LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — The University of Kentucky is going all-in on football, at long last, but in a big way. Head coach Mark Stoops announced the highest-rated recruiting class in school history on Tuesday, rated in the Top 20 by most scouting services.
The Wildcats signed the top four players in the state of Kentucky. They won recruiting battles with Alabama and Ohio State and programs in between. Rivals.com, which rates UK's class No. 17 nationally, credits the Wildcats with 10 four-star recruits.
UK has committed to a $110 renovation of Commonwealth Stadium. It is green-lighting a $45 million football practice facility. On Super Bowl Sunday, it ran a local commercial featuring one of its 2014 signees, quarterback Drew Barker, front and center. It secured a TV crew to come and produce its signing day special, which ran all day online on the school's website.
This is Kentucky's bid for a sustained run at football's big time. Will it pay off in a league as tough as the Southeastern Conference? No one knows. But if this doesn't, it's hard to say what will.
In the middle of it all second-year coach Mark Stoops keeps working, and he says one thing that is more likely to make for UK football success than anything else — the bells and whistles are nice, but don't get caught up in them. It's still about work on the field and in the weight room.
"If I'm honest, we maybe had a little bit better success than I thought this quick," Stoops said about the Wildcats' recruiting haul. " I knew we'd recruit good players. Where it was rated and all that and the publicity, I like it, and it helps our program and all that, but, again, that's not what I'm out for. I'm out to get great players to help build this program day in and day out."
Barker, a four-star quarterback out of Conner High School in Burlington, Ky., headlined the class, just as he headlined the commercial. He not only comes in with a chance to contribute immediately, but Stoops and staff played off his charisma to lure other players.
"I think with Drew I felt like that was a big part of it because of the quarterback and the way he was a natural leader and he wanted to recruit other players," Stoops said. "We joked about that, and I saw articles and people joking about him being the unofficial recruiting coordinator, but that was all on him. I mean, we don't direct him to do that. We're not allowed to direct him to do that, nor would I do it. He just has that ability to be a leader, and he wanted other great players around him. You know, I said that a year ago as well. Players want to be around other great players."
Football recruiting, of course, is an inexact science. You can point to four-star busts all the time. UK quarterback Morgan Newton being one of the most recent. But you know what you can't point to? Ten four-star busts. Football recruiting also is a numbers game, and there are some legitimate, SEC-level players in Stoops' signing class, more than the school ever has brought in at one time, quite possibly.
Matt Elam, an offensive lineman out of John Hardin, picked UK over Alabama. Lloyd Tubman, a 6-5, 255-pound linebacker out of Louisville's Seneca High School, surprised many when he signed with UK at the last minute. They pulled Blake Bone, a highly regarded wide receiver, out of South Carolina. The signed 10 players from Ohio.
Stoops deserves credit for the workmanlike building of the class, which was remarkably drama-free for this day and age of college football players "flipping" and recommitting.
"This is one of the most unique recruiting experiences I've ever been a part of," Stoops said. "This group was so solid for so long. . . . We finished strong, just like we started, with very few hiccups in between. We had our battles, but that's fun. That's what we're here for, to compete every day, and we compete in recruiting."
I think it's a testament to the staff," Stoops went on. "We get them here. We got to know their families. With me going on the road‑‑ and I don't even know exactly how many living rooms I was in, but we got a very high percentage of guys that we brought in here for an official visit, and what we signed was an unusually high percentage. I want to say right in the area of 36 official visits and signed 28. . . . And then just to have one decommitment for this entire year with this type of a signing class was very, very unusual. So when I go into all these homes, and usually you're in there trying to close and sell and all those things, but most of the time these guys were ready to go. It was really just a celebration."
Now, will Kentucky's reason to celebrate — and this signing day certainly was that for Big Blue Nation — translate to the field?
If it doesn't, I'm not sure what will. Stoops doesn't know when or how this group will change the program, but he says it will.
"The simple answer is they will help," he said. "In what capacity and how much and all that, I don't know. And you know and I know that's the tricky question when you're trying to put ‑‑ when you're trying to tally up the wins and losses. And you know enough about me that I'm never going to put myself in a position to make a prediction on wins and losses and all that, but they will help us. When that reflects and how many wins, I'm not sure."
But as he looks around his program, from the recruiting class, to support and marketing to shovels in the ground for facility expansion and construction, Stoops has a better shot of building it than any coach who has preceded him.