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February 5, 2014

Stoops, Kentucky complete record recruiting class

It wasn't just the skeptics, wasn't only the pessimists or purveyors of easy narratives.

They weren't the only ones wondering if Kentucky could hold together a recruiting class -- a football recruiting class -- considered among the nation's elite. They weren't the only ones who doubted, as four-star talent began committing to the Wildcats last year, that UK could make it to signing day with a top-notch class intact.

Heck, Mark Stoops built the thing and he wasn't sure he could keep it in one piece.

"I think it's fair to say that I thought about that as well," Stoops said Wednesday.

He was saying it at a news conference to announce the most highly regarded Kentucky football recruiting class in the Rivals.com era.

So it's safe to say -- for a day, at least -- that Stoops can relax.

That's been rare on the recruiting trail for Stoops and his staff, whose second recruiting class at UK ranked No. 17 nationally as of Wednesday evening.

Recruiting wasn't Stoops' only priority in the 14 months since he took over the job. He had to learn the lay of the land. He had to coach his team, which went 2-10 in his first season. He had plenty to do.

"But with recruiting, I thought this was going to lay the foundation to turn this program, and it was a very critical year, and I felt like we really had to hit the pavement and recruit extremely hard," Stoops said. "Could not be more proud of this staff and the way they went about their business."

The easy knock on Kentucky -- so obvious that even Stoops' staff thought about it -- as that quality talent like quarterback Drew Barker and linebacker Dorian Hendrix would bail when the on-the-field going got tough.

So what kept it together?

What allowed the Wildcats to reach the finish line with a head-turning class that positions the program for better days to come?

It's a long story.

Pied Pipers
The story starts with Barker.

No recent Kentucky football signee has been more attuned to the recruiting scene than Barker, who isn't just aware of the nation's top prep football players -- he can reel off their names -- but has played with and against many of them in camps and events across the country.

Barker's commitment to Kentucky got the ball rolling -- "I know on the day I committed I said we're going to have a top 10-to-15 class," Barker said Wednesday -- and he kept the momentum going with some recruiting of his own.

"We joked about that, and I saw articles and people joking about him being the unofficial recruiting coordinator, but that was all on him," Stoops said. "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."

Once he got them, he wanted to keep them.

"He brought this class together and kept it together," said wide receiver T.V. Williams, like Barker a January enrollee at Kentucky.

He didn't do it alone.

Though Barker had some sway with top talents in Kentucky -- he helped lure defensive tackle Matt Elam, who picked the Wildcats over Alabama -- and some wide receivers, including Williams and Thaddeus Snodgrass, UK needed a man on the ground in Ohio.

Hendrix gave them one.

The linebacker from Huber Heights committed early and went to work in pursuing his peers, ultimately playing a part in Kentucky securing commitments from Snodgrass, running back Mikel Horton and safety Mike Edwards.

As Kentucky struggled on the field, Barker and Hendrix never wavered in their commitment to the Cats.

"I knew from the beginning that this is where I was gonna be, because I knew what the future was gonna hold," Hendrix said. "So I just tried to keep everybody together, me and Drew, and everything ended up working out. I don't think that the season's record had anything to do with people's commitment at all."

In fact, as the Wildcats wilted, their commitments grew even closer.

Band of Brothers
Jimmy Brumbaugh has been coaching for a decade, and Kentucky's defensive line coach says he's "never seen a class like this." Special teams coordinator Bradley Dale Peveto has been at it even longer -- 28 years -- and calls it "really one of the most unique things I've ever seen."

Though it's common for basketball recruiting classes -- frequently featuring only a handful of players -- to bond before arriving on campus, it's a relative rarity in football, when a recruiting class often consists of two dozen or more players.

But while Kentucky's class is big, the world is getting smaller.

And Twitter played its part in the class sticking together through signing day.

"Those guys did a great job (as commitments) of communicating with each other through social media," running backs coach Chad Scott said. "Guys like Drew Barker did a great job of communicating with all the guys. Really, those guys themselves did a great job of developing relationships with one another and staying in contact with one another throughout their entire process and season."

Peveto noticed it at camps last summer, when some of Kentucky's top targets tended to congregate and form friendships. He noticed it on unofficial visits, when players who'd gotten to know each other via social media were planning group activities without coaches' input.

