LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Mark Stoops' first Kentucky recruiting class shows he still has some pull in Florida.
Convincing two talented in-state players to stay home and help the rebuilding process also demonstrates Stoops' appeal in Kentucky.
Half of Kentucky's 22 signees announced on Wednesday are from Florida. That's a significant haul from the Sunshine State, which the former Florida State defensive coordinator promised to scour in his quest to lift Kentucky back to respectability following a 2-10 season.
Landing locals such as Louisville Trinity defensive end Jason Hatcher and Franklin County (Frankfort) wide receiver Ryan Timmons also matters to Big Blue Nation. Hatcher, 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds, backed out of his commitment to USC to sign with Kentucky; Timmons, a 5-10 wide receiver, announced he would play for the Wildcats on Tuesday.
Stoops considers the quality of this group as pretty good work, considering he replaced Joker Phillips just over two months ago.
"It was a group effort," Stoops said of whirlwind recruiting effort. "The staff, that's a big part of it. The first year it's important when you hire guys that they have some connections, so that's a big part of it, guys with relationships that they have had either with players or with coaches.
"We feel we have an awful lot to sell. I would like to thank the BBN, tremendous support. I think our recruits felt their presence, they felt the support of the fan base, so there are a lot of things that go into it. But great effort by our staff, great work ethic and they did a fantastic job."
While other Southeastern Conference schools had recruiting classes rated higher than Kentucky's, Rivals.com considers the Wildcats' group their best ever. Players such as Hatcher and Timmons were rated as four-star recruits, and Hatcher's decision to switch from USC to the Wildcats was viewed as a coup considering the program's moribund recent history and overall lower profile compared to other SEC schools.
One of Stoops' goals was changing that impression in recruiting and the effort landed the Wildcats a dozen offensive players in trying to improve one of the SEC's worst units last season. That group includes four linemen with three from Florida, but the biggest of the bunch is 6-8, 305-pound Justin Day from Aiken, S.C.
Kentucky's defensive line was also beefed up with the addition of Jacob Hyde, a 6-2, 330-pounder from Clay County High School in Manchester. That unit included two from Florida — Regie Meant of Cape Coral and Alvonte Bell of Miramar — and junior college transfer Za'Darius Smith (Greenville, Ala.), who enrolled this semester and will practice this spring.
"There are a lot of great players that come out of Florida," Stoops said of recruiting in his former state. "It's probably the way it fell because of our relationships with some of them. So I don't know if it would be the exact percentage in the future but I'm not going to put any limitations on it. There is a lot of talent down there but we're going to work extremely hard to hit everybody we can within a four, five, six hour drive from Lexington."
Stoops' philosophy was borne out in a recruiting yield that expanded beyond Kentucky and Florida.
The Wildcats signed three players from Ohio including safety Marcus McWilson from Cardinal Mooney High School in Youngstown. Initially committed to Nebraska, McWilson backed out to join Stoops, a fellow Mooney alumnus.
"I asked Marcus the whole time, 'What's it feel like to be the second best player to play at Cardinal Mooney High School?,'" Stoops joked.
Kentucky's signings of Day and Smith demonstrated Stoops' ability to reach into SEC territory, an approach that also attracted kicker Austin MacGinnis (Prattville, Ala.).
But Stoops' landing of Hatcher and Timmons was considered a significant step forward for Kentucky since many standout recruits have gone elsewhere. And it might explain why the coach couldn't contain his glee in starting his head coaching career with two "dynamic" recruits.
"He's a home run threat every time he touches the ball," Stoops said of Timmons. "He's very versatile, has a tremendous family, great person, great student, joy to be around and was very high priority for us."
Of Hatcher, the coach added, "You know the importance of recruiting the best players in the state. With Jason we signed three players from Kentucky and Jason was important in a lot of ways. ... He gives us great credibility in moving forward."