Monday, April 1, 2024

Tilghman QB is a champion wrestler

Paducah Tilghman junior Jack James is not your ordinary high school quarterback.

He threw for 4,019 yards and 56 touchdowns last season when he completed 255 of 375 passes (68 percent) and also ran for six touchdowns to help Paducah Tilghman reach the Class 4A semifinals. However, he also won the 215-pound state wrestling championship this season. If that’s not enough, he also has a 3.95 grade-point average.

Paducah Tilghman coach Sean Thompson knew James was talented as a freshman but says he has matured and improved because of his work ethic.

“You don’t hear of many quarterbacks with elite arm talent who also wrestle,” Thompson said. “He didn’t cut weight for wrestling either. I definitely have got the toughest quarterback in the state. He has wrestled his entire life but is a much better quarterback. He wrestles for that edge and his family believes that helps his football and it has worked because wrestling helped him learn to fight through adversity.

“He’s a very willing runner. It’s not something we ask him to do much because his arm talent is so special that we don’t want to risk what we have with him.”

Thompson noted James (6-1, 210 pounds) had an 80-yard run against Mayfield that showcased what he can do when he runs. 

James, who also plays baseball, said his father liked the physical and mental toughness it takes to wrestle. He started wrestling about 11 years ago when he was at McCracken County and just kept wrestling when he got to Tilghman. 

“Football has always been my main sport and I just wrestle during wrestling season for about 3 1/2 months per year,” James said. “I have had good coaches and been able to train with state champions.”

He admits he’s never seen another quarterback wrestling because it takes more of a “linebacker” mentality on the wrestling mat. 

James was third in the 2023 state wrestling competition and the two who finished above him are now wrestling in college. He moved up from the 175-pound division to 215 rather than cut weight which might have hurt his football preparation. 

“I am going to play college football and need to keep my size,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to play college football and knew that

was a realistic goal after my second freshman year after COVID when I threw 35 touchdown passes. The interest started cranking up my sophomore year when I started getting offers.”

He has offers from Kentucky, Eastern Kentucky, Murray State, Tulane, Massachusetts, Miami (Ohio) Troy, Old Dominion and Charlotte. He admits the UK offer surprised him.

Thompson said he’s a perfect fit at the mid-major level because of his ability to make quick decisions and get the ball out fast. 

“If he was three inches taller  he would have any offer he wanted,” the Paducah Tilghman coach said. “A lot of times coaches get caught in measurables as opposed to what a kid can do. But he’s going to make someone a really good college quarterback.”

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New Kentucky women’s basketball coach Kenny Brooks had a brief conversation with men’s coach John Calipari upon his arrival in Lexington and pledged his support to the new coach. 

“Obviously, coach Cal, that's the first time I ever met coach Cal. I used to be an assistant coach on the men's side for 10 years (at James Madison) and so I know Bruiser Flint, Orlando Antigua and those guys and it's good catching up with them,” Brooks said.

“The interaction with Cal, I'm going to lean on him. And we do have newspapers everywhere, I know there's been a lot going on with coach Cal and his situation but he's one of the best, one of the best in the country and I'm looking forward to picking his brain. 

“Anything and everything about Kentucky basketball because when we talk Kentucky basketball, it's an umbrella that you want to be under. It's a brand and I'm looking forward to capitalizing on it.”

However, it’s not just Calipari that Brooks wants to lean on. He wants to garner knowledge from every successful coach at Kentucky.

“Any sport that we are successful in here at Kentucky, you want to piggyback off of that. Because just great exposure. I'm looking forward to that,” Brooks said.

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Kentucky athletics director Mitch Barnhart and coach John Calipari made a rare joint appearance on “BBN Tonight” on WLEX-TV one day after Barnhart confirmed last week that Calipari would return for a 16th season at UK despite his 2-8 record in Kentucky’s last 10 postseason games.

One noteworthy moment during the show was Barnhart’s revelation that he and Calipari discussed at their annual year-end meeting how they wanted to end their careers at Kentucky.

“Whatever we do in our careers, both of us want to exit well. Not a lot of people in our industry — in our enterprise of college athletics — get to exit the way you want to exit. And I want us to be able to exit well, and be able to say, ‘We left it in a really good spot for the people that came behind us,'” Barnhart, who hired Calipari in 2009, said. “What ends up happening a lot of times is it gets left on the side of the track in a heap and a mess. And you say, ‘Good luck,’ to the next guy.

“That’s not what either one of us wants. We want to be good caretakers for the program. And we want to leave it in the right spot for the next person.”

While the program is not in the “right spot” after another early NCAA Tournament exit, Barnhart pointed out that Calipari went to four Final Fours in his first six seasons and has seven trips to the Elite Eight. 

“It’s not that we don’t know how to get there. We’ve hit a patch where we haven’t,” Barnhart said. “And that is not lost on us. 

