Jen Smith on UK Football

Stoops breaks down Kentucky’s 2018 signees, including QB Wilson. But is the class complete yet?

University of Kentucky Head football coach Mark Stoops talked about today's signing class during a news conference held in the media room at Kroger Field in Lexington, Ky., Wednesday, December 20, 2017.
University of Kentucky Head football coach Mark Stoops talked about today's signing class during a news conference held in the media room at Kroger Field in Lexington, Ky., Wednesday, December 20, 2017. cbertram@herald-leader.com

MARK STOOPS

“It’s been a hectic morning. Just got off the practice field, so you’ll have to excuse me if I’m discombobulated here. But really exciting day. Very smooth morning. Things went very good. We’re very excited about these 20 young men that have joined the program. Went out and had a very good practice and then just dismissed the team. So it’s been a very busy morning, but an exciting time. I had no other time to prepare an opening statement, so I’ll open it up to questions now.”

On what they looked for when restarting QB search and what stood out about Terry Wilson: “Obviously you get thrown curveballs throughout this process. We understand that. I think that is definitely one position that’s a little bit unique because you really focus in on guys early and kind of get that relationship and try to nail that down. It does get touchy at that spot. I think at every other position you know we recruit a bunch of guys. So, if there’s something falls through you move onto the next guy. I truly believe that every player we sign or whoever signs ‘em, it’s meant to be. So really I don’t get too flustered or too worried with any of that kind of stuff with the guys that come and go. I do think quarterback is a different situation. It was I think a credit to our staff to go out and look and see who was available.

“Fortunately, Terry was there. So we’re very blessed to have him in this signing class. I think it was a position definitely we needed to get somebody in this spot. The nice thing about Terry is he’s a year older, played a year of college football, he’s already been at a Power 5 school for a year, so he knows what he’s getting into. The beautiful thing about him was he was a joy to recruit. It was very difficult. He was getting pulled a million different directions. There was a time when things started getting very hairy where he was getting pulled from people at his junior college, from everybody. That’s when you saw maybe some reports of when he was coming.

“He and I sat down, and I had a very direct conversation with him. He was unbelievable. You saw the maturity in him. When he talked to me he said, ‘I never really looked at it that way.’ He said, ‘I hear you coach.’ I told him to think about a few things, and he called me back 40 minutes later and he said, ‘Coach, I’m coming in. I’m coming in on this date. I don’t care what anybody else says.’ He came in, and it’s been a great recruiting process from that point on. Came in and had a great weekend, and he’s been a joy to recruit.”

On how Wilson fits into offense and what he adds to competition: “He fits in very well with what we do. I think we molded the offense to what we had to a year ago, like we talked about. We have tried to be more efficient in throwing the ball, and at times we have. Again, that goes with everybody. That goes from protection to receivers and quarterback and so on. I think we all want to take the passing game up another notch. I think that’s not throwing any shade on Stephen (Johnson). That’s with the whole offense and in particular with getting some playmakers around him. But he’s very versatile. He’s got a very strong arm. He’s very poised in the pocket, but yes, he is athletic as well so that’s nice to have that.”

On if passing numbers have made wide receiver recruiting more difficult: “Well, I don’t know. I don’t know about that. It should open up a lot of doors because we need some. Because if you look at us two years ago we hit the ball down the field quite a bit. And with our run game and being so efficient with running the ball, we need to get the ball down the field some. We have tried. You’ve watched the games and have seen that. Our percentage is much lower this year than it was a year ago with hitting the ball down the field. Obviously some of that is personnel and with our outside receivers.”

On listing Marquan McCall as a defensive lineman: “That was our intention because that’s what he wanted to play when he got here. We looked at him on both sides of the ball and felt like he was versatile enough to play on either side. The big thing is I wanted him playing at Kentucky, and whatever side of the ball was good with me.”

On getting into Michigan: “I think it was very important. I appreciate — Coach Clink did a good job. He had some relationships in there, getting DeAndre (Square) out of Cas Tech is important. There’s some very good football players in there. So, I think he’s done a nice job.”

