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By HAL MORRIS
LEXINGTON — Warren Wilson knew if the right coach was in place, Kentucky would have a shot to land elite football recruits.
The former Kentucky defensive back knows the Wildcats now have that coach in Mark Stoops, who won’t settle for getting anything but the best possible players.
“I think it was something that was always possible, I just think it was something that somebody actually had to go after and go get and it was just going to take the right coaches to go ahead and say, ‘Hey, I can get the same kids that USC or Florida or Notre Dame can get,’” Wilson said. “And I think that’s what they’re doing.”
Wilson was on hand last week to watch his son, Tre, participate in the annual Dennis and Derrick Johnson Football camp at UK’s Nutter Field House. He said it’s just the Stoops name that has been huge for UK, but also the energy he’s brought to the program with his assistants, which has in turn helped recruiting.
“The name is one thing, along with the staff and the names he’s bringing with him now,” Wilson said. “The biggest thing is he knows he has to go into Ohio first and take care of what’s in his backyard. you can’t really move forward unless you take care of what’s in your backyard and once you add those stomping grounds you can move forward.
“And that’s a huge plus right now. There’s a lot of talent in Ohio, there’s talent in Kentucky and there’s talent with the pipeline from him being based on Florida, and from his staff from Texas.”
Kentucky has one of the highest-ranked recruiting classes in the country for 2014. Derrick Johnson, a former player at Harrodsburg and Kentucky, said it is a great time be a UK fan.
“It’s a great buzz right now, and I feel it’s long past due. It’s possible to have a good basketball program and a good football program, but you have to invest money in the football program, which I feel they are doing,” he said. “Everybody’s excited about the stadium expansion.”
Dennis Johnson, a former UK All-American from Harrodsburg, said it’s simply the right coach at the right time.
“It’s like the perfect storm, getting the guys and you keep getting them. And he’s going out and getting those young guys, which I think is good. Grab those guys early,” he said. “Yeah, some of them are going to de-commit, but if you get half of those guys, now they can start going to combines saying, ‘I signed with Kentucky already.’”
Former Wildcat running back Anthony White, who co-hosts a Sunday morning sports talk show on WLAP-AM, said he’s not surprised how recruiting has been going because of who the coach is.
“When the coaching search came down, I thought Mark Stoops would be a good fit, the things he’s done, his pedigree. I’m from northeast Ohio (Twinsburg) so I know his upbringing,” White said. “I’m not surprised he’s doing it, I’m surprised that it’s happening at UK. I’m just not surprised Mark is having an impact.”
And Ohio has been the key to UK’s success.
Dennis Johnson said he played with three or four guys “at tops” from Ohio during his playing days.
White said all along Stoops was the coach who could get Ohio kids, which is why he wanted him at Kentucky.
“When we were looking for a coach, I said we’ve got to find someone who will come in and change the culture, who has no ties with the university so he can change the culture,” he said. “Someone who will get the Ohio border back into play, with Penn State being under sanctions, Ohio State still in that situation, that we will have no one to compete against.
“If we want to win in the SEC, we have to recruit Ohio, someone who will change the culture here, somebody who influences defense, which is why I came up with Mark.”
Wilson agreed that Kentucky had to have a coach go into Ohio, and he’s glad to see Stoops doing it. For years, he saw coaches who would not.
“Ohio State has a lot of stuff sewed up, and some coaches are intimidated, they don’t want go into other states like that,” he said. “If you can’t keep the best 10 or 12 from Kentucky in Kentucky and at the same time not get the best 10 out of Tennessee, why go to Ohio if you’re not confident enough to secure what’s in your own backyard.
“I think it’s a great thing, I think it’s positive and I’m glad they’re going into Ohio, going into different states.”
Dennis Johnson said the lure of the SEC is big to dangle in front of kids in the heart of Big Ten country.
“Coach Stoops has done a great job of convincing those guys to come here play and make a name for yourself,” he said. “They’re playing the best brand of football in the country, so why not come here? You’re going to get to play a lot, so it’s enticing to guys.”