Kentucky fans cannot blame Mark Stoops for not smiling the last few months considering how poorly his team performed in the pressure cooker of SEC play, but today the UK head man had a satisfied grin on his face at an early afternoon press conference.
And why wouldn’t he? Stoops and his staff received the signatures of 25 young man in what Stoops from "my point of view, absolutely top to bottom, I feel like it's the most solid group. I feel like there's elite talent in this group and I feel like there's great glue, there's great players, great program guys."
Even though Stoops said he doesn’t care about the rankings all major recruiting services have UK’s incoming crop as one of the best in the country. Rivals ranks the class 29th; 24/7 ranks it the 34th best class in America; ESPN awarded it the 31st overall spot in their rankings.
The transcript below, provided by the UK Athletic Department, contains breakdowns of key players, the impact of five talented Kentuckians and a hodgepodge of other tidbits.
Q. Talk about those local guys.
COACH STOOPS: The most important thing. Definitely, the most important thing is to get the local guys. We are blessed to have some great talent in state this year. We are blessed to have some guys very close to home here. I thought those guys were critical.
Everybody talks about the three guys that were in the U.S. All-American game. Those guys represented us the right way. They're great players. Again, they're great leaders, with Kash and Drake being nominated captains says a lot.
Of course, Landon arguably was one of the best players there, certainly one of the top offensive linemen. It was great with those guys in how they represented us at the All-American game. A guy that goes unnoticed in that group is Davonte. Being right down the road here. He was arguably as important of a guy in this class as anybody we got. Him and Jordan Griffin, I think it's so important to get those corners, those talented guys. Everybody comes after them and battles for those corners till the very last second.
Davonte being in state, not because he's highly ranked, he didn't go to the camps, but everybody that sees him play, it's a no-brainer. He can play with just about anywhere in the country. Great player. Obviously excited about him.
Zy'Aire the same way. Zy'Aire we watched two years ago in person. We loved him then. We love him now. He's a difference maker and a play-maker with the ball in his hands.
Q. (Question regarding Jordan Griffin.)
COACH STOOPS: I think it was important because it was important from where he was at. Coming from the heart of the SEC, right in the Atlanta area, having every SEC school banging on him and knocking on his door. To win that so far away from home, in the heart of the SEC, I think is critical.
We know we had the nucleus of the five guys in state that were as solid as can be. We know we've been extremely strong with Vince's leadership there in taking the lead role with the Ohio kids. It's also important to supplement them, get guys from the south.
To win the battle against a bunch of SEC schools, we're very gratified. Teams were not letting up. It was relentless pressure with him to the point where we talked with him and mom every day this week, they were just getting absolutely hounded, wore out, wore out by head coaches, by assistants. It was ironic. This morning he was the first call I got. D.A. (Assistant Coach Derrick Ansley) handed me the phone. It was about 7:05 this morning. As we were on the phone, I could tell he was a little bit flustered. I heard mom in the background.
I said, Jordan, are they on the phone with you right now? I'm not going to say who.
He said, Yeah, they're wearing out my mom right now.
I said, Tell them I got the fax in my hand. It's over. It was good to see. It was important.
Q. Why did this class stay together so much better than last year's?
COACH STOOPS: I think it starts with the nucleus of last year's guys. Landon may have been the first guy. Drake really took a leadership role. I think it starts with those guys. What was nice is they were such high-profile guys in state and they were so solid. I think the guys from Ohio that have been committed for a long time have been extremely solid.
I think this year we made it a point in just the message. A lot of times guys just want to take trips. What happens is when they want to take trips, it gets you that crack in the door, sends the wrong message to the other recruits.
There were several guys down the stretch, I'm going to take a trip here, a trip there. We let them know that's not the perception we want from this class. These guys have been solid, they've been holding true and steady for a year. They said, I got it, coach. We're not going anywhere. We're staying here.
