History says answer to UK football woes is in hands of future Wildcats

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It has happened before, and it seems to be happening again. The Kentucky football program is about to crater. After a run of bowl appearances, it is sinking back to an irrelevance all too familiar to the Big Blue Nation. Lack of players? Poor coaching? Weak facilities? Pick your favorite source of blame.

Regardless, the question, as always, is: How do they turn this around? The answer lies ahead, but the chief clue is in the rear-view mirror.

Clever coaching and recruiting rooms are grand, but minus talent, no Southeastern Conference program will be able to sustain any kind of consistent quality. So, yes, it comes back to recruiting. But the media and fans who follow UK need to realize that the best time to evaluate a class is NOT on the day it signs; rather, on the day it leaves.

It is cause for celebration in the Nation if the Cats sign a five-star football prospect. At Alabama, Florida, LSU – its’ routine. But as it turns out, Kentucky has had more five-star players than anybody thought.

“Nobody,” Wildcat fans said back in 2002, “will want to play here” after the NCAA drilled their favorite program with sanctions, following Hal Mumme’s departure. And just before the penalties were assessed, the foreboding question marks hovering over the program surely hampered Guy Morriss and his staff.

But once Rich Brooks and company settled in, they went about landing players whose actual college careers far exceded their post-high school projections.

Brooks arrived in December of 2003, less than two months before signing day. Morriss and his staff already had landed a commitment from Keenan Burton, and they had worked hard on Andre’ Woodson. Brooks closed the deal on the future All-SEC quarterback who, along with Burton and Jacob Tamme (offered a chance to walk on by Morriss; a scholarship by Brooks) landed in the NFL.

At least one recruiting service awards five stars to high school prospects it deems certain to make it to the League. That would mean Kentucky, in the teeth of NCAA probation, had landed three.

The following year, Brooks and company landed three more future pros, in Wesley Woodyard, Myron Pryor and Garry Williams, as well as Dicky Lyons, Jr., Marcus McClinton, Tony Dixon, Johnny Williams and more.

Those first two recruiting classes made up the core of the 2006 and ’07 teams that won bowl games. But never did Brooks and his staff receive any credit for their recruiting prowess.

Brooks’ lowest-ranking recruiting class, which signed in 2005, was his best. It included six “future five-stars.” Tim Masthay, Braxton Kelley, Jeremy Jarmon, Ventrell Jenkins, Garry Williams and Alfonso Smith all made NFL rosters. Masthay, the current NFL Special Teams Player of the Week, won a Super Bowl ring with the Green Bay Packers. Smith is still with the Arizona Cardinals and Williams starts for the Carolina Panthers; Jenkins is now playing in Canada.

Ironically enough, his lowest-rated class represented the peak of recruiting for Brooks. There would be more successes, only not as many.

In 2006, UK recruiters landed future NFL wideout Stevie Johnson from the junior college ranks. And they snagged Louisville Central product Corey Peters, now an Atlanta Falcon. Ricky Lumpkin is on the Arizona Cardinals’ practice squad. But the biggest “get” was Micah Johnson, who was rated the top inside linebacker in America by ESPN. Johnson never fully lived up to the hype in college and since has been struggling to hang on in the NFL.

The ’06 class also included quarterback Mike Hartline, future All-SEC linebacker Sam Maxwell and kicker Lones Sieber, who would go on to become UK’s all-time leading scorer.

In ’07, they brought in a solid group, including three future starters at offensive line (Stuart Hines, Brad Durham and Billy Joe Murphy) as well as highly-touted O-lineman Jake Lanefski, whose career was hampered by injury. A track star from Oklahoma named Derrick Locke signed with the Wildcats, because he wanted a shot at big-time football. That year also saw the arrival of future All-SEC punter Ryan Tydlacka and linebacker Ronnie Sneed. But there would be no future professionals on the list.

As chronicled here before, the classes of 2008 and ’09 were expected to pay huge dividends, but an unusually high rate of attrition wiped out most of those classes.

Randall Cobb by far was the shining star in the group that signed in ’08, although classmates Winston Guy and Danny Travathan have made the NFL. Center Matt Smith has been a three-year starter; Collins Ukwu and Taylor Wyndham are still making plays on the defensive front.

From the ’09 class, guard Larry Warford will be drafted, wideout La’Rod King is productive and defensive tackles Donte’ Rumph and Mister Cobble are legitimate SEC players. But injuries and other means of attrition have severely depleted the group that signed on four years ago.

The future may be bleak for Joker Phillips and his assistants, but whoever is coaching the Wildcats for the next couple of seasons could have a lot of fun, thanks to the athletes who signed with Kentucky in February of ’11 and ‘12.

We’ve already seen receivers Demarcus Sweat, Daryl Collins and DeMarco Robinson make big plays. Tailbacks Dyshawn Mobley and Justin Taylor just waiting for an opportunity. Punter Landon Foster has the makings (and the leg) of a bona fide SEC kicker, and necessity has forced Phillips to play true freshmen Khalid Henderson, Pancho Thomas and Fred Tiller on defense. And that’s not to mention the wealth of talent at quarterback, including sophomore Maxwell Smith and freshmen Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles.

One strong recruiting class needs to beget another. A program such as Kentucky’s can not make mistakes, nor can it survive back-to-back flameouts. The numbers shortage among his upperclassmen Phillips is dealing with is every bit as problematic as what Brooks faced after three years of scholarship cutbacks, courtesy of NCAA sanctions. Football is a numbers game, and if you don’t have them, your program suffers.

The Wildcats surely are suffering now. If happier days lay ahead, it will be primarily because of talented players. Coaching is important; facilities are vital. But the answer always comes back to talent. And in three or four years, that answer will be crystal clear.

(Dick Gabriel is in his 24th year with the UK TV and Radio network, and can be heard each Monday-Friday at 6 p.m. on The Big Blue Insider, on 630 WLAP-AM.)