NCF On The Trail: Kentucky Wildcats

Quietly, Kentucky coach Mark Stoops made an emphatic statement with his 2014 recruiting class: The Wildcats aren't going to sit idly by and watch the big boy have all the fun.

Just months removed from a 2-10 debut that resulted in Kentucky's fourth straight losing season, Stoops secured the No. 20 recruiting class in the ESPN rankings. It was the highest-ever finish for Kentucky in ESPN's recruiting rankings.

Stoops rubbed shoulders with the SEC's best, signing 28 players, including six ESPN 300 members and eight four-stars. Stoops flipped a Florida State commit and beat out Alabama for a highly coveted defensive tackle. He snagged a top-10 quarterback and filled critical holes on both sides of the ball.

Stoops has zero SEC wins on his Kentucky resume, but he got a major win on signing day.

"We hit on a lot of areas," Stoops told ESPN.com Thursday.

[+] EnlargeMatt Elam
Damon Sayles/ESPNFour-star DT Matt Elam is one of the key pieces in Kentucky's 20th-ranked recruiting class.
"Last year, we did a nice job of piecing together a good a class as we could in five or six weeks. From that point on -- from signing day last year to signing day this year -- I thought it was absolutely the most critical time for us to have a great year in recruiting. We needed good players, we needed guys at every position."

But the Wildcats couldn't afford to just fill space. That would have been counterproductive for a team looking to rebuild. Kentucky needed both quality and quantity, which can be a tough task for a new coach at a struggling program.

Stoops said he and his coaches set out with a simple message of building relationships and getting in front of as many quality prospects as possible. They got players on campus for junior days when Stoops' crew first arrived last year, they got them to last year's record-setting spring game, they got them to basketball games to see that other historic program on campus, and they stayed confident in their message of the future.

There was no magic selling point, just very detailed process of showing prospects exactly what they were doing in the program, not just in games.

"They understood that we were in for a little bit of a struggle -- that this is a rebuild -- and we need good players to rebuild this program," Stoops said. "They understood very clearly the success that we've had before and what we do offensively and defensively. These coaches have been very successful and showed them exactly what our plan was for the future."

Stoops held a top-20 class for most of 2013, proving that players didn't waver, despite the Wildcats' on-field struggles. He was able to keep ESPN 300 defensive end Denzel Ware, who flip-flopped between Kentucky and Florida State for months before staying with the Wildcats. He kept ESPN 300 early enrollee quarterback Drew Barker, who went through winter workouts and has a chance to push for the starting spot this year.

Stoops also kept ESPN 300 standouts Thaddeus Snodgrass (wide receiver) and Stanley Williams (running back), and he sold Kentucky to four-star defensive tackle Matt Elam, who picked the Cats over Alabama last month.

"It's very important to win your fair share of battles, and we're going to win our fair share," Stoops said. "We're going to recruit very hard, we're going to recruit the best players, and we're not afraid to go in and compete. You're going to win some and lose some, but I thought we did a nice job of hitting a very high percentage of guys we targeted."

Where Kentucky really succeeded was in the secondary, signing ESPN 300 cornerbacks Darius West and Kendall Randolph. Stoops desperately needed offensive playmakers, but gaining talents like this in the secondary was crucial.

"It's a real issue," Stoops said of the depth in his secondary.

"For us, it's hard for me to pinpoint an area, but we were clearly not very good in the secondary so I thought that was very important to hit that [hard] as well."

Stoops left fingerprint in 10 states and came away with a handful of players who could make an immediate impact in Lexington. But Stoops understands that this class can't do it alone. He needs development to continue with his current players already on campus. He needs competition to blossom and he needs his upperclassmen to mesh with the youngsters in order to get Kentucky up and running.

"We're at a point where we're still trying to put together a top-notch first team," Stoops said. "Not only do we need depth, we need some playmakers with our starters as well.

"In our business, no one has patience, everybody wants to win now. But it is a process, and we're working to improve every day and we're getting better."

Signing day winners and losers

February, 5, 2014
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The ceremonies have concluded, the ink has dried and the fax machines have been turned off once again. And with that, the Class of 2014 is mostly in the books. As is the case annually, there were a number of winners but also some losers on national signing day. Here is a look at a few schools that excelled -- and a couple others that didn't.

THE WINNERS

LSU: The Tigers began the day at No. 3 in the RecruitingNation class rankings and ended with 2014's No. 2 class. The reason is simple: Les Miles and staff got the prospect they had to have in the nation's No. 1 wide receiver, Malachi Dupre (River Ridge, La./John Curtis Christian). The Tigers lost both Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson to the NFL, making defensive tackle a key position of need, and they inked a pair of talented tackles in ESPN 300 Travonte Valentine (Hialeah, Fla./Champagnant Catholic) and four-star Trey Lealaimatafao (San Antonio, Texas/Earl Warren). Under the radar but significant is three-star defensive end Sione Teuhema (Keller, Texas/Keller), who flipped from Texas to LSU. Teuhema’s younger brother Maea Teuhema (Keller, Texas/Keller) is the No. 38 junior in the ESPN Junior 300 and has pledged to LSU as well. Holding off Auburn and UCLA to keep ESPN 300 defensive end Davon Godchaux (Plaquemine, La./Plaquemine) was another win on Wednesday.

