SEC: Ryan Timmons

Patience is a virtue Kentucky quarterback Patrick Towles is quite familiar with.

It's not easy for college quarterbacks to have these days, as the trend of winner-starts-loser-transfers seems to grow across the country. Since only one can play the position at a time, waiting your turn can be difficult, especially if you were a highly-regarded recruit out of high school.

[+] EnlargePatrick Towles
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesPatrick Towles has thrown for more than 2,000 yards and rushed for 204 in Kentucky's eight games.
Towles, however, bleeds Kentucky blue and he's now reaping the rewards of his patience as one of the feel-good stories of this SEC season and a catalyst in Kentucky's marked on-field improvement in 2014. Being able to start -- and star -- for the school he grew up loving in his home state is a joy for the redshirt sophomore signal-caller.

"My entire life I wanted to play quarterback here," Towles said. "I've worked my entire life to get to this point where I am now. I've had a lot of breaks, a lot of balls fall my way, I guess you could say. It's great to just finally start to see the fruits of your labor."

Much labor led to Towles' 2014 success, where he is directing one of the most improved teams in the conference this season and recently went toe-to-toe with the No. 1 team in the nation, as he did Saturday in the Wildcats' loss to Mississippi State.

A class of 2012 recruit, Towles had the type of credentials coaches look for in their quarterback of the future. A four-star prospect, Towles was the No. 1-ranked player in the state of Kentucky, a high school All-American, Gatorade Player of the Year and the state's "Mr. Football" who led Highlands High School to three consecutive state championships while compiling a 44-1 record as a starter.

Upon signing with the Wildcats under then-head coach Joker Phillips, Towles played in five games as a true freshman but was behind Maxwell Smith and Jalen Whitlow on the depth chart.

When Mark Stoops and his new coaching staff arrived in 2013, Towles was again buried on the depth chart and ended up redshirting the season. He could have transferred but decided to stay the course and work on improving enough to win the starting quarterback job.

"I did not [think about transferring]," Towles said. "If I would have felt like I was getting a raw deal or maybe I deserved the job and didn't get it, then maybe I would have started to think about that. But I was treated fairly from the jump, since I've gotten here. A lot of quarterbacks they don't win the job or they're told they're not going to play, they get up and leave and go somewhere else. I want to be here, I wanted to be here and I plan on being here for a little bit.”

So Towles continued to work with Kentucky offensive coordinator Neal Brown and when away from school, Towles hired a private quarterback coach to continue development. By the time spring football arrived this year, Towles' progress was evident. Meanwhile, Whitlow transferred out of the program in April and Smith missed spring practice because of shoulder surgery.

Plenty of competition still awaited Towles, though. The arrival of true freshman Drew Barker, an ESPN 300 prospect and the No. 1 player in the state of Kentucky in the 2014 class, was much anticipated. Reese Phillips, who redshirted in 2013 like Towles, was in the mix, too. And by preseason training camp this August, Smith returned to practice. Still, Towles did enough to win the starting job.

Brown said Towles' fundamentals, among other things, greatly improved.

"He changed his release, he made it much shorter," Brown said. "His preparation is at a much higher level. He did all those things and really competed hard and won the job and once we got into the game action he's really stepped up and done a nice job, not only with his arm but with his legs."

His hard work shows on Saturdays. Against the No. 1 Bulldogs he threw for a career-high 390 yards and ran for a career-high 76 yards with two rushing touchdowns and two passing touchdowns. He kept the Wildcats in the game until the final minutes when Mississippi State returned an onside kick attempt for a touchdown.

He is third in the SEC in passing yards (2,077) and has a solid 12-to-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He is fifth among SEC quarterbacks in rushing yards (204) and has four rushing scores also.

Most importantly, having good quarterback play has gone a long way in the Wildcats being 5-3 after winning only two total in 2013.

"I think it's very big," Stoops said. "I think you have very little chance with the teams we're competing against without a player there, without a quarterback."

Teammates cite Towles as a leader.

"A lot of guys can learn from him," running back Jojo Kemp said. "He doesn't hang his head. He's very positive all the time on and off the field. He's going to do whatever it takes to win."

He isn't alone -- Kentucky's increased talent level thanks to some veterans, as well as recruiting success under Stoops, has given him quality weapons to work with. A backfield of Kemp, Braylon Heard and Stanley "Boom" Williams complemented by receivers such as Ryan Timmons, Demarco Robinson, Javess Blue, Garrett Johnson and Blake Bone have made Towles' job easier. Working with a creative coach like Brown, who has Air Raid roots but has no problems trying different things like the Wildcat formation which has had success for Kentucky this season, has also been huge for Towles.

There's still much left to do, but Towles & Co. have things looking up in Lexington.

"We're not done yet," Towles said. "We just got started."

Wildcat providing boost to Wildcats

October, 16, 2014
Oct 16
Kentucky offensive coordinator Neal Brown is an Air Raid guy, through and through.

He played for Hal Mumme, considered the godfather of the offense that had a reverberating impact on college football, at Kentucky in the late 1990s. Brown has run the system throughout his seven-year career as an offensive coordinator. Like most Air Raid disciples, he has put his own spin on the attack and it continues to evolve in his second season as Kentucky’s offensive coordinator.

So it was only natural that, when Kentucky scored a landmark win over South Carolina on Oct. 4, it did so thanks in large part to … the Wildcat formation?


Mumme, now the head coach at NAIA school Belhaven, noticed.

“It's funny,” Brown said. “He texted me after the South Carolina game and it was a good text. He was basically saying, 'The No. 1 thing is to win.' He wants to throw the football, no question. But he wants to win and he likes being different. And the Wildcat deal is a non-traditional way, so I think he can relate to that."

[+] EnlargeNeal Brown
AP Photo/James CrispNeal Brown has his own take on the Air Raid offense that includes the Wildcat formation, which worked well against South Carolina.
Yes, the Wildcat formation has given Kentucky an edge recently, particularly in the 45-38 victory over the Gamecocks. Brown is all about doing whatever it takes to win. If that means doing something different from what his core principles dictate, that’s fine.

With Kentucky (5-1) serving as one of the best stories in the SEC and a game away from bowl eligibility, who are we to argue? The Wildcats are averaging 36.5 points per game and have scored more than 40 in their last two. Solid quarterback play from sophomore Patrick Towles and depth at running back and receiver, thanks in part to an influx of talent from Mark Stoops’ recruiting classes, have made a night-and-day difference for Kentucky’s offense compared to where it was at this time last season.

Brown’s standard offensive principles remain intact. The Wildcat is simply something different to throw at teams and something he has used since his first year as an offensive coordinator at Troy. But against South Carolina, it was particularly successful.

That night, sophomore running back Jojo Kemp put together a career-best performance, much of it running the Wildcat. Initially planning to only use it a handful of plays, Kentucky leaned on the formation, particularly in crunch time, and continued to use it as they had success. Kemp wound up with career-highs in carries (17), rushing yards (131) and rushing touchdowns (three) in the emotional victory.

