Mark Stoops' coaching staff has created enemies in Ohio and Michigan. Described
as the new "Big Ten Killer" on the recruiting trail, this December an SEC head coach received a similar recruiting headache from a recent addition to UK's staff.
Entering National Signing Day, most believed four-star defensive tackle Josaih Hayes was set to join Lane Kiffin's first Ole Miss recruiting class. The second-best player from the state of Mississippi, the Blue Chip recruit had previously committed to play for the Rebels and took one final official visit to Oxford just before signing day.
As Hayes prepared to announce his decision, the rug was pulled out from beneath Kiffin's feet. Hayes picked Kentucky over the Rebels. The mastermind behind the recruiting coup celebrated accordingly.
Jon Sumrall had not yet completed a full year on Kentucky's coaching staff before successfully blindsiding an SEC foe in their own territory. He did so by ensuring that all was quiet leading into the announcement and by creating an early connection with Hayes when Sumrall previously served on Ole Miss' staff.
"It's about relationships," Sumrall said in a conversation with KSR.
"The No. 1 thing to win on a kid that's got other SEC offers, you can't have cracks in your relationship. What I mean by that is you gotta know the kid and the mom. You gotta know the dad, you gotta know the high school coach you gotta know everyone in solved in the process. It doesn't mean that's your main point of contact the whole time throughout the process, but you can't have cracks to sign a good player. To sign a really good player you can't have areas of their life that you don't know about and people in their life you don't know about," Sumrall continued.
"You gotta know the whole kid. You gotta know the whole picture. You gotta know the whole person. You gotta know their story. You gotta develop a relationship with them. They gotta trust you and know that you care about them. I think that piece is the most important piece. Facilities are facilities, uniforms are uniforms. All of that stuff fades
when you get there but what doesn't fade is who are you going to do life with day to day?"
Like Stoops and Vince Marrow in Ohio, Sumrall's roots in the area set the foundation for his recruiting success. A former UK linebacker that played for the Wildcats from 2002-04, Sumrall is originally from Huntsville, Al. and spent his formative coaching years recruiting in the area for Tulane and Troy.
In some cases, Sumrall has a built-in connection with players. In the 2021 class, UK defensive end commit Kahlil Saunders attends Sumrall's alma mater, Huntsville Grissom. Other times when that readily made connection is not available, he plays a trump card that works everywhere in the South: the SEC.
"Geographically there might have been schools that closer to me that were ACC schools but they weren't closer to me in my football world because if you were an SEC school, that was the gold standard. I grew up believing there's three football leagues: the AFC, the NFC and the SEC
. Every other league is amateur, right, wrong or indifferent."
In this case, the "it" in "It Just Means More" is trust. Similar to how recruits speak about Vince Marrow's ability to be "real" in the recruiting process, Sumrall leans on honesty when he's pitching prospects.
"I think that kids, they're the smartest demographic in the world at judging authenticity. They can see a fake is a fake quick and they can see what's real is real quick too. And so you have to be genuine and authentic to who you are in that relationship with them and develop that relationship. And also you have to in that relationship show them that good and if you need something while you're here, if you need a home-cooked meal, you're coming to the house," he continued.
"Anytime you have something going on in your life, we're here for ya. The old saying that you don't have to be blood to be family, you just gotta be real
, that's true. Kids know that and kids feel that. I think that wins out over a lot of other things that fade."
Along with Hayes and Saunders, Sumrall has successfully recruited a pair of players from the state of Georgia, 2020 linebacker D'Eryk Jackson and 2021 wide receiver Chauncey Magwood. The Wildcats will continue to search for prospects from the South while mainintaing a home recruiting base in Kentucky, Ohio and Michigan.
Stoops' recent success and the investment into the program by the university has opened new avenues for Sumrall in the South. Ten years ago other schools could destroy UK's chances by pointing out the Wildcats' outdated facilities and shortcomings on the field. If an SEC school tries to negatively recruit against the Cats now, he has a response for every single piece of criticism.
"We're very fortunate and in a very different position than we were in 20 years ago when I played here. Lexington's always been a great city. The University of Kentucky's always been a great school. But now we've got the football facilities to equal that, to match that. Now we've got the culture and the level of sustained success to which Coach Stoops has developed here to match that," he continued.
"Now when you look across the board at a kid's decision, the adage 'Why not Kentucky?' Well why not? We've got great facilities. We got great stability with our coaching staff. Coach Stoops has done as good of a job coaching college football as anybody in the country. He's got a great staff around him and a great support staff off the field. It's a first-class university, a first-class city with a fanbase that loves the teams that we have here, so why not? Why can't you do it here?
"You can do anything you want from here. That's the biggest thing is there isn't a hole that's lacking anymore
. If somebody says to a kid in the Deep South or in Ohio or Michigan, 'Kentucky is this that or the other' -- No, it's not. We got great facilities. We got a winning program. We've already had a great city.
"Why would you now want to be here?"