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DALLAS (AP) — Heisman Trophy winning running backs Rashaan Salaam of Colorado and Ricky Williams of Texas are among the stars making their first appearance on the College Football Hall of Fame ballot this year.
Some of the other notable first-timers on the ballot released Thursday are Iowa State running back Troy Davis, a two-time Heisman finalist, Miami linebacker Ray Lewis, Southern California receiver Keyshawn Johnson and Kentucky quarterback Tim Couch, a former No. 1 pick in the NFL draft.
Alabama linebacker Derrick Thomas and Nebraska Heisman winner Eric Crouch are among the holdovers on the 75-player major college ballot. There are also six coaches up for selection, including Mike Bellotti of Oregon.
More than 12,000 National Football Foundation members receive ballots. Their votes are tabulated and then given to the NFF’s 17-member honors court, which selects a class of about 14 players and two coaches.
By LARRY VAUGHT
Even for Drew Barker, national signing day at Kentucky was “pretty awesome and pretty cool.”
The Conner quarterback, one of six players ranked among the nation’s top 300 recruits in UK’s signing class, is already enrolled in school and going through offseason workouts with his new teammates. Still for the player who helped coach Mark Stoops put together and keep a top 20 recruiting class intact, he was thrilled that everyone in the class officially signed with UK Wednesday.
“A lot of people were criticizing the class when a lot of us committed in the summer and a lot were saying UK would not keep guys and bigger schools would take them,” Barker said. “We all stuck together and no one wavered except one person. That shows a big commitment to the university and I really proud to see that.”
He said only a couple of players in the signing class took visits even after they committed.
“They would say they were 100 percent committed but if you take visits, I was not so sure. I am glad everybody stuck together,” Barker said.
Barker knew after a 2-10 season in 2012 that cost Joker Phillips his job at UK and then a 2-10 season in coach Mark Stoops’ first season that it was important for him to help recruiting.
“Kentucky has gone through a rough patch the last few years. If I was coming here, I wanted to bring other top guys with me,” Barker said. “I said when I committed we would have a top 10, top 15 class. It is pretty awesome and I am excited to play with all these guys.”
Barker, an honor roll student, completed 65.9 percent of his passes during his high school career for 6,264 yards and 62 touchdowns and ran for 3,931 yards and 51 scores. He threw for 2,671 yards and 34 scores as a senior.
He admitted he had mixed feelings watching UK struggle last year even though it was obvious the team needed help from the 2014 recruiting class.
“I felt part of the team because I had committed and knew guys on the team,” Barker said. “It was tough to watch. But I know the right coaches are in place here and have the right plan. I think we can really take big strides. (Last year) It was motivating because no one likes losing. I hate losing more than I like winning.”
That feeling is one of many reasons Stoops is glad to have Barker at UK.
“It was very important (to sign him) because Drew is one of the top players in the state along with being a national recruit. It’s very important to get great players from your home state. Not only is he an Elite 11 quarterback he also has the leadership skills we look for in a quarterback,” Stoops said.
Ohio receiver Thaddeus Snodgrass, another ESPN top 300 recruit and the highest ranked receiver ever to sign with UK, said he was at Kentucky mainly due to Barker and though the other four receivers in the signing class felt the same.
“I wanted to come in with a good, smart quarterback, and we got him,” Snodgrass said. “He has a nice touch on his balls and lot of velocity.”
Barker, who picked UK over South Carolina and Tennessee, likes the receivers UK added.
“Thaddeus is already here (on campus). He is in that mid range, not too tall but not too small. You are not going to be able to jam him (at the line). Good speed, good route runner, great hands,” Barker said. “T.V. (Williams) is small, but plays with a chip on his shoulder because of all the talk about how small he is. He is super fast, one of the fastest I have seen, and has great hands.
