When the University of Kentucky decided to part ways with Joker Phillips at the end of the 2012 football season, one of the main boxes they needed the next head coach to check was the ability to bring Ohio high school talent to Lexington. For a very long time, UK was unable to cash in up north and it meant a major talent disadvantage on Saturdays.
When Mitch Barnhart, along with some assistance from Tim Couch, started the interview process every candidate was likely pressed on how they could recruit the state of Ohio. No one had a better answer than Mark Stoops and the ability to mine the Buckeye State for talent likely played a major factor in him getting the job. The results were immediate.
UK reeled in 14 signees from Ohio in the first two classes and have gone on to sign 51 players from the state in eight seasons with a record-high 13 signees in the class of 2016. We’ve seen both Lynn Bowden Jr. and Benny Snell Jr. come south to Lexington and become All-Americans and NFL draft picks. Nationally, this success has given the program a ton of buzz as Kentucky has been labeled a ‘Big Ten Killer‘ for taking players that programs such as Michigan State used for decades to build their roster and compete at a top-25 level with. There is no denying the success, but we’ve seen some changes recently.
In the 2019 and 2020 classes, we saw UK sign just eight players from the Buckeye State, highlighted by blue-chippers Mike Drennen II and Moses Douglass in addition to high three-star running back JuTahn McClain. While seen as an anomaly at the time, we look into the 2021 class and the Wildcats have just three players from Ohio pledged with none of them ranking in the state’s top-15. There are some reasons for that and they are important factors to know when looking at the program’s recruiting strategy.
Kentucky’s Talent Boom
In the class of 2018, UK signed zero players from its own state and that acted as a warning sign to many who followed the program. However, when you looked closer, it wasn’t a huge deal. Rondale Moore was highly unlikely to stay in-state while Louisville natives Jairus Brents and Tahj Rice are no longer with the programs they signed with (Louisville, Duke) after just a couple seasons. The state produced just three players that would be considered a mid three-star prospect or higher. In its place Kentucky would hammer Florida by getting nine players from the Sunshine State.
The following season we started to see things change. In the class of 2019, the state of Kentucky produced an unprecedented eight blue-chip prospects and about halfway through the season they found themselves trailing in every recruitment. From that point forward, Vince Marrow became the head recruiter in the home state. Marrow made an immediate impact.
The Wildcats lost a heated recruiting battle for top-100 prospect Wan’Dale Robinson with Nebraska, but they were able to score some big wins. UK flipped four-star linebacker Jared Casey from Oregon and beat out Louisville for edge player J.J. Weaver. The Wildcats cashed in while UofL was firing Bobby Petrino and won four recruitments from the state’s biggest city in that cycle. From that point forward, UK has won the majority of recruiting battles in its own state.
Clemson came in and defeated Kentucky for top-50 tackle Walker Parks while Notre Dame scooped up five-star Michael Mayer, but UK cleaned up after that securing signatures from five of the top eight players in the state in 2020. Fast forward to 2021 and UK has verbals from four of the top eight and appears to have a great shot at the state’s best player and top-120 prospect Jager Burton. Looking ahead to 2022, it could be another unprecedented year and UK is trying to beat everyone to the punch in the recruitment of blue-chip quarterback Gavin Wimsatt.
Ohio has acted as a home base for the program since Stoops arrived, but as Kentucky has produced more Power Five talent, Vince Marrow has spent more time traveling the state of Kentucky and not as much time traveling north to his home state.
Lean on your Recruiters
Following the 2015 season, Stoops hired Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw to fix the offense, but another assistant that came over from Cincinnati that same offseason is becoming a very integral piece of the coaching staff. In the class of 2018, Steve Clinkscale was able to build some relationships in the Detroit area that resulted in landing top-200 prospect Marquan McCall and high three-star DeAndre Square. Two years later, they would dip back into the Detroit area to land top-60 prospect Justin Rogers, blue-chip offensive lineman Jeremy Flax in addition to high three-stars Deondre Buford and Earnest Sanders IV. Clinkscale has built a pipeline to another state in addition to being the staff’s best junior college recruiter and the guy who got win for blue-chip defensive back Yusuf Corker out of the Atlanta area.
When Matt House surprisingly left following the historic 2018 season, it put the staff in a bit of a bind. Stoops quickly promoted Brad White to defensive coordinator, but needed to find an inside linebackers coach. He found former alum Jon Sumrall who had recently worked at Tulane, Troy and Ole Miss.
Sumrall made quick work on the recruiting trail flipping top-250 propsect Josaih Hayes from Ole Miss close to signing day, scoring one of UK’s biggest recruiting wins in 2020. In the 2021 class, we’ve seen the staff lean heavily on his recruiting work as he has secured five commitments. Sumrall’s recruiting area consists primarily of Alabama and south Georgia as the staff appears set on pulling out of south Florida. All seven of Sumrall’s recruiting wins have come from this area, a new recruiting pipeline.
Kentucky has found two assistants who are turning into real threats to other programs on the recruiting trail. Therefore, they are leaning into these areas and letting their young, hot shot assistants go to work. It’s not crazy to think that moving forward we could see around 40-50 percent of each class coming from both of their territories.
Back in 2016, Kentucky went into Ohio and secured commitments from 13 different players making up 54.17 percent of that year’s haul. That’s something that’s not a realistic expectation moving forward and there are numerous reasons why — Ryan Day is making the home state much more important to Ohio State’s recruiting efforts and Vince Marrow is now being used as the point-man in Kentucky. Ohio can still be the backbone, but the staff is trying to become a more major player in other areas.
Since the arrival of Stoops in December 2012, six players from Ohio have received All-SEC honors and four of those players turned into NFL Draft selections. The program has had lot of success finding talent from its bordering state, but there has also been a bit of a bust rate. From 2013-2017, UK signed 38 players from Ohio. From that pool, 17 either transferred, quit or were dismissed from the program. What that means is only 55.26 percent of signees UK has gotten from Ohio either graduated, exhausted their eligibility or entered the NFL Draft early. That is not a healthy percentage for a location that was suppose to be your home base.
Attrition certainly happens in college football and you must be prepared for it. However, it is the staff’s job to make sure they are bringing in players that fit the DNA and culture of the football program. What we’re starting to see is Kentucky become more selective in Ohio for a multitude of reasons. The homegrown talent within their borders is improving at a rapid rate, while two young defensive staffers are proving to be effective recruiters in Michigan and the Deep South.
The program is evolving and that is a very healthy thing.