CINCINNATI — When Chris Oats signed with Kentucky in February, Vince Marrow knew what message he wanted to project: Kentucky had just beaten Ohio State in a recruiting battle for an Ohio prospect whom both schools coveted.
Marrow, Kentucky’s recruiting coordinator and tight ends coach, couldn’t help but smile during his National Signing Day press conference.
“Everybody thought Chris was going to Ohio State,” Marrow said at the time. “But I kind of knew where he was going. I just kept it to myself. But until he signed the papers, I was nervous all the way until last night.”
Oats was the third-highest-ranked commit in the Wildcats’ 2018 class. He was the 22nd-ranked outside linebacker and the 325th-ranked overall prospect, according to the 247Sports composite. Despite being one of the gems in Kentucky’s class, Oats would’ve ranked in the bottom third of Ohio State’s No. 2 nationally ranked group.
Kentucky prioritized Oats’ signature while Ohio State played a wait-and-see game, as Oats described to SEC Country in an interview at Winton Woods High School in Cincinnati.
For Marrow and Kentucky, persistence paid off.
“They came to see me almost every week, stayed in touch, texted me every day and every night,” Oats said. “It got annoying, but that’s how I knew they really wanted me. Other colleges weren’t really doing that.”
Oats’ offer list included the likes of Georgia, Louisville, Michigan, Michigan State, Miami, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Ole Miss, but his dream school was Ohio State, 106 miles to the northeast.
Oats made several visits to Columbus, and Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes officially offered him a scholarship on June 17, 2016 — more than three months after Mark Stoops and Kentucky offered.
But as Oats’ recruitment progressed, there were concerns about his grades, and with that came speculation that Oats’ offer from Ohio State wasn’t a committable one. He confirmed as much.
“At the time when [Ohio State] offered me, no, because there was a little school stuff,” Oats said. “And then they started to go away. Once they saw I was going to make it, they came back. But through the whole time, Kentucky stayed with me. I felt like that was the right fit because they never second-guessed me.”
Andre Parker, Oats’ coach at Winton Woods High School, said there was a misconception that Ohio State backed off.
“There was a lot of communication between Ohio State and Chris,” Parker said. “They said, ‘This is exactly what you need to do.’ And once Chris did those things, they were like, ‘OK, you’re good.’ I think at that time, for Chris, Chris doesn’t understand the business aspect of it. Chris understands the relationship aspect of it. He just felt in his heart that Kentucky probably wanted him more.”
Oats said he could’ve signed with Ohio State in February, but his mind was made up by then. He and Marrow’s relationship was the glue that solidified his decision.
“He keeps it real with you,” Oats said. “He just wants the best out of us. You can tell that his loyalty is real. He’s never gonna give up on you.”
Oats signed with Kentucky in February and his first day on campus will be June 15. And although his recruitment is over, he talks with Marrow or defensive coordinator Matt House almost every night, he said.
The coaches check in to see how he’s doing in school, and Oats has good news to report back to them. There are no longer concerns about his academic eligibility.
“I didn’t have to chase him this year,” Parker said. “There was a path set from his junior year that you need to do this, this, this and this. And he’s done it. I don’t think he’s been tardy to class in almost two years, which is amazing. Most of the time your senior year you get to relax and do senior skip day. He didn’t get to do those things.”
Friday was Oats’ last day at Winton Woods, the same high school that produced Kentucky safety Mike Edwards. With his grades in order, Oats’ focus has shifted to getting in the kind of shape necessary to play linebacker in the SEC.
Oats is up to 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, and he said the plan is for him to play middle linebacker at Kentucky. It’s an open spot on the defense following the graduation of senior starter Courtney Love. Junior Kash Daniel is the favorite to win the starting gig, but Oats could provide the Cats with quality depth in a linebackers corps that sorely lacks it.
Love’s departure was a given, but two surprise transfer decisions during the offseason by starting outside linebacker Denzil Ware and second-team weakside linebacker Eli Brown have created depth concerns. Both would’ve been key members of a defense that was only supposed to lose one starter.
Now Kentucky, in its 3-4 alignment, is looking at a projected starting linebacker group of Daniel and Jordan Jones inside and Josh Allen and Boogie Watson outside. It’s likely Oats will compete with redshirt freshmen inside linebackers Jamin Davis and Alex King for reserve roles.
Oats played three years of outside linebacker in high school before moving to middle linebacker as a senior. The reason for the position change was twofold. It showed college coaches that Oats could hold his own inside, and it prevented opponents from running plays away from him depending on which outside linebacker spot he occupied.
Parker said coaching Oats was “wonderful and challenging at the same time.”
“What I mean by that is he is an unbelievable athlete,” Parker said. “If I coach for 30, 40 years, I may only get two or three kids with his type of skill set, with his length and things like that. Coaching him is difficult because a lot of things come very easily to him. You have to gauge when he’s working hard and when he’s not working hard.”
He doesn’t fit the mold of an old-school inside linebacker. Parker raved about Oats’ ability to flip his hips and track the ball in coverage. Oats also has the speed and length to excel as an outside pass rusher, his coach said.
“It’s kind of like a Swiss Army knife,” Parker said. “What do you want to use him for? The thing I was telling people is if we had to put Chris out at receiver, he would’ve been a highly recruited receiver.”
Oats could offer Kentucky the versatility it needs, and his preparation might be fast-tracked if he’s to play a meaningful role this fall. Early playing time is one topic that comes up during his almost-nightly chats with Marrow and House.
“They were talking about that before all this happened,” Oats said, referencing Ware and Brown and their decisions to transfer.
Oats describes himself as quiet, and he wasn’t ready to make any declaration about playing time that might create noise.
“It’s going to be how bad he wants it,” Parker said. “Physically, he can do it, without a doubt. The rest is going to be up to him.”