Sitting in front of the fireplace of his family’s log cabin in Versailles, Ky., and with about 50 relatives, friends and football teammates crammed into the living room to hear him speak, Drake Jackson was at home when he let everyone know he was staying home.
Jackson, a four-star junior from Woodford County High School and arguably the nation’s best interior offensive lineman, unzipped a sweatshirt to reveal a blue University of Kentucky jersey, bringing a roar of cheers from the crowd and giving the Wildcats a key in-state recruiting victory.
“It’s my home-state school,” Jackson said. “It’s the place where I feel most comfortable. The coaches did a great job recruiting me, and I’m so excited about what they’re doing there.”
The 6-foot-2, 290-pound Jackson picked the rebuilding Wildcats over national championship-winning programs Alabama, Ohio State and Tennessee – another significant recruiting achievement by coach Mark Stoops.
“I just think they will continue to be on the up rise,” Jackson said. “The young players they have with the playing time they’ve gotten early is going to make a huge impact in the SEC.”
Jackson, who is projected to play center or guard in college, is rated four stars by every major recruiting website and ranked as high as No. 57 nationally in the 2016 class by 247Sports.com. That site and Scout.com rank him the No. 1 center nationally. He’s the No. 2 center on Rivals.com and the No. 2 guard on ESPN.com.
According to Rivals ratings, Stoops has now had 18 four-star players verbally commit or sign over the 2013 to ’16 classes. That’s five more than his predecessors Joker Phillips and Rich Brooks signed combined from 2003 to ’12.
So why UK?
“I think I look good in blue,” Jackson joked, pointing to the game-worn UK jersey
he bought at a football camp. “But Alabama, that’s a hard trip, like eight hours away. If I want, I can come back home 25 minutes away every single day. I know that’s what my mom wants me to do. It makes it a lot easier when there’s an SEC school 25 minutes away.”
Jackson’s thoughtful, funny answers during a 20-minute Q&A in which his friends and family joined reporters in asking the questions were evidence that he’s likely to become a favorite interviewee for the UK media for years to come.
Jackson’s decision is not a surprise.
UK was the first school to offer him a scholarship more than a year ago, and he’s said multiple times during the process that the Cats were No. 1 on his list.
Jackson made multiple unofficial visits to UK, and he’s been around the football program countless more times since he was a youngster when his family’s barbecue catering business, Smokin’ Jax, has served the Cats their team meals.
“Now I don’t have to work, and I can get the food given to me,” Jackson said with a laugh.
Jackson, who has played guard in high school, has become a sought-after center prospect even though he’s never played the position in a game. He has worked hard to learn the position in training with former UK defensive lineman Ellery Moore, who works with him at XCEL Sport, Science and Fitness in Nicholasville. He said Jackson reminds him of NFL centers Jeff Faine and Scott Wells.
“I see him playing very early at Kentucky,” Moore said. “I see him being very successful. He’s an All-SEC type guy, not only because he works hard, not only because he’s athletic but because his hands and his footwork are some of the best I’ve seen. … He has that ability to sit, stay tight, punch, sit, stay tight, punch and not panic.”
Jackson is UK’s sixth commitment in the 2016 class, including the fourth from Kentucky.
He hopes it’ll make a “big impact” that he – as the No. 1 player at his position in country – chose the Cats over proven national powers.
“I don’t know how many big-time players Kentucky’s gotten in the past, but that’s what you have to do in the SEC,” he said. “You’ve got to pull in big players, then you’ve got to coach them up, and I have faith that they’ll recruit a lot of good players. You’ve just got to get the ball rolling. … I have faith that (Stoops) will get the program going the right way.”