Rarely does the outcome of a single college football game have much of an impact on a program’s overall recruiting efforts, but the timing of UK’s trip to Florida — and the Cats’ three-plus decades of futility in that series — could prove to be an exception.
Heading into Saturday night’s road game, Kentucky has the No. 40-ranked recruiting class in the Rivals.com rankings. There’s still a ways to go in the 2019 cycle, but if that position holds it would be the lowest ranking for a Wildcats’ class since Mark Stoops became head coach in 2012.
Only once in Stoops’ previous six classes at UK did the Cats finish outside the top 30 in the Rivals rankings, and that was when they took only 22 signees (and ended up in the No. 35 spot nationally) in 2015.
A No. 40 ranking would still be well ahead of the previous coaching staff — UK finished 63rd and 61st nationally in Joker Phillips’ last two cycles — but a Stoops-led recruiting class with just one four-star commitment and a 12th-place standing in the Southeastern Conference is certainly off pace from recent groups.
Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell says one problem area, in particular, sticks out this year.
“I think the thing I would be concerned about if I was a Kentucky fan is the in-state recruiting. They’re just not really landing the top, top guys,” Farrell told the Herald-Leader. “People are coming in there and raiding the state a little bit.
“Stoops does a really good job of recruiting, and he usually does a really good job of getting early commitments. So the fact that, right now, they’re not ranked as highly as they have been in the past — that’s a little concerning.”
UK does have commitments from Louisville wide receiver Demontae Crumes and West Jessamine offensive lineman Eli Cox — after getting shut out in Kentucky in the 2018 cycle — but this is an especially talented group of in-state prospects and there are bigger names on the board, according to recruiting analysts.
Rivals ranks Crumes as the No. 9 prospect in the state, and Cox is considered a two-star player and ranked outside of the state’s top 15 recruits.
Several top-10, in-state prospects have chosen other schools — Stephen Herron (Stanford), Bryan Hudson (Virginia Tech), Jacob Lacey (Notre Dame) and Tanner Bowles (Alabama) all had UK scholarship offers — but the Cats are still in the mix for some star recruits from Kentucky.
UK is actively recruiting Western Hills athlete Wandale Robinson, and Louisville standouts Milton Wright, Jared Casey and JJ Weaver. All are considered four-star players in the Rivals.com rankings. Though it would be difficult to characterize the Cats as favorites for any of those targets, they still have a chance with all of them.
And it’s with those recruits that a victory Saturday could most help UK’s efforts, says Farrell.
“I think a win over Florida would certainly be a shot in the arm,” he said. “It would send a message to the in-state kids saying, ‘Hey, maybe Kentucky is turning a corner. They can actually compete in the East and take that next step.’ But it’s a little concerning to me that they’re not leading for any of these guys.
“I think, the important thing right now — if you’re not leading for guys in state — is to slow down the process for them and make them think twice about your program. And that’s what a win over Florida would do.”
Top 10 recruits in Kentucky for 2019 (Rivals.com rankings)
Kentucky, of course, hasn’t beaten Florida since 1986, and the Cats haven’t won in Gainesville since 1979. UK goes into Saturday’s contest as a two-touchdown underdog, but it’s these type of games that coaches can turn into gold on the recruiting trail, especially among those local players who know the program’s history best.
And the relative lack of victories in such games is probably partly to blame for UK’s stalled progress on the recruiting trail. Stoops’ highest-rated recruiting class remains his first full one in Lexington, the class of 2014.
“I’ve always said it’s easier to sell a vision than it is to sell reality,” Farrell said. “Stoops did a great job selling a vision before he even coached a game. He did a good job selling a vision when they were horrible. Now that they’re sort of an average football team, people are looking for the next step. They’re not looking for Kentucky to win the SEC East five straight years. They’re looking for an 8-4 season. They’re looking for that rare 9-3 season. With Kentucky, any sort of breakthrough year or breakthrough victory is going to help them. And I think that’s what kids are kind of waiting for, and that’s why it’s a little stagnant right now.”
Getting that breakthrough victory Saturday with three straight weekends of home games up next — and three prime opportunities to host uncommitted recruits at a crucial time in the calendar — would certainly help. A loss at Florida, especially a lopsided one, would likely hurt attendance for next weekend’s game against Murray State, and possibly the two SEC home games that follow.
As the betting line indicates, pulling off that signature win in Gainesville won’t be easy. It never is in this conference. That makes maintaining — much less, building upon — Stoops’ initial recruiting momentum difficult.
“Even if the East is down, the majority of your football games are against SEC-caliber opponents, and it’s tough,” Farrell said. “People love to say the SEC is overrated. People love to say that SEC attrition doesn’t exist. But those are both incorrect statements. The SEC will wear you down. It’ll knock you down. And for Kentucky to have to face that type of schedule, constantly, it’s tough to break through and reach that next level of eight or nine wins.
“People are a little bit spoiled at Kentucky from what Stoops did in his first two years, and they’re expecting that over and over again. And that’s where you need that breakthrough season … before you’re going to be able to consistently pull in those four-star kids.”