Mark Story

The lesson we should draw from Mark Stoops’ star-crossed 2014 recruiting class

Quarterback Drew Barker, left, and nose guard Matt Elam were prized in-state recruits in Kentucky’s 2014 recruiting class that was ranked No. 17 in the country by Both are leaving UK now after star-crossed careers.
Quarterback Drew Barker, left, and nose guard Matt Elam were prized in-state recruits in Kentucky’s 2014 recruiting class that was ranked No. 17 in the country by Both are leaving UK now after star-crossed careers. Lexington Herald-Leader file photo

The announcement this week by Kentucky quarterback Drew Barker that he will use his final season of college eligibility in 2018 at a school other than UK as a graduate transfer carried a resonance beyond its on-the-field implications.

Barker was the anchor of Mark Stoops’ ballyhooed 2014 recruiting class that ranked as the 17th best in the country that year.

A former Conner High School star, Barker was one of 10 4-star recruits in a class that University of Kentucky sports marketers put front and center to herald that Stoops was ushering in a new day in UK football.

Now, four years later, Barker is the 14th of the 25 high school players that signed with Kentucky in 2014 — there were also three junior-college signees in the class — who have departed Lexington before their final season of eligibility has expired.

It would be too far to label UK’s celebrated 2014 recruiting class an overall bust. The class has yielded several core players — Mike Edwards, Garrett Johnson, Darius West, Bunchy Stallings and Adrian Middleton to name five — who have been instrumental in Kentucky’s back-to-back winning seasons in 2016 and ’17.

Yet, since signing day of 2014, the class that so energized UK football has proven far more star-crossed than anyone could have predicted just four years ago.

Drew Barker, left, and Boom Williams, during Kentucky’s 2016 Media Day. Both members of Kentucky’s ballyhooed 2014 recruiting class wound up leaving UK before their eligibility expired. Charles Bertram

Defensive lineman Matt Elam, the John Hardin product who turned down Alabama, Ohio State, Notre Dame and Tennessee to stay in-state with UK, finished his senior season in 2017 as Kentucky’s third-string nose guard.

Of the 14 signees from 2014 who have departed Kentucky early, 11 quit the team, including three offensive linemen, two wide receivers and 4-star running back Mikel Horton.

Mikel Horton, with ball, was a 4-star running back who turned down an offer from Florida State to pick Kentucky as part of the Wildcats’ much-praised 2014 recruiting class. However, Horton is among 14 of the 25 high school players who signed with UK as part of its 2014 class who left Kentucky before his eligibility had expired. Jonathan Palmer

Running back Boom Williams, a 1,170-yard rusher in 2016, turned pro after his junior season, went undrafted and failed to make an NFL roster as a free agent.

Defensive end Lloyd Tubman, a prized late addition to the 2014 class from Seneca High School in Louisville, had an off-the-field incident that enveloped him in UK’s student judicial system and never played in a game for Kentucky.

Barker’s fate might be the most poignant of all.

After spurning a determined recruiting pitch by South Carolina and Steve Spurrier, Barker chose Kentucky with the idea of following in the footsteps of Tim Couch, Jared Lorenzen and Andre Woodson as in-state QBs who became UK stars.

Drew Barker, right, became the anchor of Kentucky’s 2014 recruiting class that ranked as the 17th best in the country when the four-star quarterback from Conner High School committed to UK. Barker announced this week on Twitter that he was going to become a graduate transfer and play his final season of eligibility elsewhere after making only five career starts at UK. Lexington Herald-Leader file photo

Personable and charismatic, Barker helped Stoops and his staff hold the 2014 recruiting class together by becoming an enthusiastic evangelist for the vision of a Kentucky football turnaround.

Barker inherited the UK starting job from Patrick Towles in the 11th game of his redshirt freshman season in 2015, then began 2016 as the starter.

However, a back injury ended Barker’s season in 2016 after one series of the season’s third game. Unheralded junior-college transfer Stephen Johnson inherited the UK QB job and led the Wildcats to 14 wins in the 24 games in which he took the preponderance of the snaps over the past two seasons.

Kentucky football recruiting coordinator Vince Marrow explains how John Calipari and Kentucky basketball have helped in football recruiting.

Given the extensive public loyalty shown Barker by Stoops and members of his coaching staff since the injury, I thought the former Conner star would begin 2018 as Kentucky’s starting quarterback.

Instead, he has chosen to forgo competing with redshirt sophomore-to-be Gunnar Hoak and incoming junior college transfer Terry Wilson for the UK starting job.

Barker will leave Kentucky with his degree but having started only five career football games. He completed 57 of 113 passes (50.4 percent) for 747 yards with five touchdowns vs. seven interceptions.

The fact that Barker and so many members of the 2014 recruiting class that arrived in Lexington to such lavish praise have been early departures is a wonderful reminder of an old college football axiom:

However things look on signing day, you don’t actually have a read on the merits of a recruiting class until it has been part of a college program for three to four seasons.