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January 13, 2013

Kentucky keeps pace with Louisville

MORE: Stoops sets sights on SEC title

Dallas Jackson is the National Columnist for Rivals.com. Email him your comments or story ideas to DallasJ@Yahoo-Inc.com and follow him on Twitter.

With the combination of its victory over Florida in the Sugar Bowl, a move to the ACC from the Big East and the major coup in retaining head coach Charlie Strong, one would figure that Louisville is making a major run in recruiting, leaving rival Kentucky in the rearview mirror.

Except it isn't.

Kentucky replaced Joker Phillips after a winless season in the SEC with coach Mark Stoops in early December, and since that time Stoops has helped land five commitments and push the Wildcats to the No. 49 class in the Rivals.com team rankings -- ahead of No. 57 Louisville.

Stoops is one of the coaches hired during the latest spin of the annual college football coaching carousel who is being thrown into the heat of a burgeoning recruiting battle -- one in which he will square off with Strong and the red-hot Redbirds from Louisville.

"We have to go out and recruit," Stoops said upon getting hired. "You have to recruit each and every day, each and every year, to keep on building your program."

The program is hosting one of the top official visit weekends of any school in the opening week of the calendar year.

The focus on bringing in talent, Stoops told Rivals.com, is not accidental. Attracting higher-level prospects is the only way to elevate the program to relevancy.

He will compete for players in his backyard, but with ties to Florida -- and a plan to go into Ohio -- the expansion of Big Blue Nation appears to be moving forward.

The battle against Louisville is one that Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell expects to heat up in a hurry.

"Neither Louisville nor Kentucky is really in a great spot with limited in-state talent, so both schools have to look elsewhere," Farrell said, "Usually when that happens, each head coach or coaching staff has some footprint elsewhere, but in this case they are both well known in Florida and the two will fight for kids at some point. That is for sure.

"Strong has a leg up with what he has been able to do and has set the bar high in South Florida. These teams aren't going to be battling down to the final two for many of the elite players, but you can bet that there will be a lot of three-star guys getting mined out by both teams."

Kentucky has five commitments from the state of Florida. Its two most recent pledges were Jaleel Hytchye of Cincinnati (Ohio) La Salle and Kyle Meadows from West Chester (Ohio) Lakota West.

Louisville has six Floridians on its list of 13 commitments. It recently secured a commitment from the top-ranked player in its state, Louisville (Ky.) Trinity receiver James Quick.

Rivals.com regional analyst Josh Helmholdt said both schools have done well but that Kentucky could be in a position to make a move.

"What I think Stoops is doing now in doubling down in Ohio is smart and should help Kentucky," he said. "It is a state that is annually fourth, fifth or sixth in talent, and it is less than two hours from campus. The Wildcats have had very little presence there in the past, but he has come right in and done immediate work in establishing the program.

"Louisville has a lot of momentum right now and a lot of buzz, deservedly so, but I think Stoops can have Kentucky on the right track."

The emphasis that Stoops has put on recruiting was exactly what Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhardt expected when he made the hire.

"Our desire to get better defensively and continue to expand our recruiting base helped guide us to Mark," he said in a press release.

Within weeks of his appointment, Stoops landed four-star defensive tackle Za'Darius Smith from Scooba (Miss.) East Mississippi Community College and closed on three-star defensive back Hytchye. They are two of the top four prospects in the class.

According to Helmholdt, the next step will be for Stoops to try to reposition the Wildcats as the top program in the state.

"Recruiting has really rotated between the two, so I don't know if either can be the truly dominant school," he said. "Obviously that is the goal, and the next couple of classes could be really strong in the state and the talent is pretty well spaced between both schools.

"If Stoops is able to win some games on the field and show that he is transforming the program, I think there is a reason to believe Kentucky can overtake Louisville."

The impact of all 27 coaching changes will not be fully measured for some time, but here are four additional new hires who are creating an immediate interest at the national level.

NEW HEAD COACHES INVOLVED IN RECRUITING BATTLES
Situation: Alabama is again challenging for a national recruiting title with the No. 4 class, and Georgia is not far behind with a No. 9 ranking. Auburn has seen its class crumble following its disappointing season and has settled at No. 14 as the final weeks approach.

Buzz: The change from Gene Chizik to Gus Malzahn was not met with much surprise as Tigers faithful were not happy with the results without Cam Newton. The expectation level will never change at Auburn, and that is to compete for a national title in recruiting and on the field. Malzahn has been a part of the best of times on the Plains, so he knows what he is getting into with this promotion from Arkansas State.

Quotable: "It is a good hire for Auburn from an offensive recruiting standpoint. Malzahn can flash that championship ring, and everyone knows that it was his guidance of Cam Newton that put them in that place and kids will want to come. I think that at this point it is impossible to think anyone is going to come in and keep pace with Nick Saban and the staff at Alabama, and even when Auburn had all of those five-stars it still wasn't the top-to-bottom class that the Crimson Tide had but it was competitive and very respectable. The proximity to Georgia will always make Auburn competitive against Georgia. The addition of Dameyune Craig from Florida State should help in recruiting, especially in Alabama." -- Kynon Codrington, Rivals.com Southeast Regional analyst.