“Jojo is great; he played awesome,” Towles said. “Without him, I don't know if we win that football game.”

Brown, who said he likes to use the Wildcat formation occasionally, figured it wasn’t broke so there was no sense in fixing it.

"Going in, I thought we'd use it between six and eight snaps a game,” he said. “We used it in short yardage and to get Jojo Kemp some touches. And then we got there in the fourth quarter [vs. South Carolina] and we hit it on a short-yardage play for a 10-plus yard gain. Then on first down, I stayed in it, and we hit it for another big gain, and from there it just became, 'Hey, they aren't stopping it; let's keep doing it and make them stop it.' Fortunately for us, they didn't that night."

Kemp’s season-high workload was well above his usual carry total (he hasn’t had more than nine carries in any other game this season) but he answered the bell every time, and produced results like this.

“I got tired a lot of times,” Kemp said. “But I had to suck it up and go out there and be a man."

The formation also yielded a perfectly-executed trick play in which Towles, who usually motions out to line up as a receiver in the formation, took a handoff on a reverse and threw a 48-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Ryan Timmons. The play gave Kentucky a lead early in the second half and provided a spark.

“We worked on that play about 25 times in practice that week, it was good every time, we executed it every time,” Towles said. “[Brown] called the play, I told our offensive line what we were going to run and we had done it so many times that it was kind of second nature.”

The formation has only been one element of a successful offense that was in the bottom four in the SEC in most statistical categories a year ago but has climbed to the middle of the pack in the league so far this season. Kentucky has been solid defensively this season and the Wildcats are developing an offensive identity to match.

As they head into a crucial game at LSU on Saturday night, the Wildcats are looking to build on their surprise first half of the season. They’re not satisfied, though. They want more.

"We're excited, but we're focused,” Towles said. “Nobody came into the season wanting to win five games. We want to win every game we play.”

Vote: SEC play of the week

October, 5, 2014
Oct 5

Who had the play of the week in the SEC?


Discuss (Total votes: 10,907)

Have you recovered yet? (Don’t worry, if you’re an Ole Miss or Mississippi State fan, we already know the answer). What a weekend in the SEC. Up is down, left is right and the Magnolia State rules all. Helping to make it a memorable weekend of football were some incredible plays from across the league.

Here are our picks for the top five and we’re letting you take a vote to tell us which of them you thought was the best of the weekend. Then we'll come back on Tuesday with a more in-depth look at the play you determined was the best of an insane week of SEC football.

Gurley goes deep


You knew he could run ... and catch ... and return kicks. Now you know that Todd Gurley can throw, too. On a nifty trick play, Hutson Mason moved in motion from under center, Gurley took a snap in the Wildcat formation, faked a handoff and threw a picturesque bomb to tight end Jeb Blazevich for a 50-yard gain. It was part of 337 yards of total offense from Gurley.

Golson seals the deal

Senquez GolsonJoe Murphy/Getty ImagesSenquez Golson sealed Ole Miss' upset of Alabama with this end-zone interception.
Bo Wallace made some big-time throws to give Ole Miss the late lead, but it was Rebels senior defensive back Senquez Golson who secured the win with an impressive interception in the final minute. As Blake Sims tried to find 6-foot-6 O.J. Howard near the back of the end zone, the 5-9 Golson timed his jump perfectly and snatched the ball in the air while getting a foot down in bounds. Once the play (which was initially called incomplete) was reviewed and overturned, Vaught-Hemingway Stadium went into a frenzy as the Rebels secured a 23-17 win over Alabama.

Marshall to Coates for six


Auburn rolled over LSU on Saturday and the domination began early, as evidenced by Auburn’s first touchdown. Nick Marshall chucked one deep to Sammie Coates, who was covered well by LSU’s Rashard Robinson. It even appeared Robinson out-jumped Coates, but Coates somehow came up with the ball then forced his way into the end zone to complete the 56-yard scoring play. Impressive.

Noil shows his worth


Texas A&M got pummeled by Mississippi State but true freshman receiver Speedy Noil was one of the bright spots for the Aggies on Saturday. A five-star recruit out of New Orleans, Noil showed why he was so coveted by programs with the ability he displayed on this catch. Not only did he make a leaping grab near the sideline, but he got both feet down and had the presence of mind to reach the ball over the goal line, even though his body landed at the 1, to get the Aggies six points.

Wild call by the Wildcats


Kentucky had quite a night running the Wildcat formation in its 45-38 win over South Carolina, and this was a creative call by offensive coordinator Neal Brown. Similar to the Georgia play above, quarterback Patrick Towles left his customary spot and motioned to the left. Jojo Kemp took the direct snap and handed it off to Javess Blue, who gave it to Towles on a reverse. All the while, Ryan Timmons was sprinting behind an unsuspecting South Carolina defense, and Towles tossed the ball to him for an easy 48-yard touchdown.
We continue our breakdown of each position group in the SEC on Wednesday by looking at a group that might be low on name recognition but quite high -- and deep -- on talent.

Mike Evans, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jordan Matthews are all off to the NFL. Now a new group of playmakers is ready to emerge.

Who will be this season’s star pass-catchers? Let’s find out.

Wide receiver/tight end position rankings

1. Alabama: Like so many on this list, all of it depends on who is throwing the football. If Jacob Coker shows he can spin it, then Alabama will have the best group of pass-catchers in the SEC -- maybe the country. It isn’t just Amari Cooper and O.J. Howard, whom you will read about later this afternoon. Howard, who was underutilized in the passing game last year, is poised to have a breakout sophomore campaign. But there’s also veteran DeAndrew White, all-purpose star Christion Jones and depth that includes a litany of former blue-chip prospects.

2. Texas A&M: Too bad Johnny Manziel didn’t stay another year because he might have really enjoyed the guys he was throwing to. Malcome Kennedy, he of 60 receptions and seven touchdowns last season, isn’t even the most exciting receiver on the field. That honor belongs to one of two freshmen. Ricky Seals-Jones, who redshirted last season, would have reminded Manziel so much of Evans, an impossibly tall target who can go up and get the ball. And then there’s Speedy Noil, the No. 1 athlete in the 2014 class, who looks like a dangerous weapon at slot receiver. With tight end Cameron Clear working the middle of the field, the Aggies should be able to stretch the field effectively.

3. Georgia: How can you not like Chris Conley? Not only did he write and direct a "Star Wars" fan film, he’s also a pretty good receiver with 45 catches for 651 yards last season. Starting opposite him, if his health holds up, should be Malcolm Mitchell. The redshirt junior has loads of potential, as he was second on the team in receiving in 2011 and 2012. Throw in Jay Rome, one of the more underrated tight ends in the SEC, and that’s a good group for quarterback Hutson Mason to work with.

4. Auburn: Nick Marshall is progressing as a passer at the right time. His receiver corps, which looked thin at times last season, is set to make a big jump. Sammie Coates, Auburn’s leading man, has the potential to become much more than a speed demon who can run a nasty post. Ricardo Louis, Quan Bray and Marcus Davis are all guys who have shown flashes of talent. Then there’s D'haquille Williams, the former No. 1 junior college receiver. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound target has all the tools to become one of the best receivers in the SEC.

