John Clay

John Clay: Football’s national signing day is also a day in need of disclaimers

Kentucky's Mark Stoops already looking ahead after another impressive signing day

UK football coach says 2016 was his best recruiting class yet, but this is no time to relax.
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UK football coach says 2016 was his best recruiting class yet, but this is no time to relax.

There was pomp and circumstance and live streams and special guests — yes, that was Tom Brady sharing the stage at Michigan with Jim Harbaugh — and rankings and interviews and rave reviews and media coverage upon media coverage upon media coverage Wednesday.

Back in the old days, only the diehards paid much attention to college football’s national signing day. That was before the triumvirate of the Internet, ESPN and the big-money programs combined to launch what has become a marketing exercise designed to sell tickets and boost enthusiasm.

That’s fine. Have some fun. These days, everyone has something to sell. If kept in the proper perspective, no harm, no foul. For instance, Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops said flat-out Wednesday that UK’s collection of 2016 signees was the best since he arrived on campus three seasons ago. And that’s good news for long-suffering UK football fans, as long as some warning labels are attached.

Caution: All prospects might not be as good as advertised.

Caution: Some prospects might take longer to develop than others.

Surely this current Kentucky basketball team, the one that blew a 21-point lead and lost 84-77 at Tennessee on Tuesday night, has taught us that.

Nobody cares — you’ve heard me joke about it before — nobody cares what your problems are. Nobody cares in this league, that’s for darn sure. But you need to stack classes on top of classes. Then you need to develop them and put them in position by coaching. There’s a lot of things that go into it, but it absolutely starts with having great players.

Mark Stoops

Rivals ranked UK center Skal Labissiere as the No. 1 freshman prospect entering the 2015-16 season. Labissiere was rated ahead of LSU’s Ben Simmons, ahead of Duke’s Brandon Ingram, ahead of Maryland’s Diamond Stone. Labissiere was considered a five-star, can’t-miss prospect.

The 6-foot-11 native of Haiti might one day validate those lofty rankings, but right now Labissiere has the look of a long-term prospect, one in need of muscle, fight and plenty of patience.

Take Isaiah Briscoe, UK’s 6-3 freshman guard from Newark, N.J. Briscoe is a gritty competitor with a chance to be a great defender, but he needs plenty of work on the perimeter — Briscoe hasn’t made a three-pointer since Dec. 12 — and at the free throw line, where he’s shooting 40.3 percent.

Here’s the thing: John Calipari knows what he’s doing, especially in recruiting. He signed DeMarcus Cousins, John Wall, Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight, Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Karl-Anthony Towns, among others. Cal knows high-impact talent when he sees it. Yet not all talent is ready to make an immediate impact. Recruiting is not an exact science.

Stoops would agree, no doubt. According to the rankings from the scouting services, he has done a better job of recruiting than any of his recent UK predecessors. Yet the Cats are just 12-24 overall and 4-20 in the SEC during his tenure. The results on the field have yet to meet the hype off the field.

“Nobody cares — you’ve heard me joke about it before — nobody cares what your problems are. Nobody cares in this league, that’s for darn sure,” Stoops said Wednesday. “But you need to stack classes on top of classes. Then you need to develop them and put them in position by coaching. There’s a lot of things that go into it, but it absolutely starts with having great players.”

Are there great players in this UK class? We won’t know for sure until three or four years down the road. We do know, however, that the offensive line signees are considered the strength of this UK class, and if correct, that is always a good thing.

No matter the offensive scheme or the defensive packages, the truth of the matter is up front on both sides of the ball. Nick Saban didn’t win those national titles at Alabama with great skill players as much as he won them with deep and talented offensive and defensive lines. It’s still about blocking and tackling.

And the experts will tell you it’s still about recruiting, the lifeblood of the program, which has now grown into a way for nearly every school to twist and shout and sell their football program.

That’s fine, as long as you remember the disclaimers.

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