Damon Payne likely to pick Alabama, but Kentucky in the mix

Kentucky probably won’t be the school that comes out of Damon Payne’s mouth when he announces his college commitment on Sunday. So why should its fans care?

Payne, the top-ranked high school defensive tackle in the country according to 247Sports and the No. 3 player at the position according to Rivals, is picking his college during the 3 p.m. hour of CBS Sports HQ, an online sports network that’s available to stream for free. He has not announced a list of favorite schools beyond a top 10 that he shared in early February, but UK is believed to be among the finalists along with Alabama, Arizona State, USC and Michigan State, based on the official visits Payne planned to take prior to COVID-19 disrupting that process.

Alabama is considered the favorite to land Payne, and by a wide margin: All nine of the predictions filed by 247Sports analysts project the Belleville, Michigan, native to the Crimson Tide, whose 2021 recruiting class in that service’s rankings currently sits at No. 1 among Southeastern Conference teams and No. 2 nationally (behind Ohio State). Nick Saban’s squad has picked up commitments from six prospects this month — including twin offensive linemen James and Tommy Brockermeyer last week — but only one from outside the South (Devonta Smith, a three-star cornerback out of Cincinnati); Payne, who would be the highest-ranked recruit in ‘Bama’s class outside of Tommy Brockermeyer, will likely be the second.

Kentucky has beaten juggernauts like Alabama for recruits in the past — see last year, when five-star defensive tackle Justin Rogers opted to join the Cats — and could continue to do so, though perhaps not with the regularity that fans might desire. Getting rejected is never fun, but being in the mix always has value, especially when your football program is still looking to garner more respect within the Southeastern Conference and nationally.

Like with Rogers, establishing a relationship with Payne early is what has UK in the conversation here at the end of his recruitment.

“They’ve recruited this kid for a long time,” said Allen Trieu, a recruiting analyst for 247Sports who focuses on the Midwest. “He visited Kentucky very early. His freshman year, he was on campus and they offered him a scholarship then. It’s not like they offer a kid that young and then just go dark on ‘em.”

Also like Rogers, Payne plays high school football in Michigan, a state that’s increasingly paying dividends for Mark Stoops and his staff. Establishing an early relationship with a kid and maintaining it during and after his recruitment won’t go unnoticed by other area stars in the coming years.

“Kids talk to each other all the time and compare notes on recruiting,” Trieu said. “ … Any time you can have a positive vibe with a visible, high-level recruit, even if you don’t end up signing that kid, I think there’s ripple effects there that help in recruiting.”

Kentucky’s 2021 commitments

The following football players have announced commitments to UK as part of the 2021 recruiting class:

Wilson Berry, punter (Prokick Australia)

Dekel Crowdus, wide receiver (Frederick Douglass HS, Ky.)

Adrian Huey, cornerback (Hillsboro HS, Tenn.)

Jordan Lovett, defensive back (North Hardin HS, Ky.)

Chauncey Magwood, wide receiver (Leesburg HS, Ga.)

Paul Rodriguez, offensive tackle (William Mason HS, Ohio)

Kahlil Saunders, defensive end (Grissom HS, Ala.)

Armond Scott, wide receiver (Euclid HS, Ohio)

Kaiya Sheron, quarterback (Somerset HS, Ky.)

Joko Willis, linebacker (Independence Community College, Kan.)

David Wohlabaugh, offensive tackle (Walsh Jesuit HS, Ohio)

La’Vell Wright, running back (North Hardin HS, Ky.)

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Josh Moore covers the University of Kentucky football team and is in his sixth year reporting for the Lexington Herald-Leader, where he’s been employed since 2009. Moore, a Martin County native, graduated from UK with a B.A. in Integrated Strategic Communication and English in 2013. He’s a huge fan of the NBA, Power Rangers and country music.
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