Situation: USC is the No. 7 class in the Rivals.com team rankings but had been the top-ranked class in the nation as recently as late December. It has been a competitor for national recruiting titles each of the last 10 years. Washington and UCLA are making major strides up the national rankings. They are the No. 11 and No. 12 classes, respectively, and have had better seasons on the field than Cal. Stanford is the No. 60 class in the country, but it is small and averaging 3.4 stars per player. Cal is the No. 26 class in the country with 22 members and a 3.09 star-per-player ranking.

Buzz: The stale message being delivered by Jeff Tedford combined with the lack of momentum in recruiting likely produced from losing Tosh Lupoi signaled the end of a very good era in Golden Bears football. Replacing Tedford will be high-octane Sonny Dykes from Louisiana Tech, and Cal hopes a rejuvenated effort in recruiting is to follow. The expectation at Cal has been mixed but growing as the fan base was content with Tedford but unhappy once Stanford started becoming the top program in Northern California. The change was needed, even if it was abrupt.

Quotable: "It is hard to imagine a situation in which Cal is not going to struggle against USC, even with the sanctions and the horrible season, so that is a first point. The reemergence of UCLA is going to make Cal a nonfactor in Los Angeles because kids there want to stay home, which is a second strike. Washington isn't in the state, but it is really doing a lot of work in California and Northern California. Stanford runs a completely different offense, but it just won the Rose Bowl, it produces NFL players regularly and has equal or better academics. There are a lot of things stacked against Cal right now, so Dykes has to come in and sell his offense and sell the points they are going to score. His history is what will make the first couple of classes, but it is not a great entry point right now." -- Adam Gorney, Rivals.com West Coast analyst.

Situation: Being a year ahead of the excitement curve has helped North Carolina race to a major lead in recruiting when compared to other in-state teams. The Tar Heels are the No. 21 class. Larry Fedora capitalized on his season at Southern Miss by coming into North Carolina and recruiting hard and showing what he can do on the field. The surprise of the state is still Wake Forest. It is the No. 50 class in the nation after seemingly peaking three years ago with its Orange Bowl appearance. Duke and N.C. State are tied as the No. 62 class, but Duke has three more commitments, meaning that the Wolfpack class has a higher star-per-player average.

Buzz: Dave Doeren takes over in a situation similar to that of Dykes at Cal, where the circumstances dictated change more than anything else. Former coach Tom O'Brien was not the hire of the current athletic director, and his passion on the recruiting trail was not up to the expected standards because of a preference to recruit players to his system more than the talent that was there for the taking. An exciting offensive transformation is what most fans are hoping for, and if those promises are delivered, a boost in recruiting could follow.

Quotable: "O'Brien was too close to Duke and Wake in recruiting to keep his job. He was getting guys that he liked instead of the explosive playmakers who can be built around. His eye for unpolished talent and ability to coach a player up were not valued in the same way they weren't valued at Boston College. There is a new situation with Doeren, and the hope is that this offense will make kids want to go to N.C. State. The best-case scenario would be for N.C. State to become a Clemson Jr. and hit a few home runs with players like Sammy Watkins and Tajh Boyd to spur excitement within and around the program. There are people in the triangle who grew up N.C. State fans who have gone elsewhere because of the style of play at State, and this hire could change that." -- Woody Wommack, Rivals.com Southeast analyst.

Situation: For the first time in forever, Vanderbilt is outrecruiting Tennessee. It also took the game on the field this year, adding more to the Commodores fire. There is a major buzz around the Nashville-based program, and it has to stick in the craw of longtime Vols fans. The fact that Tennessee has the No. 27 recruiting class in the country would cushion the fall for many fan bases until they are told that No. 27 in the nation is good for No. 11 in the conference. Vanderbilt has the No. 15 class in the country and a lot of momentum.

Buzz: There was not much rejoicing on Rocky Top when Butch Jones was named the successor to Derek Dooley. While the recruiting has picked up, it hasn't exploded in the way many fans wanted. The team has sealed the deal on five players since the transition, but none has been higher than a three-star prospect. The most encouraging commitment has been the flip of Kingsport (Tenn.) Dobyn Bennett athlete Malik Foreman. The 5-foot-10 prospect with a 4.4 in the 40 was essentially discovered by the Vanderbilt staff but flipped to the Vols. The hiring of Tommy Thigpen, Jon Jancek and Willie Martinez off of other SEC staffs has helped quell the crowd, but closing strong would be a great step in winning over the doubters.

Quotable: "Jones has to sell a vision to these prospects. There is a growing group that simply does not believe in Tennessee football as a viable option anymore, and that has to change for him to regain what once was. Six years ago this was one of the top teams and the top staffs in the nation, but it has been a quick fall from grace. Now Jones has to take baby steps to show a long-term plan of sustainable success. If he wants to start getting into Florida, Georgia, Alabama or national recruiting, there cannot be losing seasons. Jones has to know that. He has to know that bowl games, SEC East contention, SEC East titles and SEC championships have to be mile markers in putting this program back where it was." -- Mike Farrell, Rivals.com National analyst.



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