Kentucky football coach Joker Phillips won't make his official debut on the sidelines until September, but Phillips figures he's already 1-0 after the Wildcats inked 25 players on National Signing Day.
"When introduced as head coach, we talked about how important recruiting would be in the next month that we have," Phillips said. "I also introduced Operation Win. The first phase is recruiting, and we just finished up a strong 2010 class."
Phillips is already fulfilling one promise: making sure the top players in Kentucky stay close to home. The Wildcats, who are coming off a fourth straight bowl appearance, landed the state's top two prospects in linebacker Tim Patterson and running back Miles Simpson.
Patterson, first-team all-state as a senior at Central in Louisville, chose Kentucky over the hometown Cardinals while Simpson — who ran for 2,277 yards as a senior at Simon Kenton — turned down offers from Indiana and Illinois.
"We always talk about how the heart and soul of our program has to be in the state of Kentucky," Phillips said.
Patterson — like a handful of late Kentucky commitments — made Phillips sweat for it.
"He didn't give us any indication until this morning that he was coming to Kentucky," Phillips said. "His teacher called me and said 'I am sure you already know.' But no, I did not know."
Simpson isn't the only dynamic running back Phillips landed. Kentucky also signed Brandon Gainer from Miami, Fla., whose sturdy 5-foot-11, 200-pound frame will be an asset while playing in the rugged Southeastern Conference.
"We haven't had success in getting big backs, but we think he is a big, physical back that can hold up in this league for 12 or 13 games," Phillips said.
Phillips mined the South for what he called one of the deepest classes he's seen since arriving at Kentucky as an assistant in 2003. The Wildcats landed seven players from Georgia and five from South Carolina.
"We feel like we fulfilled not only the things we were looking for, but we added size, speed, and athleticism," Phillips said. "This is what, when we first came here in 2003 we wanted to build on, is size, speed and athleticism. I feel that we have added to the overall team speed and size."
New Louisville coach Charlie Strong went even farther south than Phillips. The former Florida defensive coordinator mined familiar territory to lure seven players from the Sunshine State to Louisville.
"We had four coaches who have worked in the state of Florida, which is why we were able to go back to the state," Strong said. "We knew players there, had recruited them and knew some schools they were considering were not going to be able to take them."
The Cardinals signed 20 players in all, focusing on building depth on both the offensive and defensive lines — a problem during last year's 4-8 season under former coach Steve Kragthorpe. Including transfers Randy Salmon and Tyler Harrell the Cardinals added seven linemen in all.
Strong allows it may take some time for the linemen to have an immediate impact. He's hoping for earlier contributions from some of his skill players.
Strong said wide receivers Michaelee Harris and Josh Bellamy could both see significant playing time next year considering the Cardinals currently only have a handful of receivers on the roster.
Other top signees for Louisville include quarterbacks Marcus Smith from Columbus, Ga., and Dominique Brown from Cincinnati. Strong feels both players could do well in the spread offense run by offensive coordinator Mike Sanford.
Strong said he'd give himself a "B'' for his recruiting efforts, but doesn't put a lot of stock into where national recruiting services rank the Cardinals. He knows his job is to win games, and if the Cardinals can do that, he knows he won't have to worry about what other people say about his players.
"You have to have success on the football field and players will notice you across the country," he said.
Strong pointed to Louisville's surge in the middle of the last decade as proof that the Cardinals can quickly rise back to prominence.
"What you can't be afraid of is to go recruit against Florida, go recruit against LSU," Strong said.
New Western Kentucky coach Willie Taggart isn't quite ready for the Hilltoppers to do that just yet, but he focused his first recruiting class on trying to build the team's talent base. WKU is coming off an 0-12 mark during its first year as a full-fledged member of the Sun Belt Conference.
The Hilltoppers signed 16 players on Wednesday, including five three-star prospects as rated by Rivals.com.
"We are a lot better today than we were yesterday," Taggart said. "Each of these guys we signed today will immediately make us more competitive."
Among the standouts are quarterback Brandon Doughty from Davie, Fla., and safety Xavius Boyd from St. Petersburg, Fla.