Kentucky football signees form unbreakable bond

jsmith3@herald-leader.comFebruary 5, 2014 

Even after Mikel Horton committed to Kentucky, Florida State came calling.

The Seminoles went after the four-star running back with gusto.

But Horton watched with only passing interest as Florida State went undefeated and won college football's national championship.

"I wasn't changing my mind for any other school," said Horton, one of seven early enrollees in UK's 2014 signing class. "I chose Kentucky because it felt right. It felt like home."

Horton is part of a class of 28 players that all decided to call Kentucky home.

This class could help lay the foundation for the future, Coach Mark Stoops said.

Not just because it is rated the highest in school history at No. 17, according to Rivals.com.

But also because most of the members of the class, even the highly regarded ones like Horton, stayed steady in their commitments.

"This is one of the most unique recruiting experiences I've ever been a part of," Stoops said after the last of the 28 names — 15 on defense and 13 on offense — had been put up on the big board in the coaches' offices.

"This group was so solid for so long. ... We finished strong, just like we started, with very few hiccups in between."

That was astounding considering Kentucky's 2-10 record last season with this new coaching staff. So many members of Kentucky's class committed early and many expected a few to find other places to play as the rough season wore on, but the group stuck together.

So while there wasn't a big surprise player on signing day this year — except for Lloyd Tubman from Seneca, who flipped from Penn State to Kentucky and made it official Wednesday morning — as there usually is, the big surprise may be that they all stuck together.

Stoops credited his coaching staff.

The special recruiting stories were aplenty on Wednesday, from offensive coordinator Neal Brown and offensive line coach John Schlarman's treacherous, icy trek to land Jervontius Stallings to running backs coach Chad Scott sitting in a class all day with a recruit, to tight ends coach Vince Marrow playing Monopoly with a family on an official visit.

"We got to know their families," Stoops said. "With me going on the road — and I don't even know exactly how many living rooms I was in, but we got a very high percentage of guys that we brought in here for an official visit."

Stoops guessed that of UK's 36 official visitors this season, 28 of them signed letters to play for Kentucky. The only commitment that UK lost throughout this cycle was offensive lineman Derrick Kelly, who backed out of his pledge to the Wildcats in December.

Kelly signed with Florida State on Wednesday after receiving offers from several top programs, including Auburn, Louisiana State and Georgia.

The players became so bonded with the staff and each other that Stoops said by the time he got in their living rooms "these guys were ready to go. It was really just a celebration."

Stoops and his staff had to guide a few players to the finish line, guys who took other official visits late or seemed to be nervous about their commitments, but that was to be expected, he said.

"We recruited every bit as hard last night and today as we did last year or the day after signing day or the whole year," he said. "We recruited from start to finish extremely hard."

It wasn't just Stoops' staff, either.

It was the players in the class.

"They've got a little charisma about them, and other guys are drawn to them," UK offensive coordinator Neal Brown said of players such as quarterback Drew Barker on offense and linebacker Dorian Hendrix, who was the Cats' first commitment and did what he could to sell UK to Ohio players, who make up nearly 40 percent of the signing class.

"Once those guys were in the boat, we really felt like they were solidified."

Hendrix said keeping the class together through the Class of 2014 Twitter account and other social media was key.

"'Stick with it and everything will be all right,'" he said he assured players who got on the fence during the tough season. "I felt like a lot of guys listened, and I guess that showed today when we got pretty much every single commit that we had."

That part was gratifying for Barker, too.

"A lot of guys were saying, 'Well, UK's not going to be able to keep these guys, all the bigger schools are going to come in and take them, just a lot of talk like that,'" Barker said Wednesday. "It shows the commitment to the staff and all the players, the special bond that we have that we all stuck together. ... I'm really proud to see that."

The coaches enjoyed seeing the players bond before they signed. There are lots from Ohio, four from Kentucky, but also guys from Texas and South Carolina, Florida and Georgia. All of them seemed unified toward a cause.

"In all of my coaching career, I've never seen a class like this," defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh said. "I think the social media and the guys knowing each other ... they really had an opportunity to jell."

As Horton watched Florida State, the team that had wanted him, too, win its national title in January, he wasn't wondering what could have been. He was thinking about what will be at UK.

"I felt like we could do that, too," he said. "Thirty years from now, I want to be on a 30 for 30 on ESPN: 'Why is Kentucky undefeated and winning national championships in a row so many times,' telling my life story. That's why I chose Kentucky."

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

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