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Chris Hays


Orlando Sentinel college football recruiting analyst Chris Hays says recent Kentucky commit Nico Firios is “aggressive from sideline to sideline.”

The 220-pound linebacker from Longwood Lyman (Fla.) High School verbally committed to UK last week after making unofficial visits to Louisville and Kentucky.

“He’s strong, quick off the ball and gets in the backfield in a hurry,” Hays said. “He wraps up nicely and doesn’t miss many tackles despite his aggressive nature. He also only has his best years ahead of him. His coach, Jeff Gierke, says Nico would not have started for him two years ago, but he has blossomed into one of the top 10 linebackers in the state.”
Hays offered these other insights into Firios and UK football.

Question: Did Firios’ commitment to Kentucky surprise you at all?
Hays: “The commitment to Kentucky doesn’t surprise me, per se, as much as does the timing. I thought he was planning a few more visits and Notre Dame had been on his list. I could have also seen him picking Louisville, given Charlie Strong’s defensive structure, so Lexington folks must have put on a good show.”

Question: What is Kentucky continuing to do so well in your area to attract recruits as it did last year and now this year?
Hays: “As much as anything, the Kentucky staff seems to be showing kids they are honestly excited about what’s happening in Lexington and they are making kids feel they will be a big part of a new culture of Kentucky football. The staff is giving the hard sell and kids are buying into it, and these are coaches who have had positive results at other stops, so it doesn’t come off as just a bunch of rah-rah chatter.”

Question: Could Firios be an impact player immediately?
Hays: “If Firios is not an impact player within his first two seasons I’d be very surprised. Watch a couple of his jarring hits and that’s enough impact to sell you. He’s plays hard and works hard and just loves the game.”


Kentucky coach Mark Stoops isn’t sure if all his signing classes will have such a large percentage of Florida players — 11 of 22 signees were Florida native — but he wants to continue to use his connections in that state all he can.

“There are a lot of great players that come out of Florida. It’s probably the way it fell because of our relationships with some of them. So I don’t know if it would be the exact percentage in the future, but I’m not going to put any limitations on it,” said Stoops. “There is a lot of talent down there but we’re going to work extremely hard to hit everybody we can within a four-, five-, six‑hour drive from Lexington.”

Chris Hays, Orlando Sentinel recruiting coverage coordinator, said he saw a “major push” from Kentucky this season in Florida that only intensified after Stoops, the former Florida State defensive coordinator, took over at UK.

“Stoops has a name to perk up the ears of players,” Hays said. “Kentucky did make a push here early.  They got Blake McClain on board early and it was obvious they were trying to come into Florida and get things going like Iowa State has done. Look at Louisville with Charlie Strong’s connections and that roster and what they have done. Coming to Florida is a trend you are seeing more and coaches can be successful here getting great players because there are a lot of them.

“With Stoops, kids here are buying into his rah-rah philosophy of being part of a big turnaround at Kentucky. Pop Warner football is huge here. Kids start paying young and all buy into football.”

Florida high school football consists of eight divisions. There are 76 Class 8-A schools — and UK signees Alex Montgomery, Alvonte Bell, Blake McClain, JoJo Kemp and Jeff Badet all played for 8-A schools. Others played in 5-A or 6-A.

Recruiting analysts indicate 5-A to 8-A schools in Florida is comparable to the play of Louisville Trinity and Highlands, two of Kentucky’s best programs each year. Hays says Kentucky has a variety of playmakers with the Florida signees.

“Badet wants the ball and when he does get it, he gets the job done and is a big-play receiver,” Hays said. “I watched Kemp a lot. He’s a terrific running back. He can do a lot of things with the football. He has a tremendous upside. It will be fun to see him in the spread offense. He’s very athletic, has tremendous balance and does a good job after taking hits. He’s very determined and strong because he played linebacker the early part of his career.

“Montgomery, I am a huge fan of his. The show he put on in the state title game (nine catches for 199 yards and three scores) was something. He’s a very good kid, too. He is a tremendous athlete and the plays he makes are plays other guys can’t make. He just makes plays out of something that is not there. Javess Blue was highly recruited out of high school and then did well at junior college. I would think he can be terrific.

“McClain is surprisingly athletic for a defensive back. He played wide receiver on offense. He does a lot of different things. He can pick the ball and do a lot of things athletically to get the ball back to the end zone. He’s also a good kick returner. He will be a good locker room type of guy for Kentucky.”

Stoops called Kemp a “home run hitter” and a player that UK “targeted as a high priority” immediately. Badet was another player Stoops said his staff targeted immediately because of his “home run speed.”

The UK coach already knew plenty about Montgomery.

“He comes from a tremendous program, big‑time wide receiver that I knew about and had my eye on him for a good bit. Anybody that goes into the state championship game and has— what did he have 9 catches for 190 yards or something like that, you know he’s a heck of a football player. I’ve known Alex for a while.  It was a great get for us, a guy that’s a strong receiver who can make plays,” Stoops said.

Another player he knew plenty about was running back Khalid Thomas and the Tallahassee high school where he played. “He is a solid player that’s going to give us some depth and have a punch to our class,” Stoops said.

Another player Stoops and defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot knew they wanted to keep committed to UK was defensive linemen Alvonte Bell “We offered him at Florida State. Alvonte has great size range and great upside, and very excited to see him committed when I arrived here on campus.  We worked hard at keeping that relationship with Alvonte with us because we think an awful lot of him,” Stoops said.

