HOOVER, Ala. — This much is already clear at SEC Media Days: Kentucky football and its coach earned some real respect around the league after a breakout, seven-win season in 2016.
“I think Mark Stoops should’ve been up for Coach of the Year last year,” former LSU All-American Marcus Spears told SEC Country on Tuesday. “He understands that development that I’ve been talking about. He understands trying to recruit, going into Ohio to get some of those kids to come to Kentucky so they can play in the SEC. This conference gives you an opportunity to recruit; a lot of players want to play in this conference. I think he understands that landscape.”
Eight players from Ohio are listed as projected starters on Kentucky’s preseason depth chart, including All-SEC candidates at right tackle (Nick Haynes), tight end (C.J. Conrad), running back (Benny Snell), linebacker (Jordan Jones) and safety (Mike Edwards).
“I think Benny Snell is one of the best backs in the country,” said Spears, an SEC Network analyst who will co-host a new weekly show this fall with Greg McElroy called Thinking Out Loud. Snell rushed for 1,091 yards and 13 touchdowns as a true freshman in 2016. “He won’t get talked about, because he’s at Kentucky. We’ll talk about backs at Bama and backs at LSU, but at the end of the year, Benny Snell is probably going to be one of the leading rushers in the conference.”
And in Spears’ mind, it all goes back to that Ohio recruiting philosophy Stoops installed from Day 1 at Kentucky.
“Look what Kirby [Smart] has done at Georgia: He’s top 5 in recruiting and half his class is from Georgia. Kentucky doesn’t have that luxury,” Spears said. “I think Mark Stoops identified that instead of me trying to go [into the Deep South] — and they’re still going to go — instead of trying to put all my eggs in that basket, I’m going to find some of these players that I’m going to pluck from up north and tell them to come play at Kentucky and we’re going to compete at a high level. And you saw that.”
Now the question is whether the Wildcats can take another step forward in 2017, Stoops’ fifth season at the helm. There is a lot of chatter here in Hoover that Kentucky just might be the third-best team in the SEC East — if not better.
“I think what you saw him do last year wasn’t a fluke,” Spears said. “When he took over defense, it got better. [Offensive coordinator] Eddie Gran and those guys are trying to get it right over on offense. Stephen Johnson did a great job; he’s a very usable quarterback in the SEC, because when you look out there, none of them are blowing you off the charts other than probably Jalen [Hurts at Alabama].”
A smart coach, solid quarterback, star running back and a recruiting pipeline that shows no signs of slowing down? That sounds like the Cats are rising.
“Kentucky had to get away from the basketball [reputation],” Spears said. “People had to respect them as a football school. They’ve always had pretty good players. It took a miracle — literally — for us to beat them in 2002.”
Hey, after all that praise for their program, Big Blue Nation will (maybe) forgive Spears for bringing up one of the most gut-wrenching defeats in Kentucky football history: the 74-yard, tipped-ball touchdown while Guy Morriss was getting a Gatorade bath from his players on the Wildcats’ sideline.
Now 15 years after that Bluegrass Miracle, UK fans are hoping for a Bluegrass Revival.