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If the best approach to recruiting athletes from the transfer portal is the targeted approach, then Kentucky football hit the bullseye with Jacquez Jones.
When all is said and done, the former Ole Miss linebacker, who officially committed to the Cats on Thursday via Instagram, might be UK Coach Mark Stoops’ second-most important addition for the 2021 campaign, behind only Wan’Dale Robinson.
A 6-foot, 230-pounder out of Tuscaloosa, Ala., Jones was the Rebels’ leading tackler in 2020 after placing second in 2019. He started 18 of Ole Miss’s last 20 games. He made 75 tackles in nine games in 2020 and 71 in 2019, including 7.5 tackles for loss. He was a member of the SEC’s All-Freshman Team in 2018.
He is, in the words of Stoops, “an experienced playmaker who has been a great leader in our league.”
Better still, Jones fills a position of need in Stoops’ system. While the hiring of new coordinator Liam Coen has tilted the offseason attention in the direction of the UK offense, defensive coordinator Brad White has depth chart holes of his own to fill before the Sept. 4 opener against Louisiana Monroe.
Inside linebacker is likely No. 1 on that list. Gone is Jamin Davis, his unexpected rocket ride having carried the junior all the way to the No. 19 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft by the Washington Football Team. Returning is senior DeAndre Square, UK’s third-leading 2020 tackler who boasts 22 career starts. After Square, however, question marks abound.
Potential starter D’Eryk Jackson will likely miss the 2021 season with what was described as a lower-body injury. Promising sophomore Jared Casey played in all 11 games last season as a redshirt freshman, but the Louisville native’s next start will be his first. Michigan State transfer Luke Fulton has yet to play in a collegiate game. Trevin Wallace and Martez Thrower are both promising freshmen from Georgia. Both are rookies, however.
Enter Jones. Yes, Ole Miss’s defense ranked 126th out of 127 Division I teams in yardage allowed in 2020. But the Rebels were operating under their third defensive coordinator in as many seasons. With Jones’ presence, Stoops can give his younger linebackers time to develop without forcing them on the field before they’re ready.
As a freshman, Jones was coached by current UK inside linebackers coach Jon Sumrall. Surely Sumrall’s presence made Lexington an attractive transfer option. And surely Jones took notice of Davis’ development. And there was the matter of the fit, both from Jones’ standpoint and that of UK, who made sure the potential newcomer meshed with the Cats’ current linebacking corps before extending an offer.
Using the transfer portal to fill needs
Matching needs is a transfer portal theme. Look at UK basketball, where John Calipari used the portal to address glaring needs at point guard (Sahvir Wheeler from Georgia), shooting guard (CJ Fredrick from Iowa and Kellan Grady from Davidson) and at center (Oscar Tshiebwe from West Virginia).
Same for Stoops’ offense. Ranked 115th in total offense in 2020, Stoops recruited Coen from the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams as his new play-caller. Via the portal, the program added electric wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson from Nebraska and strong-armed quarterback Will Levis from Penn State. Levis will compete with holdovers Joey Gatewood and Beau Allen for the QB1 spot. A former star at Western Hills in Frankfort, Robinson could be the nation’s No. 1 impact transfer come fall.
On the other side of the ball, UK ranked 45th nationally in total defense in 2020. That was against an all-SEC schedule — the lone exception being UK’s Gator Bowl win over ACC member North Carolina State. But White lost Davis, as well as cornerbacks Kelvin Joseph and Brandin Echols, plus defensive linemen Quinton Bohanna and Phil Hoskins. All were drafted. Joseph was a second-round pick by Dallas; Echols a sixth-round pick by the New York Jets. Dallas drafted Bohanna in the sixth round. Carolina chose Hoskins in the seventh.
The guess here is Jones noticed UK’s draft showing, as well.