Mark Story

Recruiting rankings are not what UK football fans should be worried about

Mark Stoops: ‘Next year will be the smallest class I’ve signed’

University of Kentucky football head coach Mark Stoops spoke to press about the introduction of M.J. Devonshire from Pennsylvania, and how the next football seasons would be the smallest signing class he's had.
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University of Kentucky football head coach Mark Stoops spoke to press about the introduction of M.J. Devonshire from Pennsylvania, and how the next football seasons would be the smallest signing class he's had.

If you were among the University of Kentucky football fans who were disappointed that the recruiting class lured by Mark Stoops and Co. for 2019 was ranked 12th out of 14 SEC programs by Rivals, here are some numbers to chew on:

For the five recruiting cycles (2014 through 2018) that led into the 2018 season, South Carolina’s classes were ranked 16th, 19th, 26th, 16th and 18th by Rivals.

Kentucky’s recruiting classes for the same time frame were rated 17th, 35th, 28th, 26th and 30th.

So if recruiting rankings were football destiny, South Carolina should have beaten Kentucky the past five seasons. Instead, since 2014, the head-to-head record between Kentucky and South Carolina on the field is Wildcats 5 wins, Gamecocks zero wins.

The angst that some UK backers expressed over the Wildcats’ standing within the SEC in the 2019 recruiting rankings was, I think, far less about the merits of Kentucky’s incoming players and more about disappointment that fans did not see an immediate payoff from the Cats’ breakthrough 10-3 season in 2018.

Even after Kentucky’s victory over Penn State in the VRBO Citrus Bowl, UK’s 2019 recruiting class is rated 30th in the country by Rivals. That is the same rating Rivals gave the Wildcats’ 2018 recruiting haul.

Having at long last had a gulp from the cup of college football relevance, Wildcats supporters were yearning for a sign in recruiting that the UK football program was on a continuing upward arc.

When Stoops and Co. added only one player — albeit a well-regarded one in four-star Pennsylvania defensive back Marlin Devonshire — on the first day of the second college football signing period last Wednesday, it did not quench that thirst.

For various reasons, Kentucky is unlikely to ever consistently rank in the top half of the SEC in recruiting ratings. What UK needs to do is recruit well enough that good coaching and player development allow it to be competitive in its conference.

Since Stoops came to Kentucky after the 2012 season, UK’s lowest-ranked recruiting class by Rivals was 35th in the nation in 2015.

Yet, that 2015 class yielded program cornerstones Josh Allen, C.J. Conrad, George Asafo-Adjei, Derrick Baity, Logan Stenberg, Chris Westry and Jordan Jones, as well as valuable contributors in Tavin Richardson, Calvin Taylor and Mason Wolfe.

Bottome line: Stoops’ least-regarded Kentucky recruiting class entering college turned out as it exits UK to have been his best.

In this 2019 offseason, recruiting is not what should be most concerning to UK football backers. There are two other things that should worry them more.

1.) Handling success.

Before 2018, the prior two times that Kentucky won at least nine games in a regular season, all the positive program momentum was lost in the ensuing year.

UK’s 10-1 season in 1977 was followed by 4-6-1 in 1978. Kentucky’s 9-3, Hall of Fame Bowl-championship year in 1984 yielded a 5-6 campaign in 1985.

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At Stoops’ Wednesday news conference, I asked the UK coach how he planned to handle prosperity within his program so that UK doesn’t lose the “chip on the shoulder” mentality that fueled its current rise.

“Our plan is to continue to do the same things we’ve always done, be as demanding as we always are,” Stoops said. “We always keep guys in check. That’s one of the reasons we are pretty thorough and spend a lot of time in our assessments and evaluations and sit down with players and explain to them in detail what we expect of them.”

2.) Wide receiver.

The news that Tavin Richardson is transferring from Kentucky means UK is losing a starting wideout to transfer for the second time in three seasons. Wide receiver Jeff Badet graduate transferred to Oklahoma after the 2016 season.

Tavin Richardson
The news that Kentucky wide receiver Tavin Richardson (11) is transferring means the Wildcats are losing a starting wideout to transfer for the second time in three seasons. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

Richardson’s exit removes a two-year starter from what was not exactly a UK position of strength in 2018. Going into 2019, UK desperately needs an outside receiver (or two) to emerge as a reliable complement to star slot receiver Lynn Bowden.

The facts are Badet had better numbers catching passes from Stephen Johnson at UK in 2016 (31 receptions for 670 yards and four touchdowns) than he did from Baker Mayfield at OU in 2017 (26 catches for 400 yards and three TDs).

Kentucky co-offensive coordinators Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw presided over a University of Cincinnati offense that averaged 360 yards a game passing in 2015.

Nevertheless, these wideout bailouts could become a perception issue for Kentucky as it aspires to add balance to what has been a Benny Snell-featuring, ground-hugging offensive attack the past two seasons.

If UK fans feel they must worry about recruiting, that’s an issue to fret over.

Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a H-L sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.

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