5. Ole Miss: Offensive coordinators love it when they can stretch the field both vertically and horizontally. Laquon Treadwell, who as a true freshman trailed only Jordan Matthews for the most receptions in the SEC last season, is the type of home-run threat to keep safeties on their heels. Evan Engram, who made a positive impression as a rookie himself before succumbing to injury, gives Ole Miss a one-two punch by demanding coverage in the middle of the field because he’s simply too athletic a tight end to be covered by most linebackers in the league.

6. South Carolina: They’re on the small side. Let’s get that part out of the way. There’s not a 6-3 or 6-5 receiver Dylan Thompson will be able to lob the ball to this season. But nonetheless, he’s got some options. Damiere Byrd is one of the fastest receivers in the SEC, and Pharoh Cooper is another guy who is dangerous with the ball in space. That’s not to mention Shaq Roland, who has All-SEC type talent. Though his 6-1 frame might not excite you, he’s one of those guys who can create separation and get the ball in traffic. If there’s one spot you’d like to see the Gamecocks progress, it’s at tight end. And with Jerell Adams and Rory Anderson, there’s potential to improve.

7. Mississippi State: Dan Mullen needs to find some playmakers on offense. Outside of running back, his ability to develop talent at receiver and tight end has been somewhat of a disappointment. This year could change that. Jameon Lewis has the upside of a poor man’s Percy Harvin, someone who can take it the distance any time he touches the football. De’Runnya Wilson, a 6-5 target with a hoops background, is just the type of over-the-top threat to play off the small, speedy Lewis. With a good group of running backs and a quarterback who can extend plays, expect more from the passing game in 2014.

8. Tennessee: Butch Jones has a lot to be excited about when it comes to his receivers this season. But until the status of Pig Howard is determined, that excitement is on hold. The talented receiver was forced to miss all of the spring with “personal issues.” If he can return and join Marquez North, it would make for a formidable one-two punch. Add top signee Josh Malone into the mix and whoever starts under center should be happy with what he’s working with. That said, without a single starter returning on the offensive line, time for the quarterback to throw downfield could be a big obstacle.

9. LSU: Yes, the team’s top two receivers are gone. Jarvis Landry and Beckham were both the real deal last season, accounting for 66 percent of all receptions. And, yes, LSU is replacing its quarterback, too. But we’re betting on potential here. Travin Dural and John Diarse have the tools to be starters in this league. And then there are the freshmen. LSU signed two the top three receivers in the 2014 class -- No. 1 Malachi Dupre and No. 3 Trey Quinn -- in addition to Jacory Washington, the No. 5 tight end in the country.

10. Florida: It’s time to prove it, Florida. We’ve heard for a few years now how the receivers were getting better. But last season was the same old story with no real playmakers on the outside. Maybe new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper will change that. Demarcus Robinson seems in line for a big sophomore bump, along with Ahmad Fulwood and Chris Thompson. With seniors Quinton Dunbar and Andre Debose back, there’s a good amount of depth to lean on. But until we see consistent results from the Gators’ receivers, we’ll have to wait and see if this really is the year.

11. Missouri: Gary Pinkel had to let Dorial Green-Beckham go. But what a waste of talent it was. He would have easily been the most talented receiver in the SEC. Now his future, and that of Missouri’s offense, is up in the air as the Tigers fail to return any of their top three pass-catchers from last season. Seniors Bud Sasser and Jimmie Hunt are back, which helps, but more receivers will need to emerge to help Maty Mauk in the passing game.

12. Kentucky: Javess Blue quietly was one of the most productive receivers in the SEC last season, despite having little consistency at quarterback. Blue, now a senior, finished 14th in the league with 43 catches for 586 yards and four touchdowns. He’ll anchor a group that has some potential. Ryan Timmons, a former four-star prospect in the 2013 class, could break through after playing in all 12 games as a freshman. And as far as true freshmen go, look for Kentucky to lean on its 2014 class that includes Thaddeus Snodgrass, T.V. Williams, Dorian Baker and Blake Bone.

13. Arkansas: Someone needs to take the load off of Hunter Henry this season. Henry, who caught 28 passes and four touchdowns as a true freshman in 2013, stands to make up the majority of the Razorbacks passing game now that Javontee Herndon, the team’s leading receiver in 2013, is gone. So is Kiero Small, the fourth-leading receiver. The good news: Demetrius Wilson, who missed all of last season, returns. Wilson, a big target at 6-foot-3, could be a difference-maker.

14. Vanderbilt: You don’t replace Jordan Matthews. You don’t replace the man with the most career receptions in SEC history. Vanderbilt will try, but it’s going to be difficult. And it’s going to be even more of an uphill battle considering that Jonathan Krause, the team’s second-leading receiver, also is gone. With those two no longer on campus, look for C.J. Duncan and Jordan Cunningham to step up.
In 2013, the freshmen of the SEC were truly fabulous.

Hunter Henry and Alex Collins were impact players at Arkansas. Laquon Treadwell and Robert Nkemdiche were spectacular for Ole Miss. And who can forget the play of Vernon Hargreaves, Chris Jones and A'Shawn Robinson?

But standout rookies aren’t easy to come by. Usually it takes some time to make a transition from high school to college, and in Year 2 we generally see the biggest jump in production from players.

With that in mind, we’re taking a team-by-team look at the players who didn’t quite break through as freshmen, but could see their stock skyrocket with as sophomores.

Next up: Kentucky

[+] EnlargeTimmons
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsRyan Timmons had a productive freshman season and is set to explode in 2014.
Class recap: The Kentucky job has never been thought of as a dream job because it’s a basketball school, not a football school. The Wildcats signed only four four-stars from 2010 to 2012, and the 2013 class was headed down the same path. That was until Mark Stoops arrived. Stoops didn’t buy that ‘basketball school’ talk, and it didn’t take long for him to rejuvenate the program. He signed 23 players in his first class, including six four-stars. He flipped in-state star Jason Hatcher from his USC commitment and landed defensive end Za'Darius Smith, the No. 13 junior college player in the nation. When the ink was dry, the class was ranked No. 36.

Second-year star: WR Ryan Timmons (5-foot-10, 193 pounds)

Recruiting stock: Timmons, a Kentucky native, was one of two ESPN 300 signees in the 2013 class. The four-star athlete had offers from Arkansas, Florida and Ohio State, among others, but chose to stay home and play for the Wildcats.

2013 in review: Timmons did a little bit of everything for Kentucky in 2013. He played in all 12 games, making six starts. He was second on the team in receiving with 32 catches for 338 yards and two touchdowns and also rushed for 91 yards on 12 carries. He finished with a career-high six catches against Florida, but his best game came in October against Mississippi State, when he had five catches for 69 yards and a touchdown.

