HOOVER, Ala. — Tony Barnhart understands that Kentucky has won just two games — and no Southeastern Conference games — the last two years. However, Barnhart, a former college football reporter for ESPN and now a college football insider for CBS Sports and the SEC Network, can see reasons for UK fans to be excited going into Mark Stoops’ second season.
“To me, if I am a Kentucky fan, I am excited about all the leading indicators. The indicators are good. Now they were not a very good team a year ago and didn’t win a conference game, but you go out and if you believe they recruiting rankings, they did a very good job of recruiting,” said Barnhart. “Now you have to build and put four or five of those (recruiting classes) together and get some consistent play at quarterback and then you have a chance to make some noise.”
Barnhart says former UK coach Rich Brooks provided the “road map” for success at UK when he went to four straight bowl games and beat Clemson and Florida State in bowl games.
“It can be done at Kentucky. But it is about players and it is about coaching and it starts with players,” Barnhart said.
Barnhart liked the way Brooks and his staff developed players even though he never had recruiting classes ranked as high as the one Stoops had last year and is putting together again this year.
“Everything I know about this staff tells me they are good at developing talent. There is no doubt at a place like Kentucky you have to get those two- and three-star guys and make them into a four-star. Coach Brooks was really good at doing that. But based on what I know about this staff, they can do it,” Barnhart said.
Barnhart doesn’t think UK has to have a banner season to continue to recruit well.
“I think you can keep selling the dream, but the fans have got to see signs that things are moving in the right direction. Maybe you don’t beat a Georgia, Florida or South Carolina, but you come really close and scare them,” Barnhart said. “There just have to be signs to give them something to hope for.
“But I think really the signs … when you start bringing in better players, they tend to give you those signs. If I am a Kentucky fan, I am hoping that those people who say this was the No. 17 recruiting class in the country know what they were talking about.
“You look at what this coaching staff has done going into Ohio and signing players and getting the best players in state to stay home. It absolutely has made a difference. Kids have to imagine themselves going to a place like Kentucky and having success. It is a great place, you get on campus and they love it. But they have to imagine themselves having success at Kentucky. To be able to convince a bunch of great players to come to Kentucky, I think that is a good sign for the future.”
Yet Barnhart admits he’s not sure what the strength of Stoops’ second team will be.
“I think they feel pretty good about the running back position. I think they are making some strides on the defensive side of the ball. I just think the big question mark is are you going to have to play Drew Barker at quarterback. Is he going to be the guy? Is it going to be Max Smith? Is it going to be Patrick Towles? I think you have to find a quarterback that can give you a chance,” Barnhart said.
“Basically the way offenses are now and for what Kentucky wants to do offensively, you just can’t be average at quarterback. You have to be pretty good. One of those guys has to step up and be pretty good.”
Barnhart does believe the launch of the SEC Network in mid-August will benefit UK football.
“Absolutely because of exposure. Kentucky is going to get more exposure on the SEC Network and people will look and be like, ‘Wow. I knew they played basketball, but did you know Bear Bryant coached at Kentucky, did you know Kentucky upset the No. 1 team (LSU) in the nation in 2007?’ They will learn all these things about Kentucky football that they did not know. That is the kind of exposure that Kentucky will get on the network that will help.”