Fresh off winning the Defensive MVP at the Shrine Bowl, Kentucky's Za'Darius Smith became a late addition to the Senior Bowl roster. Smith was designated as the replacement for teammate, the great Bud Dupree. Wednesday was the first day of practice, and searching Twitter makes it sound as if his stock continues to rise:
Za’Darius Smith again impressive in pit. Speed, spin and inside swim all effective against different opponents. Making folks forget Dupree?— Jene Bramel (@JeneBramel) January 21, 2015
In one particular drill today it sounded as if Smith impressed against Pitt offensive tackle TJ Clemmings who is expected to be a Top 10-15 pick. The NFL Combine is not for another month, and if Smith follows Avery Williamson's lead from last season, he will improve his draft stock and only help with UK recruiting. Stay tuned to see if Smith works out with a private trainer or sticks in Lexington to train with Erik Korem and the rest of UK's strength and conditioning staff.
Also on Wednesday, UK officially announced six early enrollees - four high schoolers and the two transfers from Nebraska. In that group of six are two tight ends and two inside linebackers which are UK's biggest positional needs. We've previously discussed the paucity of bodies at tight end, and because of that true freshman CJ Conrad will almost certainly see game action barring an injury. Transfer Greg Hart won't help this year except on the practice squad, but in 2016 UK should finally have three experienced tight ends ready to contribute.
Inside linebacker is an equally important position. Miraculously, Josh Forrest, Khalid Henderson, and Ryan Flannigan made it the entire year without missing a game due to injuries. If one of them had gone down, UK would have been in big trouble. With the addition of Nebraska transfer Courtney Love, and Steve Jones reports Love will likely be immediately eligible, UK will get much needed depth.
Last season, UK rotated in the second string defense every third series but Forrest never got to come out. I strongly suspect that wore on him as games got into the fourth quarter or as the season reached November. I don't know much about Love, but SB Nation's Nebraska site made it sound like at the time of his transfer that he would start this year for the Cornhuskers. Given that, I currently suspect he'll start as the strong-side linebacker, and Forrest will move over to the weak-side inside linebacker that he's probably better suited for in the first place. They'll have competition though. Flannigan looked like a totally different player against the run in the Tennessee and Louisville games, and Henderson is a two year starter himself.
The important thing is UK will have some depth to play around with, and if UK chooses to go to a 4-3 front at times they'll have more flexibility to do so - at least at the linebacker position. Importantly, it also gives the linebackers UK has signed in the 2014 class another year to not be relied upon. When UK no longer plays three and four star freshmen, you know the Wildcats have developed a padded roster.
L'Affaire Kayaune Ross
For a while there Tuesday, it sounded as if UK had achieved the ever-mythical "Double Yahtzee", that is to say two Yahtzee's in a single day. Then it turned out UK didn't land a second commitment. Confused? Well, Hank wrote a Fan Post yesterday that helpfully breaks the whole thing down.
Being that Ross has not been added as a commitment to any of the scouting services I take it he isn't a UK commit at this time. I've followed recruiting enough (far more closely than I would ever comfortably admit in person-to-person interactions) to assume that in these cases either the prospect is a back-up plan and the school wasn't ready to accept him, or that academic issues need resolving, especially with JUCO players. Recall in Mark Stoops first class he signed Javess Blue, Nate Willis, and Melvin Lewis and all three of them didn't gain eligibility until late into the summer. Ryan Flannigan was in a similar position last year. UK wasn't in a position to be picky those cycles, but if that's starting to change it's another sign of programmatic health.
Finally, the media reaction to the news was funny (I'd categorize it as "inept" if this were having to do with weightier topics like politics or business, but hey, we're talking sports here). The recruit tweets he's committed and several media outlets trip over themselves to report the news without seemingly double-checking with UK sources. From a broad viewpoint it comes across as journalists prioritizing being first while assuming the information is correct. While that's not a new thing, it serves as a good reminder for we recruiting news consumers to be a bit more judicious to breaking news these last weeks prior to NSD.