A top-10 football recruiting class at Kentucky? Here's how the Cats are doing it

jsmith3@herald-leader.comSeptember 21, 2013 

  • Tennessee at Kentucky

    When: 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 30

    TV: ESPNU

    Records: Kentucky 2-9 (0-7 SEC); Tennessee 4-7 (1-6)

Mark Stoops tried his best to be stoic and serious.

He tried to hold the laughter back, but he couldn't help himself.

The Kentucky football coach, sitting in the living room of a recruit and his family, got the giggles sitting next to Vince Marrow.

"He's absolutely beautiful in some ways," Stoops said of his longtime friend from Cardinal Mooney High School in Ohio.

Growing up together, Stoops had seen Marrow excel on the basketball court. He'd seen him star on the football field, usually following "a little kick in the butt" from Stoops' dad, Ron.

But Mark Stoops had never seen Marrow quite like this.

"He'd sit back, he'd cross his legs, he's sipping on coffee or whatever he's doing," Stoops described, waving a pinkie in the air as he grasps his imaginary cup. "It's like Vince is one of the family."

This Marrow, a "chatty Cathy" as he recently was called by a commitment's mother, is a key cog in what is becoming a Kentucky football recruiting machine.

Since Stoops' arrival in December, Kentucky has signed its top recruiting class since rankings became available, and he is working on a 2014 class that could be one of the best in the nation.

Marrow is a big part of that, recruiting in mostly untapped Ohio, where Kentucky has plucked nine of its 24 commitments for this class, currently ranked No. 7 nationally by Rivals.

And of the Cats' eight four-star commitments, half of them are from Marrow's new recruiting living room.

At one point this summer, Kentucky's recruiting class owned the No. 1 ranking in the country.

"That surprised me at first because you just don't think about Kentucky in football," said Mike Farrell, national recruiting analyst for Rivals. com. "It's the first time it's ever happened. ... Everything they're doing is very, very surprising."

But what are they doing exactly?

What has changed?

As best Farrell can tell, Kentucky is refusing to take no for an answer.

"Recruiting is all about attitude, aggression and energy and this staff brings a lot of that," the national analyst said.

"When you go in with the attitude, 'We're going to compete with anybody, I don't care who it is, whether it's Alabama or Ohio State or wherever,' I think you can have success. Kids really, really buy into energy."

That is the attitude Stoops has about recruiting, said the man who should know best, Dan Berezowitz, Kentucky's director of football recruiting operations. In an interview with the Herald-Leader, Berezowitz said Stoops' directive is to simply go after the best.

"Nothing against anybody here before, but we're pushing the envelope in what we're doing and who we're going after," Berezowitz said. "Coach Stoops doesn't care who we're recruiting against, he wants to go after the best players. He doesn't care if they're offered by the top teams in our conference. We're going to battle and grind and do whatever we can to work a kid in the recruiting process."

Farrell called it a remedial course in "Sales 101."

"I think they would give up on kids earlier," he said of the previous staff. "I mean, Joker (Phillips) is a great recruiter and he's doing a great job at Florida, but they gave up earlier."

A player might politely tell this staff that he's not really interested in Kentucky, which has had three straight losing seasons and hasn't won a Southeastern Conference championship since 1976, so the new staff simply looks for a new way to woo.

"They worked their tails off for my kid," confirmed Connie Richardson, mother of 2014 commitment offensive lineman Nick. "They just never let up."

Maybe that relentless approach has turned off a recruit or two, but it's also clearly kept a couple more on the line long enough to make the sale, Farrell said.

"Anybody who's ever sold anything knows that you have to overcome objections and you're going to run into those, especially at Kentucky," he said. "They just try a little bit harder as far as when kids say something they don't want to hear, it doesn't stop them."

The result is a 2014 class with 24 known commitments, 23 of which Rivals.com has graded as three-stars or better.

'We could get some good players here'

D.J. Eliot had never been in Kentucky before his plane touched down in Lexington last December.

Sight unseen, he followed friend and boss Mark Stoops from Florida State to UK to be his defensive coordinator. Eliot was Stoops' first hire — really the first-time head coach's only hire for two weeks — which meant the new assistant coach had a lot to do.

"I went and visited every recruit in that recruiting class," Eliot said of the 2013 class. "I flew all over the country."

He also drove all around his new home state, visiting players like Ryan Timmons and Jason Hatcher, trying to persuade them to stay home and build something.

It was during that period that Eliot and Stoops started to realize that they were "going to have some steam here in recruiting.

"I realized pretty early is the short answer to that question that we could get some good players here," Eliot said.

