Kentucky's football recruiting efforts look much different this summer as coaches piece together a 2021 class.
The foundations of the historic 2020 recruiting class were built upon an official visit in April that featured five blue chip recruits -- quarterback Beau Allen, offensive tackle John Young, offensive tackle Deondre Buford, cornerback Dru Phillips and five-star defensive tackle Justin Rogers. All five players would eventually commit to UK, with most pulling the trigger shortly after they assembled in Lexington. Kentucky rode that wave of recruiting momentum to a top 25 class.
A year later coronavirus has forced Kentucky to use alternative options to recruit. The various options have been productive -- Adrian Huey became the Wildcats' 14th commitment Wednesday night -- yet Zoom calls and texts aren't as effective as an official visit at mobilizing the best of the best. Kentucky has hosted zero football recruits on official visits and only six of the 14 class of 2021 commits have ever visited UK's campus
As you'll see, the absence of the official visit as a recruiting tool will likely cost UK a shot at a handful of blue chip prospects. Even so, UK is on pace to receive commitments from six of the state's top eight players
, setting the foundation for what could be an historically talented in-state class in 2022. Before we get too far ahead, take a look at who is already in the fold and who could be the next to roll the dice.
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Who's next in line join to Kentucky's 2021 football recruiting class? Allow me to share some of the top targets on the Wildcats' recruiting board, starting with the most highly-touted uncommitted players. Obviously, the list is not complete. What fun would recruiting be if there weren't a few late surprises?
is Kentucky's top football recruiting target. Vince Marrow and John Schlarman have taken the lead on the recruitment of the state's top-ranked player, the latest in a long line of Central Kentucky offensive linemen ranked in the top 100 overall nationally. His Frederick Douglass teammate, wide receiver Dekel Crowdus, committed to UK in May.
Burton initially intended to announce his college decision prior to his senior football season and only after he took official visits to his final five schools -- Alabama, Oregon, Ohio State, Clemson and Kentucky. Obviously, COVID-19 has thrown a wrench into those plans. Alabama made a strong early-summer push, but after the Crimson Tide picked up a couple of offensive line commits, you can scratch them off as a contender. Ohio State remained in constant contact throughout the process, yet just like Alabama they have received commitments from the sixth and first-ranked offensive guards in America.
Over the last week, momentum feels to be gaining for Kentucky thanks to more than a few social media posts. After following his recruitment for years, it feels like Burton is doing his recruiting due diligence before he ultimately chooses to commit to the school that offered him first and convinced him to switch from defensive to offensive line, the University of Kentucky.
Burton is not the Wildcats only option at interior offensive line. Kentucky is in the mix for Noah Josey
, a top 25 offensive guard in America. Recruited by Steve Clinkscale, Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas and Auburn are also fighting to add Josey to the fold.
Can Steve Clinkscale do it again? In two of the last three years he's successfully convinced the state of Michigan's top-ranked defensive linemen, Justin Rogers and Marquan McCall, to join the Big Blue Nation. This time around it appears that Alabama has a slight edge as Damon Payne
's decision draws near. We'll find out Sunday at 3 p.m. ET on CBS Sports HQ where Payne will be taking his talents to next fall.
Last year Rayshaun Benny
shared an offensive and defensive line with Justin Rogers at Oak Park High School. Like Rogers, many project Benny to play offensive line, although he prefers the defensive side of the ball. Unlike Rogers and McCall, the two home state schools are much bigger players in this recruiting process. Four recruiting 247 analysts logged Crystal Ball picks for Michigan over the last month. Even so, Clink will keep UK near the top of the conversation until Benny ultimately decides to make an announcement.
Kentucky lost the valuable official visit tool in this cycle, but thanks to John Calipari they added a new one. UK has extended two dual-sport offers in this class, each to Florida star athletes. Cashing in on Terrion Arnold
is a long shot. The same cannot be said about Michael Trigg
LSU, USC, South Carolina and Alabama have also given out the two-sport invitation to Trigg, yet Vince Marrow has still made enough headway to put the Wildcats in a position to be a finalist. Unlike a few other top targets, Trigg does not appear to be in a rush to make a decision. The more time he takes, the better off for Kentucky.
Trigg is not the only tight end Kentucky is pursuing in the 2021 recruiting class. Bowling Green tight end Jordan Dingle
has been a long-time target for the Cats and has visited campus multiple times. Folks around the program like where they stand with Dingle, even though a slew of Big Ten schools -- including Ohio State -- are hot on the trail.
Kentucky has prioritized playmakers in the 2021 class. So far five -- more than one-third of the Wildcats' commitments -- are wide receivers or running backs. Each brings a little something different to the table. Dekel Crowdus is a lightning quick slot receiver, Armond Scott is a physical outside target, La'Vell Wright is a bruising running back, Chauncey Magwood has the skills to play inside or out and Christian Lewis can do just about anything you ask of a wide receiver.
There's a nice variety in the offensive athletes already in the fold and they probably aren't finished. Who will close out the class? They've cast a wide net.
There was a time where it looked like Kyree Young
was prepared to pull the trigger and commit to Kentucky, but those brakes were pumped. UK has slowly backed out of emphasizing recruiting efforts in South Florida, yet they remain finalists for Kamonte Grimes
, who is also considering Michigan, Maryland, Miami and Nebraska. Quincy Skinner
and Martavien Johnson
are two other options the Wildcats have contacted throughout the recruiting process.
