Joker Phillips hinted last week he had a couple of tricks up his sleeve as he prepared to sign his first recruiting class at Kentucky. And sure enough, when all was said and done, Phillips managed to pull a few surprises Wednesday.
The biggest was Brandon Gainer, a tailback from Miami listed as the nation's No. 15 running back by ESPN.com. Gainer reportedly had offers from Georgia, Florida, Florida State and Tennessee, among others, and was ranked 28th on the Orlando Sentinel's list of the Top 100 players in Florida.
The Wildcats also got good news from several other targets on their board: Simon Kenton running back Miles Simpson, Central linebacker Tim Patterson, and Ulmer (S.C.) athlete Jerrell Priester. Phillips was also able to sway four-star Cincinnati tight end Alex Smith, who originally committed to North Carolina.
The strong last-minute finish drastically changed the outlook of UK's recruiting class, which was ranked as low as 77th by Rivals.com last week. Kentucky's class is now ranked 46th by Scout.com and 49th by Rivals. Both services have the Wildcats' haul rated 11th in the Southeastern Conference.
Phillips admitted it was a tense last 24 hours.
"There was a lot of staying on the phone and telling kids to be strong," Phillips said. "If this is really what you want to do, be strong. We had a lot of people tugging at the last five, six guys we signed. Our staff has been relentless the last two or three weeks in filling the last couple of spots, and I think the players felt the love we have here from the players, fans and administration, and we continued to reassure them that what they saw on their visit was still here. That was the difference in us getting some of those late faxes."
Phillips said he didn't get word on Simpson until Monday and didn't find out about Patterson's decision until 10:30 a.m. Wednesday. Patterson, a lifelong Louisville fan and the state's top prospect according to Rivals.com, had been torn between Phillips' Cats and Louisville under new coach Charlie Strong.
Before the UK Kickoff Luncheon last August, former coach Rich Brooks tried to ease fan and media concerns over recruiting, saying the staff was taking fewer commitments with hopes of landing some bigger names later in the game. That plan seemed to come to fruition Wednesday.
"Early in recruiting, we were getting hit by people asking, 'What about recruiting,'" Phillips said. "We said at the time that we're not worried about recruiting and we'll continue to do what we do and battle till the end and we'll sign great players. We'll be in the battles late in the game, and that's what happened. If you want better players, you've got to wait it out and sweat it out."
Gainer's late signing came with an assist from former UK star tailback Mark Higgs, who was Gainer's running backs coach at Miami Central High School.
"It helps to have a high school coach who's a buddy of mine," Phillips said.
The Wildcats have made a living recently off of smaller, shiftier backs, but Gainer (5-foot-11, 200 pounds) and Simpson (6-2, 210) give UK a nice size-speed combination.
"They're the kind of two big backs we've been searching for here for a long time," Phillips said.
With the additions of Gainer, Simpson and Raymond Sanders, Kentucky now has a loaded backfield for 2010. Seniors-to-be Derrick Locke and Moncell Allen return, along with sophomores Donald Russell and CoShik Williams and redshirt freshman Jonathan George. Priester could be used in the backfield as well. Phillips said that redshirt freshman Dakotah Tyler will be moved from running back to safety in the spring.
Two familiar names popped up on UK's list of signees: defensive lineman Donte Rumph and junior-college safety Mychal Bailey. Rumph has signed with UK the past two seasons but didn't qualify for freshman eligibility. Bailey signed with Kentucky out of LaGrange (Ga.) High School in 2007 before spending the past two seasons at Southwest Mississippi Community College.
Taking into account the new SEC rule that prohibits teams from signing more than 28 players, Phillips expressed confidence that Rumph and Bailey would finally make it to Lexington in the summer and that both players had the potential to make an immediate impact.
"The thing we don't want to do is sign players who don't have a chance," he said. "(Rumph), if we didn't feel like he could help us, we would have moved along long ago. He promised he'd stay with it, and we promised we'd stay with him as long as he continues to try, and he's continued to try."
Rumph was one of six defensive linemen to sign with Kentucky on Wednesday. Two positions that weren't filled were the offensive line and wide receiver. UK has 12 scholarship linemen returning in 2010 plus walk-on Marcus Davis, who was the starting center for the 2009 opener before going down with a season-ending knee injury. But Phillips said that signee Tim McAdoo, who's listed as a defensive lineman, would start out on the offensive line, and Teven Eatmon, a 6-foot-7, 280-pound tight end, could also end up as an offensive lineman.
The Cats are also in good position at receiver, where they return their top six players on the depth chart plus redshirts Aaron Boyd, E.J. Fields and Brian Adams.
UK signing day summary
Joseph Mansour: UK needs stability in its kicking game, and Mansour offers help in every area.
Raymond Sanders: Joker Phillips says the 5-8, 175-pound RB compares favorably to Derrick Locke.
Alex Smith: UK hasn't had a play-making TE since Jacob Tamme; Smith could fit the bill.
Brandon Gainer: You can't look past a RB good enough to get offers from Florida, Florida State, Georgia and Tennessee.
Jerrell Priester: Versatility increases the odds Priester will see the field, at CB, WR or on kickoffs.
LB Malcolm McDuffen, Christian Co.
LB Tim Patterson, Central
RB Miles Simpson, Simon Kenton
Georgia 7, South Carolina 5, Ohio 3, Tennessee 3, Florida 2, Alabama 1, California 1, Mississippi 1.
Signees by position
Defensive linemen 7, Linebackers 5, Defensive backs 4, Tight ends 3, Running backs 3, Athletes 3, Kickers 1.