Florida State: The Seminoles entered signing day with the No. 4-ranked class but were poised to close with a vengeance, and Jimbo Fisher and staff did just that. While the Seminoles moved up only one spot to No. 3, the hits on Wednesday are significant. Leading the way was No. 2-ranked wide receiver Ermon Lane (Homestead, Fla./Homestead). The Noles weren’t done at receiver either, as Fisher and staff flipped Virginia Tech commit and No. 117 overall Ja'Von Harrison (Lakeland, Fla./Kathleen). No. 158 Roderick Johnson (Saint Louis, Mo./Hazelwood Central) and No. 253 Derrick Nnadi (Virginia Beach, Va./Ocean Lakes) were key gets at offensive tackle and defensive tackle, respectively. Three-star offensive tackle Derrick Kelly Jr. (Quincy, Fla./East Gadsden) was another key win over rival Florida.

USC: The Trojans stood to have a big signing day, and Steve Sarkisian and staff certainly delivered. Not only did USC win the hotly contested battle for five-star athlete Adoree' Jackson (Gardena, Calif./Junipero Serra), but the Trojans won the race for ESPN 300 No. 24 Juju Smith (Long Beach, Calif./Poly) and signed No. 67 overall Damien Mama (Bellflower, Calif./St. John Bosco) as expected. More than the names and rankings, Wednesday was a huge perception win for the Trojans and Sarkisian. USC jumped to No. 14 from No. 24 in the RecruitingNation class rankings.

Georgia: The Bulldogs didn’t have a big day in terms of number of commits, but quality ruled the day. Mark Richt and staff signed the player they had to have in five-star outside linebacker/defensive end Lorenzo Carter (Norcross, Ga./Norcross). While Carter’s announcement was the big one Wednesday afternoon, the morning started off with a bang for Georgia with the signing of No. 286 overall Isaiah McKenzie (Plantation, Fla./American Heritage), who was first offered on Monday and never even visited Athens. Those two big signings kept the Bulldogs in the top 10 at No. 9.

South Carolina: One of the big movers in the class rankings on Wednesday was the Gamecocks. Not only did South Carolina make a jump from No. 27 to No. 19 throughout the day, but the Gamecocks also addressed major areas of need. Steve Spurrier and staff had key areas of need at cornerback and along the defensive front, and they delivered by picking up a pair of ESPN 300 corners in No. 87 overall Chris Lammons (Fort Lauderdale, Fla./Plantation) and No. 120 Wesley Green (Lithonia, Ga./Martin Luther King), as well as flipping ESPN 300 defensive tackle Dexter Wideman (Saluda, S.C./Saluda) from Florida State and three-star defensive end Blake McClain (Jacksonville, Fla./Sandalwood) from Nebraska. Fighting off the late January runs by Alabama and Georgia for ESPN 300 linebacker commit Bryson Allen-Williams (Ellenwood, Ga./Cedar Grove) has to be included in the huge wins in recent days.

Kentucky: Sure, Kentucky plucked only one key target on Wednesday in three-star former Vanderbilt and Penn State defensive end commit Lloyd Tubman (Louisville, Ky./Seneca), but it was still a huge day at the finish line for the Wildcats. The 2014 class marks the first time in the nine years that ESPN has ranked recruiting classes that the Wildcats have finished with a top 25 class, and that includes a big win over Alabama for in-state four-star defensive tackle Matt Elam (Elizabethtown, Ky./John Hardin). Signing six defensive backs fills a huge need as well.

Michigan State: The Spartans had a near dream season on the field, and followed it up by closing strong in recruiting. Not only did Michigan State jump nine spots in the class rankings from No. 38 to No. 29 on Wednesday, but it did so while filling a big need on the defensive front with big-time talent. ESPN 300 defensive end Malik McDowell (Southfield, Mich./Southfield) was a big win over Ohio State, Florida State and Michigan, while flipping four-star defensive tackle Craig Evans (Sun Prairie, Wis./Sun Prairie) from Wisconsin earlier in the week was another huge win for the Spartans.

Pac-12: The conference as a whole was quite possibly the big winner on signing day. Of the 13 live commitments on ESPNU throughout the morning and afternoon, seven committed and signed with Pac-12 programs. The winner within the Pac-12 was USC, but Stanford also enjoyed a big day with No. 25 overall Solomon Thomas (Coppell, Texas/Coppell) and three-star corner Terrence Alexander (River Ridge, La./John Curtis Christian).

