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By LARRY VAUGHT
Obviously, a roster purge was not unexpected when Mark Stoops took over at Kentucky. It happens almost every time there is a head coaching change and over half of the 11 players who have left UK since Stoops’ arrival had some kind of off-field issue. But that’s not going to make Stoops’ job easier.
Kentucky was 2-10 last season. Now 10 players eligible to return from that team are gone along with 13 scholarship seniors that made major contributions to last year’s team. That’s 23 players missing from last year’s team.
Now add freshman running Khalid Thomas to the casualty list after he was booted off the team along with his brother, sophomore linebacker Pancho Thomas.
Also it seems that another signee, Florida defensive lineman Alvonte Bell, likely will not be on campus as one source indicates he’ll go to either a junior college or prep school. That makes 12 players that could have been on the roster this year who will not be.
Two other signees, junior college cornerback Nate Willis and Ohio offensive lineman Kyle Meadows, have indicated they are finishing course work and will be at UK by early August. Kentucky has also been without junior college receiver Javess Blue, a key part needed for UK’s offense next season. Sources indicate he should arrive on campus soon and that UK coaches knew he likely would arrive late.
But the bottom line is that Stoops’ first team is going to be remarkably short on depth at almost every position and lacking SEC-caliber talent at some spots. The buzz about Kentucky football won’t be derailed by the Thomas’ departure — after all, UK did get a commitment from talented Texas receiver T.V. Williams Tuesday. Instead, that could happen when the Cats start having to play Louisville and eight SEC opponents.
Some fans are hoping Stoops, offensive coordinator Neal Brown and defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot can work magic and win enough games to get to a bowl. If they do, name streets after them and double all their salaries. What’s more realistic is that UK could struggle to win four games this year — and the guess here is that the coaches know that and are subtly trying to make sure 2014 recruits know that, too.
By LARRY VAUGHT
Since his arrival at Kentucky, it seems like everything has gone right for head football coach Mark Stoops.
He put together a much better than expected 2013 recruiting class in two months, has a historic class in the making for 2014 and drew over 50,000 fans to the Blue-White Game to end spring practice. The buzz around UK football has never been higher.
However, Stoops hit a small bump Thursday when he had to dismiss two players — brothers Pancho and Khalid Thomas of Florida — for what UK only confirmed was an unspecified violation of team rules. Lexington police said the two brothers were charged with possession of a controlled substance at 12:45 a.m. July 6.
Stoops had lost other players. Cornerbacks Jonathan Reed and Marcus Caffey were dismissed in January. Redshirt freshman running back Justin Taylor left in early May without ever playing for the Wildcats. Offensive lineman T.J. Jones was dismissed from the team in June.
Sophomore linebacker Demarius Rancifer decided to transfer after he was told he was not the kind of athlete to fit UK’s new defense. Sophomore receivers Bookie Cobbins and DeMarcus Sweat also transferred. So did freshmen cornerback Shawn Blaylock and safety Sterling Wright.
Out of those players, only Sweat had made significant contributions and his transfer probably had more to do with academic concerns than athletic questions. Caffey and Cobbins had off field problems.
But the Thomas brothers were expected to help this season.
At spring practice, Pancho Thomas positioned himself as Avery Williamson’s backup at a spot where UK has limited depth.
He said then the new coaching staff had instilled a new attitude in the team that went 2-10 last year.
“It is so different. It is like everybody wants to win. We are doing everything we can do to win,” Thomas said. “Everyone is competing every day. It’s a competition every practice. We are enjoying practice. We are out here giving it our all. You can see everyone buying into it. We are eating right, practicing right, training right. You can see the attitude has changed with everybody. Everybody has a winning attitude now.
“I am not really sure what made that change. I guess our coaches coming in and letting us know what they are expecting from us is what really made us change. We knew either you get on the boat, or you get left. That’s how it is. It’s lot better to be on the boat than by yourself.”
Now Thomas is off the boat along with his brother. Pancho Thomas had 12 tackles in limited action last year in 10 games. Khalid Thomas signed with the Wildcats in February after originally committing to coach Joker Phillips. He was ranked as the No. 35 athlete in the country in the class of 2013.
The same day news broke that the brothers had been kicked off the team, the Lexington Herald-Leader also reported that junior safety Ashely Lowery was cited for DUI in connection with the car crash in May that left him hospitalized for several days. Kentucky officials said Stoops would let the legal process take its course before addressing Lowery’s situation. Lowery, who started eight games in 2012, was also cleared to resume limited workouts this week.
That’s not the kind of buzz that has surrounded UK football since Stoops’ arrival.
Randy Taylor has over 30 years experience in the college football recruiting ranks and has been on staffs at Illinois, UCLA, San Jose State and Minnesota as well as having his own recruiting service before joining NCSA Athletic Recruiting as a recruiting analyst and national speaker. Taylor likes what he saw from Mark Stoops’ first recruiting class at Kentucky.
