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Early success for surprise teams

6/23/2013

The summer of 2013 will be known as the summer of surprises in college football recruiting.

With the expansion of the RecruitingNation class rankings from 25 to 30, teams that aren't known normally for making recruiting noise are ranked. Kentucky, Baylor, Northwestern, Boston College and Texas Tech have been stealing headlines from traditional recruiting powers like Oklahoma and USC. Those staffs have shredded expectations and recruited with a passion that honestly hasn't been seen at those schools in the past.

Kentucky, normally known for its recruiting success on the hardwood, is having its best recruiting class, well, ever. Of the 18 Wildcat commits, six are four-star prospects and nine are three stars. They also have the most commitments in the SEC, six players in the ESPN 300 and already scored one of the nation's best quarterback and running back tandems in Drew Barker and Stanley Williams.

Kentucky's early success can be attributed to a number of factors.

One of the biggest was the ability to land Barker, the nation's No. 6 pocket-passing quarterback from Hebron (Ky.) Conner. His commitment in early May was followed by pledges from 12 players, including several who attributed their decision to Barker. Getting a blue-chip quarterback early is vital for recruiters because it often has a domino effect.

"It's my responsibility to go out and help Kentucky get the best recruiting class ever," Barker said in June.

Another factor in the Wildcats' ascension to No. 11 in the rankings is the job that Kentucky assistant coach Vince Marrow has done. Eight of Kentucky's commitments -- including four of the top eight -- are from Ohio, a top-five state in producing Division I talent. It's also Marrow's home state and a stronghold of his.

"I'm going to go after the No. 1 guy in Ohio. I'm going after the top 30 guys in Ohio, and let's roll up our sleeves and see what happens," Marrow told Midwest recruiting writer Jared Shanker. "We might shock the world. I made it very clear that we're not taking a backseat to nobody."

Let's put it this way: The Wildcats are trending so much that the Class of 2014 recruits have their own Twitter account (@UK2014Class). And there's a good chance that the Wildcats' early success isn't going to evaporate, especially if they show some signs of life on the football field this season.

UK still has quite a few blue-chip targets on its list, including ESPN 300 receivers Artavis Scott and Josh Malone and four-star defensive tackle Matt Elam.

Of the early surprises, it looks like the Wildcats have plenty of sticking power.

Baylor has upgraded everything about its program under Art Briles, and the Bears took a nice step forward with a 2013 class that finished No. 28 in the country. Armed with new uniforms, a victory over a No. 1 ranked team in 2012 and stadium upgrades, you could make an argument that Baylor has the best class in the Big 12. Officially that recognition belongs to Texas, but the Bears sit at No. 16; to be mentioned in the same sentence with the Longhorns and be ahead of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State is shocking for a lot of recruitniks.

So why are the Bears so popular with recruits? Look no further than Briles. It's been written that Briles is as close as college football has to coach Eric Taylor from "Friday Night Lights," going from Texas high school football to the Big 12. In Texas, more so than probably any other state, the high school coaches are the gatekeepers to the recruits, and those coaches can easily relate with Briles. He is one of them.

Briles was wildly successful at Stephenville High School in the 1990s, and those coaches know that he understands the minds of Texas high school football players and can push the right buttons to get those kids to the highest levels of success. Recruits understand the importance of that.

"He understands players like me," Baylor four-star receiver commit Ishmael Zamora (Houston/Alief Elsik) said. "My coaches all said coach Briles is somebody that you can trust, and he knows how to develop Texas talent. Just look what he did with receivers like Kendall Wright and Terrance Williams."

Coppell, Texas, three-star tight end Blake Mahon said Briles was a big factor in his decision to commit to the Bears over offers from Illinois, Rice, Rutgers and Utah State.

"I chose Baylor because when I got there, I really connected great with the coaches, especially coach Briles," Mahon said. "They have a great player-coach relationship, and it starts with the relationship the players have with coach Briles. He shot me straight on everything he told me and didn't fluff anything up. That meant a lot to me."

The only real question with the Bears' surprising early success will be whether they will be able to sustain it throughout the rest of the recruiting cycle.

However, expect Baylor -- like Kentucky -- to continue to push even harder. Its biggest recruiting prize is still on the board with ESPN 300 WR K.D. Cannon of Mount Pleasant, Texas. Cannon says the Bears are his solid leader, but he's yet to say he's committed.

Honorable mentions to Northwestern and Boston College, as their early starts catch attention because both are known as schools that have to recruit players with a higher academic standard. However, Stanford has proved that there are highly recruited players who are interested in academics as well.

Northwestern's recruiting success is unprecedented in Evanston, and it doesn't appear the Wildcats are going away any time soon. Their 12 commitments are the most in the conference. Top commit Clayton Thorson (Wheaton, Ill./Wheaton North) is ranked No. 10 among pocket passers. Running back Justin Jackson (Carol Stream, Ill./Glenbard North), athlete Dareian Watkins (Galion, Ohio/Galion) and running back Solomon Vault (Gaithersburg, Md./Gaithersburg) are four-star prospects coveted by Big Ten and ACC teams considered more prestigious than the program that in January won its first bowl game since 1949.

"Based on conversations with our young men and their families, there is great momentum around our program," Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald said recently.

BC's early success is tied directly to new coach Steve Addazio.

"It starts with hard work," Addazio said. "Our No. 1 priority is recruiting. My job is to drive our staff in recruiting. Our staff loves recruiting. It's a total commitment from our AD to our president to myself and our staff. We understand how important it is to bring great student athletes to BC.

"I found it to be great recruiting here at BC. What's not to be great? You're talking about elite education, one of the most beautiful campuses in America. Just two years ago, we came off of 12 consecutive bowl games, eight straight wins. There's an awful lot to talk about at BC."

There isn't a huge recruiting base in Boston, but using his ties to the Northeast, Addazio has landed almost all of the region's top players, including four-star linebacker Connor Strachan (Wellesley, Mass./St. Sebastians Country Day School).

Eagles fans daring to dream big have already noticed that BC is ranked No. 25 and hasn't dipped into Addazio's ties in Florida yet.

Texas Tech has also been sparked by a coaching change. Kliff Kingsbury and his staff's bravado and aggressive approach to recruiting have the Red Raiders sitting at No. 22 with 16 commitments. Recruits loved Kingsbury when he was at Texas A&M and Houston, and his charisma will help him win plenty more recruiting battles for the Red Raiders. This has given Tech fans hope that the early success will continue all the way until signing day.