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July 8, 2013
Dallas Jackson is the National Columnist for Rivals.com. Email him your comments or story ideas to DallasJ@Yahoo-Inc.com and follow him on Twitter.
Kentucky has not sustained the balance of Jimmys and Joes with X's and O's since it began playing football in 1891. But with just one signing class under his belt -- and the fastest recruiting start in school history -- new Wildcats coach Mark Stoops may have struck a chord that is playing well in Lexington.
In the final two months before signing the class of 2013, Stoops and his staff elevated the program to its highest finish in the Rivals.com era with its first top 30 showing -- closing at No. 29. Five months into the recruiting period for the class of 2014, Stoops is on pace for the top 20. The class spent nearly a week atop the rankings and is still inside the top five as of this writing.
"I am very pleased with the reaction that we have seen since we got here," Stoops said. "The class of 2013 finished really strong for us, and that momentum has carried over to this class.
"It was exciting to see this class sitting atop the rankings and have the social media reaction be what it was; that was nice to see. I am pleased with what we have been able to do so far, and even though there is a long way to go I think we are on the right track."
The current class has 18 commitments. Kentucky has had more than five verbal pledges through the first week of July only once since 2004.
There is a quintet of four-star players on board, all members of the Rivals250 presented by Under Armour.
Quarterback Drew Barker of Burlington (Ky.) Connor is ranked No. 117 and has become a lead recruiter for the staff.
He is joined by all-purpose back Stanley Williams from Bethlehem (Ga.) George Walton Academy, running back Mikel Horton of West Chester (Ohio) Lakota West, Lima (Ohio) Central Catholic defensive back Darius West and wide receiver Thaddeus Snodgrass from Springfield (Ohio) High. The four rank 96, 131, 185 and 205, respectively.
Stoops said that having a strong core of players aligned with the program will help attract others.
"The excitement and the momentum, I think, have helped create a buzz," he said. "The leadership of the guys we have committed has helped as well.
"There is a lot of positive energy that we are feeding off of, and we have a fan base that is starving to have a good team."
The history of the program reads poorly:
The last time Kentucky had a nine-win season was 1984.
The last time it had back-to-back seasons with nine wins was 1976 and 1977.
It has not won an outright SEC title since Bear Bryant was the coach in 1950.
Coming off of a winless campaign within the conference and a season that included a loss to Western Kentucky, the upcoming schedule may not be much better.
Stoops said the way to keep a positive message is to approach the class of recruits with honesty.
"We have a lot of work to do, and we are not where we want to be," he said. "The best thing for this class of kids is that they don't have to play on the 2013 team. We will make sure to spend time getting to know these kids and looking forward to the future with them, but this year's team is not what they will be joining."
The first-year coach was quick to add that his honesty extends not only to the incoming players but also to the ones in-house. He said a perceived lack of talent is not an excuse for losing.
"We are not conceding anything this year," Stoops said. "There is not a game on the schedule that we are not going to prepare as best we can for and go into the contest looking to win. This year's team will be what it is based on what we all do here, but each team is independent from the others. We are not conceding any game, but the kids we are recruiting aren't on this team. That is just a fact. It is what it is."
Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell said that balancing salesmanship and results can be tough.
"What you tell recruits and what you tell players on your roster has to be different when you are a new coach," he said. "Neither group wants to hear that this first year is a waste -- and it isn't -- but (Stoops) is going into battle with what he has, and he wants to show what he can do as a coach. He also has to keep the recruits interested, but the attention paid to the class of 2014 needs to be balanced with keeping the other 80-plus guys in the locker room from asking, 'What about us?'
"Juggling recruiting with what reality looks like is one of the hardest jobs for any new coach."
Stoops' ability to balance those two aspects as a head coach will not be determined for another few months. In that time, the Wildcats recruiting class is likely to move out of the top 10 of the national rankings.
Farrell said that perspective needs to be put out there for fans and foes.
"The funny part is that people are already taking about the class being 'down to No. 4,' like that is a reason to make fun of Kentucky," he said. "This is uncharted territory for that program. Kids are buying in, and there are a lot of good things going on.
"A top 10 finish is probably unrealistic -- and top 15 may be tough to hold onto -- but having a top 25 class would still be a first at Kentucky and that would still be a story in February. Schools are now forced to recruit against Kentucky; there are naysayers about Kentucky, and this is football we are talking about."
Mathematically, Kentucky figures to settle from No. 15 to No. 20 in the final rankings. The class is averaging a 3.22 ranking per recruit, and only once in the history of Rivals.com has a program with an average recruiting ranking of 3.22 or lower finished above No. 15 -- when Iowa claimed the No. 11 spot in the class of 2005 with that exact figure. It also has never been below No. 20.
Farrell thinks there is some recruiting left to do and that Kentucky can see a boost this year. He said that if the staff can land Elizabethtown (Ky.) John Hardin defensive tackle Matt Elam it would be a major coup.
"He is the most important guy left for them, I believe," Farrell said. "He is really high on the board for a lot of programs, and if Kentucky can get him away from them it would send a message."
He is not alone in being a factor in the 20 players whom the Rivals.com formula uses to evaluate signing classes.
Kentucky has made the cut for many other prospects who could bolster its final ranking.
Four-star receivers Braxton Berrios of Raleigh (N.C.) Leesville Road and Blake Bone of Woodruff (S.C.) High have the Wildcats among their final five schools. Westerville (Ohio) Central four-star offensive tackle Nick Richardson has the program in his last four choices. Junior college four-star defensive tackle Cory Johnson said he is between Kentucky and Miami. With only one spot in the secondary left on the board, five of the four-star cornerbacks whom Stoops has offered are uncommitted and considering the Wildcats.
With seven months until pen meets paper, Stoops said he will remain as active as he can in recruiting, looking to have as many elite players as he can get on the roster.
"It is important to have good players," he said. "We look to social media to connect with kids, and we see that as a way to get recruits to connect with each other and with our fan base. We are also still very much grassroots, writing handwritten notes to kids. Anything that we can legally do within the rules, we will do.
"I think that we are at a good place right now, and it can still get better."