THE LOSERS

UCLA: Along with USC and South Carolina, the UCLA Bruins came into today with the most to gain. While Jim Mora and staff scored with four-star linebacker Kenny Young (River Ridge, La./John Curtis Christian), it was mostly misses throughout the day. Jackson and Smith picked crosstown rival USC, while Dupre opted for home-state LSU. At defensive end, the Bruins missed out twice on Wednesday with Thomas selecting Stanford and Godchaux sticking with LSU. And finally, No. 52 overall Rashaan Evans (Auburn, Ala./Auburn) stayed in state by picking Alabama over Auburn.

Ole Miss: It’s difficult to place the Rebels' No. 17 class with the losers on signing day, but that was the case in Oxford, Miss. Not only did Ole Miss drop a spot in the class rankings, but it also came up dry with explosive ESPN 300 receiver and return man Isaiah McKenzie (Plantation, Fla./American Heritage), after Hugh Freeze and staff worked the Under Armour All-America Game standout all the way up until Wednesday morning before McKenzie announced for Georgia. While Dupre was a long shot, he was yet another prospect who went elsewhere. The Rebels also lost out on Alexander, who selected Stanford over Notre Dame. The bright spot for the Rebels on Wednesday was signing former Notre Dame transfer and No. 22 in the ESPN JC 50, Tee Shepard
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It was another successful national signing day for the SEC. After all 14 schools officially announced their 2014 signing classes, the SEC finished the day with 10 schools in the top 25 and 13 schools in the top 40 of the ESPN RecruitingNation class rankings.

Seven schools -- Alabama, LSU, Texas A&M, Tennessee, Florida, Auburn and Georgia -- ranked in the top 10, while Alabama took home the nation's No. 1 class. The Crimson Tide signed 27 players, including 19 ESPN 300 recruits and five five-star prospects: OT Cameron Robinson (West Monroe, La./West Monroe), DE Da'Shawn Hand (Woodbridge, Va./Woodbridge), CB Tony Brown (Beaumont, Texas/Ozen), RB Bo Scarbrough (Northport, Ala./Tuscaloosa County) and CB Marlon Humphrey (Hoover, Ala./Hoover).

LSU ranked second, bringing in 22 signees, including 15 ESPN 300 members and one five-star prospect: No. 1 running back Leonard Fournette (New Orleans/Saint Augustine). The Tigers could add No. 23 and their 16th ESPN 300 member Thursday once defensive end Deondre Clark (Oklahoma City/Douglass) signs his letter of intent. The four-star prospect was unable to sign his LOI after weather canceled his signing ceremony Wednesday.

As a whole, the SEC brought in 120 ESPN 300 prospects (the most of any conference) and 10 of the 15 five-star prospects in the ESPN 300.

You can check out all 14 SEC schools' 2014 recruiting classes in our ESPN RecruitingNation database:

SEC recruiting scorecard

February, 4, 2014
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And just like that, national signing day is a day away.

The future is almost here, folks, so here's one last recruiting scorecard for the 2014 recruiting season.

As of Tuesday, seven SEC teams rank in the top 10 of ESPN's recruiting class rankings. Alabama and Texas A&M lead the charge for the league, ranking first and second, respectively. Alabama has 27 verbal commitments, with 18 in the ESPN 300. Four are five-star prospects. Texas A&M has 23 commitments, including 11 ESPN 300 members and two five-star prospects.

How's the rest of the SEC doing before signing day? Let's take a look:

ALABAMA

2014 verbal commitments: 27

Spotlight: Defensive end Da'Shawn Hand of Woodbridge, Va., is a huge addition for the Crimson Tide. He's the nation's No. 2-ranked defensive end and could provide an immediate spark to a front seven that wants to generate more pressure on opposing backfields.

ESPN 300 members: 18 (Hand; OT Cameron Robinson of West Monroe, La.; CB Tony Brown of Beaumont, Texas; RB Bo Scarbrough of Tuscaloosa, Ala.; CB Marlon Humphrey of Hoover, Ala.; S Laurence Jones of Monroe, La.; OLB Christian Miller of Columbia, S.C.; WR Cameron Sims of Monroe, La., QB David Cornwell of Norman, Okla.; Ross Pierschbacher of Cedar Falls, Iowa; ATH Ronnie Clark of Calera, Ala.; ILB Shaun Dion Hamilton of Montgomery, Ala.; DT Joshua Frazier of Springdale, Ark.; C Josh Casher of Mobile, Ala., C J.C. Hassenauer of Woodbury, Minn.; WR Derek Kief of Cincinnati; DT O.J. Smith of Bossier City, La.)

Key targets: After gaining Humphrey's recent commitment, No. 1-ranked wide receiver Malachi Dupre of River Ridge, La., remains the Tide's top target.

ARKANSAS

2014 verbal commitments: 23

Spotlight: Defensive tackle Bijhon Jackson of El Dorado, Ark., is the top player in the state and ranked as the nation's No. 6 defensive tackle. At 6-foot-2 and 334 pounds, Jackson can clog the middle for the run, but has the quickness off the line to be a threat against the pass as well.