There was one or two, but not much. I think that's a big part of it. But I think the unity of the whole class was important.
Our staff does a great job of getting them on campus. When they get off campus during the contact period, we don't just get in and out of schools. Our coaches have done a great job getting in there. They may spend six, seven, eight, nine, ten hours at one place, whether at home, going to dinner with these folks, just spending time. I think the relationship piece you heard me talk about for years is still most important, to have those strong relationships with these players and with these prospects.
I think it's a combination of things. I think it was the leadership, the staff doing a great job, and us really staying on it and really pushing for that unity this year.
Q. You've been around a lot of great DBs. Where does this group, the three guys, kind of rate on paper?
COACH STOOPS: Very high. Very high. You know, we'll see. But just looking at them on paper and looking at what I've seen over the years, who we really wanted, who we targeted, it's a great group.
That's where it gets dicey because if you have a defection, you can't go recruit more, because then they start looking at you. Coach, you have four corners, guys on your staff, that gets touchy because you always want to have some depth. You lose one, you lose two, that's where it hurts you, that's where it hurts your program and class. To see those bookends stay the course I think was real key.
But they're a very talented group.
Q. With this class, how close do you feel you're getting to the type of depth you need not just for success, but sustained success?
COACH STOOPS: I think that's something that we talk about in this room. You hear me talking about it all the time. Heck, it is what it is. Nobody cares, you've heard me joke about it before, nobody cares what your problems are. Nobody cares in this league, that's for darn sure.
But you need to stack classes on top of classes on top of classes. Then you need to develop them and put them in position by coaching. There's a lot of things that go into it. But it absolutely starts with having great players.
Q. On importance of stacking good classes in consecutive years …
COACH STOOPS: Take a good look around at our league. We feel very good about this class. Again, take a look around where we stand.
The good thing is, wherever you slot us, nine, ten, whatever in the SEC, it's a lot closer than being way off. You know what I mean? The balance is getting closer.
Q. One of your early signees talked about is QB Gunnar Hoak. He committed and stayed with you. How important is that? What do you project and like about him?
COACH STOOPS: I think it's very important for Gunnar. As you know, as things turned out with some of the guys on our team, it was extremely important to keep Gunnar because of depth and his ability.
You're right because he's a quiet kid. He's been committed, kind of under the radar. He's a terrific football player, a great leader. Our players have been extremely impressed with him. Our receivers have been out throwing with him and they said he can spin the heck out of the ball, has a great touch, doing a great job out there throwing. He's a guy we're very excited about.
I'm excited to get out there this spring and see what he can do, compete for playing time. So I'm very high on Gunnar.
Q. Is this your best recruiting class at UK?
COACH STOOPS: I definitely do. I believe so. I feel that way. I don't know where the numbers stack up. I don't really care. From my point of view, absolutely top to bottom, I feel like it's the most solid group. I feel like there's elite talent in this group and I feel like there's great glue, there's great players, great program guys. There's guys that you can develop, guys you that can play right away, there's impact guys, there's guys that can change the scoreboard, guys that can get difficult yards in the run game, the big uglies you want. I think there's a nice combination of guys in this group, I definitely do.
I think it can't be stated enough, going back to the question of why they stayed so close together, I think it just shows a lot about this group's character, who they are. They're exactly who I want and who we want in this program. They're great kids that football is extremely important to.
Take a guy like Landon, five star, all that. We signed him when he was 6'6", a buck 80. Joking. But tall, skinny guy. Just developed and worked.
The great thing about Landon is I'm sure he's proud of that, I know that, I've talked to him and his family, that's great recognition for him, but he feels it more for us or for the program, given credibility. It's not about him. He knows he's got to come in here and compete and play.
He's so humble, that's what I think you take him all the way down to everybody in our class, they're very humble and excited about playing football. They're serious about the game. They're not so wrapped up in all the stars, all that kind of stuff. They want to get in here and get to work. That's what I love about this group top to bottom.
