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The UK football program is trying to make some noise in Tennessee on the recruiting front. Here's an update on how those efforts are going.
Since Mark Stoops arrived in Lexington the Cats' improved recruiting rankings have been well documented. The success has largely resulted from major recruiting improvement in Ohio, winning in-state recruiting battles at a high clip, and zeroing in on realistic targets in the South.
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Around a year ago Cats Illustrated reported that, according to sources, the UK program wanted to make the Volunteer State more of a priority. While the state has given the program players like Randall Cobb and others, it's not been the kind of reliable pipeline that has produced a steady flow of players. And the staff wants to change that.
It makes sense that Kentucky would want the Volunteer State to become another pipeline. The state's talent base has dramatically improved in recent years. As the population in Tennessee has increased, in places like Nashville and other parts of the state, the number of FBS players produced by the state has increased in turn.
As the depth of the talent pool in Tennessee increases the number of "takes" in the state has, naturally, risen as well. Whereas years ago a Top 30 player in the state might not have been a "take" for Kentucky or programs like Louisville, Mississippi State or others, these days it's much more likely that a player with that ranking will have the look of an SEC player.
In 2016, for instance, there are nine four-star prospects in Tennessee. Rivals.com now ranks the Top 25 players in the state. Compare that to 2005, when there were five players in the state with four-star rankings, only 13 with three-star rankings, and the actual state ranking list provided by Rivals.com had just 20 instead of 25 players included.
Given that most schools recruit the six-hour radius around the campus as though it's local priority territory, Kentucky would want to make the state a priority. They've done that successfully in Ohio. They won't have the same kind of success in Tennessee, but they want to have more. It's easier for players there to visit early and often compared to players from Florida and even Georgia. If the UK staff can get a high school junior from Tennessee on campus two or three times before he's ready to cut his list -- a realistic hope in many cases, and something that's happening already -- then they could stand to dramatically change their fortunes in the state.
Derrick Ansley has handled most of Kentucky's recruiting duties in the state and he's got a solid reputation there with high school coaches on the ground because of his own history with the Volunteers.
New possibilities but new challenges
Recruiting in Tennessee might be more tempting in 2016 than it was a decade ago, but that doesn't mean it's easier.
As the state has produced deeper, better classes, more schools have emerged as regulars during recruiting seasons. The state is home to more private schools than a lot of other SEC states, and that introduces its own unique set of circumstances. Those schools tend to produce players that aren't as tied to local or even SEC programs.
Now more than ever other SEC schools outside that state are making routine recruiting trips to areas like Nashville, Memphis and elsewhere. It's common to see the likes of Stanford, USC, Ohio State and others represented in those cities when college coaches are able to visit high schools in the spring and fall.
Recruiting against Butch Jones' Volunteers on their home turf is a difficult assignment, but Tennessee's not going to take all the SEC-worthy players there. Nor will programs like Alabama, LSU and Ole Miss scoop up everyone else with a bright future, although it's true that the players at the top of Tennessee's rankings are probably predetermined for those schools in most classes.
Vanderbilt's emergence as a respected recruiting force under James Franklin introduced an unanticipated wrinkle for everyone. It's yet to be seen whether the Commodores will be able to reproduce or sustain that over time with Derek Mason or any other coach in the foreseeable future. It's only safe to say that Tennessee and the top SEC programs will take their share.
Truthfully, it may not be clear whether the benefits of recruiting heavily in Tennessee outweigh the challenges. But that would only be a case against making the state the main pipeline for UK football. It doesn't have to be that. With huge numbers from Ohio virtually guaranteed every signing class, Kentucky's coaches would probably be happy if they could just start to bank on landing a couple of Volunteer State natives to complement their current efforts everywhere else. That would be a good start, so their task now is to selectively target the right fits rather than a more blanketed approach.
Getting specific: 2016 targets in Tennessee
There are only three months until Signing Day but the Cats are trying to change their fortunes in Tennessee right away. Four-star defensive end Emmit Gooden has been hearing from Kentucky for many months and he attended a game earlier this season. The entire defensive coaching staff has been in contact with Gooden, who lists UK among his favorites but has also mentioned a strong affinity for Mississippi State. As recently as this week Gooden told Cats Illustrated that Kentucky was still on his radar.
Hillsboro, Tenn., senior receiver Jay King has been an option that Shannon Dawson and others have kept in mind. Defensive end Sadarius Hutcherson had been getting a long look from the staff as they sought to put together a board for the remaining spots in this class. Those two players don't have offers but they're evidence that Kentucky is keeping the state to the south in mind.
