You remember the Super Bowl commercial, right?
Not a commercial for the Super Bowl, mind you. This was the commercial for Kentucky football that ran to a regional audience during the Super Bowl. The school’s marketing department started the now-annual tradition in 2013, just after Mark Stoops had been hired as the new head coach. The first ad featured lightning, air raid sirens, the ringing of what sounded like a large church bell and Stoops’ voice. It made an impression.
The second commercial, the one that ran in 2014, made more of an impact, however, if simply for what it symbolized. In it, Stoops asks the question of “Why Kentucky?” as images of players appear on the screen. Near the end of the 60-second ad, several players, in uniform, stand steady and stern, looking into the camera. In the forefront, his arms folded, is quarterback Drew Barker.
At the time, the former Conner High School star had not played a down for the Cats. In fact, he had just signed his national letter-of-intent and graduated from high school early so that he could enroll at UK for the spring semester. Yet the prominent presence of Barker was a clear signal about who would be the future leader of Kentucky football.
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Now, that time has come. And not just Barker’s time, as the starting quarterback for the 2016 Cats, but the time of his brethren, the recruiting class of 2014, the second under Stoops, the class that, after he made his commitment public, Barker so actively recruited; the class that surely Stoops hoped would start a turnaround.
Running back Boom Williams, who rushed for more than 800 yards as a sophomore despite missing two games, was in that class. Wide receiver Dorian Baker, who led the Cats with 55 catches a year ago, was in that class. Matt Elam, a five-star defensive line prospect who turned down Alabama in favor of his home-state school, was in that class. Wide receiver Garrett Johnson, with 68 catches his first two years, was in that class. Mikel Horton, who rushed for 624 yards, was in that class.
There were plenty of others — players who have shown flashes but are expected to make a more lasting impact this season. Denzel Ware, a defensive end counted on to provide a sorely lacking pass rush, is one of those players. Mike Edwards, a starter at safety and one of the better talents on the team, is another. Kobie Walker, a defensive end who started turning heads in this year’s fall camp, is another.
Back when that commercial ran during the Seahawks-Broncos Super Bowl, Kentucky had not yet renovated Commonwealth Stadium. That process didn’t start until the end of the 2014 campaign, its first phase completed just in time for the 2015 opener. Expanded luxury boxes, a recruiting room, player and fan luxuries that didn’t exist then, do now.
The same goes for the new UK Football Training Facility. Back in 2014, that was merely on Stoops’ drawing board, an idea that needed administrative backing and financial support. Now, the $45 million building connected to the Nutter Field House and neighboring Commonwealth Stadium is in use, complete with new practice fields and a state-of-the-art dining hall. It’s SEC quality, which in terms of football is a full-blown compliment.
In other words, there are no more excuses, or at least fewer of them. If Kentucky football doesn’t make the jump it hopes to make under Stoops, now in his fourth season, or fails to return to the string of bowl bids that marked the vintage Rich Brooks years, it won’t be because of a lack of investment, or marketing or facilities.
It all starts with players, of course, and that’s where Stoops’ Class of 2014 enters the story line. Commercials are used to sell something or promote something, and for Kentucky, it’s the 2016 season.
2016 College Football Preview
Click on the links below to read other stories from the Herald-Leader’s season preview. Watch for more coming Monday and Tuesday, or pick up the Sunday Herald-Leader and get it all at once.