Kentucky fans were not the only ones taken aback by the Wildcats’ unprecedented football recruiting class on National Signing Day.
The final result even surprised the man who orchestrated it.
“If I’m honest, we maybe had a little bit better success than I thought this quick,” said UK head coach Mark Stoops, who, in only his second year in Lexington and coming off a 2-10 season, signed a 28-man class Wednesday that ranked No. 20 nationally at the time of his mid-afternoon press conference.
The ranking is the high-water mark in program history. It also placed the Wildcats ahead of such traditional powers as Penn State, Michigan, Nebraska and South Carolina, and just a sliver behind the likes of Georgia, Texas and USC.
Kentucky was pleased with its first signing class under Stoops. The 2013 haul was ranked No. 39 by Scout and was considered by most outlets to be a considerable upgrade in talent.
But nobody really had any idea Stoops & Co. would take it as far as they did this year with a class that includes six four-star players, 19 three-stars and only three flying under the radar at two stars.
“I knew we’d recruit good players,” Stoops said. “Where it was rated and all that and the publicity, I like it, and it helps our program and all that, but, again, that’s not what I’m out for. I’m out to get great players to help build this program day in and day out.”
According to Stoops, his staff gave a great “team effort” in putting together this class and worked with a sense of urgency.
“You go back to last year, from signing day last year to today, I thought it was absolutely critical to have a great year,” he said. “… With recruiting, I thought this was going to lay the foundation to turn this program.”
The class features 13 offensive players and 15 defensive players coming from 10 different states. The Cats signed four of the top five players in the Bluegrass State and invaded talent-rich Ohio for 11 signees.
It was heavy in the trenches (four offensive linemen, six defensive) but hit on need areas across the board. Stoops bemoaned the lack of playmakers in the receiving corps and the secondary during the Cats’ difficult 2013 campaign. The staff responded by signing five wideouts and five defensive backs.
“We hit a home run with the wide receivers, and we definitely needed them,” Stoops said.
The Cats added size in receivers like Dorian Baker (6-3, 205), Thaddeus Snodgrass (6-1, 180) and Blake Bone (6-5, 200), as well as tremendous speed in Garrett Johnson and T.V. Williams. The same could be said for the running back positions where they landed bruising back Mikel Horton (6-1, 223) and slasher Stanley “Boom” Williams (5-9, 190).
Kentucky also picked up a four-star quarterback close to home in the form of Conner High School standout Drew Barker. Stoops cited his early addition to the class as a big catalyst to draw more talent to UK.
“I think, with Drew, I felt like that was a big part of it because of the quarterback and the way he was a natural leader, and he wanted to recruit other players,” Stoops said. “We joked about that, and I saw articles and people joking about him being the unofficial recruiting coordinator, but that was all on him.
“I mean, we don't direct him to do that. We're not allowed to direct him to do that, nor would I do it. He just has that ability to be a leader, and he wanted other great players around him. You know, I said that a year ago as well. Players want to be around other great players.”
One of those who wanted to be around Barker was the crown jewel of the defensive class, U.S. Army All-American defensive tackle Matt Elam (6-6, 360) from John Hardin High School in Kentucky. He picked the Cats over Alabama and a host of other elite programs.
“Matt was very important for a lot of reasons,” Stoops said. “… He’s so athletic and agile and is very explosive. He’s a difference-maker on the field.
“It’s important to know that we can go head to head and win some recruiting battles against the best teams in the country,” Stoops added. “I think it’s important to lay the foundation for future recruits in Kentucky and say ‘Why not come to Kentucky?’”
Among the other big wins for UK on National Signing Day was: four-star defensive end Denzel Ware (6-2, 240) who had offers from programs like Alabama, Florida State, Florida, Clemson and Ohio State; four-star cornerback Kendall Randolph, who entertained offers from programs like Alabama, Oklahoma, Auburn and Florida State; and four-star safety Darius West (6-0, 200) who had offers from a long list of schools that included Louisville, Michigan State, Notre Dame, Penn State, Tennessee and Wisconsin.
Stoops estimated that UK signed approximately 28 of the 36 players who made official visits at some point this year, an extremely high percentage. The Cats also had only one player de-commit during the process.
“Very unique,” Stoops said. “This is one of the most unique recruiting experiences I've ever been a part of. This group was so solid for so long. Just like I said in the opening statement, we finished strong, just like we started, with very few hiccups in between. We had our battles, but that's fun. That's what we're here for, to compete every day, and we compete in recruiting.”