John Clay: New breed of recruits, coaches making difference for Kentucky

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistFebruary 5, 2014 

On national signing day for college football, every coach needs difference-makers.

Mark Stoops needed different thinkers.

The Kentucky coach needed players who didn't conform to the habits of most blue-chip prospects who base their college choices on what a team or a coach or a program has done in the past.

Kentucky needed players who would go all-in on what can happen at UK in the football future.

"We've got guys with strong personalities," said offensive coordinator Neal Brown. "They've got a little charisma about them and other guys are drawn to them."

Guys like Drew Barker, the home-state quarterback from Conner High School who got the ball rolling by committing in May and then became a persuasive powerhouse, taking to social media to persuade others to follow his lead.

Guys like Mikel Horton, the running back from Ohio who said he can't wait until the day ESPN's popular 30 for 30 series does a documentary about how Kentucky football turned it all around and started winning championships.

"Mikel's probably out in the hallway right now talking," said recruiting coordinator Vince Marrow. "He's a strong, opinionated young man."

Guys like C.J. Johnson, the junior-college defensive tackle, who joked Wednesday that he was developing his best Jackie Chan moves to deal with SEC offensive linemen.

Guys like Matt Elam, the much-heralded and sought-after defensive tackle from John Hardin High School who kept to his commitment and signed with Kentucky instead of Alabama on Wednesday.

Alabama has won national championships in three of the past five years. Kentucky hasn't won an SEC game in two years.

"This group is very confident in their ability," Stoops said, "and I know they have some fun with the media, which is great; they have the personality, and that's good, that's good for everybody. I want them to be themselves. But as a group, they are also very humble.

"I think humility is very important to have within your program. I have read a lot of quotes from these guys that caught my eye, that they know and understand that this is just the beginning of a lot of work."

Seven of UK's 28 Wednesday signees are already on campus, including the aforementioned Barker, Horton and Johnson. Many of those are players who committed to the Cats early, then watched their admitted college choice finish 2-10 in its first season under Stoops.

They heard from friends, and maybe even some family members, and surely rival recruiters who told them there was still time to make a different decision.

At the end of a long, long period, however, UK had just one player decommit.

"To keep so many is unique," said Stoops on Wednesday. "But this group was so solid for so long."

Here's something else that's different: Rivals.com ranks this Kentucky recruiting class 17th in the nation. Sports247 rated Elam as a five-star prospect. Rivals rates 10 of the signees as four-star prospects, including Barker and Horton.

In the past, many UK football signees wanted to prove wrong the rival recruiters who passed them by without a scholarship offer.

In this class, the UK signees want to prove wrong those who thought it wasn't a good idea to play football at Kentucky.

But then maybe you could say the same thing about the head coach.

Mark Stoops could have returned to Florida State for another year as defensive coordinator, been a part of a BCS national championship, maybe had a chance at a so-called "better" job than UK.

Surely there were those who told the Ohio native that to win these days you have to be able to recruit, and at Kentucky you can't recruit the quality players you need in the Southeastern Conference.

Stoops obviously thought differently. And in the Class of 2014, he has obviously signed some players who think the same way.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com.

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