Football recruiting 'class to change the program' gathers at Kentucky this weekend

broberts@herald-leader.comDecember 12, 2013 

It's arguably the biggest recruiting weekend of Coach Mark Stoops' tenure at the University of Kentucky, and the theme couldn't be more clear.

On Friday, the majority of UK's top football recruits will arrive on campus for their 48-hour official visits. During that time, they'll be treated to a family atmosphere with the overriding idea that the team is greater than the individual.

It's a plan that's months in the making. Instead of having his Class of 2014 commitments take their official visits individually, Stoops wanted to have as many of them as possible on campus at the same time.

This class — Stoops' first full one as UK's head coach and the Cats' highest-rated group in recent memory — was put together early in the recruiting cycle and has already grown quite close.

UK is expecting to host 18 of its 24 commitments this weekend, as well as two more highly touted, uncommitted prospects. In the world of football recruiting — where broken commitments are common — this will be Stoops' last big chance to strengthen the bond before national signing day Feb. 5.

His future players liked the idea.

"I thought it was pretty cool," UK commitment Denzel Ware told the Herald-Leader. "When you're in high school, you're the man. Everybody depends on you, and you really don't have to depend on anybody else. You know you're the best thing out there.

"But, in college, it's different, because everybody's the same. It's pretty great knowing you've got a guy who's trying to already make you into a team player before you even step foot on campus."

Stoops and his assistant coaches have been trying to build that atmosphere all year. Many of UK's commitments have taken several unofficial visits to Lexington, making long drives and paying their own way to come to town for games, camps and other team activities that are attended by fellow recruits.

Official visits mean the football program can pay for the players' expenses, and this weekend will be well-planned.

The 20 seniors and their families are scheduled to arrive in Lexington on Friday. Once they all get to town, the UK staff is planning to take them out for a steak dinner.

Saturday's itinerary includes a trip to Stoops' house, where the visitors will have another meal and watch the UK-North Carolina basketball game. That night will offer one last opportunity to hang out with future teammates before everybody heads home Sunday.

In-state star Matt Elam — one of the two uncommitted prospects expected to visit this weekend — recently told the Herald-Leader that he's been impressed with the family atmosphere among the UK commitments.

T.V. Williams — a receiver from Texas — says it happened naturally.

"I can't really explain how close we are," Williams said. "We're all just ready to come together and play as one. I think he's really just trying to get us all together and have us bond more and more, as much as possible. So when we do come in, we can make as big an impact as possible."

Quarterback Drew Barker — he'll be visiting this weekend, too — has been given a lot of credit for bringing this class together. But ask any of UK's commitments and they'll tell you it's a team effort.

Williams says all 24 commitments have a group text message going in which they communicate with each other regularly. That's in addition to the many tweets, texts and phone calls that are made among individual players.

"I know all the guys well," Ware said. "I know all 24 commitments and I know all of them well. We speak to each other every day. We either text or hit each other up on Twitter. I'm already close to these guys, but every day you can get closer to your teammates is a day you take advantage of."

Ware also mentioned several fellow commitments that he talks to regularly, even including Elam in that group.

"If one of us has a bad day or is feeling down, we text one of our future teammates and we talk about it," he said. "We don't just sit down and stay down. It's like we're already family in our own little way."

Rivals.com ranks UK's class as the 12th-best in the nation, and Ware described it as "the class to change the program." These players are aware of the expectations — realistic or not — that fans have for the 2014 class.

They talk in their group message and individually about the flaws they saw during this past season and the things they want to change once they get to campus.

They have a clear vision for the future of Kentucky football, and a clear liking of one another.

This weekend will mark the latest step in building that bond.

"We've hung out a lot," Williams said. "Before I even committed, I hung out with them three times. Every time I'm in Kentucky, we're all together. We're not going off and doing different things or anything. We're all hanging out every night. Just chilling and relaxing.

"I don't know, I guess we all just got lucky and we really like each other. It's just a lot of fun being around them."

Ben Roberts: (859) 231-3216.Twitter: @NextCats.Blog: ukrecruiting.bloginky.com.

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