ESPN 300 members: 2 (Jackson; OT Brian Wallace of St. Louis)

Key targets: Offensive lineman Rashawn Shaw of Fort Pierce, Fla., was very much on Arkansas' radar, as the Hogs look to add much-needed depth up front, but he recently committed to Wake Forest. Florida State receiver commit JoJo Robison recently visited and could be one to watch with Arkansas, as could ESPN 300 linebacker Sharieff Rhaheed of Fort Pierce, Fla.

AUBURN

2014 verbal commitments: 21

Spotlight: Tre Mason might be gone, but Gus Malzahn hopes he has a solid replacement in running back Racean Thomas of Oxford, Ala. The nation's No. 5 running back runs hard and has the explosiveness to make some real noise in Auburn's offense. He's also elusive and strong enough to stretch plays.

ESPN 300 members: 10 (Thomas; QB Sean White of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; CB Stephen Roberts of Opelika, Ala.; CB Kalvaraz Bessent of Kingsland, Ga., ILB Tre' Williams of Mobile, Ala.; ATH Nicholas Ruffin of Atlanta; DE Justin Thornton of Prichard, Ala.; DT Dontavius Russell of Carrollton, Ga.; ATH Stanton Truitt of Monroe, Ga.; RB Kamryn Pettway of Prattville, Ala.)

Key targets: Auburn is almost done with this class, but ESPN 300 linebacker Rashaan Evans of Auburn, Ala., and defensive end Andrew Williams of McDonough, Ga., are still in the mix. Florida State quarterback commit Treon Harris is also very much in the mix for the Tigers.

FLORIDA

2014 verbal commitments: 21

Spotlight: Quarterback Will Grier of Davidson, N.C., is already on campus and gives the Gators a real quality body to work with behind Jeff Driskel. Grier appears to be he future of the position, and he totaled 4,989 passing yards with a national-best 77 touchdowns and rushed for another 1,251 yards with 13 more scores in 2013.

ESPN 300 members: 12 (Grier, CB Jalen Tabor of Washington, D.C.; OT David Sharpe of Jacksonville, Fla.; DT Gerald Willis III of New Orleans; DT Thomas Holley of Brooklyn, N.Y.; ATH J.C. Jackson of Immokalee, Fla.; WR Moral Stephens of Perry, Fla.; CB Duke Dawson of Cross City, Fla.; ATH Brandon Powell of Deerfield Beach, Fla.; DE Justus Reed of Clearwater, Fla.; S Quincy Wilson of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)

Key targets: ESPN 300 members Lorenzo Carter (defensive end from Norcross, Ga.), Damian Prince (offensive tackle from Forestville, Md.) and Adoree' Jackson (athlete from Gardena, Calif.) remain the Gators' top targets, while Treon Harris from Miami and former Florida State receiver commit C.J. Worton from Homestead, Fla., are very much in the mix.

GEORGIA

2014 verbal commitments: 19

Spotlight: The Bulldogs have had some recent success at the running back position and just added to it with Sony Michel of Plantation, Fla. The 5-11, 194-pound Michel is the nation's No. 2 RB and is an every-down back who can do it all. He has a chance to see the field early in his career at Georgia.

ESPN 300 members: 9 (Michel; DT Lamont Gaillard of Fayetteville, N.C.; RB Nick Chubb of Cedartown, Ga.; ATH Malkom Parrish of Quitman, Ga.; QB Jacob Park of Goose Creek, S.C.; TE Jeb Blazevich of Charlotte, N.C.; OG Isaiah Wynn of Saint Petersburg, Fla.; DE Keyon Brown of Wauchula, Fla.; WR Shakenneth Williams of Macon, Ga.)

Key targets: ESPN 300 defensive end Lorenzo Carter of Norcross, Ga., is the top remaining target on the Bulldogs' board. Georgia appears to be in good shape for the five-star prospect. Georgia is also hoping to gain ground with Rashaan Evans and is still in the hunt for South Carolina linebacker commit Bryson Allen-Williams.

KENTUCKY

2014 verbal commitments: 28

Spotlight: After being committed to Florida State for a year, defensive end Denzel Ware of Crestview, Fla., committed to Kentucky, before decommitting, and then committing again. He appears solidly committed to the Wildcats and has tremendous upside to match his explosiveness off the line.

ESPN 300 members: 6 (Ware; QB Drew Barker of Hebron, Ky.; WR Thaddeus Snodgrass of Springfield, Ohio; RB Stanley Williams of Monroe, Ga.; CB Darius West of Lima, Ohio; CB Kendall Randolph of Tallahassee, Fla.)

Key targets: With Elam in hand, the Wildcats are looking to add to their defensive line with fellow ESPN 300 member Travonte Valentine of Hialeah, Fla.

LSU

2014 verbal commitments: 19

Spotlight: Running back Leonard Fournette of New Orleans was the recruit LSU had to have. Not only is he the nation's No. 1 overall player but he immediately fills the need at running back with Jeremy Hill's departure. His excellent combination of size, speed and strength will get him on the field early in Baton Rouge.

