Louisville figures to be the site of a new kind of Kentucky derby over the next year as the new head football coaches at the state's top two universities race neck and neck to recruit an unusually large group of elite Jefferson County prospects.
Kentucky coach Joker Phillips won an initial recruiting battle over Louisville's Charlie Strong on National Signing Day Wednesday when Central High School linebacker Tim Patterson, regarded as the state's top 2010 prospect, picked the Wildcats over the Cardinals.
The race for many of Louisville's top players in 2011 could also go down to the wire.
"The new Mason-Dixon Line starts at the county line. The civil war is on," Seneca High School coach Louis Dover said. "Louisville is the biggest city in Kentucky, and it's got the most kids who play football. ... Coach Strong knows that if he wants to win, he has to close it off, and Coach Phillips knows he cannot let that door close. He's got a foot in that door, and it's got to stay open."
In 2011, Jefferson County figures to produce one of its strongest crops of major-college football talent in a long time. Expect Phillips, the longtime UK assistant who was promoted last month, and Strong, the charismatic former Florida defensive coordinator, to recruit Louisville with a fervor.
"We also talk about the heart and soul of our program has to be the state of Kentucky," Phillips said on Wednesday. "What's the most populated city in Kentucky? It's Louisville.
"There's 28 schools in Jefferson County, and we've got to be in them, and we've got to be in them heavy."
U of L has already landed commitments from quarterback DaMarcus Smith of Seneca, receiver DeVante Parker of Ballard, and running back Jerrell Moore and lineman Jamon Brown of Fern Creek.
Phillips countered with a commitment from highly regarded Eastern player Jon Davis, who projects as a college tight end but can play multiple positions.
Of course, all those commitments are non-binding, and UK and U of L's recruitment of those players could extend all the way until next signing day.
"Coach Strong got a few early commitments from DaMarcus and DeVante and kind of got the snowball going, and it was up to Joker to respond, and he did with the class he signed here at the end, especially Patterson here in Louisville," Ballard coach Mike Jackson said.
Coaches in Jefferson County said Phillips has earned their respect because of the long-term relationships he's built with them and their players. That was the case with the Patterson signing. Phillips was instrumental in bringing former Central stars Corey Peters, Ridge Wilson and Mister Cobble to UK, and he used those recruiting trips to the downtown school as a basis for getting to know Patterson.
"He's done an outstanding job," said Mike Glaser, coach of 2009 Class 6-A champion St. Xavier. "The important thing is he establishes a rapport with the kids early. That's always been Joker's trait; he finds all about them way before their senior year. He's got good rapport with all the coaches in the state."
Fern Creek coach Curtis Higgins said Strong has quickly done a nice job trying to catch up with Phillips in building those ties.
"I'm a Louisville grad, so obviously I have some Louisville bias, but I think the UK staff over the past four or five years --- even while (former U of L coach Bobby) Petrino was here --- really built relationships," Higgins said. "They honestly blew (recently fired coach Steve) Kragthorpe's staff away in battling for recruits, and now they finally have some competition."
Trinity coach Bob Beatty said Phillips and Strong understand that pleasing fans and building buzz are important parts of their jobs and that winning recruiting battles in Jefferson County can help achieve that.
"Joker has always done a great job recruiting Jefferson County in the 10 years I've been here," he said. "... Anybody knows that if you're in the state, you're going to try to win that state and that puts you in good standing with the media. Marty Schottenheimer once told me, 'Don't get on the bad side of the media because you can win the Super Bowl and still lose.' So they'll win in the eyes of the media if they get the most guys in-state."
Of more importance, landing those players would help elevate the Cats or Cards on the field.
Seneca's Smith, a 6-foot-1, 180-pound dual-threat player, missed all of last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in a knee but should start the 2010 season as a Mr. Football front-runner.
Dover said he outplayed four-star Southern California QB signee Jesse Scroggins at a camp last summer and held his own at another camp against Ohio junior Braxton Miller, who has scholarship offers from Ohio State, Alabama, Michigan, Notre Dame and many others.
"He throws constantly," Dover said. "... He carries his books in one hand and a bag of footballs in the other."
Dover said Phillips and Smith had a great "heart-to-heart" conversation that Smith "really appreciated" after he committed to Strong, and Dover said he has "no doubt ... it's going to be a last-minute decision between (UK and U of L)."
"He felt almost like he let Coach Phillips down a little by committing, but I have no doubt Coach Phillips will keep coming," Dover said. "I don't think Joker is going to lose any ground; it'll be a war till the end. DaMarcus told Coach Phillips he's firm in his commitment, but really, he's 17 years old, and how firm is a 17-year-old's decision when he has a year to think about it?"
Ballard's Parker is another Jefferson County gem whose early commitment to U of L has Phillips playing catch-up.
Jackson said Parker (6-2, 180) ran a legit sub-4.5-second 40-yard dash at a national underclassman combine last summer. He also has great ability to shake defenders in the open field, making him a potential deep threat or slot target.
"DeVante is the kind of player that doesn't come around very often, especially in Kentucky, and I told him when he committed that other schools aren't going to back off," Jackson said. "We're getting mail three times a week from Alabama, Clemson, Oregon, the very, very top schools, and with UK being the other in-state school, they're not giving up.
"Joker believes in building relationships, and he wants to build one there. I know he's going to keep trying."
Jackson said Phillips is also interested in 6-1, 205-pound Ballard linebacker Flo Hardin.
"He's thick," Jackson said. "He looks like a beast, and he can move."
Fern Creek's Higgins said Moore, another speedster, appears firm in his commitment to U of L but that Brown could potentially be swayed. Another Tigers star, Jalen Harrington (6-3, 210), whose size and versatility Higgins compared to Patterson's, is uncommitted and considering the Cats.
Glaser mentioned cornerback Daylen Hall and multipurpose back Lamont McMurray as potential targets for UK.
Hall (5-10, 1850), who blocked nine kicks and had seven interceptions in 2009, is "fast as can be," Glaser said.
"(UK's coaches are) excited about Daylen Hall, and all our kids would love to play at a program like Kentucky," he said. "They think Coach Phillips can take them to another level."
Of course, Strong will be strong in his pursuit of all these prospects, too, and the next 12 months should shape up to be an exciting time for football in Jefferson County.
"(Phillips and Strong) are just two great guys," Seneca's Dover said. "The state of Kentucky doesn't realize what they have right now. As big as the basketball rivalry is, the football rivalry is always going to be second, but it's going to get giant. The recruiting, like I said, is going to be a civil war."