How Kentucky raided Big Ten territory to rise to national prominence

Columnist
Yahoo Sports

Mark Stoops had never been to the University of Kentucky when he accepted the job as its head football coach in late 2012. Never been to Lexington. Never been to campus.

He didn’t care. If nothing else, he knew one indisputable fact.

“Kids want to play in the SEC,” Stoops told Yahoo Sports back in 2013 on National Signing Day, his first with the Wildcats.

And that included, Stoops was certain, the kids in the talent-rich state of Ohio, where Stoops grew up as part of a legendary football family.

Ron Stoops Sr. was a longtime defensive coordinator at Cardinal Mooney High School in Youngstown. His four sons went into the family business, including Bob (former head coach at Oklahoma), Mike (former head coach at Arizona) and Ron Jr. (currently an assistant at Youngstown State and a longtime area high school coach).

Mark Stoops’ plan (or part of it) was somewhat simple: Sell the chance to play in the SEC to Ohio recruits that otherwise would sign with Big Ten clubs.

“We are going to focus on Ohio, there is no question,” Stoops said in 2013.

Now the country is focusing on Kentucky.

The Wildcats are 7-1 and ranked ninth in the initial College Football Playoff rankings. They host No. 6 Georgia in a game that should determine the SEC East. It is the biggest game in years in Lexington, where the football revival has been stunning. The ‘Cats haven’t won the SEC outright since 1950 … when Bear Bryant was their coach.

Kentucky coach Mark Stoops celebrates with players and fans on the field after the team’s 28-7 win over Mississippi State in  September. (AP)
Kentucky coach Mark Stoops celebrates with players and fans on the field after the team’s 28-7 win over Mississippi State in  September. (AP)

As to Stoops’ plan, Kentucky’s roster features 27 players from Ohio.

That includes stars such as running back Benny Snell Jr. (Westerville), linebackers Jordan Jones (Youngstown) and Chris Oats (Cincinnati), tight end C.J. Conrad (LaGrange), wide receivers Lynn Bowden Jr. (Youngstown) and Dorian Baker (Cleveland Heights), safeties Darius West (Lima) and Mike Edwards (Cincinnati) and offensive lineman George Asafo-Adjei (West Chester).

“When you think about the players on that roster from that state,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart marveled this week, “it’s amazing.”

It’s not that Kentucky coaches hadn’t tried to mine Ohio in the past. Lexington is just 80 miles south of Cincinnati, after all.

It’s just it never tried this hard, especially outside of Cincy. When looking for out-of-state recruits, the old adage in the SEC is that “planes don’t fly north.” The conference focuses on Southern talent, namely in Atlanta and across Florida.

The issue for historically second- or third-tier programs such as Kentucky is they’re left with scraps after the powerhouse schools load up. Stoops hasn’t abandoned the South by any means; there are 16 Floridians on the roster. It’s just that considering the ties he enjoys in Ohio, this made sense.

To help, he quickly hired tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator Vince Marrow, who grew up with him in Youngstown.

Together they’ve helped Big Blue hit pay dirt.

Stoops figured he wouldn’t win too many battles for five-stars against Ohio State or even Michigan, Penn State and Notre Dame, which does especially well with Catholic school products.

That didn’t matter. There’s a lot of really good players in Ohio. It averages about 15 players that are four-star recruits or better per rivals.com. Then there are 60-70 more three-star prospects who attract major college attention. Ohio, Western Pennsylvania and the metro regions of Chicago and Detroit have fueled the Big Ten for generations.

Against the rest of the Big Ten, whose campuses often sit further away than Lexington, it was game on. Plus, other than the occasional run at an elite five-star talent, it’s fairly rare for any other SEC school to work the Midwest. That was the edge. UK and UK alone was flying the league banner.

Stoops also caught a bit of good timing. He arrived one year after Urban Meyer took over at Ohio State and brought a national focus to recruiting. It’s certainly worked for the Buckeyes, who remain a powerhouse. And they still get almost any in-state recruit they want. It’s just that they want fewer and fewer each year.

In his final recruiting class, Jim Tressel signed 14 Ohio products. Meyer has signed 11 in the past two years combined. He has just three committed for 2019.

That has helped open the door for Stoops to come in and sign nine four-star recruits from Ohio, including Conrad, Bowden, Baker, West, Edwards, Asafo-Adjei and Oats. Not to mention grabbing Snell, who has rushed for 3,359 yards and 41 touchdowns in 2½ seasons, from the Columbus suburbs.

Some of it has been success breeding success. As one Midwest kid has come, others have followed. Kentucky even signed two of the top players out of Detroit last year. That includes highly regarded offensive lineman Marquan McCall of Oak Park, Michigan, proving that Interstate 75 just keeps going north.

There are few things the SEC likes more than waving its football superiority in the face of the Big Ten. Most of that taunting is done from afar though. Maybe no one has done more actual damage to the league of late than Stoops.

After all, if not for him, those Ohio Wildcats would, more likely than not, be Ohio Spartans or Ohio Hawkeyes or Ohio Boilermakers.

Instead they are in Lexington, imported from Ohio and right to the top of the SEC standings.

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