ESPN 300 members: 14 (Fournette; S Jamal Adams of Lewisville, Texas; ILB Clifton Garrett of Plainfield, Ill.; OG Garrett Brumfield of Baton Rouge, La.; TE Jacory Washington of Westlake, La.; S Devin Voorhies of Woodville, Miss.; WR Trey Quinn of Lake Charles, La.; QB Brandon Harris of Bossier City, La.; S Edward Paris Jr. from Arlington, Texas; DE Davon Godchaux of Plaquemine, La.; OLB Donnie Alexander of New Orleans; WR D.J. Chark of Alexandria, La.; DE Deondre Clark of Oklahoma City; WR Tony Upchurch of Pearland, Texas)

Key targets: Five-star cornerback Adoree' Jackson is still on the board, as is Lorenzo Carter. ESPN 300 receiver Malachi Dupre from River Ridge, La., is in the mix and would be a major get for the Tigers.

MISSISSIPPI STATE

2014 verbal commitments: 21

Spotlight: ESPN 300 athlete Jamoral Graham of Decatur, Miss., has been committed for nearly a year and gives the Bulldogs their most versatile commitment. The 5-11, 180-pound Graham has 4.4 speed and can play on both sides of the ball. He will probably end up as a defensive back for the Bulldogs.

ESPN 300 members: 2 (Graham; WR Jesse Jackson of Petal, Miss.)

Key targets: Committed ESPN 300 defensive tackle O.J. Smith (Alabama) of Bossier City, La., and three-star defensive tackle commit Cory Thomas (Tennessee) are still in the mix with the Bulldogs.

MISSOURI

2014 verbal commitments: 27

Spotlight: With the Tigers losing two starting linebackers from the 2013 team, the addition of outside linebacker Brandon Lee of Indianapolis could be big down the road. There will be a lot of competition for those open spots, and Lee has a chance to get some reps, especially with him already being on campus. He has good speed and should fit any scheme once he adds some weight.

ESPN 300 members: 2 (Lee; OT Andy Bauer of St. Louis)

Key targets: ESPN 300 defensive tackle Poona Ford of Hilton Head, S.C., is one of the Tigers' top remaining targets, as is four-star linebacker Sharieff Rhaheed of Fort Pierce, Fla. Tennessee defensive end commit Derek Barnett is also still on Mizzou's radar.

OLE MISS

2014 verbal commitments: 24

Spotlight: It won't be easy to replace Donte Moncrief, but adding wide receiver Markell Pack of Purvis, Miss., to the roster will help soften the blow early. He's a natural playmaker who can get to the next level quickly with his speed. He'll need to add some weight when he gets on campus, but he's a major get at a position of need.

ESPN 300 members: 4 (Pack; OG Rod Taylor of Jackson, Miss.; DT Garrald McDowell of Covington, La.; S C.J. Hampton of Meridian, Miss.)

Key targets: Yet again, Malachi Dupre is in the mix here, as are ESPN 300 members defensive end Andrew Williams, safety Steven Parker II of Jenks, Okla., and running back Dacorius Law from Haines City, Fla.

SOUTH CAROLINA

2014 verbal commitments: 18

Spotlight: Defensive end Dante Sawyer of Suwanee, Ga., might not be Jadeveon Clowney, but he could help ease the pain of losing that physical freak. One plus about Sawyer is that he's versatile enough to play both defensive end and outside linebacker, which should allow the Gamecocks to move him around and show different looks to opposing offenses.

ESPN 300 members: 7 (Sawyer; CB D.J. Smith of Marietta, Ga.; TE Kevin Crosby of Bamberg, S.C.; WR Shaquille Davidson of Gaffney, S.C.; OLB Bryson Allen-Williams of Ellenwood, Ga.; OG Donell Stanley of Latta, S.C.; ATH Terry Googer of College Park, Ga.)

Key targets: ESPN 300 cornerback Wesley Green of Lithonia, Ga., and former Florida cornerback commit Chris Lammons are top targets for the Gamecocks, as is Florida State defensive tackle commit Dexter Wideman.

TENNESSEE

2014 verbal commitments: 34

Spotlight: The Vols need to add more athleticism and playmaking ability to the wide receiver position, and Josh Malone of Gallatin, Tenn., could step right in and get a healthy amount of reps this spring. Having him on campus now will help him as he continues to develop into a more sound receiver.

ESPN 300 members: 11 (Malone; S Todd Kelly Jr. of Knoxville, Tenn.;RB Jalen Hurd of Hendersonville, Tenn.; OLB Dillon Bates Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.; RB Derrell Scott of Havelock, N.C.; DE Dewayne Hendrix of O'Fallon, Ill.; S Cortez McDowell of Locust Grove, Ga.; ILB Gavin Bryant of Jackson, Ala.; CB D'Andre Payne of Washington, D.C.; ATH Evan Berry of Fairburn, Ga.; DE Derek Barnett of Brentwood, Tenn.)

Key targets: Four-star defensive tackle Michael Sawyers from Nashville has become a very important target for the Vols, who need another interior linemen. Tennessee's staff is still going after Alabama commit Bo Scarbrough.

