Kentucky mining south Georgia

Joker Phillips clearly stated his goal for the 2012 class and beyond: recruit south Georgia.

"We want to get more into south Georgia," the Kentucky head football coach said last month at SEC media days. "We feel we've done a really good job in the Atlanta and central Georgia area. We want to get in the south Georgia area to see if we can attract more quality players, and Steve brings that to us."

Steve is Steve Pardue, who was hired in December to coach Kentucky's running backs and be its lead recruiter in the area he knows best -- south Georgia.

Pardue not only knows the area, he dominated it. As the head coach at LaGrange High School for 17 seasons, he won 161 games, including three Class AAA state titles.

Yet Pardue found himself ready for a change after the 2010 season, and Kentucky found itself needing a running backs coach. Pardue previously had other opportunities to coach in college but let them pass by. But a return to his home state was too tempting, not to mention that the UK roster includes six former LaGrange players.

"First of all, Steve Pardue is a Kentuckian," Phillips said. "You look at our staff, there's five Kentuckians on our staff, three ex-lettermen at our place. Might not be important at some other places, but I think it's important for Kentucky football that there are guys that truly want to be there."

The transition from high school head coach to college assistant has been something of a challenge for Pardue. There's more meeting time and more time to be around players in college, and learning an offense as opposed to running it is certainly a change. But the biggest transition has been recruiting.

"If you have an area where they have good players, you need to be finding them. South Georgia is a different place," Pardue said. "I'm very fortunate that I know a lot of those coaches down there. That's helped me a lot to get into some schools and get to know people."

There are countless advantages for Pardue when he travels back to his former stomping grounds. First of all, Pardue doesn't need a GPS to get around.

"In south Georgia, there are some places that if you go, you want to go there," he said. "You don't happen by some of those schools, where in the Atlanta area coaches from anywhere around the country can fly in Atlanta International Airport and in one day you can hit 15 schools.

"In south Georgia, you're not going to do that. There's only a couple of counties down there that have two schools in the county. You're usually driving 30 to 40 minutes to each school."

Pardue believes that he can get a more earnest evaluation of high school talent than a stranger who just wonders into Valdosta. Pardue doesn't expect to hear an old coaching buddy tell him that a school that just had a five-win season has eight future SEC players on its roster. And if a coach does oversell a prospect, Pardue can pick up the phone and call a rival school to get a second opinion.

"You get a lot of names from schools but a lot of times those guys aren't SEC players," Pardue said. "You can waste a lot of time deciding who is. There are some guys down there I really trust. ... That helps me tremendously."

Pardue's inside knowledge will help, and he'll need it. Although not every school in the country recruits south Georgia, some heavyweights are already entrenched in the area. Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, Florida State and Florida have all had success there.

"Kentucky is not very prominent in southern Georgia," Peach County High School head coach Chad Campbell said. "You don't hear people talking about Kentucky here. That's where he comes in. ... There aren't too many coaches in south Georgia he doesn't know. I think that's a good advantage."

Said Pardue, "You've got to kind of pick your battles, but we're working hard to find some guys that will fit what we're looking for at Kentucky and get some up here and be big-time players."

Pardue, who grew up in Hopkinsville, Ky., also can be a benefit in Kentucky, where he coached before moving to Georgia. He has two brothers-in-law who are retired high school coaches, and he has kept in touch with many other coaches in the area.

"I still have a lot of contacts there," he said. "Obviously in 20 years a lot of faces change, but a lot of guys are still around. I feel comfortable knowing that area."

Recruiting the state of Kentucky, however, can be put on the back burner. Kentucky already has a strong in-state presence. The same can't be said for south Georgia. Phillips was clear: He wants most of Pardue's energy spent in his second home.

"It's juice, it's passion for the job that you have," Phillips said. "I think Steve Pardue brings that to us at Kentucky. The impact that he'll have on us I think will be huge."

Dave Hooker covers Southeast and Atlantic Coast recruiting. He has covered recruiting and college football for more than a decade. Email him at davehookerespn@gmail.com.