Recently Hank wrote another great post, Kentucky 2015 Football Recruiting – Where’s the Buzz?, posing some points where recruiting has changed for Stoops & Company and how UK is perceived as having less excitement than last year. Common to all is the fact our coaches are going after higher ranked players than we have pursued in the past. Going after the higher ranked players changes the whole dynamic of recruiting.
First off, Stoops' success has made his recruiting job harder. No previous staff has come close to the success of the past two recruiting classes and the upcoming recruiting class. That in itself creates a buzz kill when the fans' expectations have risen from "I hope we get a couple of three stars and more Randall Cobbs" (diamonds in the rough) to "I hope we have a top 20 class". The Big Blue Nation now has much loftier expectations. We want great players and expect to win some battles against the elite programs in the nation. Stoops has done it a few times and we want more! Chill folks, there is a long road ahead.
A big selling point in landing many of these recruits has been the lure of immediate playing time. Going with the "25 man recruiting class" Mike Slive edict, we have roughly 50 players brought in by this staff to meld with the existing team to yield a roster that should now be at some level of two-deep on both sides of the ball. The first two classes were focused on filling major voids and shoring up minor voids in attaining a two-deep roster all the while trying to recruit to his systems. Stoops now adjusts his recruiting to improve those positions, align the numbers of players at each position with the coaching philosophy and reflect expected graduation and attrition. UK has upped the talent on the team so immediate playing time is not as available; at least, to the same level of recruits. So what does Stoops do? Go after even better talent because it will take better and better talent to use the "immediate playing time" carrot. And it is a viable carrot because we can always find playing time for better players. We are still well below SEC level at many positions.
Unfortunately, pursuing these higher ranked players brings with it a lot more chances at buzz kill, but that's the nature of the beast. You lose out on some recruits and you have to wait longer for others. At first, it's depressing to lose out on players like Nick Conner until you look at his offer sheet and pending Kentucky offers. First, we lost out to Ohio State to an Ohio player; there's no shame in losing out to a perennial powerhouse with a kid in their own state. On top of that he was a three star prospect. In years past this would be a dramatic setback but Stoops has already received commitments for a 3 and 4 star linebacker for '15 class and is pursuing other 3+ star players. He wasn't the only target we're trying to land. Besides, his offer sheet shows a group of schools we should be recruiting against, it includes just about the entire #7 - #20 ranks teams of 2013; no Middle Tennessee State, no Central Illinois, no Akron. We're going to lose a lot more 3 and 4 star battles than before but, take heart, we're also going to be in a lot more battles.
Besides the disappointment of losing battles for player, we're also going to be in longer battles as the stakes are raised. To quote Hank, "It seems to me that our consecutive 2-10 seasons has a lot of recruits taking a wait and see attitude." Absolutely. Players like Damien Harris, players that can raise the profile of an entire recruiting class, are putting off their decision until later in the recruiting process. With the exception of Alabama, everyone is waiting for the majority of top players to make a decision. There are only 20 commitments in the Top 50 of 247Sports composite rankings.
Rest assured Stoops & Co. won't be sitting on their butts; they'll continue to recruit but we are going to have to be patient and wait for the class to come together a bit longer than in the past two years. That lack of high profile commitment can limit the buzz of any school's recruiting. Simply look at last year when Kentucky was fortunate to have Drew Barker fill that role and fill it beyond all expectations. It wouldn't be a stretch to say he was the flypaper that attracted and kept the class together with his aggressive and progressive use of social media. No one has stepped forward to assume that role in this year's class.
The other fallout of going after the elite players, again to quote Hank "Kentucky has refused to take a commitment from some players, so they've committed elsewhere." This is another thing that I still have a hard time grasping. Kentucky actually refused to take a commitment? Times have certainly changed from the "You're willing to come to Kentucky to play football? Quick, sign here." When players pick another school UK fans are conditioned to believe it was because the other school was better. We're just not used to a coaching staff with the confidence and recruiting strategy to actually withdraw an offer from a 3 star recruit; that used to be our ceiling.
Losing out on highly rated recruits and a slower paced recruiting process inherently brings buzz kill but it's just a matter of perspective and fans shouldn't be discouraged in the least. I'd like to think the buzz isn't killed, just in the process of being redistributed. Kentucky is going after more players and better players against the top schools in the country. That is the level where you get the best players and Stoops has shown he can go toe-to-toe with anyone. In the near term we'll lose more than we win but at least we're finally a player in the recruiting battles. That is the best buzz of all - reality is looking good.