Kentucky -- yes, Kentucky! -- an SEC presence in recruiting

Four-star DT Matt Elam chooses Kentucky over Alabama. (247Sports)
Four-star DT Matt Elam chooses Kentucky over Alabama. (247Sports)

More recruiting: 247Sports 2014 Class Rankings | Signing Day recap

The top 25 recruiting rankings are laced with traditional power programs and ascending teams coming off good seasons.

And Kentucky.

Yes, one thing is not like the other 24.

Kentucky is coming off back-to-back 2-10 seasons and hadn’t finished better than 12th in SEC recruiting since 2006. When you think of elite Kentucky recruiting, you probably think of Tim Couch and … Tim Couch.

But coach Mark Stoops got after it this week with the 22nd-ranked class overall, good enough for 10th in the SEC -- easily the program's best class since internet rankings existed, according to spokesman Tony Neely.

Bookended with quarterback Drew Barker and defensive tackle Matt Elam committing eight months apart, Kentucky did just enough to upgrade the product without engendering arbitrary rule-breaking skepticism with a litany of top-10 players late in the process.

Eve Nick Saban, the recruiting king for a fourth straight year, was the runner-up for Elam, a 6-foot-5, 372-pound behemoth.

“We’re definitely not afraid to compete with anybody in the country,” Stoops said Tuesday.

In a recruiting cycle that many coaches say featured rampant player poaching, Kentucky would have been a logical poaching victim. But the Wildcats locked up much of its class a year ago and didn’t lose traction. About sixteen of its 28 players committed before the end of last summer, Stoops said.

Kentucky was sort of like this year’s Ole Miss, only without the splashy Signing Day commitments.

Stoops, who helped FSU build its championship roster while the Seminoles’ defensive coordinator from 2010-12, gleaned from his past experiences in his new job.

He emulated Jimbo Fisher’s organizational skills, developing strong relationships in targeted area, getting players on campus during the summer and holding a killer Junior Day.

Then he recognized the Stoops name carries weight in southern Ohio. Brothers Bob, Mike and Mark grew up in Youngstown. Rob Stoops, Mark’s father, was a long-time local high school coach. Stoops can go to high schools with some clout. UK signed 11 players from Ohio, more than Ohio State (nine).

The signing of the four-star Barker, a 6-foot-3 pro-style quarterback who shunned South Carolina to join the Wildcats, stabilized the class over the summer, Stoops said.

If Stoops has his way, this class will not be an aberration. Apparently the fans are ready for that.

“We knew there’s great basketball tradition here but there’s also great support for football,” Stoops said. “That’s been very evident since we’ve been here. That’s up to us to put on quality product on the field.”

Stoops’ approach to recruiting is clear-cut, he says: He wants to bat a high percentage on players he brings to his campus. This year’s average was “very good,” he said.

Outside of that, Stoops says, don’t micromanage the process and you'll get the players you're supposed to.

That’s why he doesn’t care much if his SEC peers are surprised by UK’s recent flight.

“I don’t know if I’ve surprised anybody,” Stoops said. “I’m not too worried about that to be honest.”

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