Most Kentucky fans will start learning names, discussing high school stats and star rankings of the players after they put pen to paper on Wednesday morning.
But for Kentucky coaches, this upcoming 2017 recruiting class with its likely top 25 ranking and national praise is a distant memory.
“I’ve already targeted ’18s and ’19s,” Kentucky offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said of the next two classes coming up. “I’m done. I know who my ’18 guys are, most of my ’19.”
It’s a familiar pattern for Gran, who has been recruiting the south Florida area since long before this current crop of commitments were even born.
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“Every year I’m always two years ahead,” said Gran, who was the lead recruiter on seven of the players in this 2017 signing class that could rank among the best in Kentucky history.
These recruiting classes are built on the behind-the-scenes work of assistant coaches like Gran in Florida, Vince Marrow in Ohio and John Schlarman in Kentucky and others.
The assistant coaches’ initial evaluations and connections — often made long before recruiting services have assigned a player a star rating — begin the long road a recruit travels to make it from one of thousands on a spreadsheet to a name on the big blue board this first Wednesday in February.
It almost always starts with a conversation.
“Let’s say Coach X has one half of Georgia and South Carolina, so he goes through his area and mines his whole area and finds guys who can play at Kentucky,” said Dan Berezowitz as he started to explain the long recruiting journey to the Herald-Leader recently.
In Oz terms, Kentucky’s Berezowitz is the man behind the recruiting curtain. He doesn’t go on the road to talk to players or their parents. But he is the keeper of the charts and spreadsheets that the Cats build their recruiting around.
Narrowing the list
Not every player’s recruiting story or path fits the pattern. There always are exceptions.
But Mark Stoops has tried to create a norm at Kentucky.
The head coach has a specific formula he’s charged the coaches and Berezowitz with using, and it’s worked well so far, the UK recruiting guru said.
“It’s an inexact science,” Berezowitz said of recruiting and evaluation of potential players. “You can’t put a manual to it. We have a process of how we do it and Coach Stoops sticks to that process of how we evaluate, how we critique, how we get their grades, how we methodically do it.”
There are plenty of examples on UK’s teams of how the process worked well, probably none better than Freshman All-American running back Benny Snell.
Snell and fellow Class of 2016 running back A.J. Rose started as two names on a list of nearly 200 backs that could have been Cats.
“He was a guy who fit our mold of recruiting a guy for a long time,” Berezowitz explained of Snell, a three-star prospect out of Ohio. “He’s not the only one. There’s a whole bunch of guys on our team that fit all of those pockets, but he’s one that you could say now looking at where he ended up this year that our evaluation worked.”
By the time the final camera turns off on this week’s signing day hoopla, the coaches already have thrown their 2018 (and some 2019) names into a pool, and the names have been passed between the region recruiter and position coaches and coordinators.
These names are not new to the staff either. They have been part of preliminary discussions in regular recruiting meetings for many months.
“We’re recruiting a whole bunch of those guys on Sept. 1 when the cycle starts,” Berezowitz said. “We do graphics. Coaches write them notes. We send them general mail. We send them note cards with quotes on them and about the facility.
“So they’re getting hammered with stuff about Kentucky. We’re basically trying to teach the ’18s all the things there is to know about Kentucky so we’re in their mind.”
Background and information already has been passed around. The regional coaches have graded and evaluated talent based on film and conversations.
“We evaluate them and say, ‘These are the running backs that we’d say we’d take right now,’” Berezowitz explained. “So if any of these 10 guys call, we would take their commitment.”
But those 10 guys likely have offers from 25-30 major programs around the country, too. There are no guarantees they would end up at Kentucky.
It’s the players in the middle that UK focuses a lot of energy on, getting them on campus, inviting them to camp, doing what Berezowitz called a “deep evaluation” to see how they might fit at Kentucky, including character and academic assessments.
“We don’t do that for all 200 because some of those guys will never get on campus,” he explained. “Some won’t make the cut they can play here. When we get to the 50, we say, ‘How many of these guys can we get on campus? When can they come? What are their choices between?’”