Upon hearing a cornerback would soon be committing to Kentucky, I initially believed Maxwell Hairston was ready to roll the dice. Recruited by Steve Clinkscale, Hairston described UK as his "dream school" as offers from around the Big Ten rolled into the Detroit suburb.
Hairston could commit soon. Vince Marrow has been working a little longer to get a flip from Andrew Wilson-Lamp
. The Ohio native committed to play wide receiver at West Virginia in January. While committed to Neal Brown's program, Marrow offered Wilson-Lamp the chance to play in Mark Stoops' secondary. West Virginia is now willing to let him play the position. Will the trendsetters win out or will he remain loyal to his initial commitment?
Neither of those players are ranked as high as Khyree Jackson
, the second-ranked cornerback and No. 5 overall player at the JUCO level. UK was a finalist when he initially planned on deciding in early July. Obviously, those plans changed. Alabama, Florida, Oklahoma, Oregon and South Carolina are also in the mix with UK.
Tra Wilkins and Shawnkel Knight'Goff's surprising decisions to transfer left Jon Sumrall short-handed. He went to the JUCO ranks to get Joko Willis
and he also got a commitment from Martez Thrower
. Sumrall needs at least one more to make sure depth does not become a reoccurring problem.
Brad White is lending a hand by recruiting Mikai Gbayor
out of New Jersey. Earlier this month he revealed his five finalists: Michigan State, Nebraska, West Virginia, Ole Miss and Kentucky. This is what he told 247 Sports
about the Wildcats: "It’s the SEC, and I feel like I would be a great player in the SEC. I love the facilities, and meeting with the coaches when I went there, it was great. It made me feel like I was at home. It felt great there. That is what I like about it."
Down in South Florida Deshauwn Alleyne
has the measurables to play inside or out, even though he's currently placed on the edge. Nebraska, Auburn and Penn State are UK's top contenders.
There's always room for some bigs that can play either Jack linebacker or defensive end in UK's 3-4 scheme. Javon Nelson
fits that bill. From nearby Murfreesboro, TN, UK has picked up two commitments from that area recently -- Adrian Huey and defensive end Tre'Vonn Rybka. Nelson has previously camped with the Cats in Lexington, so he's at least familiar with what the campus has to offer. Miss. State is in the mix, Vandy is hoping to keep him close to home but this looks like it may be another recruiting dogfight between Kentucky and Tennessee.
Marrow made early moves on Jamarius Dinkins
. How strong were those moves? We'll see if Kentucky is willing to go the distance in this recruitment.
The Wildcats have extended outside of their traditional recruiting grounds to pursue a few big names on the trail. Landing one of the three would be considered a success. The most surprising candidate is from Kansas City, Tobechi Okoli
. Offered by the Wildcats in April, Kentucky is fighting to be a finalist. The Cats made the cut in his top eight but Kansas State, Missouri and Nebraska are his early leaders.
Brad White and Anwar Stewart made some headway on this talented edge rusher from Virginia, earning enough clout to secure a spot in Kevin Gilliam
's top ten. Once again, an official visit-less recruiting season will cost Kentucky. He'll announce his decision Aug. 22 and likely choose Penn State over South Carolina and Oklahoma.
Kentucky is one of 11 finalists in Jabril McNeill
's recruitment. His older brother, Alim, will start on the defensive line for NC State this fall, giving the Wolf Pack a leg up in the process. The composite rankings are not bullish on McNeill, but he made the cut in the Top 247 at No. 215 overall (#14 OLB).
Since the establishment of the Early Signing Period, the Wednesday before Christmas has acted as a celebration of sorts around the Joe Craft Football Training Facility as the fax machine officially welcomes players from across the country to the Big Blue Nation. That may not happen this year until February. Kentucky might not host one single official visitor. Regardless of when it happens, this 2021 Kentucky recruiting class will not look like the previous or the next class.
Mark Stoops and Marrow cashed in on the Citrus Bowl success in 2020 by securing a five-star lineman and a quarterback early in the process, allowing for the Cats to build momentum until Sumrall made a splash on signing day. Next year there are a dozen Power Five players from the state of Kentucky
and the top half have blue chip potential. Just by bringing the Bluegrass' best to Lexington, UK could finish with another top 25 class. The 2021 class will not reach that high-water mark.
Currently ranked No. 43 by both Rivals and 247 Sports, the 2021 group will finish where most of Stoops' classes have finished -- in the mid-30s. Despite the low ranking, they will draw comparisons to the 2015 class, the most productive group of the Mark Stoops era. Like C.J. Conrad and George Asafo-Adjei, Dekel Crowdus and Jager Burton could be four-year stars. Josh Allen and Calvin Taylor Jr. turned little to no rankings at all into enough sack lunches to feed an entire elementary school. During the recruiting process they checked a few boxes, but there was potential to complete them all.
Kentucky's 2021 recruiting class is filled with players who have already mastered specialities and flashed enough potential to add more to their arsenal. Many of the players have become highly-touted four-star recruits if they could have competed in a spring and summer camp circuit. Even though coronavirus prevented coaches from using all of the recruiting tools at their disposal, four years from now we may see that as a blessing in disguise.