On signing eight kids from Florida: “Eddie Gran has just done a remarkable job getting these players. I’ve been down there, as you know, for a long time, but Eddie really has very, very strong relationships with people down there. Down there when you start recruiting south Florida it’s about trust. He’s been there for — I don’t want to age him — at least 30 years. I noticed it right away. I think I commented on it before at a prior press conference about other things, but when he and I first went to Florida State and went with him — because I’d been through Florida, all through Florida before, but when I went with him to south Florida it’s amazing the connections that he has down there. And it’s just about the way he works and the type of person he is and the strong relationships that he has now that are coaching. He’s always done right by kids for a long time and has a great reputation in south Florida. I think that’s a big key: Trust. He works extremely hard at it. I loved the players that he signed out of there both last year and this year, because they’re very unique individuals and remarkable young men and proud to have them.”

On in if C.J. Conrad is fair comparison for Brenden Bates: “It is. I think Brenden is another kid that I could just go on and on about, because you love his athletic ability but more important you love the type of person he is. Because he is a lot like C.J. in that regard. I think he’s bigger than C.J. was coming out. I know he’s bigger than C.J. coming out. That’s a nice thing, but Brenden is much like C.J. in that he is a great team player and he’ll do anything to help the football team win. He’s a competitor. Again, never wavered, not a bit and was getting pulled and called and all kind of things. He wouldn’t hear it. He wouldn’t visit. Wasn’t taking any calls. Just says a lot about him and his character and who he is. Very, very good football player. Got unbelievable size.

“He’s, again, that prototypical tight end. Both him and Keaton (Upshaw), exactly what you look for at tight end. You watch their highlights, you see their size and how physical they are and how big they are already. They’ve become very close through the recruiting process. They’ll fit great in that room. I think we have a very good room with the tight ends, and it will be great to have those two guys.”

On how many more he wants to add in February: “I’m going to check my phone because I’m still waiting on a couple. (Laughter). I expect to sign possibly four more. It depends where we’re at. That would be pushing it for us, but there’s some very good football players that we’re in pretty deep on. We’ll go into February with several of the guys we’ve already been recruiting, and then several of the guys we’ll continue to poke around and find some new guys.”

On if morning went according to plan: “I was very pleased with the way it went. Again, very few surprises. There’s always things that you have to work through, but I think it went very well. I’m very pleased with these guys. They’ve been so solid through the process, but you never know. They’re getting pulled at. There’s guys on here that were getting poked at until last night. Constantly pulled and asked to not sign and don’t sign early and come on visits. Being offered scholarships yesterday or the past couple days. These guys didn’t waver, and that’s the character we’re looking for. So, very pleased.”

On if they could still get more this period: “I think we could get possibly one or two more in the next two days. Yeah, I do.”

On message to recruits who didn’t sign: “I don’t know if I have any direct message. There’s guys out there that didn’t sign that we are going to continue to recruit and we have a great relationship with and I understand the reasons why they didn’t sign. As we talk about this, and I think a lot of coaches are going to give their opinions on the early signing period: I’m not up here to – the rules are what they are. For us, again, if guys have been committed to us for some length of time, six months, eight months, 12 months and they have an opportunity to sign today, why not? My December is ridiculous anyway, and every coach is. Fortunately, we want to go to a bowl game and you want to be that busy with practices. You’re going to have to go no home visits anyway. You’re slammed anyway, so if guys are solid like most of these guys were and they want to sign, why not? Other than to let them get poached. I’m glad to get these guys locked down, because believe me there’s some players here that can play at an awful lot of top-five schools.”

On if this will change recruiting for programs that poach other commits late: “I really don’t know. I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to comment on anybody else’s recruitment. I’m worried about Kentucky, and I’m worried about getting the best players for this university. I think it does help these individuals. If these guys weren’t 100 percent committed then they obviously wouldn’t have signed today, so I don’t think they were really worried about who was coming in or who was not coming in because many of them were. So I look at these guys and I say they’re solid to Kentucky and they signed today and they’re happy to do it.”