All of this information is kept in a massive recruiting operations platform known as Thundercloud Scout. It’s an elaborate tracking system that lives on the cloud and can be accessed by UK coaches from their laptops.
“It’s got links to their film, to their Twitter, their grades,” Berezowitz said of recruits. “All that stuff goes in there. I’ve got spreadsheet after spreadsheet of GPAs and test scores and all that stuff.”
While this process continues, coaches settle in on a specific target number of players. The 50 players are whittled down even more based on need, position areas, availability.
Coaches frequently meet and rank players by position group, Berezowitz said. The coordinator in each room takes the options on the board and ranks them. If Player A and Player B commit elsewhere, the next two players move up.
“It’s a constant juggling game and a constant evaluation game all along,” Berezowitz said. “Here’s the guys we want, here’s the guys who fit. … It’s something you have to do every single day.
“Our staff discusses it daily, maybe not in a staff meeting, but there’s constant recruiting conversation going on all day.”
‘We could tell he loved football’
One of those names in the massive database was Snell, whom Marrow watched when he was a junior.He then came to a UK camp in the summer and on junior day, the Cats coaches met Snell’s parents.
After struggles in short yardage situations, Stoops specifically had charged his staff with finding a player that could be reliable and push the pile forward.
Some national scouting services questioned Snell’s speed, but UK wasn’t necessarily looking for a home run threat, although through their evaluation they believed he could be that eventually.
“You’ve just got to trust your evaluation because in the back of your mind, you’re wondering: Can he hit the home run? Can he make an 80-yard run? And there’s a chance he could,” Berezowitz said of the discussions around Snell. “He’s got game speed and he makes people miss.”
Snell came to camps at Kentucky and what coaches saw was a player who loved to work. In meeting with coaches, he was able to draw plays they’d discussed on the board. Coaches saw him run down and make tackles on kickoffs in high school, a sign that he wasn’t just about the glory of it.
“Lots of people are looking for breakaway speed — the home run guy — but Benny competed in camp. He loved to work in camp,” Berezowitz said. “We could tell he loved football.”
After careful evaluation of Snell, his future position coach saw everything he needed to know in a strange place: the basketball court.
The running backs coach worried about Snell’s speed, just like the recruiting services did, but he saw things on the court that helped sway him.
“You could see his explosiveness in gym shorts and how he played defense and his tenacity,” Gran said during the season. “That’s what I liked. I watched him. I like to see how they compete in another sport.”
And while Snell wasn’t able to run anyone over on the court the way he does with pads on, Gran said he liked the running back’s competitiveness: “He was throwing some chicken wings and getting after it.”
Comfortable place to land
Of course it’s a two-way street in recruiting.
Kentucky has to do all of the background work, evaluation and assessment while still making sure it’s a welcoming place for potential future players and their families.
One way that happens is the number of coaches that get to know each player. First there’s the area coach that identified the player in the first place, then he is handled by his future position coach and then often his future coordinator.
In Gran’s case, he was listed as the lead recruiter on all seven of UK’s recruits from Florida for this upcoming 2017 class. None of them are in his position group (running backs) and only three of them are even on his side of the ball.
So Gran had plenty of help, he said. And it’s one of the things that separate Kentucky and its recruiting process.
“When a kid is here on campus, everybody touches them,” Gran said. “It’s not just one coach because I’m recruiting this kid or that kid. Coach Stoops says when there are eight kids on campus it doesn’t matter what position, they better know you.
“And I think that can separate you when you do that. I think those are the biggest things. And then you add the facility and all that, but the people are the underlying thing.”
It was the underlying thing for at least one Class of 2017 signee.
That’s the idea, Kentucky’s coaches explained. The lead recruiter on Koback, who is from northern Ohio, was Marrow. But he wasn’t the only one and that was key, the running back said.
“I don’t know what it is, it just feels more like home,” he said of the UK recruiting experience. “I came here and from the second I got here from teammates, to coaches, to faculty and other academic advisers, it was just so comfortable.”
National signing day
Online: Visit Kentucky.com for live updates throughout the day.