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By LARRY VAUGHT
As he was driving from Charleston, S.C., to work the C.H.A.M.P. Camp here last year, former Kentucky All-American Derek Abney knew it likely was a “make or break” season for UK coach Joker Phillips and his staff.
He was right. Kentucky went 2-10 and Phillips was fired. But the mood is totally different a year later.
“Kentucky is coming off a 2-10 season and there has been more offseason talk about Kentucky football than I have ever known,” said Abney during a break Friday at the camp directed by former UK player Champ Kelly. “It is a completely different mood and is so very exciting.”
Abney caught 197 passes for 2,339 yards and 18 scores from 2000-2003. He returned 95 kickoffs for 2,315 yards and two scores and 88 punts for 1,042 yards and six scores. He left Kentucky with the second-most receiving yards in team history, and the second-most all-purpose yards in Southeastern Conference (SEC) history. The Baltimore Ravens chose him in the seventh round of the 2004 NFL Draft, but he never got a chance to play a regular-season NFL game.
Abney knows UK offensive coordinator Neal Brown because the two played together at Kentucky. He recently reminded Brown of the time they were going through drills and Brown ran into coach Tony Franklin, who later gave Brown a job working for him at Troy. Now Brown and Franklin, who is at California, are two of the most productive offensive coordinators in the country.
“Neal immediately remembered that story, too,” Abney said. “I am excited for him. He is a good one. Obviously, he has shown at Texas Tech what a great offense he has and he has confidence in his game. I am so happy he is getting this opportunity. I kind of reached out to him to get him to this camp, but he’s not allowed due to NCAA restrictions. And I am so glad that John Schlarman (offensive line coach) and Chad Scott (running backs coach) are back at UK with him.
“Chad’s wife went to Kentucky and Schlarman’s family and his wife’s family are all Kentuckians. They all bleed blue. They have been with Neal. He could have had his pick of offensive line and running back coaches, but he stuck with those guys and I’m glad he did. They bleed blue and have earned it. It’s just the perfect storm with the right guys at the right program. I am not at all surprised with how well they have recruited.”
Former UK coach Hal Mumme sent Franklin to Wisconsin to recruit Abney. The former All-American is glad Stoops is again focusing on elite players as Mumme did, but also likes the emphasis Stoops has put on keeping the best in-state talent at UK and rattled off Trinity defensive end Jason Hatcher, Franklin County receiver Ryan Timmons and Conner quarterback Drew Barker as examples.
“Mumme really didn’t recruit Kentucky guys that much. Now this staff is focusing on Florida, Ohio, Texas, but still focusing on Kentucky guys, too,” Abney said. “They have to do that. But they are doing very similar things to coach Mumme. They are trying to get the best players, best receivers.”
Abney respected former coach Joker Phillips, especially for the way he tried to get alumni back involved in the program. However, he admits Stoops has a “younger staff with a lot more energy” that is paying dividends in recruiting
“Also you have the fact that players can relate to an offensive coordinator that is arguably the best in the business and a head coach that turned around Florida State’s defense in two or three years,” Abney said. “It is crazy that Kentucky is doing so well in recruiting. But if you really think about it, it is not that surprising. The energy, the ties to Kentucky, the results they have had, the Ohio connections. Who doesn’t want a kid in that situation. They have a lot of pluses going.”
That includes the way Stoops and assistant Vince Marrow are connected in Ohio and keep convincing top players in that state to come south to play in the SEC at UK like Mumme and Franklin did Abney.
“With the history Stoops and Marrow have in Ohio and the chance to play in the SEC close to where you live, that is huge,” Abney said. “With all the quality players Ohio has, it’s really surprising UK has not recruited there more like these guys are now.
“Why I chose Kentucky was first and foremost the style of play. Second, it was in the SEC. Third, I had family in the area. But the opportunity to play in the SEC was big for me just like it is these kids from Ohio now. Take advantage of that.”