John Clay

Recent decommitments turn up the heat on Kentucky football

Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops, shown here during UK’s 38-24 loss to Louisville last season, enters his fourth season as head coach with a 12-24 record.
Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops, shown here during UK’s 38-24 loss to Louisville last season, enters his fourth season as head coach with a 12-24 record. Lexington Herald-Leader

Two weeks ago, Mac Jones changed his mind. The highly regarded Jacksonville, Fla., quarterback flipped his commitment from Kentucky to Alabama. While this was a big deal in terms of talent, it wasn’t nearly as big a surprise. After all, Alabama is Alabama.

Then this past Thursday, Russ Yeast changed his mind. A UK commitment for nearly a year, the Greenwood, Ind., cornerback/receiver announced via Twitter that he was withdrawing his pledge and hitting the restart button on his recruiting. Though not as big a deal in terms of talent as the Jones reversal, it was a bigger surprise. After all, Russ Yeast is the son of Craig Yeast.

And Craig Yeast was one of the greatest receivers in Kentucky history. In fact, you could argue the former Harrodsburg star was UK’s greatest receiver, certainly in the top five. As good as Tim Couch was during his two-year run as Kentucky’s quarterback in the Air Raid offense, Couch’s numbers were boosted by Yeast’s speed. A three-yard Couch-to-Yeast bubble screen often became a 30-yard gain. Or longer.

That his son would publicly de-commit from his father’s alma mater raised a red flag with regards to the Big Blue and offered continuing confirmation of an unavoidable truth: Mark Stoops needs to win games.

According to the experts, the Kentucky coach has recruited well his first three years on the job. Most of that has been based on the promise of what Kentucky would do under the former Florida State defensive coordinator, however, not on what it had done — just 12-24 overall and 4-20 in the SEC.

That faith-based approach only lasts so long. At some point, a program has to deliver victories. This isn’t a decade or three ago when coaches came equipped with five-year plans and athletic directors preached patience. The landscape has changed, and so have the dollar signs. So have the fan bases. Higher ticket prices have done a number on fan loyalties. Gone are the days of the guaranteed sellout.

Each of the past two seasons, Stoops has been on the brink of a breakthrough. His 2014 team started 5-1, which caused Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart to award the head coach with an overly enthusiastic contract extension. The Cats promptly dropped their final six games. The 2015 season, UK started 4-1 and finished 5-7.

On the up side, three of last season’s seven losses came by a combined 12 points — 14-9 to Florida; 30-27 to Auburn; 21-17 to Vanderbilt. On the down side, miscues cost the Cats dearly in the losses to Auburn and Vandy. UK was never in the game against Mississippi State (42-16), Tennessee (52-21) or Georgia (27-3). It led Louisville 24-7 at the half, only to be outscored 31-0 in the second half.

Stoops has made staff changes that should help. I defended former offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson, but his replacement, Eddie Gran, appears to be a step forward. Gran’s experience, both in the Southeastern Conference and as a play-caller, is a plus. The recent hire of Matt House as inside linebackers coach and special teams coordinator should pay dividends. House was a defensive coordinator at Pittsburgh and Florida International. He has special teams experience.

Still, achieving the program’s first winning season since 2009 won’t be easy. The schedule includes trips to Florida, Tennessee, Louisville and defending national champ Alabama. Stoops has a new starting quarterback in Drew Barker and plenty of spots to fill on his defensive line and at linebacker. A recent poll of the league’s sports information directors didn’t exude confidence. It picked UK to finish sixth in the East.

Recruiting is still the lifeblood, of course. And to this point, UK’s recruits have seen the financial investment put into a renovated stadium and a new practice facility. They’ve heard the talk of great things ahead. What they haven’t seen is success on the field. Not yet. And what we’re seeing is the latter is starting to matter.

UK football schedule 2016

9/3/16

Southern Miss

9/10/16

@Florida

9/17/16

New Mexico St

9/24/16

South Carolina

10/1/16

@Alabama

10/8/16

Vanderbilt

10/22/16

Mississippi St

10/29/16

@Missouri

11/5/16

Georgia

11/12/16

@Tennessee

11/19/16

Austin Peay

11/26/16

@Louisville

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