The UK football team faces its toughest test of the season Saturday night at Alabama, and the recruiting rankings behind the Crimson Tide’s roster tell the story of the uphill battle awaiting the Wildcats.
Alabama — a five-touchdown favorite as of Tuesday morning — has won four national championships in the past seven seasons under Coach Nick Saban, who has built that success through a foundation of excellence on the recruiting trail.
Over the past five recruiting classes, no school has brought in more five-star commitments than Alabama, which had the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class (according to Rivals.com) in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2016. Bama finished No. 2, behind Southern Cal, in 2015 and currently has the No. 1 class for 2017.
Here’s a breakdown of where Alabama’s players were ranked as recruits, with some comparisons to how they stack up — recruiting-wise — to UK’s roster (all rankings from Rivals.com):
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Alabama has 17 five-star players, 39 four-star players, 24 three-star players and two two-star players on its roster.
By comparison: UK has one five-star recruit (true freshman offensive lineman Landon Young), 15 four-star recruits, 49 three-star recruits and 10 two-star recruits on its roster this season.
Alabama lists 25 players as starters on its depth chart this week (11 defense and 14 offense) with two “either or” position battles. The Crimson Tide have 10 five-star starters, 11 four-star starters and four three-star starters. Ten of the 11 defensive starters were ranked as either four- or five-star recruits. On offense, both tackles, running back Damien Harris, tight end O.J. Howard and wide receiver Calvin Ridley are the five-star starters.
By comparison: UK lists 25 players as starters on the offensive and defensive units this week. Five of those players were four-star recruits in high school: Wide receiver Dorian Baker, running back Boom Williams, tight end C.J. Conrad, and safeties Mike Edwards and Marcus McWilson. Another 15 starters were three-star recruits, three were two-star recruits (including starting quarterback Stephen Johnson), and two others were unranked in high school (left tackle Cole Mosier and fullback Will Tom Collins).
They meet again
Mark Stoops has done an excellent job of recruiting the state of Kentucky since taking the UK job in 2012, but the Cats couldn’t convince five-star running back Damien Harris to stay home as part of the class of 2015.
Harris — a former standout at Madison Southern — was ranked by Rivals.com as the top running back in the country and many thought he would ultimately end up at Kentucky. Instead, he committed to the Crimson Tide and now sits at the top of the depth chart in his second season in Tuscaloosa.
Harris, who suffered an ankle injury Saturday and is listed as “day to day” by Coach Nick Saban, leads Alabama in rushing this season with 40 carries for 345 yards and a touchdown.
“Damien looks very good, just like we knew recruiting him and watching him play right here in Kentucky,” Stoops said Monday. “He’s just like you’d expect. He’s a very talented guy and he looks very explosive, the great vision, the great jump cuts that you see out of him, that’s what you see on film.”
Stoops noted Monday that he had lunch with Harris over the summer.
True freshman QB
Kentucky faced — and defeated — a true freshman quarterback last week (South Carolina’s Brandon McIlwain) for its first Southeastern Conference victory of the season. The Cats will line up against another newcomer Saturday night.
Alabama starting quarterback Jalen Hurts — a 6-foot-2, 209-pound freshman from Channelview, Texas — was ranked by Rivals.com as the No. 9 dual-threat QB in the class of 2016, choosing Alabama over Florida, Mississippi State and Texas A&M.
Hurts beat out redshirt freshman QB Blake Barnett — another former four-star recruit — for the starting job in fall camp and so far has completed 64 of 102 passes for 727 yards, five touchdowns and one interception in four games. Also a threat to run the ball, Hurts has 45 carries for 251 yards and three touchdowns.
“The quarterback is different and they’re doing it different ways out of the (shotgun),” Mark Stoops said Monday. “He adds a different dimension with pulling the ball and running it with another big guy. That sets up big plays off it. They love the waves, play actions, over routes, boosts, getting the ball down the field. They can certainly do it and he can deliver the football. So, that puts a lot of stress on you.”
A team of stars
In the recruiting classes of 2012-2016, Rivals.com ranked 163 high school players as five-star prospects.
Alabama landed commitments for 21 of those players, more than any other program in the country.
Only two other schools have picked up more than 10 five-star players in that five-class span: Southern Cal (16) and Florida State (14). The other programs with more than five five-star recruits from 2012 to 2016: Florida (9), Georgia (8), Louisiana State (8), Auburn (7), Clemson (7), Notre Dame (7) and Ohio State (7).
Alabama already has four five-star commitments for the class of 2017, including a pledge from California running back Najee Harris, who is ranked by Rivals.com as the No. 1 overall player in the country.