As fans of Kentucky Wildcats football, we are typically accustomed to looking ahead to the next season in hopes that it won’t be as dreadful as the current one. But with what Mark Stoops and Co. have brought to Lexington, 2014 will be a banner season. As reported by Steve Jones of the Courier-Journal, Rivals calculates that the Kentucky Wildcats have the 2014 #1 Recruiting Class. In my 31 years of life, never could I have been so audacious to even think that at any point in a recruiting season that UK could pull this off. It most certainly won’t last but for now, I am enjoying it.
The University of Kentucky’s 2014 recruiting class ascended to the nation’s No. 1 ranking by Rivals.com for the first time ever on Tuesday night after it landed a commitment from Florida lineman Derrick Kelly, who earned a two-star rating.
Kelly is UK’s 18th recruiting commitment – and its least heralded – but his pledge helped the Wildcats accumulate enough points in the Rivals’ formula to move up one spot and at least temporarily overtake Texas for the top spot.
It’s a shifting list based on new commitments for teams all over the country, and UK is ranked so high in part because it has so many early pledges – five more than No. 5 Alabama, seven more than No. 6 Notre Dame, for instance. So there’s no guarantee UK will stay No. 1 for even an entire day, and by national signing day in February, UK is almost certain to have fallen several spots down the rankings.
But at least on Tuesday night, new UK coach Mark Stoops had officially recruited at a level matching basketball coach John Calipari.
“It’s a very impressive job by an aggressive staff,” Rivals.com national analyst Mike Farrell said. “They have overcome a lot of things that previous staffs have never been able to touch. Football recruiting has become relevant in Kentucky, and that’s big news.”
By comparison, Stoops’ first class, signed in February, was ranked No. 29 – the best ever for the school since Rivals began in 2002. Joker Phillips’ classes were ranked No. 62 (2012), 61 (2011) and 50 (2010).
As the football season edges closer, Neal Brown realizes that the honeymoon is about over. Yes they have absolutely smashed the recruiting trail but the fact remains that just having the best players doesn’t get you far. And Kentucky is an SEC school so that and a soda won’t get you lunch. Here is Kyle Tucker’s “Four Downs with Brown.”
1) Since the new staff was hired, UK landed the No. 29 recruiting class for 2013 (the program’s highest-rated haul in the dozen-year Rivals.com era), got approval for $110 million in football facility upgrades (a longtime competitive disadvantage), saw 50,000 fans show up at the spring game (last year’s announced attendance was 4,500) and climbed to No. 1 in the 2014 recruiting rankings (utterly unprecedented in Lexington).
“Things have gone extremely well. Things have gone about as well as we could’ve planned so far,” Brown said. “Now the honeymoon’s about over here in a couple months.”
Brown knows that with UK’s brutal schedule – which includes a four-game stretch of Louisville, Florida, at South Carolina, Alabama (preseason No. 9, 13, 5 and 1 in Athlon’s rankings) – could take some air out of the Wildcats’ sails. But that’ll make what the staff has done so far no less impressive.
“It’s been a little bit of a perfect storm,” Brown said. “With what Coach Stoops has done on defense, with our track record on offense, and then you add in the (planned) renovations that came at just the right time, we have all the momentum. Coach Stoops did a great job hiring a staff that was young and hungry. They’ve done a great job, really, getting kids on campus, evaluating talent, focusing on who we want and then going and getting them.
“And then the guys we’ve gotten committed have done a good job of growing a bond, which we can’t do. They just do that on their own. So it’s gone about as good as it could’ve gone up to this point.”
2) So about this coming season, in which the Cats are Las Vegas underdogs (by an average of 20.7 points) in all six of their games that are already on the board …
“How do we measure success?” Brown said. “I don’t know. I know this: We’ll be a better football team than they finished last year. We’ll be a better football team. Our guys are hungry. They’re working extremely hard. They’re buying in. They’re being coachable. So we’re going to be a better football team. Now, our schedule is a grind. It’s grueling. It’s the toughest schedule in the country. Our complete focus is – and there are signs around this building – we’ve gotta have an every-day mentality. We’re going to try to get better every day.
“The vision of the program is not short-term. Our talent, I think it’s good enough for us to compete. Would we like it to be better in some areas? No question. Would we like to have more depth? No question. But what we’ve got is what we’ve got. Our job is to take the pieces of the puzzle and mold them into the best unit we can.”
