UK Football

How UK football built one of the program’s best recruiting classes

UK Coach Mark Stoops has 24 commitments from the class of 2017 going into national signing day Wednesday.
UK Coach Mark Stoops has 24 commitments from the class of 2017 going into national signing day Wednesday.

The football recruiting class that will sign with Kentucky on Wednesday — arguably Mark Stoops’ best yet as head coach of the Wildcats — wasn’t supposed to look anything like this.

Stoops and the UK coaching staff got off to an impressive start to the 2017 cycle two summers ago, picking up early commitments from quarterback Mac Jones, running back Michael Warren, defensive end James Hudson and defensive back Russ Yeast, all in a matter of a couple of days.

All four of those players are now ranked as four-star recruits, but none of them will sign with the Wildcats on Wednesday after de-committing from UK — all in the same one-month span — last spring.

Kentucky also got a commitment from four-star tight end Charles Reeves during that brief period of recruiting bonanzas. Reeves won’t sign with the Cats, either, backing off of his commitment a few months after he made it.

“It’s been an up-and-down road,” said Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell. “So the class finishes a little bit differently than it looked initially, but I think they’ve got a lot of talent.”

In fact, Farrell recently listed UK as one of five classes nationally — along with Georgia, Maryland, Oklahoma and Penn State — that exceeded his expectations for the 2017 recruiting cycle, noting this group as “the most versatile and athletic yet” under Stoops.

Finishing bowl-eligible and beating Louisville down the stretch can keep this momentum going, and I think that’s what you’re seeing in this class. A lot of kids are buying into it.

Mike Farrell, national recruiting analyst

A steady trickle of commitments this past spring and summer — most notably, four-star athletes Tyrell Ajian and Javonte Richardson — kept Kentucky with a respectable class, and Stoops and company weathered the terrible start to their fourth season in Lexington with no defections from the recruiting ranks.

Then came the victories on the field. Then came the victories off the field.

In the five weeks between UK’s shocking road win over nationally ranked Louisville and the Cats’ appearance in the TaxSlayer Bowl, the program picked up commitments from eight more players from the 2017 recruiting class.

Two weeks after the bowl game, UK landed its highest-ranked prospect, four-star offensive play-maker Lynn Bowden, and the Cats will enter national signing day Wednesday with a Top 25 recruiting class nationally.

“We’ve talked numerous times throughout this process about the vision that was being sold by Coach Stoops, and this was a make-or-break year on the field,” Farrell said. “Finishing bowl-eligible and beating Louisville down the stretch can keep this momentum going, and I think that’s what you’re seeing in this class. A lot of kids are buying into it. Had they not made a bowl or lost by 30 to Louisville, you wouldn’t be seeing this.”

UK landed commitments from eight recruits in the month following the Cats’ win over Louisville

UK goes into signing day with 24 commitments — seven of them are already enrolled and none of the other 17 are considered candidates for last-minute flips — and the Cats have filled this class with a combination of highly touted prospects and the type of under-the-national-radar players that this coaching staff has had success with in the past.

At quarterback, there’s Danny Clark — a former Ohio State commitment and top-20 QB nationally — as well as Walker Wood, the Lexington native who lit up the scoreboard at Lafayette High School.

UK’s lone running back commitment, Bryant Koback, was on pace for a Mr. Football-caliber senior season in Ohio before suffering a broken leg in September. He says he’ll be fully recovered by the fall.

The Cats needed receivers in this group, and they got plenty of them, with three-star players Josh Ali, Isaiah Epps and Clevan Thomas joining Richardson and Bowden, the two highest-rated players in the class.

Bowden likely will be used as a slot receiver, running back and Wildcat quarterback and is UK’s No. 1 commitment, according to the 247Sports composite rankings. Richardson — a tall, athletic prospect — is the top-ranked Kentucky pledge, according to Rivals.

“He’s a big-time athlete,” Farrell said of Richardson. “He’s a kid that’s played multiple positions. So for them to get a 6-foot-4 kid that they can plug in right away with that type of athleticism on offense, it’s going to be big.

