The year was 2006, and Kentucky was preparing to send off a senior class that had helped take the program from probation purgatory to the start of a run that featured five straight bowl trips.
Then-coach Rich Brooks couldn’t help but gush.
“A lot of these guys were here when things weren’t real good,” he said. “They’ve been a part of bringing credibility back to the program.”
That class was special in part because so many of the impact players were from Kentucky.
There was Keenan Burton, Jacob Tamme and André Woodson along with fellow Kentuckians Ricky Abren, Dallas Greer, Dominic Lewis and John Logan.
It meant something to them, Brooks said.
When Cats Coach Mark Stoops looks down at the list of names that have pledged to be a part of the 2016 class, he sees many parallels in this class that Kentucky is about to sign in February.
“We’re fortunate to have some impact players in state and some very close,” said Stoops, who cannot comment directly on individual players until signing day in February. “That’s very nice to have that.”
I feel really good about this class. I think it really has a chance to be a very special, significant class.
Much like that 2003 class, this class has five potential impact players from in-state, including three from Central Kentucky in offensive linemen Drake Jackson (Woodford County) and Landon Young (Lafayette) as well as Henry Clay wide receiver Davonte Robinson.
Then there’s linebacker Kash Daniel from Paintsville and athlete Zy’Aire Hughes from Paducah.
The handful of Kentucky guys — including four-star players Jackson and Young — are the core of a group that is rated No. 21 in the country by Rivals.com. Many were part of a big recruiting weekend a few days ago.
“I feel really good about this class,” Stoops said in an interview Tuesday. “I think it really has a chance to be a very special, significant class.”
The head coach already saw signs of how the class is coming together when they visited last weekend. UK had 15 official visitors in all. He’s confident that this class, which would be the second-highest rated one in his tenure, wants to stay together and do big things at Kentucky.
“It’s extremely solid,” Stoops reiterated a day later in an interview on Kentucky Sports Radio. “That’s the thing about this group. There’s great leadership; there’s great character. They’re very unified already. … The nucleus of this starts close to home, which is always good.”
The weekend, which Stoops called “a home run,” included a basketball game in Rupp Arena, then the first big dinner in the recruiting room at Commonwealth Stadium since the venue was renovated.
“We had a fantastic weekend, really did,” he said Tuesday. “It went really well. … Ended up having dessert at my house until the wee hours of the morning. It was a really good weekend. Very successful.”
It’s a much different feeling than the head coach had at this time a year ago as Kentucky watched nearly a quarter of its 2015 recruiting class go in another direction.
He doesn’t anticipate an exodus this time around, even though the Cats ended this season with the exact same 5-7 record as the season before, with a similar slide at the end of the year.
“If there’s a defection or two, there’s no room to panic,” Stoops said. “That happens all the time. We’re prepared to handle it and recruit other guys, but in general if you’re talking about the whole crew, could not be more impressed with this group.”