By LARRY VAUGHT
Before Mark Stoops coached his first game at Kentucky, I can still remember what a veteran NFL scout I respect told me before the start of the Kentucky-Western Kentucky game in Nashville on Aug. 31, 2013 — Stoops’ UK debut.
The NFL scout told me that Kentucky had “maybe five” players that would start for Western. Two of those were obviously future pros Bud Dupree and ZaDarius Smith. However, I wasn’t sure the scout could be right, especially when he told he it would stun him if Kentucky won.
Well, the scout was right and then I realized I had vastly overrated the returning talent that Stoops had on his first UK team after Western’s 35-26 win. Kentucky went on to finish 2-10 that season
Kentucky still may not have the future NFL players that Alabama, Georgia or some other Southeastern Conference teams do. But the Cats are not only winning more but they are now producing more pros.
Kentucky could have two first-round picks in the upcoming NFL draft. Josh Allen, the consensus national defensive player of the year, is projected as high as No. 2 in some mock drafts and has been in the top five of every mock draft I’ve seen.
The rising star is senior cornerback Lonnie Johnson, who was sensational at the Senior Bowl. CBS Sports’ Ryan Wilson now has Johnson going No. 21 in the first round to Seattle — making him the fourth cornerback picked in the draft. CBS Sports’ Chris Trapasso has compared Johnson to New England All-Pro cornerback Stephon Gilmore and wrote that Johnson “has the tools to be a riser over the next few months.”
Johnson, a junior college transfer, only played two years at UK but recruiting coordinator Vince Marrow has no doubts that Johnson is going in the first round.
“He still has to go run (at the NFL Scouting Combine Feb. 26-March 4 in Indianapolis) and do what he’s gonna do, but just from his practices at the Senior Bowl, a guy that’s 6-3, 210 and he’s going to run a 4.4,” Marrow said. “Just from the feedback I have been getting, he’s going to be a first round pick. I have been saying Lonnie for a long time would get drafted high.”
Yet as promising as the news is on Johnson to go along with Allen’s high draft stock, the best news is that other Wildcats are going to get drafted. Marrow says he thinks safety Darius West could surprise many.
“He will run a sub 4.38 (40) and has been a three-year starter in the SEC,” Marrow said.
What about running back Benny Snell, UK’s all-time leading rusher?
“When you look at Benny, his film speaks for itself,” Marrow said. “Now will he run what they (NFL scout) think or surprise them and run faster (at the combine) and move up in the draft,” Marrow said.
“We have other guys who will be drafted. The first year we had maybe one guy (Dupree) drafted. Now we should have at least five or six guys drafted. When you do that, then you can go compete with people that have seven or eight (players) drafted.”
Marrow said NFL scouts told him and other UK coaches all season about how “different” the bodies were for UK seniors they had watched for four or five years at UK.
“I remember one guy told me we would win 10 or 11 games before the season started and also said nine or 10 guys would get drafted,” Marrow said. “He actually called me after (UK beat) Penn State (in the Citrus Bowl) and told me we had NFL players just like he had been saying.”
Marrow said he’s going to watch all three days of the draft because he thinks Kentucky will have players drafted each day — something that has never happened before. He said he’s trying to talk Stoops into going to Nashville April 25-27 for the draft. However, the draft picks will not be what has excited Marrow most about these players.
“When they graduated and I got texts from some of those guys, that meant more to me than when they will get drafted. It just means more,” Marrow said. “