2014 potential: It came as no surprise that Timmons made the impact that he did last season. He was the first major recruit to jump on board after Stoops was hired, and he was one of the best all-around players in the class. But even more will be expected of him in 2014 as was evident in April’s spring game, where he caught five passes for 47 yards, rushed once for eight yards and served as the team’s No. 1 punt returner. He and Javess Blue, a junior college transfer from the 2013 class, are the top two wide receivers, and how they perform will be vital to the Wildcats’ passing game, regardless of who’s throwing them the ball.

Also watch out for: Running back Jojo Kemp was the star of the spring game with 131 total yards of offense. He and Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard are expected to form a dynamic 1-2 punch in the backfield. Hatcher is stuck behind Smith and All-SEC star Alvin Dupree on the defensive line, but he’s too good to keep off the field. He finished with 20 tackles, three for a loss, and two sacks last season. As a freshman, Blake McClain was third on the team with 59 tackles. He’s in line to start again this fall and will be a key piece in the secondary. Redshirt freshman Reese Phillips is still in the mix for the starting quarterback job, though he’s currently behind Patrick Towles and Drew Barker, and cornerback Jaleel Hytchye is moving up the depth chart after a solid spring. He had 4.5 tackles and two pass break-ups in the spring game.
It's pretty clear Mark Stoops' first year on the job impressed his boss.

On Tuesday, Kentucky announced that Stoops received a contract extension that will take him through the 2018 season, giving the second-year coach five more years on his current contract.

[+] EnlargeMark Stoops
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsThe record didn't show it, but Mark Stoops did some good things in his first season at Kentucky.
"We had the nation's second-largest increase in attendance last season, and we have had the two largest spring game attendances in school history," athletic director Mitch Barnhart said in a statement through the school. "In recruiting, Mark and his tireless assistant coaches have made an obvious impact with their first two classes, and their momentum is carrying forward for 2015."

Stoops has done far more than his 2-10 debut season in Lexington might let on. He has been a champion recruiter, injected some much-needed enthusiasm throughout the program and brought a more competitive edge to the play on the field. You might not see it in the league standings (0-8 in conference play), but attendance for home games grew by 9,781 in Stoops' first year, which was the second-highest improvement in the nation. His first spring game brought in a record-crowd of 50,831, which shattered the previous year's attendance of 4,500.

Where Stoops has really made his mark is in recruiting, signing the nation's 36th-ranked class in 2013 and the 20th-ranked class in 2014. In that span, he has signed eight ESPN 300 members, including six in his 2014 class, and has potential budding stars in quarterback Drew Barker and receivers Ryan Timmons and Thaddeus Snodgrass, all part of his first two classes. He also has brought in junior college standouts such as defensive end Za'Darius Smith, wide receiver Javess Blue and defensive tackle Cory Johnson.

There's still a lot of work to do in Lexington, and Stoops knows that. He and his players weren't happy about going 2-10 last season. Their goal is to make a bowl game this year, but they also understand that it's going to be a long process before this program is up and running like they want.

Stoops is on course with the attitude adjustment and the talent injection, and with a few years added to his contract, it's very clear that his boss believes Stoops is steering this program in the right direction.

Opening spring camp: Kentucky

March, 27, 2014
Mar 27
Schedule: The Wildcats open spring practice Friday and will conclude it on April 26 with the annual Blue/White Spring Game at 3:30 p.m. ET inside Commonwealth Stadium.

What's new: Craig Naivar came from Texas State, where he was the defensive coordinator and safeties coach the past three seasons, to coach the Wildcats' special teams and safeties after Bradley Dale Peveto left to coach special teams at LSU.

On the mend: Quarterback Maxwell Smith will not throw this spring as he recovers from shoulder surgery. Wide receiver Alex Montgomery will also be limited as he recovers from a torn ACL he suffered this past November. Linebacker TraVaughn Paschal will be limited to non-contact drills this spring as he recovers from offseason surgery. Safety Ashely Lowery will also miss contact portions of the spring as he recovers from offseason shoulder surgery.

On the move: As of now, the Wildcats don't have any significant position changes.

New faces: The Wildcats welcomed in five freshmen this spring: quarterback Drew Barker, wide receivers Thaddeus Snodgrass and T.V. Williams, running back Mikel Horton, and linebacker Dorian Hendrix. Kentucky also had two junior college transfers come aboard: defensive tackle Cory Johnson and cornerback A.J. Stamps.

Question marks: The Wildcats have experience coming back in the secondary, with four starters returning, but there has to be better consistency out of that group. With Lowery on the mend, younger players will get good work at one of the safety spots opposite Eric Dixon. Mark Stoops likes his defensive backs to be versatile, so players will get time at each position. Kentucky's secondary produced just one interception last fall, so each position is up for grabs.

[+] EnlargeJalen Whitlow
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesJalen Whitlow threw for 1,033 yards, five touchdowns and five interceptions in 2013.
Clearly, the Wildcats would also like to take a few steps forward with their quarterback situation. With Smith out, the battle comes down to Jalen Whitlow, Patrick Towles, Reese Phillips and early enrollee Barker. Finding some headway at quarterback will be crucial this spring.

With the losses of defensive tackles Donte Rumph and Mister Cobble, the Wildcats are looking for some girth and help in the middle of their defensive line. Johnson might have to be the guy who takes the biggest steps this spring. He's already the most talented tackle on the team, but his development will be key.

The same issues still remain for the Wildcats: Who can be a true playmaker in this offense? Javess Blue could be that guy after leading the team in receiving in 2013. Up-and-comer Ryan Timmons could be another after making 12 catches last season. There's a battle at running back, highlighted by Jojo Kemp and Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard. Can one of them step up to be a consistent threat in this offense?

The Wildcats also have to replace linebacker Avery Williamson, who was such a big spark on the field and in the locker room. Maybe Khalid Henderson can be that player, but it's an open competition to replacing his importance.

Key battle: It has to be quarterback. The Wildcats haven't had any stability there in years and have yet another wide-open battle. Whitlow has the most game experience, but he has to improve his mechanics and decision-making. Those two areas have held him back with his development, and if he wants this job, that can't happen this spring. Towles redshirted last season, but arrived in Lexington with a load of hype and high expectations. For some reason, it just hasn't clicked for Towles. This could be his last shot at taking the starting spot. Phillips redshirted last season and enters the competition with no on-field experience, but he'll be in the thick of the competition. Then there's Barker, who might have the most upside and talent of the bunch. He was an ESPN 300 selection and a top-10 QB prospect coming out of high school. Barker has a lot of upside and talent, and as the future at the position, he'll have every chance to be the guy this spring and fall.

Breaking out: Kentucky's coaches were pleased with the development off offensive lineman Ramsey Meyers last season. He redshirted in 2013 and will have a chance to be the starting right guard for the Wildcats during his second year on campus. He's a physical blocker and could be a big plus in pass protection. Also, keep an eye on defensive tackle Regie Meant, who also redshirted last season. He has good size and athleticism, which will come in handy along the defensive line. He has a chance to play right away at one of the tackle spots, but can also move around the line and add some versatility.