On if anything about the early signing period surprised him: “I don’t know if there’s anything that I didn’t expect. I think going through it for the first time, when you see the coaching changes is definitely something that you have to factor in.”

On not signing a kid from Kentucky: “I definitely don’t want that to be the case. I definitely want to continue to make Kentucky our priority. Some years there’s going to be more than others. There’s always a good quality in Kentucky. The quantity is not maybe the same as other states, but there’s always some very good players in here.”

On signing a kicker and a punter this year: “I’ve been hit with too many questions on my special teams in here (laughs). You guys are too tough on me in here. No, I think we all know the importance of kickers and punters and holders and snappers. It’s never an issue and it’s really not anything we talk about unless it’s a problem. With the exception of maybe some game-winning kicks or some exceptional punts and things like that. They understand that. They fly under the radar sometimes but as coaches we always understand the importance of that. Some years you have to invest in the scholarships and I’m very proud of the two guys we signed today.”

On the Australian pipeline with punters: “That’s a secret (laughs). I can tell you this, unfortunately I haven’t made that recruiting trip yet. Might have to go here in January.”

On Terry Wilson’s recruiting process: “Well, there was. Again, I think I touched on it. I don’t think I need to get into complete detail. But he and I had a conversation and I wanted to gauge how sincere he was with us. It wasn’t going to be in the situation where we were getting bounced around on visits and dates. He and I had a heart to heart and again, he called me back 40 minutes later and said ‘coach, I’m coming. This is what I want to do.’ There was a lot of people that get in these kids’ ear and pull a million different directions. At the end of the day these kids have to do what’s best for them. He tightened a circle, had a conversation and decided to come in. Came in and had a great weekend. He’s a remarkable young man that I look forward to you all getting an opportunity to visit with him because he’s strong. He has the characteristics that you’re looking for in a quarterback. Once he made his decision there was no way of ruining his mind. That’s what he was going to do. There’s a ton of good schools that say ‘just come in for a weekend. Just come have fun.’ No, he was all business. That’s what he wanted to do. He was locked in. You have to appreciate that. Those characteristics, that type of leadership will carry him a long way.”

On Wilson watching practice and how that’s helped recruiting visits: “I think it’s always an advantage for situations like that. I think it’s important for the players to come out and see the players that are there and just see the tempo and the way we practice and the way we do things and see how they fit and be around our players.”

On Bryce Oliver and the element of having a surprise: “Yeah, I think he was a very big commit. He was obviously on our radar for a good bit. Again, a very strong young man. He was taking some time, taking his visits. We felt good about him but he came here on campus. Had a great visit. We were obviously extremely pleased when we got that commitment because I believe he’s a big-time player. He’s going to be a difference maker. He plays exceptionally strong. He’s very mature. All business. Tremendous basketball player. He’s a very good athlete so we’re very happy with him.”

On signees on the defensive side of the ball he’s excited about: “I hate to single out any one guy. Obviously we feel very good about this whole crew. We really do. I probably need to be guarded in that because I hate to put expectations on kids sometimes and they don’t reach them. Then they have to hear about it. Football is a developmental game. We’ll see between now and the time they report whether they’re in a position to help us or not. You never can tell because sometimes we think somebody is ready to go and they’re not and vice versa. We’ll see how it goes.”

On the majority of signees attending a summer camp at UK: “It’s very, very important. There’s a couple of guys that jump out at me. I was talking about it on the podcast this morning talking about a few guys. It was Ashtan Pierre. He’s one. Had he not come to camp I’m not sure where we would’ve been. Obviously he was very highly recruited but he was playing some different positions. So if you just look at the film he was out of position sometimes and doing what he has to do to help his high school team. But he came in here and was terrific on his feet and the way he was playing linebacker inside and out. He was very versatile and very explosive. That’s one guy where it’s very important, but I think all coaches will tell you we love to get eyes on them and work with them in person. It’s one thing even to watch a game or watch a practice, but when they’re in your camp and you’re working with them, that’s the best eval you can have.”

