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February 6, 2013Speed was important. But Kentucky also had to finish strong.
Head coach Mark Stoops only had about two months to rebuild Kentucky's 2013 recruiting class. Some of his assistants had only a few weeks with the program to help out.
Despite that, Stoops and his staff signed Kentucky's highest ranked recruiting class ever on Wednesday. UK finished the day ranked No. 28 nationally, adding 19 players to three early enrollees. Not even a 2-10 season and a coaching staff that was still under construction for much of the recruiting process could hold Kentucky back.
"A lot of people asked me about why here, and why did you jump on this opportunity, and why did you seek this opportunity?" Stoops said. "I just felt there was great potential here. I felt there was a sleeping giant here that we can do great things and we will do great things."
UK finished with three four-star players after signing a combined three in the previous three years. Safety Marcus McWilson flipped from Nebraska to Kentucky. Defensive end Jason Hatcher reneged on a commitment to USC to play for the Wildcats. Receiver Ryan Timmons spurned Florida to stay at home, saying he wanted to build something.
They'll all get their opportunity. With so little time to assemble a recruiting class, Kentucky's staff shifted its priorities. They spent little time on evaluation, honing in on players they were already familiar with.
"It was a sprint," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "There was no long-distance about it. We came in and we tried to build these relationships and convince these young men to come to Kentucky as hard and as fast as we could."
After deciding which players to prioritize, it didn't take long for the coaches to make their pitch. Stoops sold players on a plan to rebuild Kentucky, starting with fresh blood and a fresh start.
There was also previous success to sell. While Kentucky stumbled last year and recruiting lagged, its new staff was torching opponents. Stoops' defense ranked No. 2 nationally at Florida State last year, and offensive coordinator Neal Brown led Texas Tech to the No. 13 offense in the country in 2012.
"I feel like the things we have to sell, we're selling that this is new and it's a good sell, a vision where you can build the program," Brown said. "We've had a lot of success on our side of the ball, and with Coach Stoops they've had a lot of success on their side of the ball."
Those rankings mattered to recruits. Similarly, Stoops didn't downplay the importance of signing such a highly-ranked class.
"Let's not kid ourselves," he said. "You want to be higher than not be higher, right?"
Kentucky still faces a steep climb. UK's class ranked 13th in the Southeastern Conference, ahead of only Missouri. Stoops called it "daunting" to look at the competition, though the Wildcats may not be done. Stoops and Brown both said UK would continue to look to add more prospects to the class, which has room for three more players.
UK added five players on the defensive line, four on the offensive line, and signed four wide receivers. Stoops and his staff built buzz on signing day, but they also began to build a roster that fits their needs and system.
"This isn't a deal where you come in here and be a savior," Brown said. "This is the deal where you come to Kentucky, we'll build solid classes, we'll get better every year and we'll put people around you where you won't have to carry the weight of the world."
There's speed in the class, in players like Timmons and tailback JoJo Kemp. There's strength in players like defensive tackle Jacob Hyde and offensive lineman Justin Day. It took both attributes for UK's staff to build the highest-ranked recruiting class in school history.
"I said that in the first press conference when we introduced the guys at mid year, that we would go toe to toe with the best schools in the country and with the best schools in the SEC," Stoops said. "We're not going to take a backseat to anybody; we're going to recruit hard. We will win our fair share. We don't win 'em all, but we're going to work hard."