Beyond the potential ramifications of the Buckeyes’ place in the standings and their chances of still having a shot to compete for a championship if they win out, one of the biggest things that stood out about Ohio State’s 10th-place spot in the initial College Football Playoff rankings was the team that came in one spot above them.
While Kentucky is known for being a college basketball powerhouse, it isn’t known for being a college football championship contender. Eight games into their 2018 season, however, the Wildcats are 7-1 – including two wins over teams also ranked in the top 20 of the CFP standings (Florida and Mississippi State) – which earned them the No. 9 spot in the committee’s initial rankings.
Unlike Ohio State, and most of the other teams in the top 10 of the rankings, Kentucky’s roster isn’t loaded with blue-chip recruits. Over the past four recruiting cycles, the Wildcats have landed no five-star recruits and just 13 four-star recruits, including two who have transferred from the program and two who have been sidelined all season due to health reasons.
One thing that has stood out about Kentucky’s recent recruiting efforts, though, is that the Wildcats have loaded up on players from their neighbors to the north – specifically, players who haven’t received offers from their home state’s flagship school – and those players have been a huge factor in the Wildcats’ success.
Kentucky’s current roster includes 28 players from the state of Ohio, and many of the Wildcats’ best and most important players this season have been among them.
The Wildcats’ biggest star this year, at least on the offensive side of the ball, has been running back Benny Snell, Jr., a product of Westerville Central High School in central Ohio. Snell is among the nation’s leading rushers this season with 935 yards and nine touchdowns on 179 carries.
A three-star recruit out of Westerville Central, Snell has said on several occasions this year that he dreamed of being a Buckeye, but chose to become a Wildcat because he wasn’t recruited by Urban Meyer and Ohio State.
“Growing up, Ohio State was all I watched,” Snell told Bleacher Report’s Matt Hayes this week. “I was a Big Ten guy. I wanted to play for Ohio State, but they didn't even recruit me. I was a Jim Tressel guy. He was the man, the head coach. Then Urban Meyer came into the mix and things got different. I always kept that in the back of my mind: Ohio State didn't want me. Somehow, some way, I'm going to make them wish they had me.”
Three of the Wildcats’ top four receivers this season are also Ohio products, including Lynn Bowden, Jr., who leads Kentucky with 43 receptions for 457 yards and three touchdowns, 13 kickoff returns for 269 yards and two punt returns for 63 yards and a touchdown. A four-star recruit out of Warren G. Harding High School in Youngstown, Bowden received late interest from Ohio State but remained committed to Kentucky.
Fellow starting wide receiver Dorian Baker, who has 10 catches for 108 yards for Kentucky this season, was a three-star recruit out of Cleveland Heights. Tight end C.J. Conrad, who has 18 catches for 126 yards this season including the game-winning touchdown catch in the Wildcats’ comeback victory against Missouri last Saturday, was a four-star recruit out of Keystone High School in Lagrange, Ohio.
Starting right tackle George Asafo-Adjei was a three-star recruit out of Lakota West High School in West Chester.
|Name||Position||High School (City)|
|TYRELL AJIAN||S||Madison Comprehensive (Mansfield)|
|GEORGE ASAFO-ADJEI||OT||Lakota West (West Chester)|
|DORIAN BAKER||WR||Cleveland Heights|
|BRENDEN BATES||TE||Archbishop Moeller (Cincinnati)|
|LYNN BOWDEN, JR.||WR||Warren G. Harding (Youngstown)|
|DANNY CLARK||QB||Archbishop Hoban (Akron)|
|C.J. CONRAD||TE||Keystone (Lagrange)|
|TYMERE DUBOSE||DT||Youngstown Christian|
|MIKE EDWARDS||S||Winton Woods (Cincinnati)|
|LUKE FORTNER||G||Sylvania Northview (Sylvania)|
|COLLIN GOODFELLOW||P||St. Ignatius (Cleveland)|
|GUNNAR HOAK||QB||Dublin Coffman (Dublin)|
|PHIL HOSKINS||DT||Whitmer (Toledo)|
|ZACH JOHNSON||RB||Colerain (Cincinnati)|
|JORDAN JONES||LB||Cardinal Mooney (Youngstown)|
|ALEX KING||LB||William Mason (Mason)|
|DARIAN KINNARD||OT||St. Ignatius (Cleveland)|
|CHRIS OATS||LB||Winton Woods (Cincinnati)|
|ASIM ROSE||RB||Garfield Heights (Cleveland)|
|MATT RUFFOLO||K||Archbishop Alter (Centerville)|
|BENNY SNELL, JR.||RB||Westerville Central (Westerville)|
|KEATON UPSHAW||TE||Lima Senior (Lima)|
|AHMAD WAGNER||WR||Wayne (Huber Heights)|
|DARIUS WEST||S||Central Catholic (Lima)|
|QUINTIN WILSON||C||Turpin (Cincinnati)|
Defensively, three of Kentucky’s top five tacklers this season are Ohio natives. Fifth-year senior safety Darius West, who leads the team with 58 total tackles, was a four-star recruit out of Lima Central Catholic in 2014. Fellow starting safety Mike Edwards, who is tied for fourth on the team with 46 tackles, was a three-star recruit out of Cincinnati’s Winton Woods High School in 2014. Linebacker Jordan Jones, who also has 46 tackles, was a three-star recruit out of Youngstown’s Cardinal Mooney High School in 2015.