“If you have an aggressive, active head coach that enjoys recruiting you’ve got a chance. His name recognition can get him in the door of recruits other coaches can’t. Take advantage of it,” Taylor, who helped recruit a No. 1 class at UCLA, said. “I would be confident if I was a Wildcat fan as I think this group can get this done. In my mind success has different levels and being in the hunt for conference titles and consistently playing in bowl games should be the short term goals.”
Taylor offered these insights on the recent Kentucky football recruiting class.
Question: How do you evaluate the first recruiting class that Stoops was able to put together at Kentucky?
Taylor: “Under the circumstances of putting the staff and organization together in a first year it was pretty good especially with key mid year prospects on campus and a couple good junior college kids to add early depth and maybe more.”
Question: Are there any major surprises to you about the class?
Taylor: “That had to be getting Jason Hatcher at the end.”
Question: Do you think this is only a sign of things to come about the emphasis he will have on recruiting in Florida and Ohio? How much could that help Kentucky?
Taylor: “Their location to Ohio and other Big Ten areas as well as the southeast states lend itself to this. Being in the SEC allows them legitimate access to any of the southeast states where by the way the most talent in the nation resides. If a midwest kid wants to play in the SEC they can go to Kentucky without much of a long drive. In the end, where they decide to spend time building relationships with high schools or already have relationships going is whee they’ll be most successful.”
Question: Who are the stars of this recruiting class in your opinion?
Taylor: “Getting Jason Hatcher at the end the decommit from USC was a great get. Za’Darius Smith, the defensive end from East Mississippi Community College is a long athlete with good quickness and a motor who’s already on campus getting into the system is huge. I like receiver Javess Blue, another junior college kid from Butler Community College. He’s an explosive kid, a playmaker and has good length. Alvonte Bell, a defensive end from Everglades, Fla., has a terrific upside and may be the sleeper of the class. Finally, I like that they got the young quarterback on campus in the spring, Reese Phillips from Signal Mountain, Tenn. He’s got the size, accuracy and can throw on time that you want in a quarterback and I think he’ll get bigger, stronger and faster at this level making him a really good prospect. Nate Willis, cornerback from Arizona Western Junior College has good size, is instinctive, quick and runs well. He can handle bigger receivers.”
Question: How does Kentucky’s signing class stack up with other SEC classes?
Taylor: “They’re in the bottom few of the conference but have some good kids throughout the list that will be contributors at a high level and some immediately. This class would be several spots higher in most other leagues.”
Question: When you think of Kentucky football, what do you think of?
Taylor: “They should win more!”
Question: What kind of long-term impact can Stoops and this staff have on recruiting at Kentucky?
Taylor: “Depends on how active coach Stoops and his staff is year in and year out in their efforts. Recruiting is a year-round job and not just with the next class. They have to make underclass prospects high priorities. Recruiting of the class of 2014 is about one-third over already.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky now officially has in-state products Ryan Timmons and Jacob Hyde on the signee list along with Florida defensive end Alvonte Bell and junior college receiver Javess Blue, who could be the biggest steal in the recruiting class.
Ryan Timmons, Athlete, 5-10, 185, Fr-HS, Frankfort, Ky. (Franklin County) – Dynamic playmaker who was all over the field offensively in high school … Played running back, wide receiver and returned kicks … Produced eye-popping numbers … First-team all-state as a junior and senior by the Louisville Courier-Journal … Also all-state as a senior by The Associated Press and a member of the Lexington Herald-Leader “Class of the Commonwealth” … Rushed for 1,306 yards and 25 touchdowns his senior season, averaging an amazing 15.7 yards per attempt … Caught 33 passes for 1,004 yards and 16 TDs, averaging more than 30 yards per reception … Opponents kicked off to him only three times and he returned them all for touchdowns … Had equally incredible numbers his junior season … Rushed 62 times for 1,382 yards, averaging 22.3 yards per carry, and 20 touchdowns … Also had 38 receptions for 1,100 yards, a 28.9 average, and 18 touchdowns his junior campaign … Versatility makes him difficult to define as he ranks as the nation’s No. 23 running backby 247 Sports.com, the No. 28 athlete by ESPN.com and the No. 46 wide receiver by Scout.com
Alvonte Bell, Defensive End, 6-5, 255, Fr-HS, Miramar, Fla. (Everglades) – Explosive defensive end at Everglades High School in Miramar, Fla., where he was coached by Rodney Rumph … The nation’s No. 24 weakside defensive end by Rivals.com … The No. 34 overall defensive end according to Scout.com … “Bell is a raw athlete with speed, length, and quickness that attracts attention his way. He has long arms to get into passing lanes, he can move well in space, and he really pursues the ball well,” according to Scout analyst Chad Simmons … Was timed at 4.88 in the 40 with a 27-inch vertical … Made 40 tackles as a junior, with his 18 total tackles for loss including 11 quarterback sacks … Helped led the team to the Florida Class 6A regional quarterfinals his freshman and sophomore seasons … Missed much of his senior season because of injury … Began high school career as a basketball star before making the move to football … Name is pronounced “al-VON-tay.”
