Kentucky's football recruiting doesn't seem to be carrying much buzz as we close in on National Signing Day. The malaise was noticeable as far back as last summer. To a large extent that made sense. Recruiting can only defy reality for so long, and UK was coming off back-to-back two win seasons. Last summer it made sense for the momentum to have slowed. A big 2014 season was thought to be enough to jump-start recruiting.
Then five wins happened and things didn't seemingly change all that much. The magic conjured by Mark Stoops and his staff on the recruiting trail wasn't being surpassed even when the team was winning more. Blue chips flipped to Ohio State and Virginia Tech, and then UK missed out on Kentucky's best high school recruit in at least 15 years.
On the surface, the narrative of winning more equaling better recruiting appeared to have been shattered. UK won five games this year, yet it still lost key recruits to other programs. The fact UK lost those key recruits, and it sounds like may lose more, to perennial powers is of little consolation.
Another idea circling around social media is that this recruiting class didn't have a single individual who could rally the commits, help them bond, and win over other prospects like Drew Barker last year and this has hurt overall recruiting. How one measures the accuracy of this theory, or the efficacy of a "ringleader recruit" is anyone's guess. Then again, we are talking sports here and not trying to publish these ideas in a scientific journal, but maybe there's something to this theory as to why UK's recruiting rankings appear to be down this year.
Then a look at the data caused me to reconsider my preconceived notions. UK's recruiting rankings are doing much better than 2013, and may never get much higher than last year's class. Overall, UK is in a very good position less than a month from NSD.
Rankings Comparison (2013-2015)
The chart below breaks down Mark Stoops three recruiting classes and their rankings from the four major scouting services. The number in parenthesis next to the year is the size of UK's signing class (or current commits for 2015). The data below was up-to-date as of January 12th, 2015
(All well-trodden caveats about recruiting rankings apply to this table, and well, the entire post for that matter)
The table shows a few things worth noting. First, UK's rankings have steadily risen under Mark Stoops. That's a healthy sign especially when previous to Stoops' arrival, UK's recruiting rankings were in the forties on a good year.
Second, and most importantly perhaps, UK already has a higher ranking than 2013 despite still having 5-7 more spots to fill. Rivals is the exception to that, but the other three services could have UK finish in the Top 25 by the time everything is said and done. Looking at the schools 5-10 slots ahead of UK in those rankings, UK has more slots to fill than all of them with the exception of Michigan State and Ole Miss. UK moving up seems inevitable.
Finally, UK signed a large class in 2014. I believe all of these services' rankings only rank the 20 best commits to formulate a team's overall ranking. Yet, if UK signed a total of 28 commits the odds were raised slightly that their Top 20 were going to be higher than a 23 man class, for example. In short, the 2014 class always had a higher probability to be ranked higher than the 2013 and 2015 classes.
That's the power of perception. UK will almost assuredly finish higher than its 2013 class of approximately the same size, but won't match the final ranking of the 2014 class despite the real possibility of having a higher star average per recruit.
One Man's Ceiling Is Another Man's Floor
Can UK ever consistently land Top 15 classes? I reached out to Evan at Garnet and Black Attack because South Carolina is a SEC East school that only recently became a powerhouse on the recruiting trail. I asked Evan what factor contributed to South Carolina breaking through its previous "recruiting ceiling" and finally getting elite recruiting rankings:
I think that the turning point had more to do with Spurrier being able to sell the in-state recruits on his model for success. Once he got the 2007 and 2009 classes in, that's when the Gamecocks saw their best years ever in football, which in turn has caught the eyes of some out-of-state recruits. Before 2007, it was a rare event for USC to have a top 25 class, and now they can consistently sign in the top 20.
That's not encouraging news for UK fans. Kentucky doesn't produce in-state talent like Jadaveon Clowney, Alshon Jeffrey, Marcus Lattimore, and DJ Swearinger to name but a few of the South Carolina natives playing in the NFL today. South Carolina's success on the field translated to a program that has signed Top 10 classes the last few cycles on the backs of in-state recruits and plucking blue chip talent from various other states. That is not UK's near-term destiny.
Hunter Turner of Rocky Top Talk was also kind enough to talk about what led to Tennessee to improve its recruiting:
Tennessee has hit the perfect recruiting storm the past three years, some of which is due to coaching and performance, but some of which is plain old luck.
First, Butch was able to come in and salvage enough of Dooley's last recruiting class to finish 20 something. Second, the 2014 class featured a close knit group of in-state and legacy players who encouraged and recruited each other...So Butch recruited them hard (he sent multiple limos and a helicopter for one memorable recruitment), but he had a natural affinity group that was receptive to his pitch.
Third and most important for sustained future success, Butch played the freshmen from the 2014 class early and often-- and they won the 6 games it takes to go to a bowl (upsetting South Carolina along the way). That gives him the ammo to say "it's working, look at the improvement, look at these young guys playing and making a difference."
Tennessee has also benefited from outstanding in-state talent like South Carolina and was also able to capitalize on legacy recruits. A legacy recruit for UK would be Craig Yeast's son, but that's just one highly thought of prospect UK has access to while UT has a lot more. It helps to have multiple assistant coaches ranked in the Top 50 best recruiters in the country. UT also seems to have benefited from the players recruiting each other.
Primarily, the point I hopefully got across is that UK's recruiting rankings this year are actually the second highest rank of Stoops' tenure, and are poised to get higher despite some high profile recruiting losses. So maybe more wins is actually correlated to increased recruiting success after all. Could UK have flipped the blue chip Dowell twins from Northwestern, or flipped Davon Hamilton from Pitt after a three or four win season?
Second, UK will probably always be handicapped to break into the Top 15 due to lack of consistent in-state talent, and having an over-reliance on one state for its out-of-state talent (and Ohio may get even harder with Jim Harbaugh at Michigan). That makes this class all the more impressive, because Stoops and his staff are nearly maximizing what they're capable of doing at UK at the moment. If UK ever starts to string together 11 win seasons like South Carolina then higher classes are possible as diversified out-of-state recruiting picks up. Getting there in the first place without a rich in-state talent base makes that very difficult to accomplish though.
While not signing Top 10 classes pretty much means UK will never be in the national title hunt, it doesn't mean that UK can't compete for the SEC East title. Missouri has represented in the East in the SEC Championship the last two years, and their recruiting rankings don't match UK's.
And the Missouri example leads to a lesson we should all keep in mind regardless of UK's final recruiting ranking: National Signing Day is only the beginning of those players development. Their development is just as important to winning future games as their natural abilities they bring with them to Lexington. Signing blue chips increases the odds that a team will win more games, but Mark Stoops never says "recruit" without quickly adding "and develop" for a reason.