Following the thrilling 37-30 Belk Bowl victory over Virginia Tech that gave the Cats an 8-5 record to finish an exciting season and add even more excitement to the Mark Stoops era, I started to ask myself one question: Why wouldn’t recruits, even a top-notch five-star player, want to play at UK?
Believe me, I have my biases, growing up a Kentucky fan in the heart of the Bluegrass state. But I think even rationally speaking, there are many reasons why Kentucky football is a program where a player even at the highest of levels would want to play.
Sure, teams like Alabama and Ohio State are always going to be tough to compete with for obvious reasons, but there are ways to pull a recruit from going to one of those schools, as Mark Stoops and his staff have already shown.
Here are some of the top reasons why Kentucky football should be, and arguably already is, considered a program where even the top players out of each recruiting class want to go to.
At programs like Alabama and Ohio State, they have already had years of incredibly talented players that go on to compete in the Heisman race and for national championships. Another athlete of similar talent-level that attends one of these schools can often get lost in the long list of successful people that have already played at that school.
At Kentucky, one of these athletes like Lynn Bowden Jr. or Benny Snell Jr. is instantly a player UK fans and the program will never forget since Kentucky doesn’t have nearly the same storied success as some of the other national powerhouses. They are often considered the ones that helped get Kentucky to that next level in terms of competing on a national stage.
At Alabama, running backs Josh Jacobs and Damien Harris put up crazy amounts of yards, but in the history of Alabama they are just thrown in a category with all of the other running backs that played at Alabama like Mark Ingram and Shaun Alexander.
Jacobs and Harris will be remembered as good running-backs, but not as trail-blazers that helped build a program.
Former Kentucky running-back Benny Snell Jr. epitomizes what a player can become at Kentucky right now: a legend that won’t be forgotten any time soon.
Don’t get me wrong, being a part of a long tradition at one of the premiere schools in college football is obviously a strong case and a big reason why those schools often pull the best recruits.
With that said, why wouldn’t a high-level recruit want to come to Kentucky and become a trail-blazing legend in the eyes of the fans and program?
Being a part of starting something special is often times more revered than continuing something special.
Maybe the largest example of the blue-collar culture the coaching staff and players have created at Kentucky is not just the physical running game and stout defense, but the effort put in by each position.
When Lynn Bowden Jr. made his official move to play quarterback this past season, it was clear Kentucky was committing to essentially completely going away from the passing game and just running the ball in different ways given Bowden’s skill set.
The wide receivers could have easily checked out mentally and sulked knowing they were not going to get the ball often. Instead, they did their assignment of blocking every game, which helped allow Bowden and the running-backs gain more yards each play.
That effort by the receivers is something built from the blue-collar culture that Mark Stoops and his coaching staff have built at Kentucky, which makes players motivated to have each other’s backs for the better of the team.
Being a recruit, it makes sense to want to join a culture where you build trust between teammates and a coaching staff that has proven itself in a ride of taking a program where it has never been.
Throughout his time at Kentucky, Stoops and company have consistently expressed a feeling of disrespect by the national media. In light of this, the coaching staff has impressed an idea of underdog mentality upon their teams, using that extra motivation to push them forward.
That feeling of disrespect the coaches feel Kentucky has gotten in the past has created the idea to go and prove that the program belongs on even the highest of stages.
As Kentucky has grown better and more consistent, that underdog mentality has shifted its focus from proving they can consistently get to a bowl game to striving to reach the SEC Championship game, something the program has never done.
People in general are naturally already fans of the underdog story, and recruits are starting to see how Kentucky is proving many of its doubters wrong and want to join in on the ride.
Kentucky has not just established the right culture and mentality, but the coaching staff has proven they can develop talented players to be able to play in the NFL, even the low-rated to almost no rating players that they have brought in.
Outside linebacker/defensive end Josh Allen is the most prized example of this, as Kentucky developed him from a 2-star, with only offers from UK and Monmouth, into a top-ten draft pick. In his first season in the NFL, he’s already recorded 10.5 sacks, the most by a rookie.
Arguably Stoops and company’s most-developed player is defensive lineman Calvin Taylor Jr., who came to Kentucky with no ratings and no offers. Taylor went from being off the radar to second in the SEC in sacks this past season with nine, and has played himself into a probable NFL draft pick.
Player development has proven to be a strength for Kentucky, even with the least-touted recruits. Clearly players are not just building a college football program, but becoming NFL talents as well.
When adding all of that to an administration that bought in and created top-notch facilities, it makes sense why Kentucky is recruiting at a higher level than it ever has. Couple that with its recent performances over the last two seasons, and it’s clear that everyone has bought in.
Yes, Alabama is still Alabama and Clemson is still Clemson. But Kentucky football has proven it is a legitimate program on the rise.
Take a look at the results of this past season — an 8-5 record in what was considered a bridge year while also playing a receiver at quarterback most of the way. That’s a program to be reckoned with considering how far down in the dirt it was. And it appears the recruits are seeing it as much as everyone else is.