Mark Stoops has collected seven full recruiting classes since arriving in Lexington in December 2012 and since then has led the Kentucky program to some historical success on the recruiting trail. The Wildcats have reeled in multiple blue-chip prospects in every class with an average class recruiting ranking of 32.7. UK has been very consistent with six of the seven classes landing in the thirties.
It started with Za’Darius Smith in 2013, continued with Boom Williams in 2014. We saw UK land three in-state blue-chippers in 2016 (Kash Daniel, Drake Jackson, Landon Young) and score two big coups at the end of the 2017 haul by landing Lynn Bowden, Jr. and Joshua Paschal. It has continued in the last two classes where Kentucky has gone into Michigan to land Marquan McCall and made some noise in the city of Louisville by scooping up front seven prospects Jared Casey and JJ Weaver.
Kentucky has done a very good job attracting the blue-chips they can and getting them on the field to make an impact as quickly as possible. To win in the SEC, you need that to happen. However, where Kentucky’s bread is always going to be buttered is leaning heavily on development and evaluations. Kentucky must find some diamonds in the rough and to smooth out some rough edges on players who need some seasoning before they’re ready to contribute on the college level. Entering the 2019 season, UK’s starting 22 is full of players that fit these descriptions.
This fall this football program has a lot going for them, but there is also some major star power that needs to be replaced. One of the mottos around the team is “recruit and develop” and it’s clear that is not just some cheap cliche. The Wildcats have found pieces that will fill the gaps and allow them to once again make some noise in the SEC East.
Let’s start with the backfield on offense. Gone is the program’s all-time leading rusher and one of the biggest stars to play in this program. Benny Snell arrived to Lexington as a mid three-star recruit and eventually became one of the most productive backs in SEC history. Stepping in his shoes to replace him will be another back in that class of 2016.
A.J. Rose was a mid three-star recruit from Cleveland who played quarterback for his Garfield Heights High School team. Despite putting up some monster rushing numbers with a bunch of explosive plays as a dual-threat quarterback, there was not a bunch of Power Five interest. After two years of development, he became a legit RB2 for Kentucky last fall and will have a chance to be a 1,ooo yard rusher this fall.
In the spring game, Bryce Oliver came from seemingly out of nowhere to record 105 yards on eight receptions with multiple contested catches against some press coverage. The Fort Lauderdale native was a late addition to the class of 2018 and was the lowest rated of the four receivers added in that recruiting haul. Oliver had a handful of Power Five offers, but it appears UK may have found a gem in the 6-foot-1 wideout.
Oliver doesn’t have the top notch speed and separation ability you would like to have in an alpha outside receiver, but it’s clear he’s a good route runner with a solid catch radius. Outside of Lynn Bowden, Kentucky is in a desperate need for another slot option to emerge and I have a feeling that Oliver will become that guy in 2019.
At tight end, C.J. Conrad leaves some big shoes to fill after the four-star recruit became a full-time starter during true freshman season. However, low three-star prospect Justin Rigg has proven to be a very good blocker who is a reliable pass catcher. The redshirt sophomore has next level size for the position and UK is in really good shape with him seeing an increased workload. Vince Marrow is on the record stating there will be no drop off at the tight end position.
Just on offense there are plenty of three-star guys set for big roles, but it doesn’t stop there. Kentucky has done a great job with evaluations on the defensive side of the ball including a defensive line player who wasn’t even ranked by most major recruiting services.
Calvin Taylor, Jr. was a late addition to the 2015 recruiting class and was what most would consider an after thought. The Augusta, Georgia native was unranked in the 247 Sports Composite and chose Kentucky over offers from Charlotte and Temple. After some years of development in the program, he became UK’s best defensive lineman last fall.
The 6-foot-9 player has played both end and tackle for the Wildcats and is coming off a career year. The redshirt junior started nine games in 2018 and was second on the team with 9.5 run stuffs. Kentucky’s front seven will lead the way for the 2019 season and Taylor is a big reason why.
Taylor has been the most productive, but Quinton Bohanna may be the most talented player in UK’s defensive line room. The junior nose tackle was a low three-star prospect in the class of 2017 despite collecting 91 tackles and 19 sacks in his senior year of high school. He picked the Wildcats over Ole Miss and started the last five games of his true freshman season. He’s battled some injuries, but when healthy he is an excellent nose man who will be a catalyst in Brad White’s defense.
On the edge, Kentucky loses Josh Allen and his 17 sacks but they return a solid secondary piece. Boogie Watson was a low three-star or two-star prospect depending on your preferred recruiting service in the class of 2016. After redshirting, the Sam linebacker has produced seven sacks in the last two seasons with seven starts under his belt. He’ll become UK’s go-to edge rusher this season and needs just 10 sacks to break into the top-5 in program history.
In the secondary, Kentucky is replacing all four starters from last season and one guy expected to start was a bit of an afterthought in the 2017 recruiting class who picked Kentucky over Cincinnati. Cedrick Dort, Jr. is a 6-foot-1 corner who will step into the boundary corner spot filled by Lonnie Johnson and Chris Westry last season. Despite his stature, he was a really good tackler coming out of Dwyer High School in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. Kentucky is retooling the back of its defense and the coaches are hoping they’ll hit gold with another undervalued recruit.
The front seven will be getting all of the attention, but the best player entering 2019 will be safety Davonte Robinson. The Henry Clay alum was a mid three-star recruit in the class of 2016, but it hasn’t taken him long to contribute at the college level. The redshirt junior played a ton during his junior season recording 42 tackles while playing both safety and slot corner. He will be an integral part of UK’s defense and will have a great shot at All-SEC honors.
It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Robinson become an NFL Draft prospect this season. Despite his low ranking, Kentucky’s staff was able to get the 2016 prospect to commit in 2014 and totally shut down his recruitment. If he didn’t do that, there’s no doubt he would’ve became a blue-chip prospect.
Heading towards the month of July, 13 of Kentucky’s projected 22 starters were ranked a mid three-star prospect or lower. Even with the Wildcats improving their chops on the recruiting trail, this is still a developmental program and will likely stay that way as long as they’re playing college football.
If Kentucky is to continue their winning ways in 2019, the Wildcats will have a bunch of three-stars making plays.