By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky coach Mark Stoops isn’t sure if all his signing classes will have such a large percentage of Florida players — 11 of 22 signees were Florida native — but he wants to continue to use his connections in that state all he can.
“There are a lot of great players that come out of Florida. It’s probably the way it fell because of our relationships with some of them. So I don’t know if it would be the exact percentage in the future, but I’m not going to put any limitations on it,” said Stoops. “There is a lot of talent down there but we’re going to work extremely hard to hit everybody we can within a four-, five-, six‑hour drive from Lexington.”
Chris Hays, Orlando Sentinel recruiting coverage coordinator, said he saw a “major push” from Kentucky this season in Florida that only intensified after Stoops, the former Florida State defensive coordinator, took over at UK.
“Stoops has a name to perk up the ears of players,” Hays said. “Kentucky did make a push here early. They got Blake McClain on board early and it was obvious they were trying to come into Florida and get things going like Iowa State has done. Look at Louisville with Charlie Strong’s connections and that roster and what they have done. Coming to Florida is a trend you are seeing more and coaches can be successful here getting great players because there are a lot of them.
“With Stoops, kids here are buying into his rah-rah philosophy of being part of a big turnaround at Kentucky. Pop Warner football is huge here. Kids start paying young and all buy into football.”
Florida high school football consists of eight divisions. There are 76 Class 8-A schools — and UK signees Alex Montgomery, Alvonte Bell, Blake McClain, JoJo Kemp and Jeff Badet all played for 8-A schools. Others played in 5-A or 6-A.
Recruiting analysts indicate 5-A to 8-A schools in Florida is comparable to the play of Louisville Trinity and Highlands, two of Kentucky’s best programs each year. Hays says Kentucky has a variety of playmakers with the Florida signees.
“Badet wants the ball and when he does get it, he gets the job done and is a big-play receiver,” Hays said. “I watched Kemp a lot. He’s a terrific running back. He can do a lot of things with the football. He has a tremendous upside. It will be fun to see him in the spread offense. He’s very athletic, has tremendous balance and does a good job after taking hits. He’s very determined and strong because he played linebacker the early part of his career.
“Montgomery, I am a huge fan of his. The show he put on in the state title game (nine catches for 199 yards and three scores) was something. He’s a very good kid, too. He is a tremendous athlete and the plays he makes are plays other guys can’t make. He just makes plays out of something that is not there. Javess Blue was highly recruited out of high school and then did well at junior college. I would think he can be terrific.
“McClain is surprisingly athletic for a defensive back. He played wide receiver on offense. He does a lot of different things. He can pick the ball and do a lot of things athletically to get the ball back to the end zone. He’s also a good kick returner. He will be a good locker room type of guy for Kentucky.”
Stoops called Kemp a “home run hitter” and a player that UK “targeted as a high priority” immediately. Badet was another player Stoops said his staff targeted immediately because of his “home run speed.”
The UK coach already knew plenty about Montgomery.
“He comes from a tremendous program, big‑time wide receiver that I knew about and had my eye on him for a good bit. Anybody that goes into the state championship game and has— what did he have 9 catches for 190 yards or something like that, you know he’s a heck of a football player. I’ve known Alex for a while. It was a great get for us, a guy that’s a strong receiver who can make plays,” Stoops said.
Another player he knew plenty about was running back Khalid Thomas and the Tallahassee high school where he played. “He is a solid player that’s going to give us some depth and have a punch to our class,” Stoops said.
Another player Stoops and defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot knew they wanted to keep committed to UK was defensive linemen Alvonte Bell “We offered him at Florida State. Alvonte has great size range and great upside, and very excited to see him committed when I arrived here on campus. We worked hard at keeping that relationship with Alvonte with us because we think an awful lot of him,” Stoops said.
Offensive lineman Ramsey Myers was another early UK commit that Stoops says offensive coordinator Neal Brown and offensive line coach John Schlarman wanted to keep.
Offensive lineman Nick Haynes signed after being recruited for only about two weeks by Stoops and his staff. “Nick Haynes is a guy we just started working a couple of weeks ago and just had a chance to watch him and get caught up with him on film. Extremely impressed with his athletic ability. Again, great size, a guy that’s very versatile. We feel that he could play some center as well as guard. Excited about him,” Stoops said.