The promising start to the University of Kentucky football program’s recruiting efforts for the class of 2017 has hit a rough patch in recent weeks.
Four-star defensive end James Hudson brought the first bit of bad news on May 18 with the announcement that he was no longer committed to the Wildcats. Two days later, Hudson’s high school teammate Michael Warren, a promising running back, said the same.
The biggest gut-punch came Tuesday night, when four-star quarterback Mac Jones — one of UK’s highest-profile recruits in recent years — announced that he was flipping his commitment from Kentucky to Alabama.
(Mac Jones) has that swagger to him. Kids gravitate toward players like that. So, losing him in this cycle hurts. But losing him as an on-campus recruiter for the next three or four years also hurts.
Mike Farrell, Rivals.com national analyst
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All three players originally pledged to the Cats last July, kick starting what was supposed to be another ballyhooed recruiting class for Mark Stoops and his coaching staff.
Barring the unforeseen, none of them will actually ever play for Kentucky.
The loss of Jones hits especially hard, providing yet another reality check of the struggles UK will face when going head to head with college football’s bluebloods.
Rivals.com national analyst Mike Farrell said he wasn’t surprised by Jones’ decision.
“The word on the street was that once he started getting those big offers — Alabama came in, Florida was supposed to come in — that he was going to flip,” Farrell told the Herald-Leader. “And I think, to the Kentucky fans, it’s not a huge surprise either. This is what they feared. They were hopeful that he was going to stick it out. But, you know, how do you compete with Alabama, if the kid wants to go there?
“That’s why we’re starting to see the reality of wins versus recruiting start to catch up to Kentucky a little bit here.”
Farrell has been saying for a while that the “vision” of UK’s future that the coaching staff has been selling to recruits must eventually manifest itself in victories on the football field.
He looked back on the 2014 class, which included 10 four-star recruits, and noted that it was “amazing” how Stoops and his staff held that group together. The cracks began to show in the next cycle, when the Cats lost several highly touted commitments to other major programs while continuing to struggle on the field.
The class of 2016 offered a recruiting reprieve, thanks largely to the fact that many of the most highly touted players in UK’s class were homegrown prospects already devoted to their home-state school. Those players stuck to their commitments despite another disappointing finish to the season, and thus the class stayed together.
Now the decommitments have returned, and losing Jones will hurt the most.
“The quarterback is the guy, usually, that leads the charge in recruiting, and Mac is a very outspoken and personable kid,” Farrell said. “He has that swagger to him. Kids gravitate toward players like that. So, losing him in this cycle hurts. But losing him as an on-campus recruiter for the next three or four years also hurts. Because he’s just that type of kid. He was going to draw you in and he was going to sell Kentucky.”
UK has a 4-20 record in SEC games in three seasons under Coach Mark Stoops
Farrell said the perception of UK’s program outside the state is: “If there was going to be an opportunity for them to break through, it was the last three years.”
He noted that Missouri — a Midwestern program relatively new to the SEC — won the East Division two of those years. Florida, which was supposed to be down last season, won it in 2015.
UK, still very much in rebuilding mode, won a total of four league games in those three seasons.
“When Kentucky doesn’t take advantage of that, the perception is they’re never going to be able to take advantage of it,” Farrell said. “Because the SEC East is not going to be down much longer.”
Farrell also mentioned the continued success of in-state rival Louisville — a program with “more flash” — and UK’s geographic disadvantage with Deep South recruits as hurdles for the Wildcats.
Kentucky’s coaching staff will have to continue to battle off “bigger” schools on the recruiting trail while selling their vision for the future of the Wildcats’ program. Winning a couple more games this fall and turning that vision into reality certainly wouldn’t hurt.
“Can I fault Kentucky for losing a quarterback to Alabama? No. And with the teammates, that’s an instance of when one goes, the other follows,” Farrell said. “These things tend to come in streaks. I can’t say right now that (losing) is catching up with them.
“I think we’ll know by the end of this cycle though.”