Don't forget about: One of the top Kentucky recruits in 2013, defensive end Jason Hatcher, could be primed for a breakout sophomore season. He had two sacks last in 2013 and started to really hit his stride during the second half. He's another versatile player who can play with his hand on the ground and standing up as an outside linebacker. Also, defensive end Alvin "Bud" Dupree has a chance to be a household name in this league. He gets overlooked a lot in the SEC, but he's had a very solid three-year career with Kentucky. Moving to defensive end only made him a better player, as he finished the 2013 season with seven sacks.

All eyes on: The offense. This is a unit that scored a league-low 14.8 points per game in conference play last fall. There was too much up-and-down play at quarterback, no running back registered at least 500 rushing yards and no receiver collected 600 yards. The defense wasn't great, but made strides and showed good flashes in 2013. The offense has to take the next step. Playmakers must emerge and a quarterback has to show some sort of consistency and control.

Mizzou, UK try to keep recruit momentum

November, 14, 2013
While Missouri and Kentucky continue to zoom in opposite directions on the playing field, both appear to be having relative success off the field.

In the realm of recruiting, where futures are made -- and crushed -- Missouri and Kentucky are succeeding at an exciting pace, and for very different reasons.

For Missouri, it's quite simple: The Tigers have bounced back from a dreary 5-7 SEC debut in 2012 to become one of the nation's hottest teams. Mizzou is 9-1 (5-1 in SEC play) and sits at No. 9 in the BCS standings. At one point, the Tigers were unbeaten and as high as fifth in the BCS.

[+] EnlargeDorial Green-Beckham
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesThe physical attributes of ex-Missouri receiver Dorial Green-Beckham might not outweigh the potential distraction he could bring to Oklahoma.
The Tigers control their SEC Eastern Division destiny and have a legitimate shot at a BCS bowl game. Because of that, Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, who entered the year with a relatively warm seat below him, said he's seen a spike in interest in Mizzou on the recruiting trail.

"I don't think there's any question about that. Yeah, it's been very, very positive," said Pinkel, who is 99-62 in 13 seasons as Mizzou's head coach. "That's a benefit that happens with success.

"It's nice to have a lot of people interested in us."

Don't just take his word for it, either. At the beginning of the month, Mizzou had zero ESPN 300 commits, but in the past week has gained verbals from two -- offensive tackle Andy Bauer (St. Louis/De Smet Jesuit) and linebacker Brandon Lee (Indianapolis/Lawrence Central). Those two commitments helped the Tigers leap into ESPN's class rankings at No. 32. Since the season started, Mizzou has received six verbals to up its number to 26.

Pinkel welcomes this recruiting momentum, but he isn't shocked by the interest. To him, Mizzou has always had the appeal, even with last season's roadblock.

"We had a great reputation for winning and a consistency of winning, graduation, APR ranking and all those other things," Pinkel said. "It's not like a brand new staff that's just showed up somewhere."

At Kentucky, there is a new staff in town. In Mark Stoops' first year as Kentucky's head coach, he's seen he share of recruiting success without the wins. With only a couple of months to work with, Stoops snagged ESPN 300 members Jason Hatcher and Ryan Timmons -- along with junior college standouts Za'Darius Smith and Javess Blue -- in his first class. Smith leads Kentucky with 5.5 sacks, while Blue and Timmons are one and two, respectively, in catches and receiving yards.

But despite a 2-7 (0-5 SEC) season and no bowl game for the third straight season, the Wildcats are 17th in ESPN's class rankings with 25 commitments, five of which are ESPN 300 members.

Kentucky has had only two commitments since the season began, but Stoops said he feels confident that a class as good as this -- which could help solve the playmaker issue with the No. 7 quarterback, two running backs and five receivers -- can stay together come signing day, even with the on-field losses piling up.

"These guys know," Stoops said. "Most of these recruits knew we were going to be in for a tough year this year. They know we're progressing and working toward the future."

Both programs are trending up in recruiting, but neither job is done. For Mizzou, it's all about maintaining popularity in states such as Georgia and Florida, while keeping Missouri and Texas talent in check. Pinkel and his staff made Atlanta and southern Georgia a major priority with their billboard/letter-sending strategy last year, and he expects to keep making inroads in such a fertile area.

"It's important, I think it is," Pinkel said of recruiting in the heart of the Southeast. "It's great high school football. Obviously, you want to have a place in the geographical areas in which you play your games. That's why that was very important to us."

For Stoops, he just wants to hammer home is message that better days are coming. So far, a rough first season hasn't dented Stoops' recruiting success and he doesn't think it will in the waning recruiting months.

"I think anybody who is a fan of our program or involved in our program -- in any shape or form -- or in the future of our program would like to see us win some more games, but nobody is deterred," he said. "Everybody knows where we're headed and we're moving toward good things."
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Trey DePriest was asked Monday whether he and the Alabama defense were preparing for two quarterbacks or just one when it faces Kentucky on Saturday. But UA's starting inside linebacker shrugged and said he hadn't even considered it. He hadn't even watched the film yet, he explained.

"The only thing I know about them is the teams they've played -- the bigger schools -- they've played tough: Louisville, Florida, South Carolina," he said.

And thus ended the pregame analysis from DePriest. But to be fair, it's hard for anyone to determine what type of team Kentucky is five games into the season. Mark Stoops is just beginning to make an impact on a program that's floundered for the better part of the past decade. It took until last week for the first-year head coach to settle on a quarterback.

[+] EnlargeJalen Whitlow
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesJalen Whitlow is a threat both running and passing, but Alabama says it will be ready for the Kentucky QB.
Jalen Whitlow, who led Prattville High (Ala.) to a state title game in Bryant-Denny Stadium in 2011, has the job now after beating out Maxwell Smith. The dual-threat passer took every snap in last weekend's game against South Carolina, completing 14 of 24 passes for 178 yards and two touchdowns. He ran for another 69 yards and a score.

"He's a good runner," UA coach Nick Saban said, sizing up a player his staff once recruited. "He's really continued to improve as a passer and was effective last week in that regard."

Whitlow came on late last season, starting seven games. But he's one of only a few pieces on Kentucky's offense that isn't brand new. The Wildcats' top three receivers are first-year players: Javess Blue, who leads the team with 22 receptions for 275 yards, transferred from a junior college, and Ryan Timmons and Alec Montgomery are both true freshmen. Even Kentucky's leading rusher at tailback, Jojo Kemp, was playing high school football at this time last year.

Neal Brown was hired by Stoops to lead the offense in December. He helped orchestrate Texas Tech's "Air Raid" offense from 2010-12, helping the Red Raiders to top-10 finishes in passing offense each season. The high-powered air attack has translated to Kentucky with mixed results thus far. The Cats are 14th in the SEC in scoring offense despite averaging 388.8 yards per game. UK, though, already has more plays of 60 or more yards (6) than it did all of last season (4).

But the brightest spot on offense may have come this past weekend when Kentucky scored 21 fourth-quarter points against South Carolina.

"We need to come out and build," Brown told reporters in Lexington. "We had a good fourth quarter against South Carolina and we need to build off that."

Whitlow, who accounted for all three touchdowns in the failed comeback, is maturing every day, according to Brown. But Stoops recognizes that his young quarterback will face something of a brick wall on Saturday.

