On this day last year, UK’s football coaches were scrambling.
The weeks preceding national signing day 2015 had been painted as somewhat of a disaster for the Wildcats, who lost nine commitments from their recruiting class and drew unwanted attention as possibly the biggest example of defections in the country.
Fast forward one year, and — on the eve of national signing day 2016 — Kentucky appears to be sitting pretty.
The Cats’ 2015 season ended much the way that their 2014 campaign had: Lots of losses, no bowl game and a sense of “what-if.” Logic says the end of this recruiting cycle should have been similar, but it hasn’t.
“I would say surprised is a good word,” Rivals.com national analyst Mike Farrell told the Herald-Leader. “Obviously, the vision that we’ve talked about over the years — they can no longer sell that vision. Now, you have to sell results. And things didn’t go that great this season. And they didn’t go that great down the stretch last season. And I think the difference this year is what the staff learned from last year. Staying on top of kids, keeping them focused on where they’re headed. Things like that are extremely important when you’re a team that’s on the cusp of going to a bowl game, but you’re struggling down the stretch. Just keep pointing toward the positives, and sometimes it’ll work out.
“I think this was a different group of kids than last year’s. I think this group of kids was tighter. I think they all knew what they wanted when they chose Kentucky. They seemed to be a very loyal group.”
UK goes into Wednesday’s national signing day with 25 commitments for the class of 2016, and seven of those players are already in town and enrolled in classes for the spring semester.
Unlike last year, no great surprises are expected. This cycle has ended about as well as realistically possible for the Wildcats, who currently have the nation’s No. 24 recruiting class, according to Rivals.
There are several reasons this class has stayed together through another tough finish to a UK season. Give the program’s coaching staff credit, but give the guys with all the stars by their names an assist.
For these top guys not only to stay committed but really generate no drama, I think was the reason this was able to stay together so easily.
Mike Farrell, Rivals.com national analyst
Local commitments such as Kash Daniel, Drake Jackson, Davonte Robinson and Landon Young — who all played their high school football within a two-hour drive of Commonwealth Stadium — could have gone just about anywhere in the country. Those players had scholarship offers from schools such as Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana State, Michigan, Notre Dame and Ohio State, yet they chose to stick with the Wildcats.
The same goes for out-of-state commitments such as Tate Leavitt, who chose Kentucky over offers from Alabama, Auburn and Oklahoma and never looked back.
Not only did these players not flip their commitments, they didn’t even waver. No highly publicized visits to other schools, no social media posts about how much they loved the Crimson Tide or Buckeyes. They were publicly all in with the Wildcats, and that can have an effect.
“Looking around can send a message to other kids to look around,” Farrell said. “Even if you have a top guy that’s committed and he’s going to stay committed, but he decides to take visits and is flirting with other schools, that can send a message to everybody else. For these top guys not only to stay committed but really generate no drama, I think was the reason this was able to stay together so easily.”
Jackson — the standout offensive lineman at Woodford County who is already taking classes at UK — took an early leadership role in this class. He understood that the way he and his fellow in-state commitments treated their UK pledges would affect others.
“We’re extremely dedicated,” Jackson said. “And it really helps to show that Kentucky football does mean something. When a guy from Ohio comes down, he wants to know, ‘What does it mean to people locally?’ And the fact that me, Kash, Landon, Zy’Aire (Hughes), Davonte — we all had big offers — it shows these guys that we’ve been here, we’ve lived it, we grew up with it, and we want to come here.
“And that means a lot to the other guys trying to decide.”
Fourteen of UK’s 25 commitments are from Ohio, and many of those players were targeted and offered before other major programs even knew who they were. In many cases, those players committed to the Cats early in the process, allowing the coaching staff to build relationships with them while other schools were still deciding if they wanted to pursue them.
We’re extremely dedicated. And it really helps to show that Kentucky football does mean something. ... It shows these guys that we’ve been here, we’ve lived it, we grew up with it, and we want to come here.
Drake Jackson, four-star offensive lineman
Most of those Ohio players earned other scholarship offers later in the process, but by that time UK’s coaches had made them feel like part of a family.
In total, the Wildcats have lost two commitments in the 2016 recruiting cycle. Defensive tackle Kobe Smith flipped his pledge to South Carolina late in the process. Ashland Blazer running back Quinton Baker backed off of his commitment following the departure of offensive coordinator Neal Brown, his primary recruiter, after the 2014 season.
While Baker was still mulling his options, UK took commitments from Ohio running backs AJ Rose and Benny Snell, and Baker ended up at Western Kentucky.
“We all came here with the same understanding of what we want to do,” Jackson said. “And the reason why we’ve only had two decommitments is because the rest of those guys are here for the same thing. We don’t have guys here to try to make the NFL. We don’t have guys here to try and play early.
“We’re all here to help change the program. So, the fact that we all have a common goal is what’s keeping us together.”
Stay with Kentucky.com throughout the day for all the latest updates as UK wraps up its 2016 recruiting class on national football signing day.