By Les Johns
Editor’s note: This is the third in a four-part series about the state of the UK football program.
It’s not the X’s and O’s but the Jimmys and Joes that win football games, many believe.
Alabama and LSU had the top two recruiting classes in the country as ranked by Rivals.com in 2009.
Those two teams inevitably met for the national title in 2012, as those recruits from 2009 blossomed into experienced upper-classmen.
UK lags behind in recruiting investment and faces regional barriers to securing the top-level recruits it needs to compete in the SEC.
Mitch Sherman of ESPN.com reported on SEC recruiting budgets in June. That report revealed the Cats were ranked eighth of the 11 teams whose budgets were reported in 2011 (there were 12 SEC teams in 2011, and Vanderbilt is a private institution that does not have to report these numbers).
“It’s difficult to put a comprehensive comment on that statistic without knowing how expenses were, and were not, counted by each individual school,” UK spokesman Tony Neely said in an email to the Kernel. “We spend the money and the coaches have the resources they need to get the job done in recruiting. Our recruiting budget does not limit our recruiting efforts.”
The Cats spent $336,035 in 2011, compared with an average of $665,585 for the rest of the conference’s teams.
“You can make numbers say anything you want to and can slide numbers from one budget line to another. I’m not disputing those numbers but don’t put a lot of stock in them, either,” said Oscar Combs, founder of The Cats’ Pause and member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame. “I don’t think the amount UK Athletics spends on recruiting is a problem.”
Keith Niebuhr, a national recruiting analyst for 247sports.com, said it isn’t always about how much you spend, but how wisely you spend.
“Your most natural play to go geographically would be Ohio. Most people in Ohio don’t think about Kentucky as a destination, they think about Ohio State and other Big Ten schools,” said Mark Nagel, associate professor in the sport and entertainment management department at the University of South Carolina. “I would think Kentucky is in a very difficult place from a football perspective, because they don’t have the tradition.
The first thing you have to do is convince the best local players to play at your school in your state, which is hard to do when you have 50 years of mediocrity.”
Combs agrees that the Cats need to better secure players from within Kentucky first.
“Right now, they are on target to get maybe only one from their own state —that is an issue that money has nothing to do with,” Combs said.
There are three players in Kentucky rated four-star prospects by Rivals.com for 2013. Hunter Bivin, from Owensboro, has committed to Notre Dame and Jason Hatcher, from Louisville, has committed to Southern California. James Quick, a wide receiver from Trinity High School in Louisville, has yet to commit.
“Players want to go where they are going to a bowl every year and have a good shot at a BCS bowl and/or a national championship,” Combs said.
“Today, you can’t say either one of them at Kentucky and be sincere. I think that is their limit in recruiting.”
One could argue that UK needs to spend more to compete with the other programs in the SEC in deeper talent-pool rich states, with so few high-level recruits coming from Kentucky.
Kyle Tucker of The Courier-Journal compiled raw data from Rivals.com recruiting data to reveal that Kentucky produces fewer four- and five-star players than any other state in the SEC. In the past four years, Kentucky has produced six such recruits, compared with 42 in Alabama, 53 in Louisiana, 99 in Georgia and 194 in Florida.
“They are in a disadvantage from one standpoint — the state of Kentucky just doesn’t have a ton of talent. That means you have to spend money to get your coaches to where the talent is,” Niebuhr said. “Then you ask, where is most of the talent that is in Kentucky? The higher percentage is in Louisville. Not only do you have the disadvantage of not having a ton of D-1 kids in your state, but many of ones you do are in your rival’s backyard.”
Lack of investment in recruiting coupled with geographic disadvantages led to the Cats reeling in what Rivals.com ranks as the 14th best class in the SEC for 2012 (out of now 14 teams).
“Kentucky has to travel, and you can see that from where they earn commitments, but it wasn’t that long ago that the team led by Andre Woodson was right in the thick of things for the division race,” Niebuhr said. “There’s a lot of selling points to coming to Kentucky. Is it an uphill battle?
Sure. It can be done. It isn’t easy, but it can be done. Five-star guys will be hard to get.”
Neibuhr said the Cats could compete in the southern states by targeting what he labeled “difference makers” and by recruiting smartly. He cited Woodson and Randall Cobb as difference makers in the past for UK — players who flew a little under the radar but turned out to be huge contributors.
“When you go to the states with a lot of talent, there isn’t much difference between the Number 7 defensive tackle in Georgia and the Number 13 defensive tackle in Georgia. There’s not always a big difference,” he said. “When Georgia and Alabama are done in the state of Georgia, there are still plenty of good players there. There’s still plenty of good players left in Florida. A lot of this starts with asking where the talent is, and it is a long way away.
“There are guys that get overlooked, and they are going to have to find those guys.”