The middle of February is typically not an ideal time to discuss college football. National Signing Day is in the rear-view mirror, and the college basketball season is accelerating towards its finish line. Yet, the timing provides at least two advantages: during this "calm" period objective debate is prevalent, and it helps to scope depth chart conversations that will be relevant the following month.
"Recruit and develop" would be the official mantra of Mark Stoops if he were to have one. If we did a shot every time Stoops forcefully stated those words then livers comparable in color and tumescence to Keith Richards' own would abound across the Bluegrass. It's imperative to do both.
Why is this mantra especially important now? One, Stoops is on an increasingly toasty seat. Two, UK's best recruiting classes in program history are beginning to reach their maturation point, and how they've been developed will go a long way towards determining if UK reaches the post-season in 2016.
To control for the "develop" part of the equation this post will only focus on the 2013 and 2014 classes which are comprised of players entering their senior and junior years. There were several younger players who made major contributions last season, but overall, judging their position groups would be premature at this time. Besides, the 2015 and 2016 classes are too young to make an impact that would shift the rankings in my view.
[Note: "*" denotes player is no longer with the program.]
Defensive Units Ranked
2013: Jaleel Hytche*, Marcus McWilson (4 star), Blake McClain (3 star), Khalid Thomas*, Nate Willis (3 star)
2014: Darius West (4 star), Kendall Randolph (4 star), Mike Edwards (3 star), AJ Stamps (3 star), Jared Tucker (3 star)
What stands out in this crop is not only the star power, but that UK continued to recruit these positions well in 2015; meaning several players are threatened with being recruited over. UK was starting two true freshmen cornerbacks to finish the 2015 campaign, and West was pushing McWilson for playing time towards the end of last season.
Stamps is probably UK's most accomplished defensive back under Mark Stoops at Kentucky to date, but McClain starting three straight seasons at nickel while holding off Randolph is a story worth highlighting. Those two are the headliners, but the entire secondary from senior class to freshmen class may be the deepest unit on the team.
This unit gets the top spot over the defensive line because of their improvement as opposed to overall NFL draft potential. The unit has accumulated 26 interceptions the last two seasons, and the passing defense was solid despite almost no pass rush last year. The unit also showed improvement from 2014 (mostly by virtue of giving up fewer explosive plays) when there was not the benefit of Za'Darius Smith and Bud Dupree folding the pocket.
#2 Defensive Line
2013: Za'Darius Smith (4 star), Melvin Lewis (2 star), Jacob Hyde (3 star), and Regie Meant (3 star)
2014: Matt Elam (4 star), Cory Johnson (3 star), Adrian Middleton (3 star), Lloyd Tubman*, Tymere Dubose (3 star)
The standouts here are pretty clear. Smith was a 4th round draft pick last May, while Johnson led SEC linemen in tackles in 2015, and Lewis was drawing NFL interest prior to breaking his leg. Elam was not a top fifteen player coming out of high school, as stated in a now revised 247 ranking, but played commensurate to his true sophomore form in 2015. Regardless, UK had to fight off serious competition to land him. Meant has gotten back-up snaps the last two seasons, and may have gotten more snaps this season if not for playing behind a white hot Johnson in 2015.
The rest of the bunch is unknown, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. UK has signed at least one JUCO defensive lineman in every class under Stoops indicating this position, more than most others, needs time to develop. If any positions deserves a grade of "incomplete" it probably is this one. Middleton backed up Elam after Lewis' injury, but probably shifts back to defensive tackle in 2016 to share reps with Meant; and possibly Dubose too, depending on if he settles at the end or tackle position.
The success UK has had developing the players in the first paragraph provides hope success can be replicated with the players in the second paragraph. The key question is if UK can recruit and develop more than one surefire NFL defensive line prospect in a given season.
2013: Jason Hatcher (4 star)
2014: Denzil Ware (4 star), Nico Firios (3 star), Kobie Walker (3 star), Ryan Flannigan (3 star), Dorian Hendrix*
The linebacker corps that Stoops inherited was abysmal. Avery Williamson was a star, but in Stoops' first game Williamson was surrounded on either side by a converted quarterback and a converted receiver. The reality of not signing more than one linebacker in a compress recruiting cycle in 2013 will partially force UK to rely on JUCO transfers, youth, and a well-timed Nebraska transfer in 2016.
Hatcher has had a shorter timeline that some. He backed up first round pick Bud Dupree his first two seasons, and then last season lost game time due to suspension and injury. His motivated play coming off his suspension provides evidence he has mentally turned the corner for those who see glasses half-full. He has 12 games to prove them correct.
