Can Kentucky ride its improved recruiting to SEC success?
At first, Drew Barker didn't know why his mailbox was overflowing. It was March 26, 2013, and the four-star quarterback from Conner (Ky.) High was still a junior. He was used to getting missives every day from college football coaches who wanted him to play for their teams. But when he peeked inside, he found much more than the 15 to 20 recruiting letters to which he'd become accustomed: The box was jammed with 115 letters, all of them from the Kentucky Wildcats. After toting them inside, Barker laid the correspondence out on his kitchen table.
The message from Kentucky coach Mark Stoops and his staff was clear. "I felt like it really showed how much they wanted me," Barker said. Less than two months later, on May 10, he sat at a table centered on the stage in his high school auditorium and slipped on a blue baseball cap with CATS emblazoned across the front. He had verbally committed to Kentucky.
Barker was the sixth commitment of the Wildcats' 2014 recruiting class, which ranks 13th in the country in Rivals.com's team ratings, ahead of Texas, Stanford, Michigan, Oregon and Oklahoma, among other major conference powers. Kentucky's 27-man haul includes 10 four-star prospects, and one player (defensive tackle Matt Elam) who has been rated a five-star prospect by another service. It is the most heralded class the Wildcats have signed since at least 2002, as far back as Rivals' rankings go.
Former coach Joker Phillips did not sign a class that ranked higher than 50th in his three seasons in Lexington. He confronted the same challenge that now faces Stoops: recruiting players to a program that has struggled to win games. The difference? Stoops is landing the types of players that inspire hope that Kentucky can be a winner again.
"I think this class is really good," Barker said. "We're definitely taking a really big step with this recruiting class towards what we want -- which is to turn Kentucky back around into a winning program."
The Wildcats' recruiting pitch involves articulating a vision of what the program can achieve in the future -- not what it hasn't in the recent past. Though Kentucky went 2-10 (0-8 SEC) last season, Stoops and his staff have not hesitated to compete against big-name programs on the recruiting trail. And Kentucky has won more than a few of those battles: The Wildcats beat out Louisville, Tennessee and South Carolina for Barker; Auburn, Clemson and LSU for all-purpose back Stanley Williams; and Alabama, Notre Dame and Ohio State for Elam.
Stoops said that he wasn't worried about his team's win-loss record hurting its chances of landing certain prospects, stressing that building Kentucky into a winner was not going to be an overnight process.
"We're not worried about our record," he said. "They know that we're in for a rebuilding and that we need to build our program and we need some high quality recruits to help us do that."
Last year, Stoops was forced to piece together a recruiting class in the 10 weeks between his hiring on Nov. 27, 2012, and signing day (a period that coincided with the month-long recruiting dead period in December). The Wildcats signed nine prospects from Florida, where Stoops -- who was once the defensive backs coach at both South Florida and Miami, and who was also, from 2010 to '12, the defensive coordinator at Florida State -- has relationships with many high school coaches.
For the 2014 class, Kentucky was able to more thoroughly recruit players who live within a six hour drive of Lexington, in what Stoops calls the program's "target area." Said director of recruiting operations Dan Berezowitz, "We recruit, recruit, recruit. That's kind of what we do, non-stop, from evaluation to mailings to getting kids on campus."
The Wildcats have also begun to focus more of their recruiting efforts in the state of Ohio, which produced 11 members of Kentucky's 2014 class, including four-star prospects Mikel Horton, Dorian Baker and Mike Edwards. Newly promoted recruiting coordinator Vince Marrow, a former tight ends coach at Toledo, has received much of the credit for the Wildcats' recruiting success in the Buckeye State.
Marrow, who said he has relationships with many of the state's high school coaches, believes the allure of the SEC, coupled with the short travel distance, makes Lexington an ideal choice for Ohio-based prospects.
"I just take it as, the SEC is that close to Ohio," Marrow said. "You can play in the best conference in the country and still play close to home. That's what we're selling."
Stoops and his staff connected with prospects early in the recruiting process by inviting them to campus for a Junior Day visit -- many of Kentucky's 2014 commits participated in the program last year. Berezowitz said that he and the staff have tried to coordinate the days with basketball games, a recruiting tool that Stoops uses to introduce prospective Wildcats to Big Blue Nation.
Kentucky's early connections with prospects go a long way toward explaining why it had 16 members of the current class (59 percent) give verbal commitments before June 16. "This year, we had a full year to recruit and we did exceptionally well from our targeted area," Stoops said. "It helps us get them on campus and getting them around us and all that, so this year we got a lot of commitments early and we've held those commitments."
Barker says that before Stoops was hired the Wildcats weren't even on his radar. Stoops and his staff made the quarterback a priority. "We had a great bond," said Barker. "He would just talk to me on a personal level, just asking me how I'm doing, how school was, how my family is."
Once Barker committed, he aided Kentucky's recruiting efforts by reaching out to players via social media and talking to others he met at camps and other events. Barker also connected with players that had already committed to the Wildcats and convinced them to help him sell the program to other prospects. "I think Drew Barker did a really good job of keeping the class together and banding the guys together early on," Berezowitz said.
Kentucky's recruiting surge has coincided with the school's effort to upgrade its football facilities. The university board of trustees voted last Friday to approve a plan to construct a privately funded $45 million training facility. In November, the school unveiled the design for a $110 million renovation to Commonwealth Stadium. "It helps when prospects come on campus and see our athletic director making the commitment to upgrade the stadium and then put in a brand new football facility," Stoops said.
A turnout of nearly 51,000 fans at the Wildcats' spring game last April helped put the newfound excitement surrounding the program into perspective. Experiencing the game first-hand moved Barker to make his commitment. "When I saw all those fans, and how bad they wanted to have a really good program again -- that really piqued my interest," he said. "It just showed me a lot as to people really wanting to turn the football program around, and that they're not playing around anymore."
The next step for Stoops and Kentucky will be to turn the program's recruiting success into an improved on-field product. Though the Wildcats returns most of their key contributors from last season, they are not expected to compete with the likes of Missouri, Georgia, South Carolina and Florida for the SEC East title. But Kentucky seems to have the talent in place to at least be more competitive than it was last season.
Seven players, including Barker, enrolled in December or January and will participate in winter conditioning and spring practice. Whether they or any of their classmates can help the Wildcats climb out of the SEC cellar this season remains to be seen.
"I think you'll see some improvement right away," Stoops said. "These kids will come in and some of them will help us, but certainly they need time to develop. You never know which ones will be able to compete at a high level that first year.
"There's opportunity for some guys to come in and help us. But I think certainly, we need time to develop the great prospects we're recruiting and let them mature. I'm not sure about the timetable on that."
That such a timetable even exists at Kentucky is a stark change from the past.