Jacob Hyde, Defensive Lineman, 6-2, 330, Fr-HS, Manchester, Ky. (Clay County) – Was Kentucky’s first verbal commitment of the 2013 signing class … One of the nation’s top-50 defensive tackles by Rivals.com and 247Sports.com … First-team all-state as a senior as chosen by The Associated Press …Comes to Lexington from Clay County High School, where he played for head coach Shannon Arnett … Played defensive tackle and offensive guard in high school, but is projected on the defensive side for Kentucky … Helped Clay County finish 8-4 his sophomore season en route to an appearance in the Class AAAAA state playoffs … Helped lead Kentucky all-stars to a 29-27 win over Tennessee in the National Guard Border Bowl … Played for the USA national team in the International Bowl on Feb. 5 in Austin, Tex. … Named All-SEKC by MaxPreps.com … Also chosen first team on the All-Mountain squad.
Javess Blue, Wide Receiver, 6-0, 190, Jr-JC, Babson Park, Fla. (Lake Wales/Butler Community College) –Second-team National Junior College Athletic Association All-American during his sophomore season at Butler Community College in El Dorado, Kansas … Also was named first-team all-conference … Ranked as the nation’s No. 14 junior college player by ESPN.com … Led the Grizzlies in receptions with 65, receiving yards with 1,064 and receiving touchdowns with 12 … Ranked in the top-10 nationally in each category … Averaged 28.8 yards per kickoff return and 11.2 yards on punt returns … Helped the team to a 11-1 record in 2012, winning the Region VI Championship before falling in the Graphic Edge National Championship Bowl … Grizzlies were the Region VI Champions, KJCCC Champions and played in the Citizen’s Bank Bowl his freshman season … Great freshman season with 27 receptions for 586 yards, a 21.7-yard average, and three touchdowns … Coached by Troy Morrell at Butler Community College … Big-play receiver at Lake Wales (Fla.) HS … Caught 88 passes for 1,774 yards and 20 touchdowns, averaging 20.2 yards catch, during his final two seasons at LWHS… Helped team advance to the Class AAA state semifinals his junior season with an 11-2 record … Clocked at 4.41 seconds in the 40-yard dash … Coached in high school by Rod Shafer … Name is pronounced “JAY-vess.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Miami Herald high school football recruiting guru Larry Blustein has no doubts about how good Alvonte Bell, who gave his verbal commitment to Kentucky this week, is.
“He is a beast. He is a big-time football player,” said Blustein of the 6-6, 240-pound Bell. “There is never 100 percent for sure anything, but this kid has the ability and if he stays the course he could easily be an all-SEC performer or more. He’s going to get bigger. He’s already fast, quick and intelligent. He’s the total package now and is a great player who will just be better.”
Blustein has compared him to Jason Pierre-Paul, a defensive lineman with the New York Giants. He says he also reminds him of former USA Today Defensive Player of the Year Dennis Johnson of Harrodsburg, who played at UK and earned all-Southeastern Conference honors at defensive end.
“I remember seeing Dennis Johnson at camp and thinking, ‘What a monster.’ This kid is the same way. He has the height like Johnson but is maybe not quite as heavy yet. However, he’s the same type high profile player that everybody wants,” Blustein said.
Bell ran the 40-yard dash in 4.7 seconds at a Florida combine and had scholarship offers from Louisville, Florida State, Vanderbilt, West Virginia, Mississippi State, Clemson Mississippi, Illinois and Notre Dame. He’s also received interest from numerous other schools, including Alabama and Miami.
Bell’s coach, Carlos Menendez, at Everglades High School in Miramar, Fla., says Bell’s decision came down to a “comfort level” with UK coaches after being recruited by UK head coach Joker Phillips, defensive coordinator Rick Minter and defensive line coach David Turner.
“He also has some extended family there, and that helped. His mom raised him by herself and that family support helped,” Menendez said. “He took an unofficial visit last weekend, liked what he saw and decided to commit. He is a very respectful and humble kid and this has been a very heavy spring for him with coaches. He never did show any type of being tired or fatigued from the process, but he just felt he was comfortable and now was the time to make a decision.
“I think playing in the SEC is something he wanted to do. If he had a checklist on his wall at home of things he wanted in a school, he would have it at Kentucky. I am happy for him and proud of him.”
Blustein said it was a “no-brainer” after watching Bell play last season when he had 40 tackles and 11 quarterback sacks that he would be a big-time prospect.
“He can just play. You can’t keep him out of the backfield,” Blustein said. “He has the body type to eventually play at 260 or 270 pounds. He has huge, long arms. He is still a work in process and is still learning, but there’s no doubt in my mind if he stays healthy he is a can’t-miss prospect. He just does great things over and over and it’s so tough to keep him out of the backfield. He’ll play outside in college because he’s too big to put inside (at tackle). He’s got that speed and long arms that make him a great pass rusher.
“He’s also a great kid and very well spoken. He’s also a top 30 player in our state and that makes him pretty good because we have a lot of great players here.”