When the dust settled, the University of Kentucky finished about where it normally does in the recruiting rankings — near the bottom of the Southeastern Conference.
But you wouldn't have known that from Rich Brooks' demeanor at his news conference Wednesday to announce his 2009 signees. Brooks cracked a few one-liners for reporters and joked around at the podium with new offensive coordinator Randy Sanders as he introduced what he called his best class ever at UK.
Brooks and his staff have never hung their hats on recruiting rankings, instead focusing on the development of hidden gems and undervalued prospects. But they did sign five players who were listed as four-star prospects by either Rivals.com or Scout.com: quarterbacks Ryan Mossakowski and Morgan Newton, defensive end Donte Rumph, wide receiver Chris Matthews and defensive end DeQuin Evans.
But Brooks spoke just as highly of less-heralded two-star prospects such as Memphis cornerback Martavius Neloms and Alabama running back Jonathan George, who didn't emerge on the Wildcats' radar until about a month ago.
"We were in more homes, but we still didn't forget what got us here, and that's evaluating talent, regardless of how many stars they have by their names," Brooks said.
The Cats were able to fill most of their areas of need, particularly at running back, where they signed George, Florida high schooler Donald Russell, and Dakotah Tyler from Indianapolis. With Derrick Locke recovering from a serious knee injury and Moncell Allen a question mark because of academics, playing time in the backfield could be there for the taking
"There's no question in my mind that one of these freshmen, and maybe two of them, might be playing some football for us next fall," Brooks said.
Brooks noted the unique physical talents of George, who won a state championship in wrestling as well as the 400-meter run.
"That's an unusual combination," Brooks said. "I've never had that ever in my life. I don't know if I've ever even heard of it. He's got a great future. I think his best football is ahead of him. He's another one of those under-starred guys I think had as much ability as guys who have more stars by their name."
George, one of the few surprises on signing day, said he chose Kentucky over Arkansas State, Samford and Jacksonville State and is the first player from his high school (Lincoln) to sign an SEC scholarship in "over 40 or 50 years."
"When I went on my official visit, everything was just so nice," George said. "The hospitality I was shown. People were so nice to me, and I just enjoyed the visit overall, and I was real pleased. I figured it was the right place for me to go."
Evans, a teammate of Matthews at Los Angeles Harbor College, chose the Wildcats over Louisville on Wednesday. He and Mark Crawford, a junior-college defensive tackle who's already enrolled, will help UK offset the loss of two starters on the defensive line: tackle Myron Pryor and end Ventrell Jenkins.
Kentucky's class was ranked 31st overall by Scout.com and 44th by Rivals.com. Both services had the Cats' haul next to last in the SEC ahead of Vanderbilt. But Rivals.com recruiting analyst Barton Simmons commended the efforts of Brooks and his staff.
"They really have done a great job of finding talent," Simmons said. "Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Arkansas, they're mid-to-lower level SEC programs, and they're just not going to beat out the Floridas and Miamis for those type of athletes. But what they do is find guys they can win with and win the little battles, and as it builds, that can turn a program around. It's really a slow process but they're right in the middle of it."
Morgan not signed yet
The only player who committed to Kentucky that didn't sign Wednesday was junior-college running back Josh Morgan. Morgan has not yet signed a letter of intent with any school and has until April to do so. Coaches aren't allowed to comment on unsigned prospects.
Schwindel, Minton to give up football
Junior linebacker Mike Schwindel and sophomore defensive tackle Josh Minton will both give up football because of injuries.
Schwindel, who played in 25 career games, is coming off a shoulder injury that required surgery. Minton, who arrived at UK as a much-heralded recruit from Somerset, has struggled to recover from a knee injury suffered during the spring game of his redshirt freshman year.
Brooks said Schwindel and Minton will receive medical scholarships.
Smith to take over for Sanders
Brooks said linebackers coach Chuck Smith will be UK's new recruiting coordinator, replacing Randy Sanders, who was promoted to offensive coordinator.
Brooks addresses future
Brooks was asked Wednesday what he told recruits about how much longer he'd be the head coach before turning things over to head coach-in-waiting Joker Phillips.
"The four-year and five-year guys, I didn't guarantee them that I'd coach them through graduation because I can't guarantee the future," Brooks said. "We'll judge that when it comes along."