TEXAS A&M

2014 verbal commitments: 23

Spotlight: Defensive end Myles Garrett of Arlington, Texas, is a major addition to this Texas A&M class. The Aggies need more playmakers on defense, especially up front, and Garrett, the nation's No. 1-rated defensive end has a chance to compete for immediate playing time and should add more of a presence in the pass rush.

ESPN 300 members: 11 (Garrett; ATH Speedy Noil of New Orleans; QB Kyle Allen of Scottsdale, Ariz.; ATH Nick Harvey of Richmond, Texas; WR Frank Iheanacho of Houston; DT DeShawn Washington of Nederland, Texas; OLB Otaro Alaka of Houston, Texas; DE Qualen Cunningham of Chandler, Ariz.; RB Shaun Nixon of Austin, Texas; ATH Armani Watts of Forney, Texas; OLB Josh Walker of Gilmer, Texas)

Key targets: Safety has become a spot of need, so the Aggies are going after ESPN 300 safeties Steven Parker II of Jenks, Okla., and Mattrell McGraw of River Ridge, La. ESPN 300 linebacker Kenny Young from River Ridge, La., is also still on the board.

VANDERBILT

2014 verbal commitments: 17

Spotlight: Running back Dallas Rivers of Stone Mountain, Ga., is the Commodores' top commitment and he's been solid with Vandy since committing last March. He's the type of playmaker Vandy needs going forward and will provide a grinder in the middle of the field, who can also stretch the field with his speed.

ESPN 300 members: 1 (Rivers)

Key targets: The Commodores are in the hunt for Tennessee ESPN 300 defensive end commit Derek Barnett.

Closing the deal in the SEC

February, 3, 2014
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National signing day tends to be anticlimactic for a lot of the SEC schools. Most of the hay is in the barn. But there are still uncommitted prospects out there wrestling with their decisions, and others who are committed may be wavering.

Here’s a checklist of players SEC schools are still waiting on:
  • CB Terrence Alexander, River Ridge, La. (Arkansas, Notre Dame, Ole Miss, Stanford)
  • ESPN 300 DE Derek Barnett, Brentwood, Tenn. (Missouri, Ole Miss, Tennessee, Vanderbilt)
  • ESPN 300 OLB Bryson Allen-Williams, Ellenwood, Ga. (Georgia, South Carolina)
  • ESPN 300 ATH Miles Autry, Norcross, Ga. (Florida State, Georgia Tech, Georgia)
  • ESPN 300 DE Lorenzo Carter, Norcross, Ga. (Florida, Florida State, Georgia, LSU)
  • ESPN 300 WR Malachi Dupre, River Ridge, La. (Alabama, Florida State, LSU, UCLA)
  • ESPN 300 OLB Rashaan Evans, Auburn, Ala. (Alabama, Auburn, UCLA)
  • ESPN 300 DT Lamont Gaillard, Fayetteville, N.C. (Georgia, Miami)
  • ESPN 300 CB Wesley Green, Lithonia, Ga. (Georgia, South Carolina)
  • ESPN 300 CB Adoree' Jackson, Gardena, Calif. (Florida, LSU, UCLA, USC)
  • ESPN 300 ATH J.C. Jackson, Immokalee, Fla. (Florida, Miami)
  • ESPN 300 ATH Chris Lammons, Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (South Carolina, Wisconsin)
  • ESPN 300 S Mattrell McGraw, River Ridge, La. (Oregon, Texas A&M)
  • ESPN 300 S Steven Parker, Jenks, Okla. (Auburn, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M)
  • ESPN 300 OT Damian Prince, Forestville, Md. (Florida, Maryland)
  • WR JoJo Robinson, Miami (Arkansas, South Florida, TCU)
  • DT Michael Sawyers, Nashville, Tenn. (Georgia Tech, Ole Miss, Tennessee)
  • ESPN 300 OG Braden Smith, Olathe, Kan. (Auburn, Texas A&M, TCU)
  • ESPN 300 DT O.J. Smith, Bossier City, La. (Alabama, Mississippi State)
  • ESPN 300 DE Chad Thomas, Miami (Alabama, Miami)
  • DT Cory Thomas, McCalla, Ala. (Clemson, Mississippi State, Tennessee)
  • ESPN 300 DE Solomon Thomas, Coppell, Texas (Arkansas, Stanford, UCLA)
  • ESPN 300 DT Dexter Wideman, Saluda, S.C. (Florida State, South Carolina)
  • ESPN 300 DE Andrew Williams, McDonough, Ga. (Auburn, Clemson, Georgia)
  • LB Kenny Young, River Ridge, La. (Arkansas, LSU, Texas A&M, UCLA)
After 16 straight SEC losses, Kentucky needed something to get excited about in football.

Mark Stoops, who just finished his first season as the Wildcats’ coach, has delivered with what’s shaping up to be the program’s highest-ranked signing class in history.

