Changes in Strategy, Changes in Talent (we hope)

"...and then I poked him RIGHT IN THE EYE." via cache.daylife.com

I love Jimmy Buffett so I was going for the song thing in the title, but nothing rhymes with "strategy."  Moving on...

Recruiting isn't really Tru's thing, I know, and it's not mine, either.  I like to pretend that recruiting doesn't actually happen; that the kids that show up at Kirwan I every fall are there because they, you know, like it in Lexington or something.  Having to consider what actually happens on the recruiting trail hurts my headspot too much, so I ignore it for the most part.  That being said, one of the most profound things I took away from last week's Media Days event was a quote from Georgia defensive tackle Jeff Owens.  Owens said (and I'm paraphrasing because Larry Vaught likes to copyright everything he writes) that the problem Kentucky's had with competing in the SEC East comes down to talent. 

That's probably true, with some caveats.  NFL types, especially scouts, seem to think that all it takes to create a successful college football team is to amass some talent and put it out there on the playing field.  NFL types also think that it's acceptable to pay $8.00 for light beer at their games.  Talent is very important of course, but to say that it's everything belies the importance of coaching said talent once it reaches said field.  Going past the coaching edge, though, and you see why the Kentuckys and Vanderbilts of the SEC have struggled so mightily for so long: they can't get enough of the right kinds of players to fill out a roster.

Kentucky has some geographic and historical mountains to climb, but Coach Brooks recently addressed a sea change in the program's approach to college football's very lifeblood:

 

Kentucky has never put together great college football talent consistently like the Floridas, Georgias, South Carolinas, Alabamas and Texases of the world.  This is a product of an administration that didn't care much about football, having a small state population relative to the rest of the schools in the conference, and the fact that most high school programs in the Commonwealth are working with next to nothing in their budgets with which to spend on football.  Those last two factors are also some of the reasons Kentucky high school basketball is so much more important, but that's another post for another day.  Adding in the fact that Kentucky, as the SEC's northernmost school, is almost in Big Ten country, and that negatively impacts the state's recruiting base even more.  The only way many coaches in the past have dealt with this problem is to pick up a lot of junior college transfers with mediocre degrees of success.

Geographical and socio-economic reasons aside, Kentucky's fielded bad, bad, bad football teams for a lot of years.  Sure, there are a few bowl games every decade to pin some pride on, but up until recently, success was...inconsistent.  (That was hard to write, it's like saying "President Clinton's attitude toward marital fidelity was...inconsistent.")  Kids who are good at stuff want to play with other kids who are also good at stuff.  Beating up your sister is fun, but it's not something to be proud of; you want to beat up the kid that's just as big as you or even bigger.  The analogy works with Kentucky football: offering talented kids a place to play immediately sounds great at first, but wouldn't you rather work and learn a little bit so you can get noticed by NFL scouts?  That wasn't happening in Lexington until Andre Woodson emerged in 2007.

Fast forward two more years to today.  If any of you follow my own site (and according to Google Analytics, you probably don't) you'll note that I keep track of Vanderbilt football, too.  At this point in the year, Bobby Johnson has already obtained eighteen (18!!!) commitments from high school kids to play in Nashville in 2010.  To look at the league as a whole, see hmyah (from Mr. SEC):

School
Total Commits
5-stars
4-stars
3-stars
2-stars
1- or 0-stars
Total Stars
Avg. Stars
LSU
20
0
12
6
0
2
68
3.4
Alabama
18
1
9
6
2
0
63
3.5
Georgia
18
0
8
9
0
1
60
3.3
Florida
16
1
11
3
0
1
59
3.7
Vandy
18
0
0
12
2
4
44
2.4
SCarolina
15
0
3
8
1
3
41
2.7
Auburn
13
0
2
9
0
2
37
2.8
Tennessee
12
0
2
7
0
3
32
2.7
Arkansas
8
0
1
5
1
1
22
2.8
Miss. St.
9
0
1
5
0
3
22
2.4
Kentucky
2
0
0
1
1
0
5
2.5
Ole Miss
2
0
0
1
0
1
4
2.0

 

Well look at that, Kentucky only has two commitments!  And one's a kicker!!  Well, we need a kicker, so that's okay.  But to see the disparity between our Doormat Bowl compatriots and ourselves in terms of recruiting commitments thus far made me panic.  So, I did what any other neurotic, possibly unbalanced Kentucky football fan would do, I asked Rob Gidel from KSR what the hell was going on.  Oddly enough, he sent me an email back:

Great site (Ed. note: as if I didn't know that). Thanks for the question and for coming to the site. I cannot answer the 2010 question, because I really think at this point, it's always a crapshoot. Most of the kids that commit, commit on the whim. I've said from the beginning that UK was a leader for [Isaiah] Lewis (as early as last January). I'd be surprised if Michigan State was able to overcome the relationship that UK established from the beginning for him. He will decide soon. Outside of him, it's a crapshoot, as the tea leaves are always few and far between at this time of the year. I'd say, you can sound the alarm if UK goes past September with the same amount of commitments. Right now, it's not nearly as big of a deal as everyone is making it out to be. Things change so much in football recruiting and the biggest recruiting pitch is opportunity for UK. Kids cannot see opportunity from a pamplet. They have to get them on campus. Once they do and they see that the fans do take football seriously, things start to swing. In the past, the summer commitments have not nearly been as successful once they arrived on campus, so the lack of verbals at this point is not nearly as painful to take, in my opinion. We just need to be patient and remember that the biggest "gets" for this staff have all been late signees or winter commitments.

(Thanks for the help, Rob.)  So that calmed me down a little bit.  Then, on Sunday, I saw this gem of a quote from the OLD (Spurrier's not old enough to call himself old yet) Ball Coach himself:

"I think recruiting is going pretty well, better than it has in the past," Brooks said. "We may have had more commitments this time last year, but we also have to be a little more careful about who we get commitments from because we're into some guys that are maybe a little more high-profile."

HT: Chip Cosby on that.  What this all means to me is that Kentucky is starting to at least try to get to the next level in recruiting blue chip talent.  We Caliparians already know how important that is in basketball, and football isn't any different.  What it seems that Kentucky is doing is trying to wait it out with some of the better recruiting targets on its radar rather than just snapping up whatever leftovers it can find like it's done in the past.

It's a gamble, but it is definitely one that I trust Rich Brooks to take.  If this works, and Kentucky actually starts reeling in multiple classes of players that could just as easily start at Tennessee, Georgia or Alabama, the possibilities are astounding.  I really don't want to get too worked up about it because, as a Kentucky football fan, I am no stranger to disappointment.  But if the change in recruiting strategy serves to further improve the level of talent on the field at Commonwealth, I guarantee I'll be laughing maniacally for years to come.

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