Ever since arriving at UK after the 2012 season, Coach Mark Stoops has been selling football recruits on a vision of building something great at Kentucky, a journey toward success that obviously needed to include improvement on the field.
Last year, for the first time in his four seasons, Stoops led the Wildcats to a winning record and a bowl appearance (the program’s first since the 2010 campaign).
Going into this season, UK’s schedule is set up in a way that could lead to massive success — by this program’s standards — or a step back in the wrong direction.
An independent observer could find a realistic path to a nine-win season for the Cats. A five-win season — and no bowl trip — also seems well within the realm of possibility.
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What UK does on the field will, as always, have an effect on the Cats’ recruiting efforts, both in the 2018 class — currently ranked in the top 20 nationally — and with future classes.
So, what does Kentucky need to do to keep that recruiting success going?
Start with the worst-case scenario.
“It’ll hurt if they step back. Schools are going to use that against them,” Rivals.com national analyst Mike Farrell told the Herald-Leader. “Negative recruiting exists, and it’s used all the time. If they didn’t make a bowl game last year, people would’ve pointed to the fact that it was four years in and (Stoops) hadn’t made a bowl game. They made a bowl game, so now schools are just saying, well, ‘It wasn’t a very good bowl game. You can come here and go to a better bowl game.’
“If they fall back, schools are going to just kill them for that. And they will lose recruits. There’s no doubt. There are a few guys on this list that everybody wants, and Jarren Williams is one of them. I think, if they have a rough season, if they go 5-7, then you’re going to see them lose recruits, and you’re going to see them have a much more difficult time selling the vision.”
The “vision” is one of sustained improvement in every season, and Stoops — for the most part — has shown that. The Cats went 2-10 in his first campaign, 5-7 the next season, a bump-in-the-road 5-7 year after that and, last season, a 7-5 record with a big victory over Louisville and a spot in the TaxSlayer Bowl.
The next step would be an 8-4 finish this fall and an even better bowl appearance. That seems doable, and it might take only a slight upset or two to achieve.
Farrell said that 8-4 level might also be the magic number for UK to keep stellar recruiting classes coming in on a regular basis.
“It’s hard to continue to improve every year,” he said. “Let’s say they go 8-4 this year. Then next year, you gotta go 9-3? I don’t think that’s necessary. I think if they can get to a steady, consistent, eight-win-a-season program — that every once in a while makes a run at the (SEC) East — your recruiting is always going to be good. What kids who are very fickle don’t like is: step forward, step back, step forward, step back. That drives ’em nuts, and schools will use that against you quite a bit.
“So, I don’t think Kentucky needs to go 8-4 and then 10-2 and then go win a national title. That’s not necessary. They have to reach a point of consistency where they’re winning and going to bowl games, and I think eight wins is that point of consistency.”
As stated earlier, one could make a credible case for UK to finish 9-3 this season. You could just as easily make a good case for a 5-7 (or even 4-8) campaign in 2017.
There are three non-conference games that UK should win (Southern Miss in Saturday’s opener, along with Eastern Kentucky and Eastern Michigan).
Don’t like the Cats’ chances at Georgia, which appears to be the toughest game of the season, or at home against Florida in the SEC opener at Kroger Field on Sept. 23 (although my colleague, John Clay, disagrees on the latter).
Home games against Tennessee and Louisville will be tough — and UK will almost certainly be the underdog — but they both look winnable going into the season.
The outcomes of the other five games — at South Carolina, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt, home against Missouri and Mississippi — will decide the trajectory of the Cats’ season, and no result in any of those five games would be surprising.
My prediction: UK wins over Southern Miss, Eastern Kentucky, South Carolina (for a 3-0 start to the season), Eastern Michigan, Missouri, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt. Cats lose to Florida, Mississippi State, Tennessee, Georgia and Louisville.
That’s a 7-5 season with a 4-4 record in the SEC.
During his Monday press conference, Mark Stoops started listing off true freshmen he thought might see their first action as Kentucky Wildcats in Saturday’s opener at Southern Miss.
Most of the names were ones that have been mentioned throughout camp. One name stood out: Cedrick Dort.
“He’s just out there, kind of quietly going about his business every day,” Stoops said. “He’s earning the trust of us.”
Dort — a 5-foot-11 cornerback from Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. — was not one of the marquee recruits in the Wildcats’ 2017 signing class. According to the 247Sports player rankings, he was the 23rd-best of 24 UK signees and the No. 157 cornerback nationally in the class. Last fall, it looked like Cincinnati might be the Cats’ biggest competition in Dort’s recruitment.
Not exactly the resume of a player expected to play right away.
“I don’t ever look at ratings,” UK defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale said this week. “I went down to watch a practice, saw Cedrick practice, thought he was very natural. He’s only played high school football two years. He was a basketball player. He has the twitch and the elements I look for in a corner. He’s longer than he appears.”
Dort enrolling early and going through spring practice with the team helped, Clinkscale said. The UK assistant also praised Dort’s toughness and natural athletic ability.
Now, he might have an opportunity to show what he can do a lot earlier than expected.
“Go prove everybody wrong, work hard and do it,” Clinkscale said.
UK’s opponent for Saturday’s opener, Southern Miss, does not have any players on its roster that were ranked as four-star recruits, according to Rivals.com.
The two highest-ranked recruits on the team are senior wide receiver Isaiah Jones and senior defensive lineman Rod Crayton, who were both considered to be “5.7” prospects, the highest three-star ranking in the Rivals.com system.
Jones had the 71-yard touchdown catch at the end of the first half against UK last season that set the tone for what was coming after halftime. He started nine games last season and is No. 1 on the depth chart this week.
Crayton has just 22 total tackles in three seasons and is listed as the No. 2 defensive tackle on this week’s depth chart.
Meanwhile, Kentucky has 17 four-star recruits and one five-star recruit (sophomore Landon Young) on its roster this season, according to the Rivals.com rankings.
For the rankings haters …
Disparaging recruiting rankings seems to be a pastime for many college football fans, and those folks will be delighted to know that Southern Miss star running back Ito Smith was ranked as a two-star player coming out of high school.
The Alabama native had reported scholarship offers from Duke and Georgia Tech before picking the Golden Eagles. Smith ran for 1,459 yards and 17 touchdowns as a junior last season, and he’s the one who gutted UK for 213 yards of offense in the opener. He also topped 1,000 yards rushing and 500 yards receiving as a sophomore.
Smith is the only active running back in the country with more than 3,000 career rushing yards (3,123) and 1,000 receiving yards (1,050).
Herald-Leader staff writer Jennifer Smith contributed to this article.