In a reminder that national signing day isn’t what it used to be, the University of Kentucky added just one new football player Wednesday.
It was also a reminder of how far the program’s approach on the recruiting trail has come, and how difficult — and often uncertain — the landscape can be when battling college football’s traditional powers for coveted prospects.
After adding 21 recruits during the December early signing period — the time on the calendar that has largely replaced February’s traditional signing day — UK got off to a good start Wednesday with a commitment from four-star defensive back MJ Devonshire.
Coming off a 10-3 season capped by a Citrus Bowl victory, Kentucky was a bit late in its serious pursuit of Devonshire but still managed to pluck him away from hometown Pittsburgh and other schools that came calling in the final 24 hours of his recruitment.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
Rivals.com ranks him as the No. 32 cornerback in the 2019 class.
“Really good player. He has great size, great speed,” said Coach Mark Stoops. “Very versatile player … we needed him. We needed to add another athlete to the class, and I’m really pleased to announce MJ joining us.”
As for any other additions to the 2019 class: “That’ll be it,” Stoops declared, closing the door on this group at 22 signees.
Going into national signing day, UK was the heavy favorite for four-star defensive back Jay Ward, a Georgia native who actually committed to the Cats last summer before backing out of that pledge in November.
Kentucky continued to recruit Ward, and 100 percent of the predictions on his 247Sports Crystal Ball and Rivals.com FutureCast pages heading into Wednesday were in favor of the Wildcats.
Instead, Ward picked Louisiana State.
UK recruiting coordinator Vince Marrow brushed off the late recruiting loss: “I look at it like this: It’s like your mom cooked a great dinner, and you ate it in December, and now you’re just waiting on the dessert. I got most of my full in December, and if we missed on a pie or a piece of cake, I’m still good with that.”
The other major target on UK’s list heading into Wednesday was four-star wide receiver Devonta Lee, the friend and teammate of Amani Gilmore, one of the Cats’ quarterback signees for the 2019 class. Lee also chose LSU — the college football power located just a few miles from his high school — but Kentucky was his only other finalist, and the Cats were in it until the end.
“You’re battling now with schools that are, you know, they’re national brands,” Marrow said. You’re going to win some and you’re going to lose some. … I’m excited with the guys that we have though. Very excited.”
As of 5 p.m. Wednesday, the Cats’ recruiting class was ranked No. 30 nationally by Rivals.com, consisting of a mix of four-star prospects, immediate-impact junior college players, and some under-the-radar guys like the Cats have had so much success with in the recent past.
After missing out on their other top targets to close the 2019 cycle, the UK coaches could’ve reached for another player or two — like they were forced to do in the early years of the Stoops era — but, instead, they called it a class and saved some scholarships for later.
Those spots will be nice to have over the next few months.
Stoops noted that UK will go into the 2019 season with only nine scholarship seniors, and — though he does expect some attrition via transfers, like in every offseason — he does not expect to sign a large number of players from the 2020 class.
“Next year will be the smallest class I’ve signed. There’s just no way around that,” he said. “It’s going to be a year where we have great momentum, but we have to be very selective heading into this next class.”
UK’s head coach estimated that the Cats would look for 15-17 signees in the 2020 class. Marrow, who said he’d been getting correspondence from high school coaches all over the country since the team’s win over Penn State in the Citrus Bowl, put the number at 19, though he acknowledged that was just a rough estimate.
Either way, it’ll be fewer additions than usual, and UK’s staff got a head start in cementing relationships with top 2020 targets by signing so many of their 2019 recruits during the early period.
“I feel very good about where we’re at,” Stoops said. “As our expectations increase, so does the level of the talent of guys we’re going after. And that doesn’t necessarily always mean by how many stars they have. It’s by the quality of what we think they can do and how they can help us. So obviously we want to continue to elevate the talent and get the right guys here. And we feel like we can be more selective and get the right guys that fit what we’re trying to do. ...
“People realize and can see the documented success. They know we’re just trying to continue to take it to another level.”