Editor's Note: The following post was written by new A Sea of Blue.com writer, Seth Burchett. Seth joins Alex Scutchfield as ASoB's primary football guys, but he will surely be tempted to post his thoughts on Wildcat basketball as well.
Seth is as passionate about UK football as any fan I know, and his vast knowledge of all things pigskin will add invaluable insight to ASoB's football coverage, so please give him a hearty Big Blue welcome as he endeavors to entertain and inform here at A Sea of Blue.
February 6, 2013 signified the biggest day for Kentucky football in many years. On the day that high school football players across the country make their college destination decisions, Kentucky fans, for the first time in several years, have a reason to be excited about the program.
With the 'Cats signing 22 players, including four junior college prospects, new UK football coach Mark Stoops has put together the best Wildcat recruiting class in the history of UK football. With the 2013 class, Stoops and his staff have created a Wildcat football frenzy that has not surrounded the program in many decades (maybe ever).
Since being introduced as Kentucky's new football coach on December 2, 2012, Stoops has hit the ground running, working to build a team that has lacked consistent excitement among its fan base. Ironically, for the first time in recent memory the hot topic of conversation during college basketball season among the Big Blue Nation is Kentucky Wildcats football. This can be credited, not just to Stoops, but also to the tremendous staff that he has put together. They have taken a middle-of-the-road recruiting class, ranked in the top 60-range, and propelled it to a ranking as high as 28th in the nation (according to Rivals.com).
Many things have contributed to the dramatic turnaround, and one of the most important aspects of the about-face of the UK football program has less to do with Stoops' presence, and more to do with the University of Kentucky administration making Commonwealth Stadium renovation a high priority. The forthcoming stadium upgrades have provided Stoops with a major recruiting tool previous administrations did not possess; something that has been a sore point among the fan base and previous coaches alike.
In addition, Stoops has taken an approach that many UK coaches have not taken in the past, and that is the idea that a player must tell the coaching staff "no." Previous coaches have given up on recruiting prospects, or not recruited them at all, because they felt as if they had no chance to sign the player. Obviously, that was not the case with Stoops and crew, evidenced by their boosting of UK's recruiting class by "flipping" players who had previously verbally committed to other schools -- Newly inked UK signee Jason Hatcher (a 6-foot-3, 250 pound 4-star defensive end out of Louisville Trinity High School) had committed to USC, and Marcus McWilson, a 4-star safety formerly pledged to Nebraska, are just two examples.
Additionally, the areas of the country UK recruits seemed to have changed since Stoops took over the head chair. Stoops has placed a high priority on recruiting Kentucky (as he should), and he has also traveled to the fertile recruiting ground of Ohio to poach recruits out of Cincinnati, as well as Stoops' alma mater, Cardinal Mooney High (where McWilson attends school) in northern Ohio.
With Stoops reaching into parts of the country where the UK has not been a consistent presence, coupled with his dedication to nabbing the best in-state players (and his demonstrated ability to add those players to the Wildcat coffers), UK gridiron fans have a newfound hope for the direction of Kentucky football.
And Stoops has more to sell at Kentucky than one might think. Not only does the UK head coach have upcoming stadium renovations to help him lure talent to the Bluegrass, but Stoops can also offer what is a huge attraction to most recruits; the very real potential for playing time in the SEC. While other conference teams may be more prestigious, and able to boast a winning tradition, many of those same schools cannot offer the opportunity for immediate playing time.
As is usually true when programs experience a downturn, coach Stoops is also selling players on the opportunity to begin a new era in UK football; the opportunity to build a new, long-lasting football tradition at Kentucky.
As if that isn't enough, Kentucky's new style-of-play (read: Air Raid) has been an easy sell to recruits. Perhaps the most exciting addition to the UK coaching staff has been Neal Brown because of his Air Raid background (Brown is a former UK receiver and Hal Mumme protegé). Many young players want to play in the fling-it-around, high energy passing game that Brown brings to the field, and the UK coaching staff in taking full advantage of that fact.
With Brown in place, ready to lead a Wildcat offensive rejuvenation, and Stoops able to sell potential Wildcats on his incredible defensive success at Miami (Fla.), Arizona, and Florida State, now, more than ever, UK can sell success on both sides of the football.
As invigorating as Kentucky's 2013 football recruiting class seems, Wildcat pigskin fans likely need to temper expectations. While on paper this class looks to be a top 30-type of group -- and UK fans across the nation hope the class lives up to its expectations -- the class does, though, rank in the bottom half of the SEC. That isn't terrible news, as one might believe, because the talent gap is closing quickly.
In looking at this group, a few names stand out as players who could immediately see the field, even as soon as the Wildcats' season opener in Nashville against Western Kentucky. The player who should be the biggest difference-maker is Za'Darius Smith, a 6-foot-6, 250 pound 4-star defensive end out of Alabama.
The UK defensive line was one of the most obvious positions in need of bolstering, and Smith was one of the top defensive ends available via the JUCO ranks. Many pundits believe Smith will have the biggest immediate impact on Kentucky's 2013 football season.
Some others who could contribute immediately on the defensive side of the football are defensive back Nate Willis, another JUCO (who has declared his intention to be one-and-done), and Jaleel Hytchye, a 3-star corner back out of Cincinnati with a substantial upside.
On the offensive side of the football, three players have garnered much attention because of how they snugly fit into Brown's offensive philosophy:
- Franklin County's Ryan Timmons, an all-purpose offensive threat who played in an Air Raid-style offense for the Flyers. Timmons accounted for over 2,600 total yards and 42 touchdowns in his senior season.
- JoJo Kemp, a 5-foot-10 running back out of Deland, Fla. who possesses blazing speed (4.39 - 40) and honed football instincts, as well as the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. Kemp is rated the No. 10 multi-purpose back in the nation by Rivals.com.
- Jeff Badet, a 3-star wide out from Freedom High School in Orlando, who originally committed to South Florida (he de-committed when Skip Holtz was sacked as head coach), and turned down offers from Wisconsin and UCLA. Badet caught 66 passes for 881 yards and 10 touchdowns last season while also running the ball 28 times for 326 yards and six touchdowns.
There simply is no doubt that Stoops and company have injected renewed life and excitement into the Wildcat football program with their pro-active recruiting, but fans should exercise restraint when tempted to expect BCS bowl bids right away. It is clearly evident to all, though, that Stoops is willing to put his plan to work in an attempt to make Kentucky a destination program, something that every big blue pigskin fan can get firmly behind.
To follow Seth on Twitter: @phoenixrocket