"They have no weakness in their defense," Stoops said. "They don't have any weakness on their team."

Saban, though, isn't taking Whitlow or any part of Kentucky lightly.

"We didn't play very well the last time we were on the road," he said, "so we certainly need to do a lot better job against a very different kind of offense in terms of what we've had to play against in the past, because it's such a good running quarterback and a good athlete at that position. It'll be a real challenge and test for us."

Alabama has faced its share of mobile quarterbacks already this season, first against Texas A&M and Johnny Manziel in Week 2 and then against Ole Miss and Bo Wallace a few weeks ago. Landon Collins, who will likely make his second career start at free safety this week in place of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, said the defense knows the drill.

"We played against a lot of dynamic quarterbacks like Johnny Manziel," Collins said. "Just playing sound and playing our defense, as a whole, we should be OK."

Said starting cornerback Deion Belue: "Well, you know, it’s just a scheme that we have to have for them. At the same time, the dual threat, Whitlow, you have to respect him because he can throw as well. He can throw as well as the dropback passer and then the other quarterback can also run, you really have to prepare for both of them the same. You can’t group the one as just passing and the other just running. You have to prepare for them the same."

Collins, who spoke with the media a day after DePriest, said he wasn't concerned with the idea of not knowing who Kentucky will put under center. Whether it's Whitlow or Smith, he feels the defense will be just fine.

"We just have to play sound defense," Collins said. "That’s what we’ve been playing the last few weeks. Once we do that, we’re playing against ourselves, really."

Kentucky season preview

August, 12, 2013
Today, our SEC preview shifts to the Kentucky Wildcats.

Coach: Mark Stoops (0-0)

2012 record: 2-10, 0-8 SEC

[+] EnlargeMark Stoops
University of Kentucky AthleticsMark Stoops will be looking to develop some players in his first season at Kentucky.
Key losses: RB CoShik Williams, WR La’Rod King, OG Larry Warford, C Matt Smith, DE Collins Ukwu, DE Taylor Wyndham, S Martavius Neloms, S Mikie Benton

Key returnees: QB Jalen Whitlow, QB Maxwell Smith, RB Raymond Sanders, RB Dyshawn Mobley, DT Mister Cobble, DT Donte Rumph, DE Alvin Dupree, LB Avery Williamson

Newcomer to watch: Junior college transfer Za'Darius Smith had a great spring and summer and should be able to make an immediate impact at defensive end this fall.

Biggest games in 2013: Western Kentucky (in Nashville), Aug. 31; Louisville, Sept. 14; Florida, Sept. 28; Missouri, Nov. 9; at Vanderbilt, Nov. 16; Tennessee, Nov. 30

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: The Wildcats might have three quarterbacks competing for the starting job, but figuring out who will catch passes from any of them is still a mystery. There is a lot of potential at receiver, but there isn't any real production or consistency coming back. Junior Demarco Robinson and sophomore Daryl Collins were expected to break out in 2012, but combined for just 45 catches and 468 yards with no touchdowns. Highly recruited freshman Ryan Timmons and junior college transfer Javess Blue will have every opportunity to be fixtures at receiver this fall.

Forecast: Stoops has quite the task in his first season with the Wildcats. The good news is that the defensive-minded coach will have a lot of talent and experience to work with along his defensive line. Past coaches waited and waited for defensive tackles Mister Cobble and Donte Rumph to reach their potential. Now, it seems like both are ready to do that and more this fall. Helping them out will be Alvin "Bud" Dupree, who is one of the league's best pass-rushers and moved from linebacker to end when the Wildcats went from a 3-4 scheme to a 4-3. Having Za'Darius Smith and freshman Jason Hatcher at the ends should make this line even more athletic this fall.

There are mixed reviews at running back. Even with the loss of Josh Clemons for the second straight year, the Wildcats have senior Raymond Sanders and sophomore Dyshawn Mobley, who is returning from hernia surgery. Both had good springs, but with Clemons' injury and the departure of Justin Taylor, both have to remain healthy because there isn't much depth at all.

There's a three-headed quarterback battle that carried into camp. Sophomore Jalen Whitlow left spring with the edge, but he still has to beat Maxwell Smith, who began last season as the starter before injuries took his season, and classmate Patrick Towles.

Players have to step up at receiver and tight end, and the Wildcats are thin at linebacker after Dupree's move to the defensive line. Three starters from the secondary are gone; Kentucky is getting some help, but it's coming in the form of the 2013 signees.

Stoops knows he has a lot of issues to work through in his first season, and while a bowl game could be a lofty goal, there's no doubt the Wildcats will be more competitive in 2013. Stoops certainly wants to win this fall, but a lot of the season will be devoted to development for the future.
After a very long hiatus, our SEC mailbag is back this week to celebrate the first day of summer!

We've missed you guys, but we can't do it without you, so don't forget to send in as many questions as you want each week. We get comments a lot, but questions get published. Remember that.

On to the questions:

Phillip in Little Rock, Ark., writes: Every year we hear how the gap between the SEC and the rest is narrowing and every year that prophecy proves incorrect. The SEC always has seven or more teams in the Top 15 in recruiting every year. What is your take on this? Do you think the gap is narrowing, and if not how much longer can it go on?

Edward Aschoff: Well, if you look at the SEC recruiting classes right now, it doesn't look like that trend is going to end in 2014. Nine SEC teams are currently ranked within the top 15 of the ESPN class rankings, and one of those teams is Kentucky. South Carolina and Vanderbilt will push to get in there as well, as the year goes by. I think the SEC could be in store for its toughest few years coming up. There are maybe five or six legitimate national championship contenders in the SEC right now and I think the league will be even better next year.

Alabama will still be elite, while Florida and Georgia could be very, very good in 2014. LSU will be more experienced, South Carolina might get hurt along the defensive line, but should return a lot of talent pretty much everywhere else. Texas A&M will likely lose Johnny Manziel, but will be stacked at the skill positions and in the front seven. Vanderbilt will be good again, Tennessee should be better, Auburn could be a real threat in the West and Ole Miss will display more of that impressive 2013 class.

But the league could really beat up on itself in the next few years. The good news for the conference is the first two years of the playoff will come with only eight conference games. You'll see the SEC champ in the four-team playoff, but getting a second team in the playoff could be tough if the conference gets 10 legit BCS conference games before the SEC championship.

dropkicked meeko in Atlanta writes: In regards to your recent future power rankings, how far will UK rise if they have two top 10 classes back to back, and do you think they can keep these guys from switching commitments to other SEC powers?

Edward Aschoff: Interesting choice in your name there. Meeko is actually looked at as a hero on the blog. You must be a rookie or just learning your way around the blog. You'll learn to love him. As for Kentucky, I think you'll only see the Wildcats rise in the power rankings if the defense can look out for the offense more often than not. The defense is in very good hands with Mark Stoops in charge, but the Wildcats have to find consistent playmakers on offense. There are no true go-to guys on the roster at the skill positions. The good news is that running backs Raymond Sanders and Dyshawn Mobley really impressed this spring and incoming freshman receiver Ryan Timmons could be a stud. There are some youngsters who have shown flashes here and there, like Demarco Robinson and Daryl Collins, but consistency has been an issue for this offense the last couple of years.