Outside of Flannigan, a worthy pick-up and contributor in his last 14 games in the blue and white, the linebacker upperclassmen are mostly filled with mysteries and a transfer. Firios and Walker were both injured last season, and little is known of their development. Ware played well last season commensurate his redshirt freshman status. UK's future at the outside linebacker position in 2016 looks solid between Ware and Hatcher.
Nonetheless, it's likely transfer Courtney Love will start at middle linebacker, and true freshman Kash Daniel may also press those in the classes ahead of him for game reps. The weakside linebacker starting spot looks to be true sophomore Jordan Jones to lose going by his performances prior to injury in 2015. Newly added outside linebackers like JUCO transfer Justin Bonner and true sophomore Joshua Allen also look to provide key depth further hinting at the fact the linebacker position is still in recovery.
Offensive Units Ranked
#1 Receivers/Tight Ends
2013: Ryan Timmons (4 star), Alex Montgomery (3 star), Jeff Badet (3 star), Javess Blue (3 star)
2014: Thaddeus Snodgrass (4 star), Garret Johnson (3 star), TV Williams (3 star), Blake Bone (3 star), Darryl Long (3 star), Dorian Baker (3 star)
UK received immediate contributions from Blue on a poor offense in 2013, and both he and Timmons helped lift an offense that averaged 19 points per game that season to 26 points per game in 2014. UK parlayed their immediate success by recruiting a strong receiver class in 2014.
The offense had many issues in 2015, but the production by Johnson and Baker was notable. They had 46 and 55 receptions respectively, both averaged over 11 yards per catch, and they did it as sophomores. UK has not had two more productive receivers since Randall Cobb and Chris Matthews were featured in an actually functioning offense in 2010 as upperclassmen themselves.
Montgomery and Badet both had promising true freshmen seasons prior to a series of injuries beginning that season which would not see them return to the field until 2015. Badet returned to form but Montgomery struggled to see the field on a team that's four-deep at inside receiver. Blake Bone has become an afterthought for some after 2015, but even his 2015 season showed improvement over his 2014 season.
Yes, there were far too many dropped balls, but that sometimes comes with the territory for young skill players watching an offense meltdown in front of their eyes. The injection of a new coordinator and new position coach could serve as positive catalyst for a squad that is talented. It definitely can't hurt.
#2 Running Backs
2013: Jojo Kemp (3 star)
2014: Boom Williams (4 star), Mikel Horton (4)
The running back position at UK is also talented, despite the small sample size. Last season Williams ran for nearly 850 yards in only 9.5 games. Together, this squad averaged 160 yards rushing per game which is more than a few SEC teams that gave their running backs more carries per game on average.
Not bad but not great either. In 2016 they'll all be upperclassmen, will have a new position coach/coordinator, and make a good bet between two friends to supplant the receivers as the best offensive unit. For it that to happen, Williams must cease his bad habit of not reading his blocks and trying to use his speed to race to the outside, and Kemp and Horton both need to become as adept at forcing tacklers to miss in space as Williams has become.
#3 Offensive Line
2013: Kyle Meadows (3 star), Ramsey Meyers (3 star), Nick Haynes (2 star), Justin Day*
2014: Jarrett LaRubbio (3 star), Josh Krok*, Nick Richardson*, Jervontius Stallings (3 star)
Evaluating offensive line recruits is hard enough, but complicating factors for UK is the level of attrition at the tackle position in these two classes. This was a driving factor to starting Meadows before he was truly ready, playing George Asfao-Adjei out of position, and likely contributed to UK seeking a JUCO tackle in Tate Leavitt in 2016.
Of this group, Meyers and Haynes have seen plenty of game action at the guard positions. They're entering their third off-season, and this season will likely suggest their ceilings if they stay healthy. Stallings is backing up a good center in Jon Toth, and LaRubbio is a bit of a mystery. The 2016 offensive line class was outstanding, and will push earlier signees for playing time, especially Landon Young at tackle in 2016.
The sample size is too small to grade specialists and quarterbacks, but let's briefly cover them anyway. Drew Barker did not play well in non-garbage time minutes last year for the most part, and now faces new blood for the starting job in 2016. This is an important year for the redshirt sophomore. He has three years of eligibility remaining, and he'll be competing with a JUCO transfer that has two years, and an early enrollee freshman eligible for potentially the next five years.
Kicker Austin MacGinniss will now start for the third consecutive season. For his career he's kicking 76% on field goals, 99% on extra points, and has a long field goal of 48 yards. He was on several preseason All-SEC teams, after making the first All-SEC team in 2014. He goes unheralded but he's arguably one of the most important recruits Mark Stoops has ever signed (but originally committed to Joker - credit where it's due), and is the ace in the hole for UK in close games.
The Overall Best?
I leave that to you. Vote below.