I’ve heard the grumblings. I’ve heard the frustration. As a fan, I want to take a minute to tell everyone why they’re wrong and why patience is the key in the building (not rebuilding) job that is Kentucky football.
There’s one simple fact: building takes time. But there’s another point that fans may or may not consider. That’s the fact that you have to increase the talent pool each and every season. I know fans were upset by the romping at home against Tennessee, in which Kentucky looked slower, weaker and less adept at this sport we all love. Some are calling for head coach Mark Stoops’ head. Others want to wait out the first few years of his tenure. It’s always been my take that a college football coach needs 5 seasons to be fully evaluated. The problem with that is – five years is a REALLY long time. So in the case of Mark Stoops’ hiring at the end of 2012, I want to explore the recruiting classes, and the progression of this program during Stoops’ tenure as head coach.
Stoops had six weeks to put this class together after being hired in December 2012. SIX WEEKS, FOLKS. So in my opinion, this class doesn’t really count. However, let’s take a quick look at what he was able to do in such a short period of time (and he still brought in the #34 overall class.)
First, the crown jewel of the class was Z’Darius Smith, a top 3 JUCO defensive end in this class. Smith now plays on Sundays for the Ravens. Other 4* recruits included current starting safety Marcus McWilson, current wide receiver/punt returner Ryan Timmons. The biggest get at the time, was convincing in-state stud Jason Hatcher to come to Lexington instead of heading out west to USC. Hatcher is currently a major contributor playing defensive end/outside linebacker.
Other staples of that class included running back JoJo Kemp and Mikel Horton, wide receivers Javess Blue and Jeff Badet, and defensive linemen Regie Meant and Melvin Lewis. Kemp, Badet and Meant are all major contributors on this 2015 edition, while Blue graduated last season and Lewis is currently out for the season with a fractured fibula.
The Wildcats finished with a 2-10 record in Stoops’ first season, but already, you could see that he was bringing in recruits that could compete with SEC-caliber talent – primarily the two JUCO signees of Smith and Blue. If you look at successful rebuilding jobs around the country, a lot of them start with successful JUCO players, since they bring experience and more physically developed bodies.
2014 started off with a bang. Stoops scooped up Elite 11, in-state quarterback Drew Barker, who was previously committed to the Head Ball Coach and South Carolina. Once Barker flipped, he became the glue that held the best class in UK history together. Safety Darius West, defensive end Denzel Ware rounded out the early four-star commitments. The biggest (literally) get of this class was in-state 375lb. defensive tackle Matt Elam. Elam had narrowed it down to Lexington and Tuscaloosa as his potential collegiate towns. He donned the UK football helmet on his decision day, arguably Stoops most important steal in his tenure. The class ended ranked #22.
Then, arguably the best three-star class in UK history followed….running backs Boom Williams and Mikel Horton added a thunder-and-lightening duo in the backfield. An entire wide receiving corp included Blake Bone, Alex Montgomery, Dorian Baker, and Garrett Johnson – 3 of those are currently major contributors and/or starters. JUCO signees CJ Johnson (defensive tackle) and Ryan Flannigan (outside linebacker) brought in depth at need positions, however, neither would see consistent playing time till 2015. Three-star safety Mike Edwards is currently a major contributor.
With this class, Stoops was really starting to gain momentum. The verbal commitment by Barker and his work to help bring players to Lexington via camps and social media played a major role. The excitement around this surging program saw the Cats shoot out to a 5-1 start with a triple over-time loss at Florida and a rare victory over the Spurrier-led Gamecocks of South Carolina. But the same old song and dance Kentucky Wildcats would drop their next six finishing a disappointing 5-7, and missing a bowl by the narrowest of margins.
The jury is still out on this class as they are only true freshmen – however you can already see the impact by corner back Chris Westry who was stolen from Auburn the day before National Signing Day. The 6’4″ Westry has 4.3 speed which for that size of a corner is extremely rare. Tight end CJ Conrad was the crown jewel of this class as he chose Kentucky over Ohio State and others. Conrad is finally coming around to being a major contributor in the passing game where the first few games he was only a contributor as a blocker in the run game. This class was rated #38 by 247Sports.
