With the start of the Spring Semester at the University of Kentucky,
six five new students begin their careers as collegiate football players. Before they are introduced to the media, enjoy this intimate look at the two Junior College players and four early high school graduates as they get a head start on SEC football.
Correction: Even though he initially planned on enrolling this Spring, Junior College wide receiver Kayaune Ross will NOT be enrolling this week. My apologies for the misinformation and a thank you to Josh Edwards of 247 for pointing this out. Ross told me tonight he still plans on enrolling this Summer.
6’1″ 230 lbs.
Paintsville, Ky. (Paintsville)
Chose UK Over: South Carolina, Michigan
Kentucky’s Mr. Football had 37 touchdowns and 158 tackles this season for Paintsville before shining at the U.S. Army All-American game. Destined to be a fan favorite, Kash has the nasty intangibles to match his exceptional skills at linebacker. With Josh Forrest, Ryan Flannigan and Khalid Henderson lost to graduation, the middle linebacker position is up for the taking. However, there are a pair of transfers and multiple redshirts that already have a leg up. It takes some time to learn the position, and that’s exactly why he’s here for the spring semester.
6’2″ 290 lbs.
Versailles, Ky. (Woodford County)
Chose UK Over: Alabama, Florida, Ohio State, UofL
An aspiring broadcaster, don’t let his smart quips and big smile fool ya — this man is mean. After Woodford County’s finest heard a lot of jawing at The Opening, he took it open himself to beat them in the drill, then beat them up. His mean streak was evident late in the first half of the Army All-American Bowl, getting a dead-ball personal foul after getting into a scuffle with an opponent.
Regarded as either the #1 or #2 center in the country, it’s likely that he’ll use the year to redshirt behind Freddie’s favorite, Jon Toth. Even though Jackson has more experience playing guard, and he’s good enough to play immediately, most believe he’d be better off using the year to add size. With that being said, the situation on the offensive line is fluid. Leave all possibilities open throughout Spring Practice.
6’6″ 300 lbs.
Thornville, Oh. (Sheridan/Hutchinson C.C.)
Chose UK Over: Bama, Georgia, Oklahoma, S. Carolina, UofL
The first person to officially sign on in the Class of 2016, Leavitt was one of the most sought after Junior College offensive lineman in the country (#8 JUCO player according to Rivals). Mark Stoops likes what Tate brings on and off the field. “Tate is a prototypical tackle, a complete player,” Stoops said. “Not only is he a great player, but he’s also a difference-maker off the field, with great presence, very confident.”
After having multiple conversations with Tate, I can definitely verify the latter. It’s difficult for me to describe other than by saying, “This guy is the kind of guy you WANT on your offensive line and I totally get why people say he’s going to start at left tackle on Day One.” Sorry for quoting myself, but it felt appropriate.
6’4″ 190 lbs.
Dublin, Oh. (Coffman)
Chose UK Over: Cincinnati, Bowling Green
Hoak was originally persuaded away from Eddie Gran at Cincinnati after developing a relationship with Shannon Dawson during his time at West Virginia. Now he’ll ironically be starting his college career for Gran at UK. Even though his stats dropped during his Senior season while dealing with an ankle injury — from over 2,500 yards and 30 touchdowns to completing 55% of his passes for 1,798 yards, 14 touchdowns and 6 interceptions — I received multiple texts from Ohio friends during his games, “Gunnar’s throwing darts.” With Patrick Towles and Reese Phillips leaving after the 2015 season, the Cats need him to throw darts early and often.
Wide Receiver/Tight End
6’7″ 215 lbs.
Columbus, Ohio (Worthington Kilbourne)
Chose UK Over: UofL, Cincinnati, Indiana, Duke, Pitt, Va. Tech
Recruited by most schools as a tight end, Holtzclaw was convinced to commit when Kentucky told him they wanted him to play receiver. Holtzclaw has plenty of length, deceptive speed and most importantly, depth on the outside. Last year there was a huge drop-off after Dorian Baker and Blake Bone. The coaching staff has obviously put an emphasis on adding depth to the outside to ensure that drops and attitudes are not a problem.
Arriving early usually means playing early. I know plenty of people in the BBN expect to see Drake and Kash early and often, but starting as a true freshman isn’t the normal trajectory for SEC football players. The Spring is used as a time to adjust and get acquainted with the system, setting them up to compete for a position in the Fall.
It’s a different story for Tate Leavitt. With the departure of Jordan Swindle and two offensive tackle transfers before the 2015 season, Leavitt is expected to start right away. That’s a lot of pressure, but Tate doesn’t feel it:
“No because those are my minimal expectations for myself. I’ve got much more I want to do than just come in and start and just be an upgrade from before. That’s where it starts, but those are just the roots of my expectations for myself.”
He’s already proved that he’s capable of defending and beating the best of the best at the Junior College level, but will need this Spring to be able to to excel in the SEC on Day One.
Rolling with the Changes
All six players committed to come to Kentucky for the spring semester before Shannon Dawson and Tommy Mainord were fired. It put them in a difficult situation, but once the dust cleared they were satisfied with Stoops’ hires.
“I have a lot of respect for Coach Dawson but I also have a lot of trust in Coach Stoops. If he felt there needed to be a change, and he did, that’s who I have to play for,” Leavitt said. “I’m certainly glad he hired Coach Gran and Coach Hinshaw because I did speak with both of them not long after they were hired. We talked schemes and philosophies and it got me excited for what we’re going to do offensively.”
Don’t Touch Tate’s Drums
When Tate Leavitt isn’t making pancakes on the football field, he likes to take his aggression by banging on the drums. I’m not exactly sure how skilled he is, but I know that he can’t hold a tune next to his Dad, Jason. Jason Leavitt is a drummer for Shining East, a Central Ohio classic rock band that does your typical covers, but also records their own music. Watch Jason Leavitt tear it up in Van Halen’s “Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love.”
Leavitt’s opened for a variety of big names like Lynyrd Skynyrd, Quiet Riot, Ace Frehley of Kiss and Paul Rogers of Bad Company. Those are all great, but they wouldn’t compare to opening for a game at Commonwealth Stadium on the Gate 1 Stage. What is the point of having pregame concerts if we can’t have a players Dad tearing up the stage? Make it happen, UK.
Mark Stoops’ Early Enrollees have provided an instant impact before. Mikel Horton learned the sacrifices he needed to make in the offseason to change his body heading into his Sophomore season, scoring critical touchdowns to help Kentucky win against South Carolina and Louisiana. C.J. Conrad used his early semester to catapult into the starting lineup and stay there for the rest of the year.
This year’s class has the potential to do the same, if not better, but arriving early comes with no guarantees; just ask Dorian Hendrix and Thaddeus Snodgrass.