Kentucky or Memphis have the edge in his recruitment? Is it possible he can reclassify to 2018? Also, has Vernon Carey passed him as the best player in this class?

Vernon Carey: With Carey impressing folks across college basketball the last few weeks, is it time to bump him to No. 1 in the recruiting rankings? Also T.J. explains why he believes that Kentucky is in better position with him than most realize.

Cole Anthony: And finally, is there any “news” on Cole Anthony? Is there any way to know where he’s leaning? And does Kentucky have a chance? Also, T.J. discusses his new podcast which will be released soon.

Next up, national recruiting expert Corey Evans joins the show after a busy week in Atlanta. He discussed the following with Aaron:

Dontaie Allen: Allen was the fastest-rising star of the weekend. What kind of player is he and what allowed him to have success in Atlanta? Also, will Kentucky offer? When? And how quickly will Allen accept if they do?

News and Notes from Around the Rest of Atlanta: After an extensive talk about Atlanta, Corey wraps up by discussing other news and notes from the Under Armour event. What are his thoughts on Top 10 prospect Josh Green and his AAU teammate Nico Mannion? Could they be a package deal? And could USC – yes, USC – finish with a Top 5 class in the country or even No. 1?

Today’s podcast is brought to you by:

You can easily listen on the KSR App, available on iTunes and Google Play. Streaming online is simple through Pod Paradise.  You can also get it directly to your phone by subscribing to the Aaron Torres Sports Podcast feed on iTunes or via Android’s Podcast Addict app.


First question Stoops was asked was about Freddie Maggard

How important is Freddie Maggard to Kentucky Football? The first question Mark Stoops was asked today at SEC Media Days was about Freddie’s new role as Director of Player Development.

“In addition to your coaching staff, I have a lot of respect for Freddie Maggard as your director of player development. What do you foresee as his role?” Drew DeArmond, host of Talkin’ Ball on 97.7 ESPN Huntsville asked.

“Very excited about Freddie,” Stoops responded. “I felt the need as I’ve been there through the five years. One area that we really needed to constantly improve, and I don’t think any of us colleges can do enough on is developing these players. We’re very intentional about developing them. I talked and had the model for five years. You heard me talk about it before, about build, select and develop. That’s build a winning culture, select the right players, and then intentionally develop them once they’re on our campus.”

“Freddie is a big piece of that. He has great connections to the state. He has great connections throughout the country, helping our player transition not only from high school to college, but from college to the professional world and helping them everywhere in between, so very excited about the addition of Freddie.”

If you haven’t yet, go back and read Nick Roush’s feature on Freddie’s new role from last month; it’s a great glimpse into how hard Freddie’s working to make sure Kentucky’s players are as strong off the field as they are on it.

Go to Work: How Freddie Maggard has Changed UK Football Off the Field


Final Four sites announced through 2026

If you really like to plan ahead, get your calendar out because the NCAA just announced the Final Four sites for 2023-2026. College Basketball’s biggest party will rotate back through Houston, Phoenix, San Antonio, and Indianapolis.

Here are all the Final Four sites through 2026:

  • 2019: Minneapolis, U.S. Bank Stadium
  • 2020: Atlanta, Mercedes- Benz Stadium
  • 2021: Indianapolis, Lucas Oil Stadium
  • 2022: New Orleans, Mercedes-Benz Superdome
  • 2023: Houston, NRG Stadium
  • 2024: Phoenix, University of Phoenix Stadium
  • 2025: San Antonio, Alamodome
  • 2026: Indianapolis, Lucas Oil Stadium

The only city I really have a problem with on this list is Houston. Why America’s most sprawled out city gets to host Final Fours is beyond me. Rotate it between New Orleans, Indy, and San Antonio and call it a day. Maybe Atlanta.

A reminder that the Yum Center hosts the 2019 South Regional, meaning that if Kentucky gets a high seed, there’s a very good chance they’ll end up in Louisville. Columbus hosts first and second round games, so the Cats’ path to the national championship could be Columbus –> Louisville –> Minneapolis.

Let’s do it.