“I think he’s the best recruit in the class for them. And I think he’s a guy who’s going to make an early impact.”

Florida native Sebastien Dolcine, Belfry’s Austin Dotson and Maryland’s Naasir Watkins are the offensive line commitments. None are highly ranked nationally, but all three are highly regarded by UK, which had arguably the best O-line in the Southeastern Conference this past season.

The Cats have six commitments on the defensive line — tackles Quinton Bohanna and Phil Hoskins and ends Abule Abadi-Fitzgerald, Joshua Paschal, Chris Whittaker and Jordan Wright — as well as high-upside edge rusher Alex King, who is expected to play the “jack” linebacker position. Early enrollee Jamin Davis is the other linebacker, and Stoops has referred to him as a “prototype” on the weakside.

Stoops’ reputation as a terrific developer of defensive backs paid off with another stellar group, consisting of Ajian, Yusuf Corker, Cedrick Dort, Lonnie Johnson and Michael Nesbitt.

There’s also room for another player to join this UK class, and two of those possibilities are ranked by Rivals.com as Top 100 national recruits.

Lafayette offensive lineman Jedrick Wills — the No. 5 offensive tackle in the country — took an official visit to UK this past weekend, and there’s still a chance he could flip from Alabama to the hometown Wildcats on signing day.

Ohio native Danny Davis — the No. 13 wide receiver nationally — is down to UK, West Virginia and Wisconsin, and he will announce his final decision Wednesday afternoon.

“They have recruiters who don’t stop,” Farrell said. “They just kept plugging away.”

As part of Kentucky football's freshmen class of early enrollees, linebacker Jamin Davis has been getting up very early for workouts.

Lonnie Johnson, a junior college transfer and January enrollee on the Kentucky football team, wants to play cornerback but can also play safety.

UK football commitments for the class of 2017

Player

Pos

Ht

Wt

Hometown

Rivals

Scout

ESPN

247

Abule Abadi-Fitzgerald

DE

6-7

250

Lakeland, Fla.

***

***

Tyrell Ajian

DB

6-1

185

Mansfield, Ohio

****

***

****

****

Josh Ali

WR

6-0

175

Hollywood, Fla.

***

***

***

***

Quinton Bohanna

DT

6-4

300

Cordova, Tenn.

***

***

***

***

Lynn Bowden

ATH

6-1

190

Youngstown, Ohio

****

****

***

****

Danny Clark

QB

6-2

230

Columbus, Ohio

***

****

****

***

Yusuf Corker

CB

6-0

185

Stockbridge, Ga,

***

****

****

***

Jamin Davis

LB

6-4

210

Ludwici, Ga.

***

***

***

***

Sebastien Dolcine

OL

6-4

285

Hollywood, Fla.

**

**

***

***

Cedrick Dort

CB

5-11

170

Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

**

***

***

***

Austin Dotson

OL

6-6

290

Belfry, Ky.

**

**

***

***

Isaiah Epps

WR

6-3

185

Jenks, Okla.

***

**

***

***

Phil Hoskins

DL

6-5

275

Toldeo, Ohio

***

***

***

***

Alex King

LB

6-3

225

Mason, Ohio

***

***

***

***

Lonnie Johnson

DB

6-3

215

Gary, Ind.

***

***

***

***

Bryant Koback

RB

6-0

200

Holland, Ohio

***

***

***

***

Michael Nesbitt

DB

6-0

175

Lauderdale Lakes, Fla.

***

***

***

***

Joshua Paschal

DE

6-4

255

Olney, Md.

****

****

****

****

Javonte Richardson

WR

6-4

210

Maple Heights, Ohio

****

****

****

****

Clevan Thomas

WR

5-11

190

Miami, Fla.

***

***

***

***

Naasir Watkins

OL

6-5

300

Olney, Md.

***

**

***

***

Chris Whittaker

DE

6-4

250

Hollywood, Fla.

***

***

***

***

Walker Wood

QB

6-0

190

Lexington, Ky.

***

***

***

***

Jordan Wright

DE

6-5

230

Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

***

***

***

***

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