While incomplete, this season has been much like last season – getting out to a fast start (4-1) and dropping 3 straight games to fall to 4-4. Last weeks’ 52-21 loss at home against Tennessee was kick in the teeth. This week’s matchup at Georgia is critical as the Dawgs are reeling following a three game skid that saw their top two running backs go down with injuries.
What does it all mean?
I give you the rankings of Stoops’ recruiting classes to make this point – As well as he’s recruited, it’s still in the bottom tier of the SEC. Once he steals a top 10 class or two, watch out, however, in order for that to happen, first the Cats must steal some wins on the field. 6-6 isn’t going to cut it.
In Stoops’ 3 seasons in Lexington, he’s not cracked the top 20. By comparison, Butch Jones at Tennessee has raked in two top 10 classes. You wonder why they beat our tails last week? Easy…Talent gap. Where we’re averaging between 4-6 four-star recruits per season (depending on which service you look at), Tennessee is consistently getting four and five-star kids. In Stoops’ tenure at Kentucky, only three other schools in the SEC have not reached the top 20 with a recruiting class – of course, I’m sure you guessed Vanderbilt, but surprisingly, Missouri and Arkansas are the others.
Can you see how that’s played a role this season? I mean, heck, we finally beat Missouri for the first time since they became a member of the SEC this year. Since James Franklin left Vanderbilt, we’ve had the chance to finally beat them the last two seasons. Fortunately, we haven’t played Bret Beliema’s Razorbacks with our run defense.
I hate to say it, but as well as Stoops is recruiting by Kentucky standards, it’s not good enough – not to win in the SEC.
Pedigree. Traditionally a losing program in the gutter of the SEC, Mark Stoops has more than enough work cut out for him if he’s going to turn the Cats around. Let’s look at the other schools that have beaten our tails – Florida, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, LSU…all pedigree programs with staple top 10-15 classes every year. I’ll say it again – TALENT GAP, whether you choose to believe it or not, is real.
The financial commitment that the university has instilled in the football program over the last 18 months is the first major step. A renovated stadium and indoor facility are huge for recruiting. Stoops – accomplishment. Check.
Secondly, get a signature win and improve each season. The win over South Carolina last season and winning on the road against Missouri were big road blocks Stoops finally got the Cats over. So far, Stoops accomplishment. Check
The next step is ending the Florida streak or winning a bowl game. I hate to say it, but this one is looming whether Stoops wants to admit or not. If and when the Cats break that streak or win a bowl, the nation will take notice. Beat Florida and doors will open we never though imaginable. Getting our name off of the top of the list for longest losing streak to another school, will help break the cycle of (some not all) people around the country expecting Kentucky to lose – and that’s the key…Getting people to change their mindset when they think about the Kentucky Wildcats, ideally opponents – put the doubt in their minds that they CAN lose when they play the Cats. Stoops has got to be the best salesman of the program he can be, but unfortunately, it ends with winning. Nice facilities and recruiting rooms are nice, but winning is what utlimately sells recruits. You can’t sell ‘change the game’ more than once. Georgia hasn’t had an indoor facility for years (just got approved this year) yet, they’ve found a way to get top classes each season and guess how they did it? Yup. Pedigree and winning football games (maybe not big ones, but that’s a discussion for another day).
I know I’ve been long-winded here, but let me sum it up. Just win, baby, win. If you win, the recruits will come. Until then, expect a more competitive, but still losing, Kentucky football team. Randall Cobb was a two-star athlete out of Alcoa, TN, but let’s be honest – he’s a once in a lifetime jewel of a find as a two-star recruit. We can’t compete with the rest of the SEC when we aren’t getting the caliber players the rest of the league is getting. It really is a catch-22. You gotta win to get players and you need players to win. I will say this – I believe in Stoops. I agree with a commitment to him for the long-term, because it’s going to take the long-term to see what’s he can really do. I ask that Cat fans be patient. I mean, really, what’s another two and half seasons when we haven’t been competitive since the mid to late 1970’s? My eyes are on the 2018 season, while trying not to get “too” frustrated in the mean time.