[+] EnlargeMark Stoops
University of Kentucky AthleticsAs signing day approaches, Kentucky coach Mark Stoops is making an impact on the recruiting trail.
With Wednesday’s national signing day fast approaching, Kentucky is currently ranked 20th in ESPN’s class rankings, which would be the Wildcats’ first-ever top 25 finish.

The big get last week was four-star defensive tackle Matt Elam of Elizabethtown, Ky. Kentucky was able to beat Alabama for the 6-5, 350-pound Elam, which is always a telltale sign that a program is headed in the right direction.

When you’re beating the top teams in your league on the recruiting trail for marquee prospects, that’s the quickest way to start beating them on the field. It’s also significant that Stoops was able to keep one of the top prospects in the state of Kentucky at home. That has been a priority.

Three of the top four in-state prospects in the 2014 class have opted for the Wildcats. The other two were ESPN 300 quarterback Drew Barker of Hebron, and three-star defensive tackle Adrian Middleton of Bowling Green.

Stoops also has cashed in on his Ohio roots and done very well in that state. Nine of Kentucky’s 28 commitments in this class are from Ohio, a state traditionally laden with talent. Ohio State and Michigan can’t take them all.

Kentucky has eight four-star prospects committed in this class. In Stoops’ first class a year ago, he reeled in six four-star prospects. That’s 14 in two years. For perspective, in the three previous classes combined, the Wildcats signed a total of four four-star prospects.

Stoops knows what a talented roster looks like. He came to Kentucky from Florida State.

Upgrading the talent level is the only way Kentucky is going to make a move in the SEC, and based on these last two classes Stoops and his staff have put together, there’s hope on the horizon.

Weekend recruiting wrap: SEC 

February, 3, 2014
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This was the final weekend before national signing day, and of course, there was a ton of news around the SEC. Vanderbilt added a slew of commitments, as did Alabama and Texas A&M. There were also some key visits and a decommitment from an SEC West school. Here’s a closer look at the latest recruiting news around the SEC.

Biggest commitments: After suffering 11 decommitments after coach James Franklin left for Penn State, Vanderbilt was in desperate need of a big recruiting weekend, and it finally got it.


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Breaking down the 'stars' in the SEC

January, 31, 2014
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In the last four years, nobody in college football has signed more four- and five-star players than Alabama and Florida, according to ESPN's recruiting rankings.

The Crimson Tide and Gators are dead even with 66 apiece during that span, which covers the 2010-13 signing classes. The Gators lead the way with eight five-star prospects during the last four classes.

With national signing day approaching on Wednesday, it's a reminder that merely raking in a bunch of highly rated players isn't a guarantee for success.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban and the Crimson Tide
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesNick Saban and Alabama have brought in a nation-best 66 four- and five-star players over the last four classes (2010-13).
Nobody would argue that Alabama has lacked for talent over the last four years, and the Tide obviously have something to show for it with two of the last four national championships.

Florida, on the other hand, hasn't even been to the SEC championship game in the last four years and is coming off its first losing season since 1979. The Gators won 11 games in 2012 and played in the Sugar Bowl that season. But in three of the last four years, the Gators have lost five or more games.

From a national perspective, after Alabama and Florida, Texas checks in with 60 four- and five-star signees over the last four years. Then it's Georgia with 57 and Auburn and Florida State with 54 apiece.

Interestingly enough, the only four schools in the country that have won 11 or more games in each of the last three years are Alabama, Oregon, South Carolina and Stanford. Of the four, only Alabama has signed more than 33 four- and five-star prospects over the last four years. The Gamecocks have signed 33, which is in the middle of the pack in the SEC, while the Ducks have signed 30 and the Cardinal 25.

The Gamecocks certainly have dialed up their recruiting under Steve Spurrier. But when you start comparing the number of ESPN 300/ESPN 150 prospects the Gamecocks have signed in the last four years to those teams who've signed the most in the SEC, there's no comparison.

South Carolina has signed 11, which includes ESPN 300 players in the 2013 class and ESPN 150 players in the 2010-12 classes. That ranks the Gamecocks ninth in the SEC. Alabama has signed the most (50) followed by Florida (49), LSU (33), Georgia (32) and Auburn (27).

Just in last year's class alone, Alabama and Florida combined to sign 34 ESPN 300 players.

Missouri's success this past season is yet another reminder that it's not all about the "stars" in recruiting. The Tigers won 12 games and played in the SEC championship game in 2013. But in the last four years, they ranked 13th among SEC schools in terms of four- and five-star prospects signed (11) and have signed just four ESPN 300/ESPN 150 players during that span.


The Early Offer is RecruitingNation's regular feature, giving you a daily dose of recruiting in the mornings. Today’s offerings: Coaches say things like size and speed are important when determining whether or not they will pursue a recruit, but one ACC head coach has something else that’s vital in his team’s evaluation process; Les Miles and Nick Saban were in the home of the nation’s No. 1 receiver prospect on Thursday.