“He and I are a little bit competitive. We certainly like to win. That has been in our DNA from the beginning of his career, and mine. We didn’t come to this program to sit here and say, ‘Hey, let’s just see if we can casually walk through this thing and sashay all the way to the end of the deal.’ I want to win.”

* * *

Kentucky associate coach Vince Marrow is glad to have Eric Wolford back as UK’s offensive line coach even if he was upset with the way he left the program after the 10-win season in 2021 to take a similar job at Alabama. 

“We were really pissed, yeah, but we are all from Youngstown (Ohio) and like brothers we fight and still love each other,” Marrow said. “Him being back here, these guys know his standards and there is no softness in that room.

“I am very optimistic and excited about the O-line room. I know the standard Wolf will have in there. Me and Wolf are kind of alike. I told the guys just like me he wants guys to be tough. Ain’t no excuses and you better be ready to be coached hard.”

Marrow said junior Jager Burton has been impressive in spring practice and he had not heard Wolford calling out his name during film sessions.

“The game is really slowing down for him but Wolf being back here had a lot to do with that,” Marrow said.

Burton has started at guard and center. He’s back at guard now and Wolford is ready for him to become a big-time player like he was expected to be when he signed with the Wildcats.

“He’s got a clean slate with me. Last time I was here, Jager was a freshman and I used to wear him out. He’ll be the first to tell you that, but it’s because I care and I think he can be really good,” Wolford said. “He has tremendously improved from the last time I was here. 

“That’s to be expected. Now I think there’s things he needs to improve on and we’re going to get him there. Failure is not an option. My job as a coach is I work for you, I work for you as a player. Meet me halfway. Meet me halfway and we’re going to have an opportunity to have success.”

* * *

Former Morehead State coach Preston Spradlin considers himself blessed for spending five years on John Calipari’s staff at Kentucky .

“I am a Kentucky fan at heart. They were unbelievably fun to watch this year. It was fun to see Cal with those young guys,” Spradlin, who was named the new coach at James Madison last week, said. “They grew so much and started playing their best basketball at the right time (before losing in the NCAA Tournament).

“I can’t get into the mind of Cal because he is a mastermind. There’s only one John Calipari. He’s had a remarkable career and taught me so many things.”

Spradlin, a Kentucky native, is also a Reed Sheppard fan.

“I love Jeff Sheppard (Reed’s father) and those teams he was on. I was about the same age watching those teams that my son is now watching Reed,” Spradlin said. “I got to know Jeff when I was at UK. I got to see Reed play four years of AAU.

“It did my heart good to watch him play and see Jeff and his wife at the games. Reed is a great player and the sky really is the limit for that kid. It’s rewarding to watch somebody’s son that I grew up watching and I know how special it had to be for them.”

* * *

Kentucky associate coach Vince Marrow thought if Ray Davis was not the best running back in college football last season he was one of the top three when he ran 199 times for 1,129 yards and 14 touchdowns for UK in 2023 and also caught 33 passes for 323 yards and seven more scores.

“The days of just having one running back are over. You have probably got to have three but Ray was very, very special, Marrow said.

Davis had one off the top 10 times for a running back in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine. That’s why he chose not to run the 40 at UK’s Pro Day but he did do 21 reps on the bench press with NFL coaches/scouts watching in Lexington. 

Davis, who transferred to UK from Vanderbilt, hopes his receiving skills will add to his NFL value.

“Throughout my career I’ve always been able to catch the ball and just kind of showcase that versatility with my hands and stuff,” Davis said after his Pro Day workout. “I wanted to come out here personally just to continue to grow as a running back, as a receiver and be able to be a match-up nightmare for linebackers and safeties.”

Kentucky coach Mark Stoops thinks a NFL team will get a “very good player” with Davis.

“They’re going to get a guy that can play every down, you know, he’s a three-down back and you know, a very tough, great teammate. Great person. They’re going to get a heck of a player,” Stoops said.

* * *

Quote of the Week: “LeeAnne Schlarman was one of the first people to reach out to me. Her and my wife and myself are close. We wanna get back to playing the way the Big Blue Wall is intended to play,” new UK offensive line coach Eric Wolford on being back at Kentucky.

Quote of the Week 2:  “The ball never dies in his hands. He passes, attacks or shoots. I knew when he got with better people and did not have to do so much he would excel and told folks that. He’s  very, very unselfish,” former Wayne County High School coach Rodney Woods, Kentucky’s fourth all-time winningest coach, on Reed Sheppard.

Quote of the Week 3:“Every piece of blue has been eliminated from my wardrobe. The Revival has begun. The ReviVILLE has begun. The passion in the minds & hearts of Card Nation is like no other,”  Pat Kelsey after being named the new head men’s basketball coach at Louisville.