“I think it is a toss up between Dorian Baker and Garrett Johnson to who is the most underrated in the country. Dorian is huge and looks ready to play now. Possession receiver. Garrett led south Florida in receiving yards. Other schools tried to come in on home. Blake Bone is 6-5, a big possession receiver. It’s going to be awesome with all of them.”
Barker, who led two touchdown drives in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl last month, wants to be the one throwing the ball to them next season, too. He’ll be one of five quarterbacks competing in spring practice to see who emerges No. 1.
“I came here to play. That’s why I came early also to get an opportunity to get workouts, get the playbook. I cam here to play and try to win the job this spring going into the summer,” Barker said.
He got to even get advice from former UK quarterback Tim Couch, a one-time No. 1 pick in the NFL draft.
“It was pretty cool (talking to him). It was the first time I had met him since I had committed. It was pretty cool to sit down and talk to him. Hopefully one day I will be in the same position as him down the road. He’s a great guy and gave me a few tips on how to handle things. He told me to reach out to him any time,” Barker said.
Barker could even joke that he was no longer mad at John Hardin defensive tackle Matt Elam, who announced last week he would play at UK and not Alabama. He originally was supposed to have made his decision at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl but delayed it for three weeks.
“I kind of did (get frustrated) at the Army game but I was selfish and did get mad. The way it was set up, they wanted him to tell them before and he did not want to do that,” Barker said. “It was kind of selfish of me to get mad. But we got the end result we all wanted. I’m glad he is part of the class and looking forward to having him because we have been friends for a while.”
Elam’s decision to pick UK over Alabama along with Louisville lineman Lloyd Tubman signing with UK over Penn State Wednesday were just two more major recruiting wins for UK.
Barker said he knows it’s hard for those outside Kentucky to understand how a team coming off consecutive 2-10 seasons could have a top 20 recruiting class.
“I would just say spend a day here with coaches and get an inside look. From the outside, it does look strange,” Barker said. “The last two years they have won four games and now Stoops has a great class.”
Barker said there was a definite difference in the “family” atmosphere at Kentucky from other schools he visited where some coaches, but not all, would know who he was.
“It just a culture change,” he said.
Now Barker and four other high school players in this recruiting class along with two junior college signees are on campus and trying to help change the culture on the field, too.
“I think they all have a really good work ethic. That is important,” Barker said of the spring semester additions. “All are good people of character. Just really good guys on and off the field. We are in there getting extra work in just like the older guys. It’s just really cool and I thank the guys already here for taking us under their wings.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
John Hardin defensive tackle Matt Elam certainly showed his fun-loving side to the Louisville Quarterback Club Tuesday when he received the Paul Hornung Award.
The list of previous Hornung Award winners included quarterback Tim Couch, a No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft. But it was also pointed out that Couch had married a Playboy playmate he met during his playing career.
“I would like to hang out with Tim Couch. Hopefully, I want to be like him. He is doing very good right now,” Elam joked.
When he was asked when he started playing football, he said it was early.
“I just know I was bigger than everybody else. I thought I was good,” he smiled and said. “I thought, ‘I kind of like this sport.’ My mom said, ‘You should, you are the biggest one around.’ That was about second grade I think, so I stuck with it.”
John Hardin coach Chad Lewis said Elam has always been able “to light up a room” with his personality.“He can walk into an intimidating situation with a smile and punch line,” the John Hardin coach said. “A few times his comedic side put him in my doghouse, but not often.”
John Hardin principal Lynn Gibson said she had watched Elam “grow and mature from a goofy freshman” to a mature young man.
“There are still some goofy times, but he has matured a lot and we are proud of him,” she said. “Matt and his talent have put us on the national map and we are very proud of that. He has brought us a lot of positive attention.”
More will come when he makes his college choice live on ESPN Jan. 4 during the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio where Barker will be on his team — and likely be his roommate.