3) What, then, is Brown working with? And who’s really winning that QB battle? He said it really is a three-man race among sophomores Maxwell Smith, Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles. Although he wishes one did, none of them seized the job in spring ball. He cautioned against putting too much weight in what fans saw in the spring game, where Whitlow was the clear star. As Brown pointed out: that was just 1 of 15 practices.
“It’s just a snapshot,” he said. “There were so many ups and downs for all three of them during spring that I don’t think it’s clear. I’d love for it to be. … I hope coming into fall camp that somebody jumps up and takes it.”
He’d like to name a starter after two weeks of preseason camp, but Brown said that’s not a hard deadline. If the competition needs to go longer, so be it. Although the old adage says if you have two quarterbacks (much less three), you have none, Brown doesn’t necessarily agree. He’s intrigued by the slightly different skill sets of all three.
“I really think however the quarterback position plays out, we’ll have a guy that is going to give us a chance to win games,” Brown said.
As for the rest of the offense, Brown said running back is “the deepest position by far.” He thinks senior Raymond Sanders is the perfect fit for his Air Raid, while power backs Josh Clemons and Jonathan George are “SEC guys” and Dyshawn Mobley is “as explosive as anybody we have on the team.” He likes the tight end group, too, saying it’ll be an “interesting battle” in camp between Tyler Robinson, Jordan Aumiller, Ronnie Shields and Steven Borden.
Brown likes UK’s offensive line starters, although he said both left guard (Teven Eatmon or Zach West) and center (Zach Myers, Jon Toth, Max Godby) are “definitely up for grabs.” It surprised me that West, who started every game as a redshirt freshman last season, is not a lock. The bigger issue, Brown said: “We just aren’t as deep as we need to be. From a sheer scholarship standpoint on the offensive line, we don’t have numbers. And then just quality depth. We need guys.”
Wide receiver “it’s no secret,” he said, is the biggest question mark. Just four scholarship wide receivers return. Three freshmen and a JUCO transfer will join the roster in August. “You’re looking at one guy, Demarco Robinson, that’s got any production coming back. Fall camp is really going to decide, because I know Demarco will be one of our go-to guys (but) other than that, I’m not real sure. A lot of it’s going to play out during those first 10-15 practices during fall camp.”
Brown said not to be surprised if his Air Raid offense in Year 1 at UK doesn’t closely resemble what you saw out of his guys at Texas Tech. He inherited a “totally different” situation in Lubbock. “They ran a similar system before we got there. They had very similar personnel. And then by Year 3, last year, we’d recruited. We had the type of bodies we wanted at each position, quality depth across the board. What we looked like last year at Tech may not necessarily be what we look like in Year 1 here. Our personnel is different.”
4) There’s clearly still a steep climb ahead, but Brown is confident the plan is going to work at Kentucky. He wouldn’t have come back if he didn’t believe it. The Danville native and UK alum asked a lot of questions before signing on.
“I was really cautious – I guess cautious would be the best word – about coming back,” he said. “I wanted to make sure all the situations were right. I wanted to make sure that Mark was a good guy. That’s a check. I wanted to make sure he was a family-oriented guy. That’s a check. I wanted to make sure the administration was really committed. That was a check. There were some other things that were on the checklist, and I was really cautious, because this is home.
“Regardless of where I end up or where I go career-wise, my wife and I will end up in Central Kentucky at some point. So I was really cautious, because I wanted to make sure things were in place. Staff was another thing that was important. I wanted to make sure things were in place, because I didn’t want to come home and fail. I wanted to be 100 percent bought in that this thing was going to work.
“Coming here, I know the tradition of Kentucky football as good as anybody, and in what I call modern history – which I define as anything our recruits can remember – we haven’t won a championship. I know they won the SEC in the ‘70s. I know Coach Brooks did a great job, got us to five straight bowl games. That 2007 team was probably as good as any. But what kept coming back to me was that if I – if we – could come back here and get this thing going and be the first team to win the SEC East, to be the first team that goes to Atlanta, to be the first team that plays in a major bowl in a large number of years, then the positive of that was way more than the negative of coming home and it not working.
“I think all the pieces are in place. Things are coming together at the right time, as far as the renovations, the fan support, what we’re going to do on defense, what we’re going to do on offense, the staff that’s hungry recruiting. All of that is coming together. It’s going to give us every reason in the world to be successful.”