Laura McKeeman covers the Southeast for Scout.com and specializes in college football recruiting coverage. She was hired by Fox Sports last summer and has attended Southeastern Conference Football media days for three years and covered numerous SEC football and basketball games.
She says she loves “producing a mixture of content either written, on the radio or on television” as part of her job covering recruiting.
McKeeman, who will be at the SEC media days later this month in Hoover, Ala., shared some insights on Kentucky football:
Question: What is your perception of the Kentucky football program?
McKeeman: “Kentucky is a team on the rise in the toughest conference in college football. Obviously, Randall Cobb was crucial to much of UK's success last season. Still, Cobb didn't do it alone and Kentucky went to its fifth straight bowl game.
“I think Kentucky's 2011 schedule is favorable for some more upsets (like South Carolina in 2010) and some good games that the Wildcats could very well come out of with a 'W.' I look at it this way: Kentucky lost to Mississippi State, Ole Miss and national champion Auburn by a touchdown or less last season. That looks pretty encouraging if you ask me.
“Now for some fun perceptions: I think the Kentucky fan base is phenomenal. The ‘Cat Walk’ is an amazing experience, and Wildcat fans are some of the best and most loyal I've ever seen. Kentucky offers a wonderful atmosphere for anyone from a casual fan to a die-hard fanatic.”
Question: How does Kentucky's recruiting stack up with others in the SEC from what you see and hear?
McKeeman: “Kentucky continues to pick up steam on the recruiting trail. The SEC is one of the most difficult conferences in the country on the football field and also on the recruiting trail. Competing against powerhouses like Alabama, Auburn and Florida is incredibly tough, but Kentucky is able to hold its own.
“Yes, Kentucky misses on Zeke Pike but instead grabs in-state quarterback Patrick Towles in 2012. Towles will be huge for Kentucky, in my opinion. Add defensive tackle Thomas Chapman and athlete Josh Harris in there, and you've got a very impressive haul out of the state of Kentucky. This will continue to be crucial for UK. There are many talented prospects right in the Wildcats' backyard and they will pick up more before the 2012 class is in the books.
“I also like how Joker Phillips and staff are recruiting the state of Georgia so well. The Blaylock twins have been very impressive on and off the field every time I've seen them and I am really high on DeMarcus Sweat out of Stephenson High School. Every recruit I talk to about Kentucky has great things to say about Kentucky and I have a feeling recruiting battles will continue to go UK's way.”
Question: When recruits mention Kentucky, what seems to impress them the most?
McKeeman: Hands down, recruits always mention the ‘family’ feel they get from UK. They can tell the coaching staff is one full of genuine concern for their well-being. Recruits know they will be treated well at Kentucky. They say they enjoy spending time with Kentucky coaches and I get the impression that the UK staff is made up of some great personalities that create a wonderful, very attractive chemistry.
“This welcoming feeling UK gives out is going a long way on the recruiting trail. For instance, when talking to the Blaylock twins before they committed to Kentucky, they had such wonderful things to say about the devotion and loyalty the UK staff had always shown them. It's that time and energy spent on these players that really makes a great impression and leads to big time commitments.”
Question: What do you think would be the biggest negative/worry recruits might sense about Kentucky?
McKeeman: “I'm having a hard time thinking of a big worry, but I do think racking up wins is something kids are very concerned with. Players naturally want to win, and Kentucky has shown more and more victories as of late, so I think that will continue to make an impression on high school prospects.
“Furthermore, I have actually heard a few players express worry about the basketball program. Apparently it's very important for some kids to go to a school where football is the ‘most loved’ sport, and a few guys have told me they feel like basketball will always be paramount at Kentucky. Honestly, I think that is a pretty immature way to look at one's future, but that's just one girl's opinion.”
Question: Do you think it is realistic for Kentucky fans to expect UK to compete for a SEC East title?
McKeeman: “Competition is ugly in the SEC East. I don't think it's realistic for UK fans to expect to compete for an SEC East title this season. I think you've got to worry about a Georgia team with a very good quarterback in Aaron Murray, and you can't discount South Carolina if they can get it together at the signal-caller position. Florida could be a dark horse as well if Muschamp can get his troops in order.
“Still, I expect Kentucky to finish in fourth place in the East over both Tennessee and Vanderbilt. UK will continue to build as recruiting picks up steam. The Wildcats have already cemented themselves as a force to reckon with, and they will become more and more formidable as time progresses.”
Question: Can Kentucky ever successfully go head-to-head with schools such as Florida, Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, and LSU for the best players in the South, or will it have to continue to project players such as Randall Cobb, Danny Trevathan, Jeremy Jarmon, Wesley Woodyard and develop three-star recruits into five-star players?
McKeeman: “I do see a future in the SEC where Kentucky is a recruiting powerhouse. I think the Wildcats have all the tools to get there: opportunity for playing time, great coaches, great facilities and great fans. In the meantime, however, I am a huge fan of using great coaches to develop ‘average’ high school players into big-time college athletes. That's what it's all about.
“That's one of the things I love about college football. It's not nearly as much fun to watch if a kid comes in already at his full potential. I want to see improvements. I want to see a player exceed all expectations and become a better player as a result of both good coaching and hard work. Ultimately, winning is most important, and you certainly don't need a squad full of five-star players to come out on top.”