Signing day 2014: Kentucky's Brown says recruiting efforts will yield better offense soon

jsmith3@herald-leader.comFebruary 4, 2014 

Kentucky quarterback Jalen Whitlow with offensive coordinator Neal Brown during the Cats' game at Vanderbilt last November. Kentucky announced Tuesday that Whitlow, who played in 22 games in his first two seasons, will transfer to another school.

PHOTO BY MARK CORNELISON | STAFF — Herald-Leader Buy Photo

Just minutes after signing the school's best football recruiting class since records have been kept, Kentucky's coaches said the best was yet to come.

"We can do a whole lot better than this class, to be honest with you, just wait," running backs coach Chad Scott said last February after UK signed the 29th best recruiting class in the country.

"This class makes us think, 'Imagine what we can do with a year.'"

If everything goes as planned on Wednesday for national signing day, this 2014 Cats class — seven of whom are already on campus taking classes and set to participate in spring practice — will unseat the previous class as the best in UK history, likely to be rated No. 13 by Rivals.com.

And like their predecessors, many in this 2014 class are expected to make an immediate impact on the field.

When combined with players in that first Mark Stoops class, Kentucky could start to look much different offensively, Neal Brown said.

"We'll be a much better offensive football team in 2014," the offensive coordinator told the Herald-Leader last week. "Are we going to be where we were in 2012 at Texas Tech? Probably not. We're still another year away from being at that level, but I do believe we'll be much improved. We'll be a more entertaining product for sure."

A single recruiting class can have an immediate impact. One need only look back to this time last year and then peruse the final statistics from the 2013 season to see that.

A Stoops recruit had a hand in nearly half (14) of Kentucky's 30 offensive touchdowns this past season.

Players from last season's star-studded class accounted for 62.7 percent of the catches, 64.1 percent of the yards and 78.6 of the touchdowns through the air.

The Cats' top three wide receivers last season (Javess Blue, Ryan Timmons and Jeff Badet) were all brought in by Stoops and Brown. Together they accounted for 97 catches for 1,209 yards and seven scores.

A Stoops recruit, Jojo Kemp, finished as the Cats' leading rusher with 100 carries for 482 yards and three touchdowns. Players from that class accounted for 26.9 percent of the carries for 33.4 percent of the yards and nearly 20 percent of the rushing TDs.

Having this new class to build on and learn from the first class is key, Brown said. This new class will mean even more competition, especially at the skill positions, which should only help the team get better overall.

"We'll have more pieces," Brown said. "We still need some more pieces, but I think it will be interesting in the spring. I'm intrigued to see how far we've come. I'm excited for those guys who played last year, all in their first year, the Jojos (Kemp), the receivers that played. I'm excited to see where those guys are in year two."

Brown knows that fans were disappointed in the 2-10 record, the same record UK had the season before, and the offensive output. Kentucky was second-worst in the Southeastern Conference in points a game with 20.5.

The Cats' average of 341.3 yards of total offense was second-lowest in the league as well. Kentucky had the fewest first downs (212) of any team in the conference and was the worst team in third-down conversions, converting just 30.9 percent of the time.

Brown expects those numbers to rise with the influx of talent on his side of the ball, including highly rated quarterback Drew Barker, as well as some coveted skill-position players like running backs Mikel Horton and Boom Williams.

There are also running back Braylon Heard, who transferred from Nebraska, and several offensive linemen who redshirted and could help right away this season.

"You can look at our track record," Brown said. "We know how to recruit, know how to develop. The guys that are here will get better, and the guys coming in will make us better."

Brown isn't the only Cats coordinator who got some production from last season's recruiting class. Two of UK's top four tacklers were a part of last season's class in true freshman Blake McClain (a Joker Phillips recruit whom Stoops held onto) and junior-college transfer ZaDarius Smith.

Players in that 2013 class accounted for nearly 20 percent of the tackles last season on a senior-laden defense.

This 2014 class could have even more of an impact defensively with so many spots to fill because of graduation.

In December, after the long 2-10 season, Stoops sounded optimistic about who's coming back and who's coming in.

"Guys are excited about the future," the head coach said. "It was a tough year on everybody, but I think they're genuinely excited to get back to work, get bigger, get stronger, keep on working fundamentally to get better and help us recruit more talent."

How well they did on the latter will be known bright and early Wednesday.

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukwomen.bloginky.com.

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