Walking into Kentucky’s recruiting war room on national signing day, Mark Stoops didn’t know what to expect from the day. He had only been on the job a few months, rushing in and out of countless living rooms while memorizing a laundry list of family members just to bring in his first class at Kentucky.
He thought the time he put in and the relationships built were enough for a solid signing day, but when you’re the new kid on the block, anxiety can dominate your emotions.
But as he and his staff watched their recruiting board fill up with the names they wanted, the anxiety slowly morphed into jubilation. The worry that comes with a new class -- in the SEC no less -- can take some years off a man’s life, but for the hours tucked away inside Kentucky’s football facilities on the most important recruiting day of the year, Kentucky’s men gained life.
“I was pleasantly surprised,” Stoops said of how his 22-man class (ranked 36th nationally in ESPN’s RecruitingNation class rankings) shaped up.
The former Florida State defensive coordinator arrived at Kentucky to mixed feelings surrounding his hire. He had the reputation of being a tremendous recruiter, but his defensive background was viewed as a turnoff by some residing in Big Blue Nation. The thought was that going in a more offensive direction was the right direction after Joker Phillips was fired during the 2012 season.
But when you look at Stoops’ first class, he might have hit defense hard, but he grabbed 12 offensive players to nine defensive prospects. He put an emphasis on building up front -- on both sides -- but picked up some potential playmakers in receivers Ryan Timmons (ESPN 300 member) Javess Blue (junior college four-star) and running back Jojo Kemp.
Defense is his forte, but Stoops understands the offense has to turn around if he’s going to succeed in Lexington.
“My background is defense, but I’m the head coach now and we want to win at a high level,” he said. “I know the importance of being great on offense better than anybody to win at this level, and to win consistently you have to be great at all three phases.”
After a very successful signing day that saw three of the top 10 players from the state of Kentucky and nine players from the state of Florida sign with the Wildcats, Stoops’ popularity is surging throughout the Bluegrass State. His class was extremely balanced and met Kentucky’s major needs.
Thanks to relentless recruiting efforts from UK’s staff, Stoops’ bunch moved in front of the eight ball with some big, late splashes.
Timmons, who turned down Florida and Ohio State, could make an immediate impact at receiver this fall, while ESPN 300 defensive end Jason Hatcher, who flipped from USC on national signing day, should compete for playing time from Day 1.
Stoops said Timmons was the first player he and has staff saw during the recruiting process, making him a vital acquisition.
“He was critical because he's a fantastic player, explosive, good with the ball in his hands,” Stoops said. “To get a guy like Ryan was very important. He was exactly the player we needed to get.”
And so was Hatcher. Stoops had to convince his mother to momentarily put aside her Louisville love, but the battle was worth it to get such a high-caliber player.
But Stoops didn’t just add another talented body, he and his staff earned instant credibility on the recruiting trail by adding Hatcher and Timmons, two players who turned down high-profile programs to sign with the Cats. That right there helps momentum for 2014.
"We're not going to take a backseat to anybody; we're going to recruit hard," Stoops said.
Stoops clearly won signing day, as a crowd that rivaled UK basketball’s Midnight Madness showed up to celebrate his class. But now it’s time to win the fall. Those names now have to generate wins, or Wednesday will have meant nothing. It’ll be a process, but Stoops took this job because of the potential he saw in BBN.
“I felt there was a sleeping giant here that we can do great things,” he said, “and we will do great things.”