The early selling points, which have been refined since then but are still very much in play, were getting an opportunity to be on the field as a freshman or sophomore, getting to play in the country's best conference and getting to play for a Stoops, even if it was the younger one with no head coaching experience.

"Stoops is a really big name out there," Farrell explained. "The Stoops name itself, thanks to Bob (at Oklahoma), has been well revered."

Baby brother Stoops had his own track record to sell, Eliot added.

"If you look at his track record ... you see everything he was responsible for and the improvement he made in the program from when he got there to when he left there," Eliot said of Stoops' previous jobs.

A 10,000-player database

For that same sort of transformation to happen at Kentucky, Stoops knew he needed to get Berezowitz, whom he worked with at Arizona starting in 2004.

"I knew what kind of worker he was, what kind of person he was," Stoops told the Herald-Leader. "He's a guy that wants no credit, doesn't want anyone to know who he is and he just sits downstairs in his dungeon — that's what I call it — and he's just constantly working."

It was Berezowitz who helped launch the Kentucky football social media hub, which serves as a digital feed for all things UK football including Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, videos and more.

"The social media hub is basically going to feed in all of the social media feeds we have, it's going to feed right into that website and constantly be pulling information, so we don't have to update it," explained Berezowitz, noting that UK is one of just a few schools nationally to have one.

No, Berezowitz doesn't have a gang of nerdy teenagers living in the basement of the training center feeding him ideas for the newest, coolest things. He has plenty of help, though, including UK's own coaching staff, whose average age is 37 years old.

The "social media hub," a fancy name for what is www.UKStoopsTroops.com, outlines all of the things that Kentucky's coaches are trying to sell.

Berezowitz rolls those features off the tip of his tongue like a car salesman pointing out a sweet ride's latest bells and whistles.

"If you come to Kentucky, you're probably going to live in a brand new dorm in a brand new building, you're going to play in a stadium that's newly renovated and state of the art," he said. "You'll be going through a state-of-the-art high-performance program."

But as the recruiting guru points out, lots of schools have their own selling points. So Berezowitz and his staff have to look for something more.

"We've got to compete against and try to find that edge with that kid and maybe it's sending him a lot of notes," he said. "Maybe it's something even more unique we have to do."

There are 10,000 active files on potential players over four graduating classes in the Kentucky database. Once UK starts narrowing and targeting — much of which happens via coaching evaluations — they tailor messages to specific players.

"We talk about what we think a kid individually needs or what he needs at a certain time in the process," Berezowitz explained.

It might be 74 hand-written letters sent on the same day to Richardson, the four-star lineman from Ohio. Seventy-four also happens to be his jersey number at Westerville Central.

Or it might be mailings that turn out to be puzzle pieces that when placed together show a recent ESPN screen grab of a recruit's success, like the ones recently sent to Drew Barker and Mike Edwards.

"We just constantly think from a marketing standpoint of how do we market our program without being gimmicky," Berezowitz explained. "Coach Stoops does not want to be gimmicky."

But the head coach is happy to play along when convinced.

And he's hands-on when possible, to the point of hand throbbing, writing hundreds of personal notes a week.

"He's always pushing the envelope on me," Stoops said of Berezowitz. "Pushing the right buttons to get us to do what we need to do to be successful in recruiting."

Holding on tight

In this 2014 recruiting class, Kentucky has more four-star recruits from Ohio (four) than it had four-star recruits combined in the three seasons before Stoops arrived.

Signing day isn't until February and UK has a lot of football to play. That means plenty of opportunities for opposing coaches to whisper less-than-flattering things about Kentucky.

Does the head coach worry about holding on to this recruiting class if Kentucky has a repeat of its 2-10 season of a year ago?

"Whether the season goes well or it does not, the answer to that question is yes," Stoops said. "We're constantly working to strengthen those relationships, to hold on to those players. Whether the season goes good or bad, those things change. They're fairly liquid, or they can be in football."

Farrell and Josh Helmholdt, Rivals.com's Midwest recruiting expert, think UK has a good shot at holding together this all-important 2014 class.

"This group of commitments is close," Helmholdt said. "They're already kind of developing that family atmosphere. ... As much as any class in the country, I think they have a chance to beat the odds in terms of how many de-commitments (they have)."

Barker is a key part to that aforementioned family atmosphere. The four-star quarterback helped create the Class of 2014 Twitter account that all of those commitments have access to and can contribute to.

A high-profile recruit like Barker in such a leadership role "can almost be better than a coach," Helmholdt said. "Any time you've got an advocate who's the same age as you and goes to the same kind of things as you, that's huge."


Next Game

Florida at Kentucky

When: Saturday, Sept. 28, 7 p.m.

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukfootball.bloginky.com. Herald-Leader staff writer Ben Roberts contributed to this article.

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