Kentucky steadily climbing Signing Day rankingsby J.W. Miller on 12/19/19
National Signing Day, at least the early version, is college football’s answer to the NFL Draft but without Mel Kiper Jr. It’s an exciting time when the rich get richer and the majority of programs that operate in the red begin to plot how this year’s sterling class will help them qualify someday for the Bad Boy Mowers Bowl or the Cheez-It Bowl. Hey, I’d set my sights on the Tropical Smoothie Café Bowl since naming sponsors typically spread their products around to players, coaches and administrators.
Deservedly so, most attention still goes to football blue-bloods like LSU, Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson and Georgia, which typically fill their classes with five- and four-star players as judged by scouting services. Those five teams are again at the top of the heap this week, but a bit further down the list is another team that deserves some modest attention. Ranked with the 19th best class this season on Rivals.com is none other than my Kentucky Wildcats. (No, Uncle Phil, I don’t write about Kentucky every week, and I know their class is ranked 8th in the SEC, but hear me out!)
Coach Mark Stoops has his program on the rise. This signing class includes a five-star defensive lineman in Justin Rogers of Oak Park, Michigan, and a five-star offensive tackle in John Young of Louisville Christian Academy. Sprinkle in a double-handful of other four-star players, mostly offensive and defensive linemen, and the Wildcats have bolstered critical positions with SEC-worthy players. As I write this, I see a news flash that Kentucky has just signed four-star corner Joel Williams of Baton Rouge Madison Prep Academy. On November 20, Williams listed a final six of LSU, Alabama, Georgia, Florida and Kentucky, but he chose the Wildcats. That was similar to the other players Kentucky signed whose favorites also included Ohio State, Michigan, Auburn and Penn State in addition to the aforementioned schools. That cements the point that Kentucky is now competing with the nation’s best and is actually winning some of those battles. And not even counting in the signing day haul are transfers such as QB Joey Gatewood (Auburn) and corner Kelvin Joseph (LSU).
How these players develop will be the key, and Stoops and his staff have a track record in that department. Josh Allen, last year’s winner of both the Chuck Bednarik and Bronco Nagurski awards as the best defensive player in the nation, was a two-star recruit out of Montclair, New Jersey. Stoops and his staff developed Allen into the seventh player drafted who currently leads all NFL rookies with 10 sacks for the Jaguars. Last year, Allen and a veteran secondary led a defense ranked among the top 20 as the Wildcats compiled a 10-3 record that included a Citrus Bowl win over Penn State. Career rushing leader Benny Snell was drafted in the fourth round by Pittsburgh and has seen considerable action this season while the entire secondary is in the NFL – Derrick Baity (HOU), Mike Edwards (TB), Lonnie Johnson (HOU) and Derrick Westry (DAL).
The loss of those players compelled many prognosticators to dismiss the Wildcats this season, predicting a record of 5-7. It was hard to disagree with a rebuilt secondary, questionable pass rush and after QB Terry Wilson went down with a knee injury in Game 2. But Stoops and offensive coordinator Eddie Gran converted star wide receiver Lynn Bowden Jr. to an option quarterback whose run-first offense chewed up yardage and time of possession. Considering all the above, UK's 7-5 record was acceptable and only two plays away from 9-3 after come-from-ahead losses to Florida and Tennessee. The young defense again ranked in the NCAA’s top 20, and almost every starter returns. QB Wilson will be back to lead an offense that features shifty running backs and a veteran offensive line anchored by All-SEC center Drake Jackson.
Kentucky players were again recognized nationally with winners of two national awards this season. Bowden won the Paul Hornung Award as the most versatile player in the nation while punter Max Duffy won the Ray Guy Award as the best at his position. Both Bowden and Duffy were named AP first-team All America. Bowden won’t be back, having declared that Kentucky’s bowl meeting with Virginia Tech on New Year’s Eve will be his last game as a Wildcat before he enters the 2020 NFL Draft. If Who Dats want another weapon who would add a Randall Cobb presence to the Saints’ wide-open offense, Bowden is your man.
So, yes, I’m proud of what Mark Stoops has done to build a respectable program at Kentucky. Is it there yet? Absolutely not, but it’s headed in the right direction. In fact, how about a daring prediction? In the next three years, Kentucky will win the SEC East and play for the conference championship. And remember, you heard it here first!