UK Recruiting

Stoops upbeat about Kentucky's future, class that will lead it

Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops grinned during a time out to challenge a call in the fourth quarter of the Alabama State at Kentucky football game at Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington, Ky., on Saturday Nov. 2, 2013. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff
Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops grinned during a time out to challenge a call in the fourth quarter of the Alabama State at Kentucky football game at Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington, Ky., on Saturday Nov. 2, 2013. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff

His first season as Kentucky's football coach behind him, Mark Stoops expressed disappointment with his team's results but excitement about the direction the program is headed during a chat with reporters on Wednesday.

Stoops was there to announce the signings of two junior-college prospects — Cory Johnson and A.J. Stamps — as well as wrap up a 2-10 season and look ahead to what he hopes will be a better showing in 2014.

The UK head coach addressed a wide range of topics — from his thoughts on his current recruiting class to some reflection on his time at Florida State, which will play for a national championship next month while he tries to rebuild a program that is sitting out bowl season for the third consecutive year.

Stoops heaped praise on his former players and coaching colleagues in Tallahassee to the point that he was asked if he wishes he had stuck around for the championship run.

"No, no, no. Not at all," he replied.

Stoops' thoughts are clearly set on his future at UK, which hosted the majority of its recruiting class of 2014 for official visits over the weekend.

He described the experience as "fantastic" and marveled at the closeness of his recruits, which he said was "unique" compared to other classes he's helped put together.

"This class is bonding so well together," he said. "I think they're very humble kids. When they're on campus amongst themselves, they interact with each other in a way that they've known each other for years. They feel like they're almost brothers, and that's coming from them and their quotes and different things.

"But I think that's why it's unique: because they just feel a very strong bond with one another and they feel a very strong bond with Kentucky and with our fans and with our people here and all the staff and all that. So it's just a very pleasant group to be around."

There are currently 24 recruits signed or committed to UK's Class of 2014. Stoops said he'll have the option of signing up to 28 players, and he expects to hit that number.

Uncommitted John Hardin defensive tackle Matt Elam is a prospect UK hopes will fill one of those remaining spots. Two others are Ohio offensive linemen Ja'Merez Bowen and Marcelys Jones, who is currently committed to Ohio State but recently visited UK and is seen as a realistic option to switch his pledge.

One of the biggest questions surrounding the team heading into the 2013 season hasn't changed now that it's over.

Stoops acknowledged concern that the Cats don't have a clear-cut starter at quarterback, and the battle for that spot could well spill over from spring practice to fall camp as it did this year.

"I think any of us who have been around football would like to walk in here and say, 'Yeah, that's my guy,'" Stoops said. "We're not in that position, and that's the way it is. We'll go back to the drawing board and open it up in spring. We've got some new additions, and we'll see where that takes us."

He and offensive coordinator Neal Brown will more than likely have five quarterbacks to choose from.

Maxwell Smith and Jalen Whitlow are expected to return as juniors, Patrick Towles will be a sophomore after redshirting this season and Reese Phillips will be a freshman after doing the same.

There's also Drew Barker, the four-star cornerstone of UK's recruiting class who will enroll in January and take part in spring practice.

Turning a true freshman into a starting quarterback in the Southeastern Conference is a tall order, but Stoops didn't do much to temper expectations Wednesday.

"Drew, you know, coming in at mid-year is different than a regular high school kid coming in (the fall)," he said. "In the spring ... you have a lot of time to mentally soak things in.

"I think that's very big, and I think it's big at quarterback. So, I'm excited to get him in here and get him rolling. I expect him to come in from day one and compete for the starting job, and that's why we recruited him."

A little more than a year removed from his introductory news conference, Stoops said he thought his team made progress throughout a season short on victories.

He described a more positive environment surrounding the program than when he took over — a feeling that better times are just around the corner.

"There's a great energy in the room. I think guys are excited about the future," Stoops said. "It was a tough year on everybody, but I think they're genuinely excited to get back to work, get bigger, get stronger, keep on working fundamentally to get better and help us recruit more talent. And I just think the overall mind-set is much different and much more confident as we move forward."

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