Overlooked part of evaluation


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UK keeps four-star DT Elam at home

January, 30, 2014
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Four-star defensive tackle Matt Elam (Elizabethtown, Ky./John Hardin) committed to in-state Kentucky on Thursday over an all-out Alabama Crimson Tide effort.

Elam's pledge is a huge recruiting win for Mark Stoops and staff as the Wildcats inch closer to a first-ever top-25 finish in the RecruitingNation class rankings.

The 6-foot-5, 350-pound Elam initially gave serious consideration to Kentucky, Alabama and Notre Dame, making official visits to Lexington Dec. 13, Tuscaloosa Jan. 17 and South Bend Oct. 19.

Over the weekend, however, his last visit to a campus went to Kentucky, with Elam attending the Wildcats basketball game.

With Elam in the fold, Kentucky now has 28 commitments for 2014. The class includes six ESPN 300 prospects: No. 113 Denzel Ware (Crestview, Fla./Crestview), No. 173 Drew Barker (Hebron, Ky./Conner Senior), No. 205 Thaddeus Snodgrass (Springfield, Ohio/Springfield), No. 208 Stanley Williams (Monroe, Ga./George Walton Academy), No. 248 Darius West (Lima, Ohio/Lima Central Catholic) and No. 284 Kendall Randolph (Tallahassee, Fla./Lincoln).

Along with the half-dozen ESPN 300 prospects, the Kentucky class includes two more four-star prospects in Elam and inside linebacker Nico Firios (Longwood, Fla./Lyman).

Kentucky has also now locked down three of the state's top four prospects in 2014 with Barker, Elam and three-star defensive tackle Adrian Middleton (Bowling Green, Ky./South Warren).

As important as keeping the best in-state talent is signing a potential multi-year starting signal-caller in Barker and adding both impact players and depth on the defensive side of the ball.

Fifteen of the Wildcats' 28 recruits in the class are on the defensive side, with an emphasis on the defensive line and secondary. Seven members of the class have already signed or enrolled, including Barker and junior college cornerback A.J. Stamps (Vicksburg, Miss./East Mississippi Community College).

Most important targets: SEC 

January, 28, 2014
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The Southeastern Conference already has commitments from six of the top 10 players in the country and has a real possibility of landing two more before signing day. With several key targets still remaining, here’s a look at the top remaining targets in the SEC.

Alabama
CB Marlon Humphrey (Hoover, Ala./Hoover)
6-foot-0, 180 pounds
ESPN 300 rank: 15


Humphrey is a big, athletic cornerback with great size and would be a natural fit in Nick Saban's system. FSU is also very much in the picture for the five-star defensive back, but with the Seminoles losing defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt to Georgia, the Crimson Tide might have a slight advantage. Alabama will have to fight to keep this dynamic defensive back from leaving the state. With his skill set, Humphrey has a chance to play early in his college career.


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SEC class rankings analysis 

January, 22, 2014
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video The SEC continues to dominate the Recruiting Nation class rankings nationally, with 13 of the 14 programs in the conference ranked in the top 40. That includes four of the top five, seven of the top 10 and 10 of the top 30. As expected, Alabama continues to lead the pack, and the Crimson Tide has a large lead coming down the stretch.


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On Tuesday, Kentucky received a commitment from cornerback Kendall Randolph (Tallahassee, Fla./Lincoln), an ESPN 300 talent who could make an immediate impact. Read below to see what our scouts think about Randolph's decision:


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Kentucky lands four-star DB Randolph

January, 21, 2014
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ESPN 300 safety Kendall Randolph (Tallahassee, Fla./Lincoln) verbally committed to Kentucky on Tuesday. The No. 284 player in the country chose the Wildcats over offers from Oklahoma, Louisville, Indiana, Arkansas and many others.

Randolph confirmed his decision via text message.

"Kentucky is a program where I feel like I can come in at and make an impact the earliest," Randolph said in the text message. "I've been close with Coach [Mark] Stoops since my freshman year and I feel like he along with the rest of the staff has my best interest at heart & will put me in the best position to succeed on and off the field. A lot of people are sleeping on UK right now. It's time to wake them up #BBN."

Randolph also sent out a tweet about his commitment.



Randolph is scheduled to visit Kentucky this weekend and Oklahoma next weekend, but the four-star prospect also announced on Tuesday that he was dropping Oklahoma and would not take the visit.

With the addition of Randolph, the Wildcats are now up to 25 commitments, including six ranked in the ESPN 300. Kentucky currently has the No. 19 recruiting class and is still in contention for four-star defensive tackle Matt Elam (Elizabethtown, Ky./John Hardin).
The Early Offer is RecruitingNation's regular feature, giving you a daily dose of recruiting in the mornings. Today’s offerings: Kentucky coach Mark Stoops admitted his first season didn’t go like he had planned, but those struggles haven’t hurt the Wildcats on the recruiting trail; Vanderbilt is in a tough recruiting situation if it moves too fast or too slow with its coaching search; and Clemson coach Dabo Swinney thought of a different way recruiting classes should be evaluated.


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