On recruits playing basketball: “Yeah, Jordan Wright is another one. There’s a lot of these guys that played basketball. Bryce (Oliver) was a guy I had mentioned. But they all tell me they’re great athletes. I don’t know. We’ll see (laughs). But we have some pretty good basketball players on our team and I think a lot of these guys either ran track or played basketball or did some other good stuff. I hate to single out any one guy or sleeper or anything or put expectations on them. Obviously we’re very pleased with our group or we wouldn’t have signed them. From past experience I’m not sitting here saying you need to have a whole team full of diamonds in the rough because your percentage will probably be pretty low. You need to recruit some guys who are somewhat no brainers. You put on the film and you see a great player. Then there’s other guys you see the talent in them and you see them in time in a year or two the development that could be special players. Josh Allen is a great example of that. He’s one of the guys that eventually when he decides to go to the pros will be one of our highest drafted guys. He wasn’t recruited very heavily at all.”

On using the remaining spots on interior linemen: “We could. We never turn away good defensive linemen. We’re always on the hunt for those guys like most people.”

On Chris Rodriguez fitting into the offensive picture: “We really like Chris. One of the best compliments we can give Chris is telling him he’s a lot like Benny. What I mean by that, as you all know the way I commented on Benny early on, we had a good idea of what we were getting. Maybe not necessarily knowing how many yards he would get in his first two years, but we knew he was a strong player. We knew he was mentally tough. We knew he was a competitor. Chris I feel is the same way. I feel he’s a very tough guy. He’s very disciplined. He’s very strong. He gets very tough yards. We’re excited about him.”

On how many guys he expects to be there in the spring: “That’s a good question. I didn’t get that. Five or six, Coach Marrow says. Y’all probably have more empirical data than I do on some of these guys.”

On wide receivers and if they were recruiting specific positions or just get best athletes in and fit them into system: “We do (recruit for specific positions). You look at some guys like Akeem (Hayes) and know that he’s going to be a dynamic inside guy and you look for some guys who have the ability to stretch the field and go vertical and jump over people and make competitive catches. So we want some outside guys as well and that’s what Marvin (Alexander) and Bryce (Oliver) do. They can go down the field and go get the football. But Marvin’s a guy who came here in camp and after one day of camp, I said, ‘Oh, Eddie. Eddie, we have to have him. Like there’s no way I want to play against him and we need him here. So he was a priority. He was dynamic.”

On why he wanted Alexander: “He’s very shifty. Just one of those guys who gets the ball in his hands, gets open and is elusive. He has some natural instincts with getting open.”

On if there were any dramatic or adventurous things that happened in recruiting any of these signees: “I don’t really think so. No. Not to my knowledge. Yeah, it’s been busy, but the staff has done a great job. They recruit geographically and then we recruit positionally. I have to get in everybody’s home so that time gets busy when you have this early signing period and you’re trying to visit everybody in their home, that gets to be quite a few spots in three weeks.”

On going in home now versus his first couple of seasons: “Not much other than obviously I think we’re trying to build on the success we’ve had and there’s some proof in the pudding that we’re doing things right and there’s a lot of people that believe in what we’re doing and the steps we’re making and of course there’s a lot of room for improvement, which is why we’re recruiting some very talented guys.”

On if he’s recruiting against better schools than in first year: “Yes. I think our percentage may be going up. We’ve always competed. I think you know that. I’ve tried to do that from day one. We’re going to continue to do that and recruit the very best players we have and the best competition and we’re going to win some and we’re going to lose some. We’re going to fight and battle, but ultimately, we’re going to get the guys that are a good fit to play at the University of Kentucky.”