There's enough characters. You got Kash in there. The great thing about Kash, just listening to him up there today, he spoke so well. He was on the broadcast. He's a great personality that I think everybody in this state will love, and our players certainly love, but he's a worker. He wants to get in that weight room and work, get on the field and work. That's what you want.
Q. You mentioned you're able to keep the class together. What kind of challenges did you face with so many coaching changes?
COACH STOOPS: Very little. Very little changes with the coaching changes. I think the guys that came in picked it up quickly. Our staff really had a great fix on it. We were very much ahead of it in that regard. I really focused on that this year. If there was a lead guy, I really made sure we backed it up with a lot of guys.
Vince will be the first to tell you. Vince gets a lot of credit and deserves it, closed in on a lot of guys. But our staff absolutely hammers away on the positions. We follow it up with two, three and four. Our whole staff recruits everybody. We have one guy on point, but we have everybody else that's very active. I think that's why we held everybody.
Q. Was last year somewhat of an anomaly with UK, the decommits, as many as there were last year?
VINCE MARROW: I think there's something to that. I didn't see too many decommits last year. Our belief is we got kids on campus more than two times, three times, pretty much they committed. Part of the guys that decommitted, they was only here once or twice. The number one team in the country came after them. That was hard to old onto. But, yeah, I see a little bit of that.
COACH STOOPS: Again, piggybacking on that, you see the decommits. I was watching briefly ESPN getting ready for this, you see all the flipping going on with major players. It's part of the game. Nobody likes to see it. Fans don't like to see it. But there's nobody that panics. It doesn't help you. Sometimes it's a kick in the gut, a kick in the other thing. It's a kick in the gut sometimes.
Recruiting is very personal. Coaches spend and awful lot of time recruiting these guys. That's what gets hard when guys pledge against you. That's why at the end of the day anybody that is going to sit in my office and look me in the eye and lie to me, I don't want them in this program. It all works out for the best most of the time.
Q. As highly touted as your offensive linemen are in this class, how realistic is it to expect them to make an immediate impact?
COACH STOOPS: I think people have to put the brakes on a bit. That's the problem, as you know, the balance I have. We're recruiting, recruiting. Yeah, we got to develop them. It takes years. We're at that point. We're at year four. We expect them to go in, play at a high level, be much more physical. It has to equate to wins. Young guys that are here at O-line in particular, that's sometimes very difficult to do. O-line and D-line. That's a physical game.
With that being said, I think a guy like Drake is one of the most technique sound guys I've seen coming out of high school in a long time. I think Landon is most definitely one of the more talented true freshmen I've been around in any school. He has great upside. He's a worker, humble, wants to play. I think he has a good chance. Tate, he is not a high school guy, so we expect him to come in and be ready to play.
Q. Jim Harbaugh has raised the bar.
COACH STOOPS: Is that what you call it?
Q. Derek Jeter, Tom Brady at signing day, do you feel there's a pressure or an arms race in that regard in the way you go about recruiting?
COACH STOOPS: If I'm not mistaken, I think that cause is for raising money, and it's benefitting cancer. I think that's a great cause. It's my understanding, I don't know a lot about it, but he's tying that into a fundraiser for coach's grandson. I think that's a great idea. Anything you can tie in and use this platform or his platform to raise money for a cause like that, that's wonderful. I'm all for it.
Some of the other shenanigans, not with coach, but other people, the craziness that goes on, I mean, you know, at some point we all do things maybe we're not real proud of. I'm not going to tell you all the things we do. We do what we have to do a lot of times to land recruits. Sometimes you got to put your pride aside, you know what I mean. You have to do what you have to do. We all get humbled by this process. But we work extremely hard.
The shenanigans and that that go on throughout the country, we're not too big in all that.
Q. With the quality of guys you lost at the defensive tackle positions, can you talk a little bit more about these three guys and how important it was?