Offensive lineman Ramsey Myers was another early UK commit that Stoops says offensive coordinator Neal Brown and offensive line coach John Schlarman wanted to keep.

Offensive lineman Nick Haynes signed after being recruited for only about two weeks by Stoops and his staff. “Nick Haynes is a guy we just started working a couple of weeks ago and just had a chance to watch him and get caught up with him on film. Extremely impressed with his athletic ability. Again, great size, a guy that’s very versatile. We feel that he could play some center as well as guard. Excited about him,” Stoops said.


Kentucky got commitments from two players with the playmaking ability that offensive coordinator Neal Brown wants in his offense in a 30-minute period Friday night when receiver Jeff Badet and running back JoJo Kemp, both of Florida, both verbally committed to sign with the Wildcats on Wednesday during the first day of the national signing period.

Both were expected to pick UK over a host of other schools, but Kemp said he wasn’t convinced what he would do until Brown and running backs coach Chad Scott made a visit to him Thursday after coaches from West Virginia, South Florida and Pittsburgh had stopped by in the previous 24 hours.

The 5-10, 210-pound Kemp is ranked as the nation’s 10th  best multipurpose back by He rushed 255 times for 1,459 yards and 23 touchdowns in 2012 for DeLand High School.

“They said they were not going to spend their time negative recruiting against the other programs,” Kemp told the Daytona Beach News Journal.. “They said they were going to spend their time explaining Kentucky’s program. And I just thought, ‘Those are the type of guys that I want to play for … positive, respectful guys like that.’”

Kemp had verbally committed to South Florida last summer, but changed his mind midway of his senior football season.

Several national recruiting analysts project that his versatility as a runner and receiver will be a perfect fit in Brown’s spread offense.

Badet, who played for Orlando Freedom High School, had narrowed his college list to Kentucky, Wake Forest and Iowa State. He turned down late scholarship offers from UCLA and Wisconsin.

The 5-11, 190-pound Badet, who also originally committed to South Florida, , had 63 catches for 881 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2012. He also ran 28 time for 326 yards and six more scores and had 319 yards in kickoff returns.

“Jeff has always impressed me with his speed after the catch. He’ll catch a ball on a slant pattern across the middle and then turn it on. Rarely have I seen defenders be able to collapse fast enough to contain him if he has any kind of space,” Chris Hays, recruiting coordinator for the Orlando Sentinel, said. “In three years of watching him, I can only remember one time that he dropped a ball, and that time he came right back and caught a long TD pass on the next play. He’s pretty sure-handed.

“Badet is a spread guy, with the speed and skills to fit right into an Air Raid sort of attack and thrive in it. It’s not unlike what he saw at his own high school.”

Hays thought for the last week or more that Badet would pick Kentucky despite the late push from UCLA and Wisconsin.

“Badet should be on the field with the first-teamers early, with his only drawback possibly being his confidence, or should I say, over confidence,” Hays said. “If he brings the right attitude and backs up any cockiness with his play, he will be in the rotation.


He’s a three-star player who had nine catches for 199 yards and three touchdowns, including two-one handed grabs, in Florida’s Class 8-A state championship game. Yet new Kentucky coach Mark Stoops managed to go into Weston, Fla., and convince 6-1, 180-pound receiver Alex Montgomery of Cypress Bay High School to verbally commit to the Wildcats.

Montgomery, who had been committed to Wake Forest, was a target of former UK coach Joker Phillips and his staff after attending Kentucky’s camp last summer. However, he didn’t seen to have any genuine interest in UK until Stoops and offensive coordinator Neal Brown arrived.

“He catches the ball, no matter where it’s at. Over his head, at his knees, diving … he gets to the football,” said Chris Hays, the recruiting coverage coordinator for the Orlando Sentinel. “Doesn’t even matter how many hands he needs, one-handed, two-handed. He brings it in. He stole the show in the Class 8-A state title game and even though Cypress Bay lost a 53-50 thriller to Apopka, everyone was talking about Alex Montgomery afterward.”

Hayes referred to Montgomery as a “stud” and big-time prospect.

Here are some other thoughts Hays, who writes a weekly recruiting column as well as overseeing the newspaper’s recruiting coverage, shared on Montgomery.

Question: Why is he just a three-star receiver?
Hays: “First of all, I put no stock in the star system whatsoever, but he’s not higher than a three-star because the stars are not always right. He’s a tremendous player who didn’t score over 100 on the Nike SPARQ testing, maybe that’s why. He’s kept to himself, done his thing and had a terrific career. Cypress Bay has been a run-oriented offense during his time,  but he’s still been able to put up numbers.”

Question: Will he be immediate impact player in Neal Brown’s spread offense?
Hays: “Can’t keep a player of this caliber off the field. He makes plays. He’s not a burner-type, but not slow either. He runs good routes and catches the ball defensively, and by that I mean he does a great job of shielding the defender away from the ball when going one-on-one, almost like a box-out in basketball. His field awareness is natural, instinctual.”

Question: How do you think Kentucky managed to come into Florida and steal him?
Hays: “They stole him because they have coaches who know Florida recruiting and I think that given the number of receivers the Wildcats are going to need in the new offense, he’s bought into the Air Raid philosophy and sees an opportunity.”
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Hays can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @Os_Recruiting, Facebook at Orlando Sentinel Recruiting and now on Pinterest at Orlando Recruiting.


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