Development is key. Stoops will be able to recruit, especially in and around Ohio, but he and his assistants have to start developing because they just didn't happen before he got there. Players have to buy in and they have to mature on the field or the wins won't come. It can't just be about recruiting. If Stoops continues to recruit well and real development takes place, Kentucky will move up.

Caleb in Big Rock/TN writes: Do you think Tennessee can sustain the recuiting success they are having this season over the next couple of years?

Edward Aschoff: It's hard to say right now because no games have been played. I think Butch Jones has brought some real excitement to the program and the recruiting trail. But we all know that this is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world, and if recruits aren't impressed with the Vols this fall or start paying attention to other, more successful schools, it could hurt Tennessee next year. One thing he can sell is that there is plenty of playing time out there for prospects to have once they get on campus. That will really help. I think Jones is doing a great job, but wins and losses go a long way, and fans have seen Tennessee reel in top recruits with little results coming on the field.

Bruce in Osceola, Mo., writes: Do you think Missouri will be bowl eligible this year? When do you think Missouri will be competitive in the SEC?

Edward Aschoff: If the offense stays healthy and quarterback James Franklin plays with the confidence he had in 2011, the Tigers will go bowling. I think the defense will be fine. The defensive line played pretty well this spring and has good depth, and the secondary should be decent. I worry about the youth at linebacker, but a good front can hide those issues. For me, it's about that offense getting its act together. It has to be a tougher unit all around. This team just wasn't built for SEC play last year. There is so much talent at receiver and running back, but inconsistency and those injuries to Franklin and the offensive line killed the receiving corps last year. Running back Henry Josey has what it takes to be a star, but he can't do it alone.

There are four nonconference games out there for this team to win, leaving just two SEC games. The game at Vanderbilt is big, along with the home game against Tennessee and the trip to Kentucky. There are two wins there if the Tigers can stay healthy. If not, it's going to be tough with the rest of the SEC slate that Missouri has. I think the Tigers squeak by with six wins.

As for finally becoming truly competitive, it'll happen when the lines get bigger, more SEC-caliber players get on campus. Missouri was behind in the physical department last year. Recruiting has to get better from here on out, too.

Dave in Belton, Texas, writes: The August date for the Aggies and Tide in College Station is interesting to me. Both are working in new-but-good offensive lines, and both are retooling defensive lines. D-Line wasn't necessarily the strength for either team last year, and now it's an open question for both. Is it going to be harder for the Aggies' new D-Line to stop the Bama power game, or for the new Bama D-Line to keep their contain on Manziel? Which team would benefit the most from moving this game to November?

Edward Aschoff: I think Texas A&M will have a tougher time stopping Alabama because that running game just pounds and pounds and pounds. The Aggies lost so much in that front seven, especially along the defensive line. Replacing Damontre Moore will be tough enough, but two senior tackles are gone as well. Kirby Ennis started 11 games last year, but ran into legal trouble before spring practice and was suspended. Youngsters like Alonzo Williams, Tyrone Taylor and Tyrell Taylor will be thrown right into the fire this fall. You'll see some growing pains up front for the Aggies against Alabama. Alabama's defensive line isn't great right now, and playmakers still have to step up, but I think having a solid linebacker corps coming back and Kirby Smart running the defense will go a long way to stopping Manziel. Now, I'm not saying Manziel will be ineffective against the Tide, but I do think Alabama's defense will be much better prepared to defend him. Remember, Smart and his defense made great adjustments in the second half of this game last year.
Every year, players come and go in college football. With the turnover teams can either grow or take steps back.

It's time to check out Kentucky's strongest position and weakest position heading into the 2013 season:

Strongest position: Defensive line

New coach Mark Stoops really lucked out when it came to his defensive line. The Wildcats have the pieces in place up front to cause some real discomfort for opposing offenses. The foundation up front could help mask the issues the Wildcats have at linebacker and in the secondary due to inexperience. Inside, Kentucky has starters Donte Rumph and Tristian Johnson return, along with the talented Mister Cobble, who showed vast improvement last year and this spring. Rumph registered four sacks and six tackles for loss last year, while Cobble and Johnson combined for 3.5 sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss. Two starters are gone outside, but Alvin Dupree is moving from linebacker to end. He was Kentucky's best pass-rusher last year (12.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks) and could be even more of a threat to passing games with his hand in the ground. Dupree is All-SEC material. And he'll have help from junior college transfer Za'Darius Smith, who registered 47 tackles, 11 for loss and 6.5 sacks at the juco ranks last fall. He had a very good spring and should come in and make an immediate impact. Freshman Jason Hatcher should also help on the outside as well.

Weakest position: Secondary and/or pass-catchers

The Wildcats are really hurting to find a consistent receiving threat now that La'Rod King is gone. Demarco Robinson and Daryl Collins will be in their third years this fall, and while they have big-play potential, they just haven't been able to live up to that potential. Yes, the quarterback play hasn't been great, but there comes a point where players have to step up and figure out a way to make plays. Both players were held under 300 yards last year. It doesn't help that three seniors are gone, making this a very young group overall. Only four players return with any experience from last year, with only Robinson catching more than 20 passes. Freshman Ryan Timmons has a chance to play right away, along with juco standouts Javess Blue and Steven Borden, who was on campus this spring.

As for the secondary, the Wildcats lost three starters and safety Ashely Lowery is working his way back onto the field after his horrific car accident. Both cornerback and safety are littered with youngsters, which means that incoming players will have a pretty good shot at getting valuable playing time. Regardless, the secondary is going to be younger and more inexperienced than Stoops would like in his first year. Sophomore corners J.D. Harmon (two interceptions), Cody Quinn (five pass breakups) and Fred Tiller (two pass breakups) are the only returners with any stats at corner. There is a little more experience at safety, but not much. Getting senior Dakotah Tyler back from his knee injury will be big, but he's only played sparingly for the Cats during his career.
Mark Stoops and Butch Jones USA TODAY Sports, Getty ImagesKentucky's Mark Stoops and Tennessee's Butch Jones are bringing optimism to their respective programs.
It wasn't long ago when Kentucky and Tennessee were two programs considered to be in shambles.

On the field, nothing was really going right and the top players weren't exactly lining up to sign their names on letters of intent from either school.

But in the past few months, things have changed. Neither team has won a game or even stepped onto a field for a meaningful game, but both programs are currently feeling the sort of recruiting momentum reserved for top schools. And to find the source of all that momentum, look no further than the two new head coaches in charge.

The hirings of Mark Stoops at Kentucky and Butch Jones at Tennessee came with mixed reviews from the masses, but one thing everyone knew was that they'd have the ability to make some waves in recruiting. But I highly doubt anyone thought the swells would reach these heights.

