Perhaps the most important day in the newest era of Kentucky football didn't occur on National Signing Day, when the Wildcats -- coming off a 2-10 campaign and an 0-8 record in the SEC -- signed the highest-rated recruiting class in program history. Perhaps the most crucial day happened two months earlier, when newly hired head coach Mark Stoops announced his intention to rejuvenate the Wildcats' status in the recruiting sphere. On Dec. 6, Stoops hired D.J. Eliot as his defensive coordinator and first staff member. Eliot followed Stoops from Florida State, where he worked with Seminoles' defensive ends after serving with Stoops at three previous stops. The ink was hardly dry on Eliot's paperwork when Stoops handed him his first assignment: Go find the next big thing in Kentucky football.
Fast forward two months to Signing Day, and Stoops, Eliot and the rest of the 'Cats' staff hauled in two of the Bluegrass State's most prized prospects: defensive end Jason Hatcher out of Louisville and running back/wide receiver Ryan Timmons out of Frankfort. Stoops' inaugural signing class finished 29th in Rivals.com rankings; Kentucky hadn't finished better than 50th in any of former coach Joker Phillips' three seasons in Lexington. The Big Blue gauntlet was thrown, and the recently dormant Wildcats suddenly had players that were coveted on a national scale -- all under the guidance of a first-year coach.
Nothing was more imperative to Stoops than bringing Hatcher and Timmons to campus. He needed to prove that no players were too high profile for the 'Cats to pursue. "We went hard at [Hatcher] right from the very beginning, right after I was named head coach," Stoops said. "Jason Hatcher and Ryan Timmons were the first players we had anybody on this staff go see. And we ended up landing both of them. It was very significant for us."
The signings take on even greater significance given the prospects' other suitors. Hatcher -- whose high school, Trinity, has filtered players into hometown Louisville for years -- was a longtime USC commit before flipping to the Wildcats. Timmons was courted by the likes of Ohio State and Florida.
Stoops hasn't been on the job in Lexington for long, but the youngest brother of Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops and Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops has injected life into a program that's been lulled to sleep the past few seasons. Phillips' 7-17 record over his final two campaigns dropped Kentucky even deeper into the depths of the SEC standings, while onetime cellar-dweller Vanderbilt climbed to respectability under the tutelage of coach James Franklin. The Wildcats were floundering at the bottom of the nation's most brutal conference, and the need for a fresh start was evident throughout Big Blue nation.
STAPLES: Burning spring questions for each SEC team
When Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart announced Stoops' hiring in November, Barnhart made it clear the Wildcats' mission was to compete in the SEC. But he didn't stop there. "You deserve a football program that competes at a championship level," he said at Stoops' introductory press conference. "That's what we've hired this guy to do. We want him to help get us to Atlanta and pursue SEC championships and help us play on New Year's Day. We dream of that for our players, we dream of that for our fans. We want to support those efforts to get that done."
Barnhart's strong words hardly reflect the program's history. The Wildcats haven't won an SEC title since 1976 and their only claim to a national championship occurred more than half a century ago (1950 under coach Bear Bryant). Still, Stoops hasn't shied away from grand expectations. And if his first recruiting class is any indication, he's spreading belief without a winning tradition to go off. "We sold [recruits] on the vision and the plan of where we're going to go in the future," he said. "The coaches that we've brought in here, as well as the student athletes, have a track record of being successful."
Indeed, Stoops' five-year, $11-million contract includes incentives reaching past the relative norm of Kentucky's success, with bonuses for winning five or more league games, the SEC East and the conference title. If all the benchmarks are met, Stoops could pocket an additional $900,000. "We wanted to make sure that Mark knew we wanted him here," Barnhart said. "We wanted to make sure that he knew we were committed to football, that he has got the resources in terms of dollars to go out and get the staff necessary to get it done."
That contract, as well as the opportunity to be a head coach in the nation's most dominant league, was enough to lure Stoops from a Florida State program in good shape under coach Jimbo Fisher, where Stoops helped transform a porous defense into one of the most formidable in the country. When Stoops arrived in Tallahassee three seasons ago, the 'Noles ranked 108th nationally in total defense. In 2012, they ranked second -- and only Alabama allowed fewer points in the regular season. Stoops' revamped Florida State unit mirrored his vastly improved defense at Arizona. The Wildcats checked in at 109th nationally in total defense upon Stoops' arrival as defensive coordinator in 2004; they rose to a top-25 group in each of the coach's final two seasons in Tucson.
But there's no mistaking it: Stoops has his work cut out for him with Kentucky's roster. UK returns the majority of its top tacklers, but the Wildcats finished 11th in the SEC in total defense last season (391 yards allowed per game). They also gave up 30 or more points on eight separate occasions, including during a 32-14 season-opening loss to rival Louisville and a 40-0 embarrassment at the hands of Vanderbilt. "We have some guys up front that have a chance to be successful," Stoops said. "That's a good start, to have some physical guys up front. We just need to improve the skill positions across the board."
Kentucky's offense wasn't much better in 2012, but Stoops brought in former Texas Tech coordinator Neal Brown to head up the Wildcats' new-look attack. Brown's Red Raiders ranked in the top 15 in total offense and top 10 in passing offense in all three of his seasons in Lubbock. At his introductory press conference, Stoops joked with former Kentucky All-America quarterback Tim Couch, promising the Wildcats will have "an offense [Couch will] be proud of." For that to happen, Stoops and Brown, a former Kentucky wide receiver, must smooth out a quarterback competition between Maxwell Smith, Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles before fall camp.
In a few short months, Stoops believes he's taken steps toward bringing Kentucky back to relevance. Like any new hire, he assures such transformation won't occur overnight, but he won't downplay the importance of going toe-to-toe with the country's top teams on the recruiting trail.
After all, that's been the formula for success for another Kentucky athletic program. And if all goes according to plan, perhaps Stoops can turn some Big Blue hoop heads into football fanatics. "I don't think coach [John] Calipari has anything to worry about there," Stoops joked. "I think there are just enough fans around the state to support us both."
Photo gallery: Top returning players in the SEC in 2013