Hatcher Decision Latest Example Of Frightening Recruiting Trend

07/26/2012 01:32 AM

Trinity defensive end Jason Hatcher (pictured above) will make his college decision Friday evening at the Hyatt Regency in Louisville in a ceremony will likely be filled with all of the same celebratory imagery we’ve come to expect every time an elite high school prospect announces his college intentions. There will be a few hats on a table. Hatcher will be flanked by his parents while his teammates and a few classmates cheer and hang on his every word. Trinity head coach Bob Beatty will be close by, ready for the proud photos sure to grace every newspaper and recruiting site. There will be talk of finding a good fit, developing his skills and winning big-time football games. Essentially, guests will be served a three-course meal of hugs, high-fives and hope. But one thing will be conspicuously absent. The color blue.

The four-star defensive end, rated as third-best player at his position nationwide by Scout.com, will make his choice without even the slightest bit of feigned interest in the University of Kentucky. Hatcher’s final three are Southern Cal and the dreaded duo of Louisville and Tennessee. And while those schools wait breathlessly for the 6’3”, 230-pound prep star to make his choice, it’s hard for Kentucky fans not to feel sick over a painful trend that will likely hurt more in the future than it will Friday evening.

There are (or were) seven Kentucky high school players rated as at least four-star prospects in the 2011, 2012 and 2013 recruiting classes and of the six that have picked their schools (including Hatcher), only one decided to play college football in Lexington. That is Patrick Towles, a quarterback from UK-friendly Fort Thomas Highlands, who was mentored by former Wildcat Jared Lorenzen. The rest have gone Southern Cal (Lamar Dawson), Central Florida (DaMarcus Smith), Auburn (Zeke Pike) and Notre Dame (Hunter Bivin). However, as talented as those players may be, their decision to pass on the Cats won’t be felt immediately outside of message board speculation and the bragging rights that come with pulling in more stars than the next guy. But for a program like Kentucky, which already has its hands tied in a lot of ways in the world of recruiting, missing out on the handful of elite prospects from in-state is felt down the line.

If you want to oversimplify things and assume a player’s greatest impact would be felt during his fourth year on campus, a trend emerges linking UK’s success in keeping four and five-star prospects from leaving the state and their success on the field. In the last two seasons, the Cats have combined to go 11-14 overall and 4-12 in conference play. Most experts predict an even tougher run this season for Joker Phillips’ club. If you go back to the three classes that would have been seniors during the 2010-2012 stretch, you’ll find that there were five Kentucky high school players to be given at least a four-star ranking by Rivals and Scout. Of those five, only one (Aaron Boyd) chose to play his college football in Lexington. The other three went with Illinois (Justin Green), Ohio State (Jordan Whiting), Notre Dame (Brandon Newman) and Virginia (Chase Minnifield).

Conversely, if you look at the 2003-2006 classes, which would have earned their fourth years during the 2006-2009 seasons – a period where UK went 30-22 and won three bowl games -you’ll find that UK was successful in convincing the best prospects in the state to put on the blue and white. In 2006, they landed two of the state’s three four-star prospects in Micah Johnson and Corey Peters. Aundre Henderson opted for Louisville. In 2002 and 2004, they split the state’s two four-star prospects with the Cards as Andre Woodson and Micah Jones headed to Lexington and Michael Bush and Brian Brohm picked Louisville. Only in 2005 did they miss out, going 0-3 on Corey Zirbel (Michigan), James McKinney (Michigan) and Earl Heyman (Louisville).

The reason for the link between on-field success and landing in-state recruits doesn’t exist simply because of the individual talent brought to campus by one or two Kentuckians each year. It exists because, essentially, the modest amount of four-star players produced within the state of Kentucky is UK’s best shot at landing the types of prospects other SEC schools are recruiting in droves. The Cats can’t afford to rely on finding that talent elsewhere because the competition is fierce and, quite frankly, the other programs have more to sell.

Just how hard is it for UK to pick up commitments from four-star players out of state? In the last eleven years, the Cats have signed only five non-JUCO four-star prospects. Of that group, two (Demetrius Goode and D.J. Stafford) never played a snap for the Cats, two (Ryan Mossakowski and Alex Smith) transferred without making much of an impact and one (Glenn Faulkner) is still on the roster. Kentucky simply doesn’t have the luxury of finding four-star talent in other places and failing to sign the few top level prospects from inside the state is a one-way ticket to the SEC cellar.

Now, the blame for the latest trend can’t fall squarely on the shoulder of Joker Phillips because UK can only do so much when the Notre Dames, Southern Cals and Michigans of the world cross into the Bluegrass to poach players. And if you want to fault him for the struggles the last few years, it’s only fair to give him credit for UK’s in-state successes during his time as recruiting coordinator. But the numbers do speak to how important it is that Kentucky find a way to not only go into states like Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama and Tennessee to pick up the three-star players passed up by major schools, but also keep the state’s best talent at home. Joker’s found a way to grab second-tier players from all over the Southeast, but the recent inability to get commitments for Kentucky’s four-star prospects has forced UK’s recruiting to become to reliant on the Aladdin approach. We must find…the diamond in the rough!

So when Jason Hatcher puts on his fitted cap Friday and talks of taking his talents to somewhere other than UK, and when his five-star teammate James Quick likely does the same later in the year, it probably won’t resonate too much with the casual UK football fan. But, if history is any indication, the effects of the decision won’t soon be forgotten.

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