One thing all of those players have in common: Although some of them were recruited by Ohio State, none of them officially received scholarship offers.
Kentucky’s roster does include a couple Ohio natives who were offered by the Buckeyes, including redshirt freshman backup quarterback Danny Clark, who famously committed to Ohio State when he was a freshman at Massillon Washington. True freshman backup middle linebacker Chris Oats, from Winton Woods, also received an offer from Ohio State in last year’s recruiting cycle. Even those two players, though, ultimately ended up at Kentucky in part because the Buckeyes decided to take other players over them at their respective positions.
As Snell hinted in his conversation with Bleacher Report, Ohio State’s recruiting approach has changed under Meyer. While Tressel’s recruiting classes routinely included double-digit in-state prospects, Meyer has become increasingly selective – particularly in the last two classes, taking just six in-state recruits in 2017 and five in 2018 – as the Buckeyes have lured some of the top talent from all over the nation.
That’s left the door open for other schools to come into the Buckeye State and come away with quality talent, and seemingly no school has taken advantage of that opportunity better than Kentucky, which has signed at least five players from Ohio in each of their last five recruiting classes.
Josh Edwards, who covers Kentucky recruiting for 247Sports, says a big factor in the Wildcats’ success in Ohio has been the connections that many of their coaches have to the state. Head coach Mark Stoops is a Youngstown native. Tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator Vince Marrow, who has played a leading role in Kentucky’s efforts in Ohio, is also from Youngstown, as is defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale, who previously coached at Toledo and Cincinnati before Kentucky. Special teams coordinator Dean Hood is an Ashtabula native who previously coached at Ohio University.
“They’ve got a lot of roots in Ohio,” Edwards told Eleven Warriors. “So they’re very familiar with the state, they’ve developed a lot of relationships with the high school coaches. And that kind of transfers over into the players. Because players are more comfortable with coaches that their (high school) coaches are comfortable with.”
Because of those roots, Kentucky’s coaches recognized that there was plenty of talent to go around in Ohio – regardless of how many in-state players the Buckeyes decided to recruit – and because of that, they decided to make recruiting the state one of their top priorities outside of recruiting their own state.
“They understand that Ohio State, in all likelihood, is going to have their picking of the top recruits in the state of Ohio, but then it’s kind of a free-for-all for the guys that are left, and there’s more than enough talent in the state of Ohio to go around for programs like Michigan State and Kentucky and Wisconsin,” Edwards said. “And that’s kind of where Kentucky has kind of been able to build the core of their roster is with a lot of these talented guys that may not have made the cut for Ohio State.
In recruiting players from Ohio, the Wildcats still run the risk of Ohio State coming in with a late offer and flipping one of those players to the Buckeyes. But that’s a chance they’ve continued to take because they know Ohio will always have more quality talent than Ohio State has room for.
“That’s just the nature of the beast,” Edwards said. “Ohio State is the big program in the state, and they’re going to continue getting the players that they want, but there are some very talented players that are getting overlooked as well.”
Now that the Wildcats have emerged as a contender in the SEC, they are in better position to win more recruiting battles with Ohio State and other blue-blood programs, which they proved on Thursday by landing a commitment for the class of 2019 from four-star running back Wandale Robinson, who is a Frankfort, Kentucky native but was also recruited heavily by Ohio State and several other teams that have historically been national contenders, including Nebraska, Alabama and Michigan.
Kentucky’s success this season, though, has been made largely possible by the Wildcats’ efforts in going into the state of Ohio, targeting the players who aren’t being recruited heavily by the Buckeyes and convincing them to head south to Lexington.