Since John Calipari took over as head coach back in 2009, the Kentucky basketball program has become a magnet for some of the country’s elite blue-chip recruits . Unfortunately, the Wildcats football team hasn’t been nearly as successful when it comes to reeling in highly touted high school athletes. That’s a big reason why the team has languished in the basement of the SEC for so long, averaging just 4.5 wins per season since the turn of the millenium.
Luckily, the football team’s fortunes look like they have begun to improve under second-year head coach Mark Stoops. Though Stoops managed to win just two games during his debut season in 2013, he did a much better job off the field on the recruiting trail. His first full recruiting class was an impressive 29-player group—headlined by six 4-star prospects, including standout QB Drew Barker. The talented haul was ranked as the 22nd best overall class for 2014 by 247Sports.
Stoops, who developed a reputation as an excellent recruiter during his stints as an assistant at Miami, Arizona and Florida State, now has the opportunity to build his own classes and shape a program in the direction he truly wants to.
Landing top talent, especially keeping the few blue-chip recruits from Kentucky in state, is one of the top priorities for Bob and Mark’s younger brother. He did it last year with Barker and DT Matt Elam.
Now the question is: Can he do it again in 2015 with RB Damien Harris.
Harris—the highly touted All-American 5-star prospect from Madison Southern High School—is the Bluegrass State’s premier prospect in the 2015 class. He has to be considered the program’s top target.
The 5’10’’, 208-pound rusher recently lit up The Opening, where he clocked a 4.48 40-yard dash and a 4-flat 20-yard shuttle, recorded a 37.9 inch vertical and totaled a 126.9 SPARQ rating, the 14th best total of any player in attendance.
Coming off an incredible junior campaign, in which he rushed for over 2,600 yards and a whopping 42 touchdowns, the 2013 Kentucky Gatorade Player of the Year has solidified his status as an elite recruit.
Harris isn’t just a potential game-changer, he’s also a potential program-saver.
Stoops has clearly recognized the highly productive and extremely athletic Kentucky native’s game-changing ability. The problem is, so has Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, Kevin Sumlin and Will Muschamp.
Still, it’s at least an early victory to make the cut in Harris’ recently revealed final top 5 schools list, which also includes Alabama, Florida, Ohio State and Texas A&M.
Unfortunately, those other four recruiting powerhouses provide for some stiff competition.
Still, Stoops does at least have a solid overall pitch to make to the prolific prospect from Berea.
With heralded players like Barker and Elam, as well as 4-star LB Eli Brown (Warren East HS)–the No. 2 player in Kentucky for the 2015 class—opting to stay in state, it shows that Stoops can connect with the state’s top talent.
The program may not have many wins on its recent resume, but what it does have is hope for a better future.
Commonwealth Stadium has undergone a 110-million-dollar transformation. That will certainly help when it comes to competing with power programs for top-flight recruits who are looking to be wowed.
Harris could be wowed by the impressive new facilities, and he could appreciate the idea of staying in his home state of Kentucky. But what he should really be intrigued by is the idea of being the offensive savior for the Wildcats.
Share the depth chart with Trey Williams?
Compete for carries with Derrick Henry?
Defer attention to Kelvin Taylor?
Or be “the guy” at Kentucky?
Barker may have solid successful starter potential, but it’s Harris who has the star potential.
Plus, barring any major surprises, it’s likely Stoops will be at Kentucky for the foreseeable future.
The same can’t be said for Muschamp, who is entering a make-or-break hot seat season in Gainesville. It can’t be said for Kevin Sumlin, who is going to get wooed by plenty of NFL teams next offseason. It can’t be said for Meyer, who has already left one high-profile coaching position due to health issues.
Coaching stability is something both Stoops and Saban can provide. The only difference is Stoops is looking for a featured back, Saban already has three.
If Kentucky wants to become a legitimate competitor in the loaded SEC, the Wildcats have to begin landing a few star talents like Harris.
Stoops has proven he can sell the direction of the program to highly ranked in-state prospects. But the battle for Harris will be the toughest one yet.
If the 47-year-old coach can win this tug-of-war against some of the SEC’s recruiting heavyweights, it will say a lot about the future of the program.