"I think this class really bonded with us as a staff to begin with," Peveto said. "And I think they really bonded with each other. I think they really became a family; they became a group of brothers."

Seven of them enrolled early, including five -- Barker, Hendrix, Horton, Snodgrass and Williams -- who graduated high school in January.

"This class is strong…," Hendrix said. "We look at each other as brothers. We take care of each other. We look after each others' backs."

But those bonds could have been formed anywhere. For it to happen at Kentucky, the Cats' top targets had to buy what the UK coaches were selling.

The strong salesmanship started at the top.

Man in Charge
Stoops is, first and foremost, a defensive tactician. Over the past year, he's learned to be a staff manager, too, taking on his first-ever head coaching job.

He's also a people person. And that played a role in constructing a historic class.

"He's a great recruiter, make no mistake about that," said Vince Marrow, Stoops' recruiting coordinator. "He's a head coach, but he's a good recruiter."

He's surrounded himself with other good ones who know how to make an impression on recruits.

Marrow played board games with Horton's family. Offensive coordinator Neal Brown and offensive line coach John Schlarman walked a mile to meet with eventual signee Jervontius Stallings after a winter storm closed the road that led to him.

"I've always been fortunate enough to go into any home and recruit," Peveto said. "I think it's all about how people view you. Can they trust you? Can you connect with them? There's really no science to recruiting. There's a lot of different ways to do it."

Kentucky's staff has a number of those ways covered, and that helped.

"I think you're pitching the university, but you're pitching the head coach," Marrow said. "I mean, you look at our staff. We come from a lot of good programs, and every one of these guys were fired up to come and work for Mark. I think it speaks to your leader."

Stoops' name and reputation helped get Kentucky's foot in the door with some top talents, both in his native Ohio and in Florida, where he was defensive coordinator at Florida State.

That was a start. Stoops also knows how to finish strong.

"It always starts with the head coach," Brown said. "He's a tremendous recruiter, does a great job being who he is at all times."

Straight Shooters
What you see is what you get. That's what coaches and players will tell you about Stoops. And the straightforward approach helped Kentucky clear perhaps its biggest hurdle in keeping its class intact.

Stoops and his staff knew that the on-the-field product would be lacking in 2013. So the Kentucky coaches took a calculated risk to say so to the players they were recruiting.

"I don't think we tried to -- we didn't minimize where we were as a program," Brown said. "We knew we were in the foundation-building process, we knew it was going to take a little bit of work, or a lot of work really. So we didn't sell them on a bunch of things that we knew weren't going to be possible early."

Stoops prides himself in not giving recruits "some silver-tongued speech," he said. He wants to provide specific plans about offense, defense and player development. He wants to sell the program in great detail.

For Stoops, selling the future meant being frank about the present.

"It was something that we had to let them know, that we knew we maybe didn't have a team that was going to go out there and win 10 games," Stoops said. "Again, I think the message is very clear: 'We're getting better every day. We're going to compete against anybody on the field or off, and we're just going about our business. We want you to be a part of it.'"

That message resonated.

"They let us know that it was gonna be a process, and that was the biggest thing," Hendrix said. "They didn't say that they were gonna go out there and go undefeated. They didn't say that they were gonna make a bowl game. But they were positive the entire time. They said, 'We're gonna get better,' and I believed it and it's true."

Looking Forward
It will take time to get better. No one is more aware than Stoops of the steep climb Kentucky still faces.

Every heaping helping of praise for the Cats' 17th-ranked recruiting class comes with this side order of caution: It's the No. 9 class in the 14-team Southeastern Conference.

"I was all excited earlier seeing what we were doing and everything, and somebody told me where we finished in the conference, and I said, 'What?!" Stoops said with a laugh. "Hey, that's where we live, and that's why we're excited to be in this conference."

Back-to-back strong recruiting classes won't get Kentucky over the hump. They're just the first two steps in a long process. And Stoops won't relax for long.

He has to build another class -- and keep it together again -- in 2015.

This time, at least, he'll have a blueprint.

"I'll tell you, we're working right now for 2015, and the 2015 recruits know what's going on with 2014," Stoops said. "That has an effect."


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