“I know everybody thinks my choice is made, but it isn’t,” Elam said. “I have some more time to think about it, but it will be nice to get it done so it will all be settled. I can’t make a bad choice, so I just have to decide what feels right.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Hoover, Ala. — The final part of an interview from SEC Media Days with former UK All-American Tim Couch.
Question: Did you see any scenario where recruiting could go this well?
Couch: “No, I never envisioned it this quickly. I thought it would happen over time because I knew coach Stoops and his staff would be dynamic recruiters and would grind the recruiting trails hard. But never did I imagine before he ever coached a game that he would get this type of excitement about Kentucky football and get recruits and fan base excited. He has exceeded everyone’s expectations.”
Question: Back when Brown was a walk-on receiver at UK and sat with you on bus rides, did you ever think of him as a future coaching star?
Couch: “Neal and I were good buddies. He actually came back with me to my hometown a couple of times and he was a good friend. We hung out a lot. It’s exciting to see the success he’s had so early. To be able to go out and be a younger guy but still command the respect of the players is great. I think they all feel like they can relate to him and that’s a good thing that he has that kind of youth on his side. He can relate to the young guys well and he has an exciting offense that they all want to play in.”
Question: Did you realize then what a great football mind he had?
Couch: “You just never think that way. It really is hard to imagine one of your teammates going on to be a coach. You know them as a 19- or 20-year-old kid and we were doing 20-year-old kid things and it’s hard to imagine him going on to be a coach. I am proud of him and what he has been able to accomplish and just wish him nothing but continued success.”
Question: What would be your best story with Brown from your college days together?
Couch: “I have to think about that one. I can’t think of just one.”
Question: What would be one story he would not want you to tell?
Couch: “I have got a couple of those. Neal and I and Nolan Devaughn and a couple of guys, we had a good time. I am just glad we played in an era with no social media, no Twitter or camera phones or we would be facing some of these same questions a lot of guys are facing right now.”
Question: Do you still stay in touch with him regularly?
Couch: “I do. I talk to him all the time. He told me to enjoy Media Days and stuff. We keep in touch regularly.”
Question: Would you like to get more involved with the program now?
Couch: “I am always willing to help the program. Anything I can do, I will. I grew up there. Kentucky means more to me than I just played there. I grew up a Kentucky fan my whole life. Anything I can do to help the program whether on a committee to get a coach or talk to players or whatever the case may be, I am all in.”
Question: How have you stayed in such good physical shape, especially with two children now ages 8 and 4?
Couch: “I try. I still work out every day. I got in a certain routine with my training and eating when I was playing. When I finished playing I didn’t know what to do with myself because I had all this free time, so I was just on routine. I would wake up, train and eat healthy and I just stayed with it. So far it is working for me.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
HOOVER, Ala. — Here’s more with former UK All-American quarterback Tim Couch.
Question: Looking back now, how far ahead of the offensive curve was Hal Mumme when he was your coach at UK?
Couch: “It has really been unbelievable. Doing what I do going around and calling college football games, I get a chance to talk to so many offensive coordinators who have told me that the system they run is a version of what Hal was doing in 1998 and 1999. They are all running it and it is spread all across college football.
“Now a days you see a very athletic guy playing quarterback like a Johnny Manziel or Robert Griffith III or any of those guys who are running a similar offense but they bring the mobility side to it which adds another dimension to the offense. You get guys spread out like that and you get a guy who can run and throw, it makes a big difference and is hard to stop.”
Question: What if Mumme had brought in a defensive coordinator like Mark Stoops? How successful could he have been?
Couch: “I think we would have definitely had different results at Kentucky. Any time you are going out and putting up 35 or 40 points a game against some of the best teams in the conference, you should win some of those games, and we did. But we lost some that we should have won. I think it is a great combination when you look at Oklahoma with coach Stoops’ brother Bob and they won a national title with (former Mumme assistant) Mike Leach as offensive coordinator. It is a great combination. It can work and win games and hopefully it will win games at Kentucky.”
