Last-minute change of plans continues to pay off for Kentucky, Ukwu

Wednesday, August 31, 2011 at 10:41pm

Kentucky almost let Collins Ukwu get away.

Luckily for the Wildcats, at the 11th hour three hours ago, they snagged the former LaVergne High School standout. Otherwise he might be playing for another team – one closer to home.

Ukwu is a starting defensive end for Kentucky, which opens the 2011 season against Western Kentucky at 8:15 p.m. Thursday at LP Field in the 2011 College Colors Kickoff.

“He has been a steal for us,” Kentucky coach Joker Phillips said. “He was 205 [pounds] when we signed him and now he is 265 and one of the leaders of this football team.”

Back in 2008, though, Phillips was unfamiliar with Ukwu, who had committed to Middle Tennessee State. The Wildcats hadn’t made an offer.

Two days before national signing day, Kentucky lost a recruit to another school. Ukwu was on Kentucky’s radar — but barely.

“There was no communication with him until that last day of recruiting,” said Phillips, who was the offensive coordinator and head-in-coach waiting at the time. “It wasn’t my recruiting area, so I wasn’t really working him. I didn’t know him.”

With his back against the wall, Phillips decided to do some quick research.  He checked on Ukwu background and character with a coaching friend at Western Kentucky, which actually had him on campus for a visit.

Phillips then hopped on the internet and viewed several video highlights. Impressed, he took a chance.

“I decided to make a call,” he said. “The day before signing day, he decided to switch his commitment without even seeing the place.”

The leap of faith has worked out on both ends.

Kentucky has beefed up the 6-foot-5 Ukwu and in turn he has become a solid pass rusher. After redshirting in 2008, he played in all 13 games the following year and made 14 tackles. He nearly doubled that total in 2010, starting every game and finishing with 26 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and one sack.

“There are a lot of different recruiting stories out there,” Phillips said. “There is no exact science to recruiting. You can recruit a kid for two years and get him on your campus and he is a bust. A kid can walk in your door and walk on ... and become a great player like [former running back] Derrick Locke did the last couple years for us. Then you can recruit a kid for a day and he doesn’t see your campus and he becomes a great, great player and that is what Collins has become with us.”

• Small crowd: Nashville Sports Council president Scott Ramsey hoped 40,000 fans would pack LP Field for Thursday’s game. Instead, it appears the private, non-profit organization might be fortunate if 30,000 walk through the gates. 

Hosting college games at LP Field is nothing new for Ramsey and the Nashville Sports Council. They have conducted the Music City Bowl since its inception in 1999. In 2002, Tennessee and Wyoming met there and four years later Louisville played Middle Tennessee State at the NFL stadium.

The NSC also has been responsible for organizing the Ohio Valley and SEC men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. This upcoming season, it will host the first two rounds of the NCAA Women’s Tournament.

So Ramsey figured bringing in WKU and UK would be another chapter in the NSC’s marriage with college sports. This is the second year of a four-year series between the schools. They will return to Lexington next fall before wrapping up the agreement back at LP Field in 2013.

Both schools are within a four-hour radius of Nashville. But the Hilltoppers are coming off a 2-10 season and Kentucky lost many of its playmakers from a 6-7 squad. Thus, the matchup might not be intriguing enough for students and fans to travel on a week night for an 8:15 p.m. (CST) start.

“I think everybody is looking for some answers,” Ramsey said. “We did this agreement four years ago and at the time felt pretty good about it on Labor Day Weekend. I’m not sure. I know both programs are hoping for rebound years. Certainly, it is a Thursday night and kids still have school the next morning but it is the opening night of college football. I’m just real not sure on it. I think generally the economy has kind of gotten people maybe a little bit reserved on traveling to games. I think we’ve heard a lot of maybes.”

• Mum’s the word: Western Kentucky’s offensive line is staying quiet — at least when the media is present.

The Hilltoppers’ big men are refusing to speak to reporters until they snap their 15-game home losing streak, which dates back to the 2008 season. Even offensive line coach Walt Wells, a Nashville native and Belmont grad, is joining the boycott, which began when preseason camp started earlier this month.

WKU will get its first chance to end the skid on Sept. 10 when Navy visits Bowling Green, Ky.

“I have no doubt they’ll be speaking to y’all soon,” punter and Hillsboro grad Hendrix Brakefield said.

Three starters — center Sean Conway (Father Ryan), right guard Adam Smith (Blackman High) and right tackle Seth White (Donelson Christian Academy) — hail from Middle Tennessee. Backup center Luke Stansfield went to Ravenwood and reserve right tackle Cameron Clemmons played at Wilson Central in Mt. Juliet.

• Free concert: Country singer Laura Bell Bundy will perform a free pregame concert at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at Riverfront Park.

Bundy, a Kentucky native, is a recording artist for Mercury Records and has been nominated for a Tony Award for her performance in the Broadway hit Legally Blonde. She also released the hit single, "Giddy On Up," in 2010.