The start of April means that March Madness is coming to an end. In Kentucky, high school basketball is a really big deal. Saturday’s semifinal and championship games mark the culmination of the most storied state tournament in the nation. The Bluegrass State’s Sweet 16 is a tournament that is not classed. This means that the tiniest of schools with 100 or so students can be matched up with an opponent with an enrollment that surpasses 3,000. The KHSAA’s showcase is unique and a tradition like no other. Its champions are lauded and go down in commonwealth lore. However, against outsider and some insider’s perception, Kentucky is a football state. Hear me out. Individual talent is at a much higher premium on the football field than in gyms from Paducah to Pikeville. That’s no slam on basketball. I appreciate hoops. I’m a former basketball player and the son of a Sweet 16 legend. I’ve deeply enjoyed covering this year’s state tournament and the Ashland Blazer Tomcats to be specific. But, the truth of the matter is that high school football has significantly surpassed basketball in relation to individual talent.
The commonwealth’s transition from a basketball to football state started with Tim Couch’s record breaking career at Leslie County High School. He was followed by Harrodsburg’s Dennis Johnson. Both earned National Player of the Year honors and went on to enjoy tremendous success at the University of Kentucky. I might add that both Couch and Johnson were also stars on the basketball court. Football in Kentucky flourished following the careers of these two legend.
Annually, Kentucky produces high-level talent that is coveted by powerhouse football programs across America. Much like the Class of 2021, this year’s in-state talent pool is elite. Mark Stoops recently garnered the commitment of 4-star Grant Bingham on Thursday. Early word on the Johnson Central tackle’s recruitment indicated that Notre Dame was the team to beat. Vince Marrow had different plans. Bingham’s going to be a Wildcat.
Historically, Kentucky is a state that produces quarterbacks and offensive linemen. Recently, several in-state linemen have earned All American honors and went on to excel at the collegiate and professional level. Lexington Lafayette’s 5-star tackle Landon Young decided to stay home and experienced a rewarding career at Kentucky. Young started 26 games for the Cats and was joined at UK by fellow high school All American Drake Jackson. The Woodford County center started 47 games for the Wildcats. Young and Jackson were founding members of the Big Blue Wall that paced the way for the Wildcat’s rushing attack to rewrite the program’s record books. The NFL awaits both.
Lexington Lafayette’s Jedrick Wills’ college decision went down to the wire. In the end, Alabama earned the All American’s signature. Wills went on to star in Tuscaloosa and was later a first round selection by Cleveland. The Browns’ rookie was a plug-and-play starter at left tackle and a rising star in the NFL.
Scott County’s Bryan Hudson, a consensus four-star prospect in the class of 2019, originally signed with Virginia Tech and played 21 games in two seasons before transferring to Louisville this offseason. Playing for legendary head coach Jim Mckee at Scott Co., Hudson anchored an offensive line that led the program to back-to-back 11-win seasons.
Frederick Douglass is a new name to the Kentucky high school football landscape. But, it’s produced two, 4-star offensive linemen in Walker Parks and Jager Burton. Parks was a UK legacy prospect but chose Clemson. The All American tackle was a regular in the Tiger’s two-deep while earning several freshman accolades. Parks is scheduled to be a starter for the Tigers in 2021 and has a career projection that mirrors Wills.
Jager Burton was considered as the nation’s most athletic offensive linemen in the Class of 2021. The 4-star All American committed to Kentucky early in the process and never wavered from that decision. Burton is an early enrollee and has impressed coaches and teammates alike. He projects to be a contributor as a true freshman. A source recently told KSR that “Burton is special and has no ceiling.” In other words, he’s going to be really good.
Christian Academy of Louisville’s John Young was yet another 4-star offensive lineman that decided to stay home and become a member of the Big Blue Wall. Young was ranked as the nation’s 14th best OT in the nation and was a focal point in the Cat’s Class of 2020. UK starting guard Austin Dotson won four consecutive state championships at Belfry High School. The mauler is poised for a strong finish to his career in Lexington. West Jessamine’s Eli Cox is a versatile player that Liam Coen can use at guard or center.
The most recent national level OL prospect from Kentucky is Johnson Central’s Grant Bingham. Much like with Jager Burton and John Young, Mark Stoops made Bingham’s recruitment a priority which led to his commitment to the Cats on Thursday. Bingham is a cross between Walker Parks and Jager Burton. He possesses a high level of athleticism that is similar to Burton while playing with a nasty streak that’s universally associated with Parks.
What Does All This Mean?
Think about this for a minute. Kentucky has produced five All Americans and seven 4-star offensive linemen in the past six years. The commonwealth’s recent run on line-of-scrimmage players is unprecedented. Homegrown talent and coaching are at a premium. While the past six seasons is the focus of this post, we could go farther back to the mid-80’s to identify former Wildcats from that confirm this claim. NFL Hall of Fame center Dermontti Dawson hails from Lexington Bryan Station High School. Dawson is considered by many to be the best center to ever play the game. North Hardin guard Todd Perry played ten seasons in the NFL. Perry’s offensive line mate Chuck Bradley was a Louisville Fern Creek tackle that was later selected by the Bengals. Madison Central’s Larry Warford was a 3rd round pick and is a longtime starter for the Lions and Saints. Perry and Bradley were drafted in 1993. Warford in 2013. UK experienced a twenty-year gap between OL Draft picks. Given current recruiting and development, I don’t expect the Cats to experience a similar drought.
Grant Bingham joins an esteemed list of in-state offensive linemen that went on to play for the Wildcats. Landon Young and Drake Jackson started the most recent trend. Although Walker Parks, Jedrick Wills and Bryan Hudson went elsewhere, John Young, Eli Cox, Austin Dotson, Jager Burton and Grant Bingham closed the circle and picked the Cats.
Kentucky is a football state. Kentucky is an Offensive Lineman State.