Next: Couch on Neal Brown.
By LARRY VAUGHT
HOOVER, Ala. — Record-setting quarterback Tim Couch, Kentucky’s only No. 1 overall NFL draft pick, now works for Fox Sports South as a college football analyst and was at the Southeastern Conference Media Days here last week.
Couch, the SEC Player of the Year in 1998 when he was a Heisman Trophy finalist the same year, still holds the NCAA record for completion percentage in a game and for completions per game as well as several records from his five years with the Cleveland Browns.
The former All-American helped with the process that got Mark Stoops from Florida State to Kentucky to take over after Joker Phillips was fired and he’s almost a former teammate and current friend of UK offensive coordinator Neal Brown.
Couch shared his insights on Stoops, Brown and more during the SEC Media Days.
Question: Do you feel like a genius for how well the Mark Stoops-Neal Brown connection has worked for UK football?
Couch: “I feel lucky. I think it has been great. I am just glad it was able to work out the way it did. Kentucky was just starved for an exciting brand of football again and I think they have showed how hungry they were by bringing 50,000 people to a spring game and saying this is what we wanted to see. We wanted Neal Brown’s offense back in Kentucky. Then you pair that with a defensive mind like coach Stoops and the staff that he has built and I think it is a recipe for success.
“How quickly is that going to happen? It is going to take some time. There are a lot of holes to fill. You are talking about year one of a program and you are installing a new offense, new defense. You are switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3 (on defense). It’s a big adjustment for the players and the schedule doesn’t do any favors. It is probably the toughest schedule in the country.
“It is going to be a slow learning curve for these guys. But I am so excited for the future of this program. If you look two, three, four years down the road with the way coach Stoops and his staff are recruiting, if they can continue at that level there are going to be some exciting times for Kentucky football.”
Question: Can incoming freshmen skilled players thrive in Brown’s offense?
Couch: “If they are good, this offense allows them to step in and play right away and that’s kind of the beauty of the deal. It is not a very complicated system to run offensively. Lot of sight adjustments and hot reads that you have to do off the blitz drills is built into the offense. There is not a big learning curve. You just have to know your assignments. There are not a lot of plays. There are a lot of formations that kind of dress it up and make it look different to the defense, but offensively everyone is on the same page because they know exactly what they are doing.
“It should be a nice transition for the young guys coming in. I know some of the young guys coming in actually ran a similar type offense in high school, so it will be a nice easy transition for them and hopefully they can get on the field and get used to the speed of the game and physicality of the SEC and play right away.”
Next: Couch on Hal Mumme.
His purpose is simple — put on an informative, entertaining football camp for youth ages 10-17 that costs the participants nothing.
“When I was growing up in Florida, I could not afford to go to camps. We couldn’t do it. I wanted to attend, but couldn’t because of money,” said Champ Kelly, a former University of Kentucky player and current assistant director of pro personnel for the Denver Broncos. “I said if I was ever in position to have a camp like that for kids, I would want to give them the most coverage and most instruction possible for no cost.”
He’ll do that again June 21-22 at Henry Clay High School from 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. each day.
“It’s going to again be a time for the kids to meet the star, but it is about more than that,” Kelly said. “It’s not about the guys coming back to help me. It’s about the campers. We come in and don’t make a big stink out of who is there to help and you are going to get awesome coaching.
“The kids are going to learn football. We are going to prepare them for success on and off the field. For younger campers, we will stress the basics while getting into more extensive training with older campers. We will have a variety of guest speakers delivering messages on life skills and the importance of making good decisions.
“I like a mixture of ages. Older kids are able to be leaders by example. I want younger kids there at ages 10 or 11 from now until they graduate and they know what that CHAMP Camp on the front of the T-shirt represents.”
Kelly had the camp at Bryan Station last year, but wanted to reach out to “a few different kids” by moving the camp to Henry Clay.