If you look at ESPN's current recruiting class rankings you'll see both Tennessee and Kentucky in the top 11. Tennessee currently sits sixth, while Kentucky is at No. 11. The Vols are only behind Alabama (No. 2) and Texas A&M (No. 3) in the SEC, and both are ahead of Georgia (No. 13), Auburn (No. 14) and Ole Miss (No. 15).

Other recruiting services have the Vols and Cats ranked within the top five in their rankings, too. Everyone seems impressed with these two coaches, and it's easy to see why.

Jones already has verbal commitments from 16 players, including two ESPN 150 members in running back Jalen Hurd (Hendersonville, Tenn./Beech Senior) and safety Todd Kelly Jr. (Knoxville, Tenn./Webb School Of Knoxville). Six of Tennessee's commitments are ESPN 300 members and eight are four-star prospects.

Hurd was a huge get for Jones. He's an elite back who could come in and contribute right away for the Vols. He's also the type of player other prospects can rally around and want to play with.

As for Stoops and Kentucky, the Wildcats -- fresh off of offering a 13-year-old prospect -- have an SEC-high 18 commits with one ESPN 150 player -- defensive end Denzel Ware (Crestview, Fla.) -- and five ESPN 300 members, including No. 6 pocket passing quarterback Drew Barker. Ware actually spent two stints committed to Florida State before committing to Kentucky.

Both of these coaches have been very pleasant surprises on the recruiting trail since their arrivals. People wondered if a more defensive-minded coach like Stoops, who was Florida State's defensive coordinator before taking the Kentucky job, could reel in the kind of offensive players needed to get Kentucky going again. Well, he signed top junior college receiver Javess Blue and lured four-star receiver Ryan Timmons away from Florida and Ohio State in the Wildcats' 2013 class.

So far in his 2014 class he's managed to get commitments from three ESPN 300 offensive players. Stanley Williams (Monroe, Ga./George Walton Academy) is the No. 16 running back in the country, while Thaddeus Snodgrass (Springfield, Ohio) is the No. 25 receiver nationally.

And Jones has Tennessee's recruiting class loaded with stars like the old days. People wondered if he'd be able to recruit the Southeast, but he's put those reservations in the past with the way he's pounded the pavement around these parts. Oh, and let's not forget the fact that he signed ESPN 150 receiver Marquez North and ESPN 300 quarterbacks Joshua Dobbs and Riley Ferguson, who will compete for starting jobs this fall.

The past struggles at both universities haven't shaken either one of these coaches on the recruiting trail. They're recruiting with the big boys and they're holding their own. It's still a long way until national signing day, but these coaches are on a roll.

Imagine what they could do if they start winning on the field.

Mark Stoops understood the daunting task that awaited him in Lexington long before he was introduced as Kentucky’s third head coach since 2009 in late November. He wasn’t blind to the fact that he was taking over a program -- in the SEC -- that has experienced far more excitement over dunks and layups than touchdowns.

But Stoops left his cushy job as Florida State’s defensive coordinator for the Bluegrass State with a plan. He took over Kentucky’s program, which said goodbye to third-year coach Joker Phillips after three straight losing seasons only weeks before, with the idea of first creating a much more physically and mentally fit team.

“We gotta get our players to buy in and believe and change the mentality around here from top to bottom,” Stoops said in a phone interview with earlier this week.

Stoops cares about schemes and relishes an aggressive defense that can raise hell, but he understands that in order to turn things around at Kentucky, he has to start from the ground floor. Sure, it’s cliché, but it’s the only way to improve a team that checked out last year and has consecutive seasons without a bowl berth.

That process started with a very tough offseason regime that his strength staff implemented. He couldn’t be there to constantly monitor players, so he made sure his players felt his wrath with a taxing workout schedule.

So far, Stoops is pleased with the results, as he said players reported to spring practice on Monday looking better physically and with much more positive attitudes. But for Stoops to get some real substance out of this team, he’s going to ask for even more from his players.

[+] EnlargeMark Stoops
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsMark Stoops knows he has his work cut out for him as he tries to rebuild the Kentucky football program.
“With everything that we’re trying to do, we’re trying to be very demanding of them in all aspects of the program,” Stoops said. “There's not one position on our field that we don't need to improve.”

Kentucky went from reaching five straight bowl games to going a combined 7-17 during Phillips’ last two years. During that span, the Wildcats lingered around the bottom of the SEC in most offensive and defensive categories and lacked the toughness needed to have any real success.

The toughness process is in full swing, but Stoops knows the future will be based on early success and, of course, recruiting.

Stoops isn’t up to speed on all the recruiting tactics and shortcomings of Kentucky’s previous staff, but he knows he can’t build without the right athletes. Stoops said recruiting priorities are to own the state of Kentucky, make more of an impact in Ohio and keep a strong connection to Florida.

Stoops did a solid job in all three of those areas in his first class by signing three of the top 10 players in the state of Kentucky, including ESPN 300 defensive end Jason Hatcher, who spurned USC, and ESPN 300 receiver Ryan Timmons, who turned down Florida and Ohio State. He also grabbed three players from Ohio and nine players from Florida.

Stoops came away with the No. 36 recruiting class, according to ESPN’s RecruitingNation, and said he could feel a change in Kentucky’s perception the more he and his coaches went on the road.

“I’m very pleased with the reception that’s been given to us [on the recruiting trail],” he said. “It’s been very encouraging for our future.”

The hope is that the future is a lot brighter than the past.

Kentucky hasn’t had a winning record in SEC play since going 6-0 (10-1 overall) in 1977. Since then, the Wildcats have had 23 losing seasons.

Things momentarily turned around with help from Rich Brooks in 2006 when Kentucky started a string of four straight winning seasons and a five-year bowl run, the longest such streak for the Cats since the 1950s. During that time, Kentucky went 3-1 in bowl games and against archrival Louisville. The Cats also beat the likes of Arkansas (twice), Georgia and a No. 1 LSU team (2007). In 2010, Kentucky even upset No. 10 South Carolina.

So, there is some recent success to build on, and while the excitement around the program dipped considerably last year, Stoops said he felt embraced by Big Blue Nation almost immediately after he was hired.

There was a record crowd around to celebrate with him on national signing day and the athletic department has been very aggressive about upgrading the football facilities. The school plans to spend approximately $110 million on renovations to Commonwealth Stadium and the Nutter Training Center.

Stoops is building from within, while the school builds around him. This won’t be a quick fix, but Stoops feels he’ll have what he needs to make Kentucky relevant in the SEC again.

“We have everything that we need and with the resources with the things that we’re building and the commitment that they have to upgrading our facilities," Stoops said, "we’re going to have everything we need to be successful and competitive in this league."

Video: Kentucky offseason spotlight

February, 26, 2013

Edward Aschoff discusses Kentucky players who need to have big offseasons.



Saturday, 12/27
Saturday, 12/20
Monday, 12/22
Tuesday, 12/23
Wednesday, 12/24
Friday, 12/26
Monday, 12/29
Tuesday, 12/30
Wednesday, 12/31
Thursday, 1/1
Friday, 1/2
Saturday, 1/3
Sunday, 1/4
Monday, 1/12