LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky football has its unofficial kickoff Sunday. The Wildcats will be on the field for their first day of camp, and it’s also media day.
Most of Kentucky’s freshmen will be available to the media for the first time Sunday, but SEC Country had the chance to visit several members of the 2017 class as part of our Next Generation series. From Northeast Ohio to South Florida, we met with the newest Wildcats and their families and coaches at their homes and high schools.
This is a chance to catch up with any of those stories you may have missed. Not all members of the class were included in the series.
Here’s your primer on a handful of newcomers.
Abule Abadi-Fitzgerald had the most compelling path to Kentucky. He was unranked by several recruiting services, and the 6-foot-7 defensive end is still learning what football is all about.
It was all foreign. The sprawling but fenced-off fields. The horses. The cold, and with it, the snow. Abule Abadi-Fitzgerald had never seen snow before he visited Lexington, Ky. He and his adoptive parents were greeted at Blue Grass Airport with coats heavy enough to make them sweat despite the temperature.
“It was like coming from one world into a different world,” says Abadi-Fitzgerald, a defensive end who is the most unknown member of Kentucky’s incoming class.
That unfamiliarity follows the arc of his life. From southern Nigeria to South Florida, and now from the sand of the Sunshine State to the the rolling hills of Kentucky. He’s adapted from one home to the next, one family to the next, and now Abadi-Fitzgerald is headed to Lexington to play a sport he’s a novice at compared to his teammates.
Tyrell Ajian, who likely will play safety at Kentucky, was ranked a top-20 athlete in the class. He was the No. 17 prospect from Ohio and was nearly a top-300 national prospect.
Tyrell Ajian knew the comparison was an easy one to make: Position, style of play, and at one point, dyed blonde hair, were among the similarities.
“The coaches would always make jokes,” the Kentucky freshman said with a laugh.
The player on the other end of that comparison is Wildcats junior safety Mike Edwards. Ajian, one of Kentucky’s top-ranked signees of the 2017 class. Edwards, one of Kentucky’s most talented defenders.
Josh Ali, the son of a former college wide receiver, was a 3-star receiver prospect and a top-100 player in Florida. He was high school teammates with fellow UK signee Chris Whittaker at Chaminade-Madonna Prep in South Florida.
One of the standout graduates of Faheem Ali’s training program happens to be his son, Josh Ali, an incoming Kentucky freshman.
The two Alis are in opposite stages of their careers. Faheem’s playing days are done, and he now runs Complete Athletes, an all-sports training program in South Florida. His college career spanned two schools, first Eastern Michigan and then Louisiana Tech, where he hauled in 21 catches and 4 touchdowns as a senior.
Faheem caught balls from a trio of NFL quarterbacks during college: Charlie Batch at Eastern Michigan then Tim Rattay and Luke McCown at Louisiana Tech, but the receiver couldn’t stick with the league after tryouts with the Miami Dolphins, Seattle Seahawks and the New York Giants. He played short stints of arena league ball in Chicago and Las Vegas after that.
Seventeen years after his college career came to an end, his son’s is set to begin. Faheem said he was good enough to play in the NFL, but acknowledged he could’ve done things differently in college. But now he’s a guide for his son. Josh, who started at the bottom of his dad’s Complete Athletes program, is ready to begin a career of his own.
Kentucky’s No. 1 signee already has drawn comparisons to former UK great Randall Cobb because of his ability to play multiple positions. Lynn Bowden was ranked the No. 4 athlete in the country and one of the top players from Ohio.
Lynn Bowden, minutes after a shooting struggle in the Ohio-Kentucky All-Star Basketball Game, was greeted by a young Kentucky fan with an autograph request.
The boy wore a blue Kentucky football jersey, and Bowden signed across the number on the front — No. 1.
It’s a familiar figure for Bowden. Although he played in an all-star basketball game on Saturday, he’s the top-ranked football signee in Kentucky’s 2017 class. Recruiting coordinator Vince Marrow, who led the charge for Bowden, said he was the best player in Ohio.
Sebastien Dolcine, another South Florida signee, was ranked the 39th guard in the country.
Q: How much did Kentucky’s success last season as far as making a bowl game factor into your decision?
A: I’ve seen what they have, where they’re going, and I really want to be a part of that. Like when they got the win over Louisville it really stood out to me. I just want to be part of that era — that Mark Stoops era.
