The early signing period is up and running with Kentucky getting most of their class signed on this cold December day in the Bluegrass State. The Wildcats closed with a flurry by getting letters of intent from numerous top-500 recruits to help collect the best recruiting class in program history. There was plenty of flash with a bunch of skill players involved, but at its root this will be a group remembered for what they assembled in the trenches. As Eddie Gran always tells the media, “it starts with the guys upfront”.
Most four or five-star offensive/defensive line commits from the 2020 class…
Texas A&M: 6
Ohio State: 4
— Justin Rowland (@RowlandRIVALS) December 17, 2019
Entering Wednesday, seven of UK’s 18 pledges were line of scrimmage players and five of them were top-500 recruits by the 247 Sports Composite. That goes up with anyone in the country not named Clemson in the class of 2020. Today the class added North Hardin product Octavious Oxendine and consensus four-star Josaih Hayes to give Kentucky a big boy defensive line class.
On the other side of the football, Kentucky’s Big Blue Wall just led the way for a program record 3,293 rushing yards with the most one-dimensional Power Five offense in college football. Recruits have taken notice and they’re ready to join the party. We saw UK add five offensive line players to join John Schlarman’s position room next year and each fit the mold of what UK looks for in the position. The Wildcats want length and mass to go with physicality in the run game to move the big, bad defensive fronts they see nearly every week in the SEC. Some of the projected tackles will eventually be moved to guard, but it is clear that this is a positional unit that is very important to the staff.
Now, just what does all of this mean?
Everyone ever involved with the Southeastern Conference will quickly tell you that it is a line of scrimmage league. Every team you face has good skill talent, but what allows you to win on Saturdays is difference makers at the point of attack. Mark Stoops learned this quickly after taking over in 2013.
Following the debut 2-10 season, the man who had specifically ran a 4-3 scheme the majority of his coaching career decided that UK must switch to the 3-4 to get more size and athleticism on the field. On the offensive side of the ball, Stoops felt almost immediately that the Air Raid offenses that torched the Big XII starting Mike Leach in 1999 weren’t really going to work for him against his yearly schedule. Kentucky was going to need to run the ball to win football games and to do that they were going to need physicality, toughness and size on the line.
At first, it was pretty difficult to recruit that because every school in college football covets those skills Kentucky was looking for. Specifically on the defensive line. Therefore, we saw UK have some bigger immediate returns on the offensive line.
George Asafo-Adjei was a high three-star and top-500 recruit in the class of 2015 who would become the first offensive lineman of the Mark Stoops era to play as a true freshman. Landon Young became the highest recruit landed the next year and he would be joined by fellow blue-chipper Drake Jackson. Darian Kinnard would be the next blue-chip prospect in the class of 2018 and that gave John Schlarman a foundation for the offensive line. Add in developing three-star prospects Jon Toth, Bunchy Stallings, Logan Stenberg into All-SEC players and that is how Kentucky has built one of the best offensive lines in the country.
The defensive line had to do it a different way.
Due to the drastic state of the personnel, UK’s staff was forced to taking a total of seven junior college defensive lineman in their first five classes with both the 2013 and 2015 haul bringing in two apiece. Outside of Za’Darius Smtih, there was not blue-chip recruit among the bunch and only C.J. Johnson gave them some high level play after Smith left. Add that in with some significant recruiting misses and Kentucky consistently found themselves having one of the worst defensive lines yearly in the SEC. That all changed when Derrick LeBlanc arrived.
The North Texas defensive line coach came to Lexington prior to the 2017 season following Jimmy Brumbaugh’s departure to Maryland and immediately developed the defensive line. He turned low three-star Quinton Bohanna into a true freshman starter at nose and enhanced the development projects of T.J. Carter and Calvin Taylor Jr. We’ve seen the group develop each season and they turned into a legit SEC defensive line the last two seasons.
After years of struggle, Kentucky is staying out of the defensive line junior college market for the second recruiting cycle in a row and this time they are brining in a ton of big time recruits. Still on the roster are long-term development projects such as Abule Abadi-Fitzgerald and Jerquavion Mahone, but now they are teamed up with some very highly sought after recruits. It was Cavon Butler and Isaiah Gibson last year before the monster haul of Samuel Anaele, Octavious Oxendine, Josaih Hayes, Justin Rogers and Tre’vonn Rybka. A long drawn out plan is starting to come to fruition for Mark Stoops.
It’s been a long road to get there, but we are finally seeing a well executed plan payout on the recruiting trail. Kentucky finally achieved that breakthrough season in 2018 and they’re using all of that momentum to close strong with a historic 2020 class. Instead of going after some more flash with this opportunity, they decided to go all in on the trenches. That is where you win games in the Southeastern Conference and the 31 victories collected by this program since 2016 are proof of that.
After succeeding with a whole lot of development, what can this staff do with recruits who enter campus with higher floor to start and potentially bigger ceiling down the road?