Kentucky's coaches have put out feelers to Franklin (Tenn.) Centennial linebacker and Texas A&M commit Tyrel Dodson but he's told Cats Illustrated that he's happy with the Aggies.
PREMIUM: Vince Marrow's got UK in good shape with maybe their most talented Buckeye State target of the Mark Stoops era.
Earlier in this cycle Top 25 Volunteer State prospects like defensive tackle Jeremy Darvin, tight ends Jordan Wilson and Gabe Angel, wide receiver Rontavius Groves and others had been linked in some form or fashion with Kentucky.
Laying the foundation: Building for 2017 success
Right now the goal is to finish 2016's class, but the Class of 2017 is also a major priority. With six commitments already and a class that won't be Stoops' biggest, it's not only important to evaluate new junior prospects, but to carefully place them into precise categories on the recruiting board. It's already time to identify players as "takes" or "down the road" options.
Many juniors in Tennessee have landed on UK's wish list or at least the staff's list of players to watch.
Four-star linebacker Jacob Phillips is a player we've reported on extensively before. He's visited UK several times, most recently for a game this year. Phillips has a good relationship with the Kentucky staff, he knows that he's needed and not just wanted in Lexington, he's familiar with the school and he sees early playing time. Those are all the benefits of Kentucky, not to mention location. The Cats will have to hope all their early work pays off when some of the heavy-hitters put on the full court press when it's crunch time in his recruitment.
Kentucky recently became the first school to offer Obinna Eze, the No. 12 player in Tennessee. He's a 6-foot-8, 263-pound offensive lineman from Davidson Academy in Nashville.
Cats Illustrated spotted Eze recently at the Kentucky-Tennessee game in Lexington. His advertised 6-foot-8 frame looks accurate and he has the frame of a player that will look every bit the part of an SEC tackle. Given his recent visit, the fact that he has connections to other recruits on UK's radar and the Cats' early offer, one would have to assume Kentucky's a viable option.
One of the players to watch most closely is Caleb Rozar, someone else we've written about at great length. Ranked the No. 17 player in Tennessee, Rozar's stock is climbing after a recent offer from North Carolina.
Rozar is being recruited as an athlete by Kentucky, but perhaps more as a defensive back than a receiver. At least that seems to be Ansley's preference. Rozar's sister graduated from Kentucky and he's visited the school on many occasions, most recently for a game.
While some big-name schools are recruiting Rozar he admitted himself, in a recent interview with Cats Illustrated, that Kentucky has made a huge impression on him early.
Beyond that, a source close to Rozar's end of things with insight into his recruitment, shared an interesting tidbit recently.
"I think Caleb is going to blow up to (become) one of the best players in the South," this source said. "He is going to play DB in college. More people are seeing him play DB. Wouldn't surprise me if Bama and LSU offer within a few months. He loves UK though."
Rozar and Eze weren't the only two from Tennessee that attended the game between the Cats and their home state Vols. They were joined by Max Wray, who is perhaps one of the top offensive linemen from the Class of 2018. LSU and Vanderbilt offered Wray before Kentucky, but he tagged along when the others visited Lexington and shortly thereafter the Wildcat staff extended an offer. He, too, was impressive in person, at least in terms of his build.
There are a host of other 2017 players from Tennessee that have been hearing from UK and have even picked up verbal offers from the Cats. Players like Princeton Fant, Gentry Bonds, Ty Chandler and Ben Hutch have all heard from folks in Lexington, but time will tell whether Kentucky's got staying power.
Keep expectations modest and there's no reason why Kentucky's increased efforts in Tennessee can't pay off. The state doesn't have to come close to Ohio in terms of overall numbers on Signing Day. It will remain secondary to the Commonwealth and probably both Florida and Georgia, too.
But as the state's population and talent pool grows it would be foolish not to try and stake a claim to some of those players, or at least to grab a seat at the table. The staff's efforts haven't produced much yet, but it takes a while for a new emphasis to bear fruit. Given the fact the Cats have built strong relationships with some very young players there it's very possible that 2017 could be the year when the program starts to see success in Tennessee.
In the long run making inroads into Tennessee would probably prove more sustainable than the 'DMV' where Kentucky's less of a natural fit as a recruiting fixture. So the move to expand there is a wise move in the long run and not just a short-term calculation.