Lonnie Johnson, a junior college transfer, was a January enrollee. The highly-touted cornerback had a winding and tumultuous path starting from his Gary, Ind., roots and ending in Lexington.
When Lonnie Johnson says nobody knows what he’s been through, he’s referring to his life in a crumbling town. To the house he grew up in, a rendering of which is tattooed above his left pectoral. The sign of the 8th and Durbin Street intersection stretched across his left shoulder. The words “Scary Gary” inked in cursive script along the inside of his left arm. But more than those, it’s the name written on his right hand: Daja, a girl lost far too early.
His words tell a comeback story, but they’re denser than that. They’ve been dipped in defiance, danger and death.
“Don’t nobody know what I’ve been through,” he says, “to get to here.”
Here is a meeting room inside Kentucky’s $45 million football facility. He’s sitting with his shirt off and wearing blue gym shorts with a blue and white checkerboard pattern running down each leg. He just finished a morning workout with his new team. Johnson, a cornerback who arrived on campus in January, is one of seven early enrollees in Kentucky football’s 2017 signing class.
Here is Lexington, Ky. In a life full of potential dead ends, it’s a stop he almost never reached.
Alex King was listed as the No. 38 defensive end in the class by 247Sports, but he fashions his game after Kentucky outside linebacker Josh Allen. It’s the position King likely will slide into.
Andrea King is a football mom. Not just because she made cupcakes for her son’s team every week throughout his pee-wee career, but because she taught him how to play the position that propelled him into one of Ohio’s top high school prospects.
Alex King, a 3-star prospect from Mason High School, is one of 24 signees in Kentucky’s 2017 class. But before the likes of Kentucky, Tennessee and a handful of Big Ten programs came calling, and well before King grew into his 6-foot-4, 235-pound frame, there was a backyard session with his mom.
Alex was in second grade at the time and had gotten his first set of pads the previous week. “I took him in the backyard and showed him how to play defensive end,” Andrea said. “It made him cry kind of, but he sucked it up. He did it.”
Michael Nesbitt was the 82nd-ranked cornerback in the class. He, along with Bowden, were late arrivals to Lexington, but both will be ready when camp starts Sunday.
Q: How much did last season’s success as far as making a bowl game influence your decision?
A: I live by the motto, ‘Always finish strong.’ At the beginning of the season they wasn’t winning all the games. But by the end of the season, coming into the Louisville game, how they beat Louisville, they didn’t let anything stop them even though they were going against a Heisman winner. They still played. It showed up in everybody’s eyes that that team had something special.
JaVonte Richardson was the top-ranked wide receiver in Kentucky’s class and the 16th-ranked prospect from Ohio. He was a 4-star prospect ranked among the top 300 nationally.
Kentucky’s coaches had JaVonte Richardson’s back.
At least that’s the line Richardson, one of the top wide receivers in the nation in the 2017 class, said a handful of times in an hour span at his house just 30 minutes outside of Cleveland. Richardson’s relationship with Kentucky coach Mark Stoops and tight ends coach Vince Marrow was fostered by a northeastern Ohio connection.
Stoops was the first head coach who showed up to Maple Heights High School — the place where Richardson turned into a top-300 national prospect and one of the most sought after signatures in the state.
Richardson remembers that visit with Stoops.
“He showed me all his rings,” Richardson said. “He from Youngstown. I know how that area is. I know he’s gonna have my back.”
Chris Whittaker, along with Ali, was part of the Chaminade-Madonna to Kentucky pipeline. He was the 65th-ranked weakside defensive end in the class.
Chris Whittaker, a 3-star defensive end prospect from Hollywood, Fla., committed to Central Florida last September, but Kentucky offensive coordinator Eddie Gran was persistent. The Wildcats stayed on Whittaker while other schools dropped from the race after his commitment.
“Even when I was committed to UCF, Coach Gran was still hitting my phone,” Whittaker told SEC Country on a visit to his high school as part of our Next Generation series. “He was still seeing how I was doing. He was the one that really gave me an open mind to Kentucky. Coach Gran, he’s just been there all the way.”
Jordan Wright, like Whittaker, was another defensive end/outside linebacker signee. He was ranked the No. 28 weakside defensive end in the class.
Q: When did you first know Kentucky was at the top of your list?
A: “I really thought about Kentucky being my choice, I want to say a couple weeks after I took my visit. Just going up there, it’s a different environment from home. Everyone’s friendly up there. Here, nobody’s really friendly. That played a big factor.”