On if players have expressed happiness that they get to sign early because they’re tired of the process: “Without a doubt. Without a doubt. So I agree with you and that’s a great question because some people are going to say it’s not in the best interest of the players, well there’s two opportunities to sign. If you don’t want to sign and it’s not right for you, don’t sign. If it is right for you and you want to sign, then sign. I don’t understand that argument. They don’t have to sign. We didn’t twist any arms to get these signatures today and yes, there were quite a few of these players who said, ‘I’m sick of it.’ (Parents say) ‘People coming and pulling at my child.’ Mothers and fathers are just tired of people getting in their ear. And you’ve got to understand the pressure these guys are under. And this isn’t pressure that just started in December. They’ve had pressure on them for a year. And it doesn’t get any better in that last month.”

On if the pressure might get worse once they commit: “It’s hard to say. I think sometimes. It definitely doesn’t stop. Many times that just means you’re in the lead.”

On how many different cities he went to in the last few weeks recruiting: “That’s a good question. Again, I have no clue. I’ve been around.”

On if he ever wakes up and doesn’t know where he is: “Well, the pilot sometimes, I just ask him, ‘Where am I landing?’ I really would because the assistants would be there to pick me up. You’d be going to some very small towns and some places that I’m glad somebody picked me up because I’d be stranded at some of these (inaudible).”

On what he told Wilson about the QB situation at Kentucky: “I told him exactly what it is, exactly what you know. I think everybody who plays that position better fully expect to come in and compete.”

On if he just leaned against the tree in the air-soft gun battle with his players: “No. But I had to ask the players yesterday. I forgot to ask them in the team meeting after practice yesterday, I asked them, ‘Who was it that flanked me that was just blasting me?’ And very meekly Michael Nesbitt was like, ‘That was me.’ So I owe him a little something. Some day I’ll get him back. The guys were up on the fort and I couldn’t move off the tree because they were blasting me and then he had me from the side, so I was in bad shape. I don’t think they felt bad for me one bit either. They let me have it.”

On whose idea was it: “It was me. … I didn’t tell anybody but my ops guy, Frank Buffano, was the only guy I told for a long time.”

On if he thought about not going into game and just watching to avoid being a target: “Yeah, I did. But I made all the full-time guys go. I knew the players wanted to blast some of those guys pretty good — not me — I knew they wanted to get after them, but yeah, it was a lot of fun. It definitely hurts. You can imagine 105 of these football players, too, there’s no mercy. It’s not like you got shot one time and you put your hands up and you’re still getting tattooed. I have welts all over me.”

On if he’s made a concerted effort to make this bowl prep time fun: “It has. It has definitely. I think last year I was definitely a little gung ho at making sure we were really pushing the program. That’s still the case but there has to be some balance there. They have to enjoy what they’re doing. Camaraderie still counts and I think I had to be conscious of that, of how many practices and how long they were and I think that we have a really good balance this year. The guys have been very energetic and focused while they’re out there.”

On if he covets any specific positions with the final three or four spots left in this class: “Well, I don’t know. I feel like we hit on all of our needs. I really do. You’re always hunting defensive linemen and offensive linemen, possibly a wide out. There’s some guys out there that are home runs also at other positions. I think linebacker’s a need. There’s some big-time need. There’s some big-time guys there that we have a chance at. So I think getting the best players is most important. I really feel like we hit a lot of needs between last year’s group and some young guys we have in this year’s, I feel like we’re in pretty good position. But you’re always looking for the best players you can get.”

On identity of this group after stressing character of that 2017 class: “I think much the same. And I mean that. As we have more and more time to recruit these guys and get better and keep pushing the program forward, I think myself being in this and going through my fifth year and going into the sixth, I think you understand the importance of getting guys who want to do things right. I think you all feel that and see that throughout the year: How difficult it is and how taxing it is on players and everybody. That mental and physical strain — it takes a long time and you try to eliminate as much baggage as you can. What I mean by that is maybe the academics, you want guys to eliminate the clutter if you will. Last year’s group and this year’s group, I’m very excited about. That doesn’t mean that you’re not going to continue to work with kids who maybe are at a greater risk. You want to continue to help guys and give them opportunities. And you know, I’m very proud of some of the guys that we just graduated that if you went back two or three years, we wouldn’t have had a good feeling that they would graduate and they pulled through. They did that.”

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