COACH STOOPS: I think overall it was important to continue to build depth. You hear me talk about it all the time. O-line we really had a big class. D-line, same thing. I think it's extremely important to build depth and have those bodies to work with and to see the development.
With Pringle being able to come in, being a junior college guy, we needed that depth at nose guard in particular, with Tymere being injured and Matt not having a solid backup. For him to come in and compete with Matt is important. We feel good about guys that will move in. But it's important to have depth and continue to build with these guys.
Q. Can you tell me a little about (Coach) Lamar Thomas, what he brings to the table? Was it always the plan to announce the signing before today?
COACH STOOPS: I think it was important for me to find the right fit and the right person for our program. Lamar and I have known each other for some time, going back to my coaching days at Miami. He was just getting done playing in the league, if I'm not mistaken, at that time. He'd come back and be around Miami's program. I'd see him around there. Of course, when he was a high school coach, I was at Florida State, I'd stop in and see him at the high school. Seeing him progress, taking a small college job at Hampton, moving up. Seeing how he worked at it.
He wants to be a great football coach. I have known Lamar. I think he brings great value to us being a terrific player in college and the NFL. His work ethic and competitiveness to be a great coach.
The timing of it, we felt like it was right. To Lamar's credit, he wanted to stick by the last recruiting visit. It was not going to affect us. So I said, By all means, stay and finish through the last recruiting visit. We felt like the timing was right rather than to wait till after signing day.
It made no difference to me whether it was at Louisville or any other program as far as the timing or anything like that. I don't think it's going to have a major effect on either one of us. It was just the right thing to do, to announce it. I've always told guys when I know something, the time is right, the decision is made, I'll tell you.
Q. Could you comment a little bit about Ross, the receiver from Arizona, the history with him? Also, a lot of kids in Ohio talk about what a big deal it is when Vince walks into the school or into their home.
COACH STOOPS: That's because he's a big dog.
Q. What do they mean?
COACH STOOPS: He's the big dog. He just tees them up, I close them.
VINCE MARROW: Yeah (laughter).
COACH STOOPS: No, Kayaune is a terrific football player. Lakota West High School which we've had a great track record with Lakota West. He's a guy that's a little bit of a hidden gem. They worked with us. He redshirted this year for a reason because we wanted him to have three years.
He's a monster. He's a guy, wait till you see him out there running around. He is a pretty, pretty guy. He's a person, if you look at him and see him in pads, depending on what type of pads we want to put him in, we may want him to play defensive end because that's what he looks like. He looks like a cheetah out there. Big, good-looking guy.
A great person, great worker, extremely humble. He's out there in Phoenix right now working, finishing his school, working every day. He's out there working with some folks out there throwing and catching. He is a great kid. Like I said, he's 6-foot-6, and he's all of that. But he's a great wide receiver. That's what he's going to play. We expect to get him the ball outside.
Vince, you want to piggyback any more on him?
VINCE MARROW: He stayed committed from day one that he committed to us. We don't talk about it, but a lot of big universities came after him. He would call us and tell us they were talking negative about us.
COACH STOOPS: He wouldn't even entertain it.
VINCE MARROW: He's going to be a good young man to add to this program.
Q. With the momentum you have now, looking a year down the road, how do you feel about 2017?
COACH STOOPS: We got a junior day on Saturday. No rest. We go back to work, get on it. We already have been. So this week has been tying up the loose ends with this class, making sure we stay in contact with everybody, keeping it tight and making sure there was no surprises, which there wasn't.
We were already in the office evaluating '17 as a staff. We've been grinding on '17. We have a big invite list that will come to the game this week. We're off to a great start in '17, as you know. It's going to be a lower number year for us. We won't be able to take as many as we've taken the past couple years. It will be a lower number, but there will be great quality in that class.
VINCE MARROW: Let me say this, too, about the '17 class. Coach Stoops always tells us to recruit the next class. I think the class we have now is ranked in the top five. We have four committed, so we off to a good start on that class.
