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UK Football Signs Best Class Ever

This story appears courtesy of KY Forward and is written by James Pennington. KY Forward's coverage of UK Athletics is sponsored by Republic Bank.

It felt real when Matt Elam committed to Kentucky last week, the five-star defensive tackle from Elizabethtown who chose to build something with Mark Stoops and the Wildcats instead of fall in to the destruction assembly line at Alabama. That’s the day the public knew Stoops’ promise to take Kentucky’s program to new heights (and weights, as it were) in recruiting was going to come true, and six days later, it did come true.

Elam was one of 21 high schoolers to send in his letter of intent to play football for Kentucky on National Signing Day on Wednesday. Add those 21 to the seven who enrolled early in January, and Stoops’ 28-man class might be the best in school history. Scout.com ranked the class No. 19 in its rankings;ESPN.com had Kentucky one spot lower at No. 20; and 247sports.com had the Wildcats’ class as 23rd best in the country.

Among the class’ top gets were two top in-state talents, Elam and quarterback Drew Barker, from Burlington in northern Kentucky. Barker enrolled in January and thus may participate in spring practice, and both Stoops and offensive coodinator Neal Brown confirmed Wednesday that he’ll have a fair shot at the starting quarterback job, especially considering that Stoops announced Maxwell Smith will likely miss spring practice recovering from surgery.

“Well, he’s got the intangibles first of all,” Brown said of Barker. “I think he’s got tremendous leadership skills, great character. He loves the game of football, studies. The tangible skills that he has: he gets the ball out of his hands fast, physically he’s ready. He’s about 215 pounds right now. I think we’ve got to keep in mind he’s 18 years old. He’s still technically in his last year of high school, or should be anyway. So I think we’ve got to keep our expectations in check, but he has those abilities that will give him the opportunity to come in and compete. He’s going to be thrown into the fire this spring.”

Perhaps more important than Barker’s potential on the field is the role he already played in making Wednesday happen. He committed to play for Kentucky early in the process, choosing the Wildcats over South Carolina. He then became an active recruiter for the program, forming relationships with Kentucky targets and serving as a de facto ambassador for the program, even if he was still technically an outsider himself. Barker’s enthusiasm for the situation into which he was about to step seemed contagious, and indeed it was. Stoops said Barker’s zeal for reviving his home state’s flagship football team was clear in the way he talked and the way he acted, and because of that, it rubbed off on Kentucky commitments in the class as they rolled in.

The class bonded tight, and of the 29 that verbally committed at any point to sign for Kentucky by the time National Signing Day rolled around, only one de-committed (Derrick Kelly, a four-star offensive tackle who signed at Florida State on Wednesday). Of Kentucky’s 28 signees, 11 came from Ohio, a frontier the Wildcats traditionally have not conquered in recruiting.

Without rehashing the significance of Wednesday’s Signing Day performance—that was done last week when Elam committed to all but complete the picture—Stoops, Brown, defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot and recruiting coordinator Vince Marrow wasted no breath describing how the class came together; how Brown was stranded in a car for seven hours and slept on a table at a school after walking a mile in the snow and secured a commitment out of it; how Marrow beat running back signee Mikel Horton at Monopoly during an in-home visit; how Kentucky plans to build on this class in 2015; and plenty of other topics. Full interview transcripts for each coach are linked below.

Mark Stoops, head coach: “With recruiting, I thought this was going to lay the foundation to turn this program, and it was a very critical year, and I felt like we really had to hit the pavement and recruit extremely hard. Could not be more proud of this staff and the way they went about their business. It was a complete team effort. These guys are very unselfish. They work extremely hard. The reason—one of the reasons why we had this success is because people come in and get to know us and know this staff, and these guys put in the time. It’s not work to them. It’s building relationships.”

Neal Brown, offensive coordinator: “We were right in the middle of the storm last Tuesday and basically we were in a car for seven hours, Coach Schlarman and I were, in which we shared about all the information we could after seven hours in a car.”

D.J. Eliot, defensive coordinator: “What a great day for Kentucky and our program. There’s a lot of people that helped us get where we were today, and I want to thank the administration for all they did. I also want to thank the wives. Not just Neal thanked the wives. Can you guys put that in print? That I also thanked the wives today?”

Vince Marrow, recruiting coordinator/tight ends coach: “When I was at Nebraska and we took this job, having four or five high-quality guys go to Nebraska, which was like 14 hours away—I felt when Coach Stoops got this job here, the first thing he said to me was, ‘Hey, we can recruit Ohio pretty hard.’ So, like I said, with our reputation there, I felt pretty good about it.”

Check out bios for all 28 signees at The Beat.

Photo: Mark Stoops/by James Pennington