Florida receiver Shocky Jacques-Louis de-committed from Kentucky. Ohio defensive tackle Tyler Brentley pledged his loyalty to the Wildcats. This all happened within a short period of time. Following summer football recruiting can be a tiring proposition. Commitments, de-commitments, camps here-combines there are all challenging to track and even more confusing to interpret. Terms like “committable offer” also pop into the equation which makes even less sense.
Four improbable Wildcats committed to Mark Stoops late in the process and were described by some as being “reaches”. Reach is a word that’s used to describe prospects that don’t rate high in the eyes of recruiting services and are questionable to contribute quality minutes while in college. In this post you’ll read that these four “reaches” substantially contributed to the success of the 2016 season. How much you ask? Keep reading.
Imagine if these Wildcats hadn’t signed. Oh boy, things may have turned out differently a year ago. It’s important to remember that National Signing Day was held on the first Wednesday in February for the context of this post.
Let’s take a look:
Josh Allen, Outside Linebacker
Committed on January 31st, 2015; three days prior to National Signing Day (NSD).
Chose UK over Monmouth and Buffalo.
2015: Allen played in all 12 games as a true freshman after being forced into action following the Jason Hatcher fiasco. Finished the season with four tackles including 1.5 tackles for loss and .5 QB sack. A redshirt would have been ideal.
2016: Played in all 13 games, starting nine. Ended the season as Kentucky’s 7th leading tackler with 62 total. Led the team and SEC with four forced fumbles. Finished 12th in the SEC with 7 QB sacks, also good enough for tops on the team. -2017 Outlook
Rated as one of the SEC’s top outside linebackers. Projected starter and is on NFL Draft watch lists. A 2-star prospect at the time of his Kentucky commitment; Josh Allen has evolved into an upper-level producer for Mark Stoops. His best football lies ahead.
Stephen Johnson, Quarterback
Committed on January 16th, 2016; 18 days prior to NSD.
Chose UK over Hawaii and Arkansas State
Entered fall camp as the No. 2 quarterback behind starter Drew Barker. Led the Cats to seven wins in its last eleven games of 2016. Holds a 5-4 record as a starter but entered the game early in relief duty in wins over New Mexico State and Austin Peay.
Completed 145 of 265 passes (54.7%) for 2,037 yards and 13 touchdowns. He also rushed for 327 yards and 3 touchdowns. Johnson was named SEC Player of the Week by Gridiron Now and the Manning Award Start of the Week for his 16-27, 338 yard, 3 TD, and 83 rush-yards performance in the Cats win over Louisville. He was also selected as the Taxslayer Most Valuable Player after completing 19 passes for 175 yards and 2 touchdowns. Johnson did not throw a 4th quarter interception in 2016.
Stephen Johnson was a program lifesaver. Wasn’t always the prettiest quarterback in the league, but the California native simply won games. At times, UK quarterbacks in the Stoops era appeared to become rattled in the face of adversity. Not the unflappable Stephen Johnson. He made mistakes, sure. But the positives greatly outweighed the negatives.
Nobody could have guessed that he would eventually lead the team to a New Year’s bowl after being thrown into the early fire following Barker’s injury. I think most agree that Johnson has much to improve upon. But; his composure, leadership, and tendency to play his best in big games were essential to Kentucky’s 7-6 season.
Coaches insist a quarterback competition will ensue but Johnson is considered to be the team’s starting quarterback and team leader going into fall camp.
TJ Carter, Defensive End
Committed on January 29th, 2016; three days prior to NSD.
Chose UK over Memphis, Samford, and Wyoming
2016: Not a lot of folks jumped up and down following the Georgia native’s commitment. One that did was former UK great Jeremy Jarmon. Jarmon took one look at his film and proclaimed that “this kid will be a starter.”
The former 2-star prospect earned playing time as a true freshman. Carter registered 11 total tackles, .5 tackle for loss, and 1 pass breakup in his rookie year. He earned PFF (Pro Football Focus) top grade for all defensive Wildcats in the Taxslayer Bowl.
Projected as the starting defensive end following the news of Alvonte Bell’s dismissal. His January 29th commitment now has major win/loss ramifications and Stoops and company appear ingenious in hindsight. Extremely high ceiling.
Naquez Pringle, Nose Tackle
Committed on January 17th, 2016; seventeen days prior to NSD.
Chose UK over Appalachian State and Central Florida
Given the direness of the nose tackle position, an argument could be made that Naquez Pringle was the most essential Class of 2016 signee. Pringle came on to the scene with very little fanfare but quickly earned respect by inserting himself into the lineup and becoming a key component of the Wildcat defensive line. While the BBN awaited Matt Elam’s emergence as a reliable starter, it was Pringle that went on to lead the defensive line in tackles.
2016: Started five games after recording his first start against Vanderbilt. Did not play vs. Southern Miss, registered 5 tackles and a TFL in game two against Florida. Finished last season as the team’s top interior defensive line tackler with 39 total tackles, 2 TFL, 1 QB sack.
Projected to start at nose tackle. Transformed his body into a more durable down-lineman. Was in my opinion the most improved player on the team from spring to fall. Diligent worker, Pringle’s best football lies ahead.
What does all this mean?
Kentucky would not have enjoyed a winning season in 2016 if not for the four late, unheralded pickups listed above. Plain and simple. Think about it; this group includes the team’s highest offensive stat producer, most QB sacks and forced fumbles, top defensive line tackler, and the future at defensive end.
Football recruiting is a strange business. Yes, I said business. The premise of this post is based on the significance of four prospects that were late additions that chose Kentucky over the likes of Appalachian State, Samford, Buffalo, Arkansas State, and Monmouth. Efficient roster management requires all types of players: From 4-stars to 2, early and late commitments, JUCO and high school prospects alike.
Full disclosure; I tried my best to watch last weekend’s recruiting showcase camp at Kroger Field. I lasted all of three minutes. I understand their importance but I can’t imagine having to watch those type events on a regular basis throughout the duration of the summer.
I know; I’m old and suffer from a severe case of old-schoolitis. The game has passed me by. Fill in the blank with any other reaction that will likely be made here. But, call me when the pads start popping for accurate evaluations. The truth of the matter is that we really don’t know which players will decide the fate of a season until they get onto campus. Very few if any predicted that the foursome comprised of Josh Allen, Stephen Johnson, Naquez Pringle, and TJ Carter would quickly become fundamental members of a bowl team that is currently trending upward in the SEC East.