“Our plan originaly was to try every couple of years to move to a different area to reach more kids. We hope the kids in the Bryan Station area want to come to camp regardless of where we are.”
But he would like to have more than just Lexington campers. North Hardin High School has told Kelly it hopes to bring up to 44 players and at least 30. Kelly is hoping other high schools will do the same.
He’ll have a variety of former UK players like Derek Abney, Dougie Allen, Leonard Burress, Chris Demaree and more at camp again. Last year he had both Randall Cobb and John Conner, current NFL players, speak to the campers.
“It’s almost like a who’s who of Kentucky football,” Kelly said. “But these guys love to get together and help. They like to come back to Kentucky where we all met and give back for a great cause. It’s not like pulling teeth to get them back. They want to help. I just think it is awesome that a guy like Derek Abney, who lives in South Carolina and is very selective about camps he’s involved with, will come spend time and talk to kids and help the receivers out.”
He’s reached out to former UK quarterbacks Tim Couch and Jared Lorenzen about helping this year as well as former UK linebacker Jeff Snedegar. Cobb plans to be back if his schedule permits. Current NFL offensive lineman Garry Williams also plans to return. “He is awesome. He stays the entire day to help,” Kelly said.
He said current Bronco tight end Jacob Tamme also hopes to be at this year’s camp if his schedule allows.
“I try to not put names out there because I want kids to come for the idea of what the camp is about opposed to just the people that will be there,” Kelly said. “But I always want as many of the Kentucky guys there as possible not because of their names, but because they are great with the kids and teach them lessons about life and football.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
He was not highly recruited during his high school career in Knoxville. Actually, he was not recruited by any Division I-A schools and only ended up getting a chance to play at Marshall because he went to a summer camp there.
“I played freshman year and then redshirted my next year. I was not highly recruited. How I got to Marshall was luck. I wasn’t recruited by any I-A schools. I had a fairy tale career and just a great experience at Marshall,” said Chad Pennington.
He turned that “fairy tale career” at Marshall into a memorable NFL career with the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins. Now Pennington and his family have settled in Woodford County.
“I don’t miss getting hit. I miss the grind as far as the preparation and getting ready for game day. I do miss that because there is a certain structure and sense of anticipation that goes along with that is pretty exciting,” Pennington said. “My goal was never to be an NFL player. It was a dream, but not a goal. Your goals have to be smaller and you have to pay attention to the smaller steps. It started to hit me a little bit that I had an opportunity to possibly get drafted going into my senior year. After my senior year and going into the combine process, it started to hit me I could be drafted and be drafted relatively high. But never in a million years did I think about going on and playing 11 years like I did.”
He knows the fine line between a long career like he had and one that was much shorter like former Kentucky standout Tim Couch, the first pick in the 1999 NFL draft, had. Pennington was the first quarterback picked in 2000 with the 18th selection. Couch threw for 11,131 yards and 64 scores in five seasons and led Cleveland to a 9-7 record and playoff berth in 2002. However, he suffered a variety of injuries and despite several comeback attempts did not play in another game after the 2003 season.
Pennington threw for 17,823 yards and 102 scores in 11 seasons, but twice won the NFL Comeback Player of the Year award for overcoming injuries.
“We are basically the same age. I had to deal with injuries like Tim did. You have got to have a little luck on your side to last like I did,” Pennington said. “You have got to prepare. You have to seize the opportunity. People really don’t realize how competitive and tough it is to stay in the NFL. Every day somebody is coming after your job and every day you are having to prove yourself. You are having to fight off injuries and deal with all those things.
“The average career is 3 1/2 years. People don’t realize that. It is not even a career. It is must a moment in time. You really can’t make a career out of it because when you get out you are probably in your late 20’s or 30’s and have a lot more time to live hopefully. So you have to have a plan. I know Tim just a little. We played against each other once or twice, but not in depth. He obviously had talent, and a lot of talent. He was really a good player.”