Q. About recruiting, for you to have back-to-back 5-7 seasons, to say this is your best class, what does this tell you about your process in building this, the kind of feedback that you're getting from recruits?
COACH STOOPS: Yeah, I think that is important. Even myself sometimes, because I certainly don't ever want to look back, but it does say a lot about our potential and what we can do. It says a lot about the guys that we have in this program, our players on campus.
If they were negative or not into it or dissension that some people try to spin or say, believe me, we wouldn't have this class. The players on your campus are going to help you recruit. When they come in here, we could spin our wheels, do everything, all the song and dances we want for years. When they get on campus, spend time with our players, they're going to tell them what it's all about. They're going to tell them what they believe in in this program, what we're doing. They're going to get that vibe.
So for us to solidify this class and finish it off with the negativity towards the end of the year, I get it, nobody was more pissed than me, it does say a lot. It says a lot about our future. It also says a lot about it because the stadium was done. That was one piece. Now this 2017 class is starting to come in here this Saturday, we got to show them a building. But wait till it's done, you know what I mean? It's one thing to show them pictures, one thing to show them the building, but wait till we get the finished product and wait till we start getting to the point where we start winning games like we're going to win. It tells you the potential and where we're going to go.
Q. You talked about the pass-rush that needs improvement. How does this group help?
COACH STOOPS: I think it helps a lot. There's guys in there, going down the list, Bannerman that can rush the heck out of the passer. Going to be a great player. Looney inside that we were talking about. Pringle inside. Walder outside backer. Jamar Watson, we call him Boogie, he can go. He's an electric outside backer. So there's guys there. Jordan Bonner.
The guys we have in our program are starting to come along, too. We have to have a great off-season with them, as well.
Q. On the importance of the mid-year enrollees and how they fit in …
COACH STOOPS: I think it's very important. I think the guys that came in midyear are important. I think the guys that are coming off the year where they couldn't play is important. I think that combination, it's great to see them. Those guys just plug right in. The guys that come in midyear, that's the type of person, the type of player, the type of leadership, the type of football junky that we have in this class. They just plugged right in, going right to work.
They're going to be behind a little bit because they're not used to working out. I don't care how big and strong you are. They're not used to the level we're working out right now. Quite frankly, our players aren't used to the level we're working at right now. We're pushing harder right now than we ever have.
But I think this group has fit right in.
Q. Vince, what is your relationship with Lamar Thomas, your first interaction with him? How did that go?
VINCE MARROW: Well, I've been knowing Lamar for a long time. Played him in the league when he played in there. If I told you just where I knew him from and all that, I can't tell you that. I'll tell you what, he's going to be a great hire. He's exactly what we need. I think every coach that coach has hired has been a good addition, coming in and being good to our staff.
Q. Vince, T.J. Carter seemingly he flew somewhat under the radar. Talk a little bit about him.
COACH STOOPS: Vince wasn't in on it much, so I'll comment on him.
T.J. is a guy that's just a solid football player. Very good. What happened is we start looking at numbers, I started looking at numbers, we have to be so precise and specific, we can't over-sign in this league. So you start looking at who you're sending the papers to.
I felt like he was too good of a player, too solid of a person, too much of one of those glue development guys, he's going to be a heck of a football player we couldn't pass up on.
VINCE MARROW: When he came in on the visit, he was 6'4", 245, 250. I said, Wow, this kid is definitely underrated.
Q. Can you talk about quarterback and how Stephen Johnson fits into that?
COACH STOOPS: Big picture, like you hear me say all the time, let's go out on the field and let's prove it. They're all going to have to do it. Stephen is a guy, I can tell you this, he's a guy that's talented. He needs to physically get stronger. Right now that's probably his biggest weakness. He's an unbelievable person, leader, smart. He's serious about his business. He came here to win that job. He's going to go out there and compete for it.