LEXINGTON — Even as the losses continued to mount for the University of Kentucky football team this fall, culminating in a 2-10 record, first-year coach Mark Stoops insisted that he expected a slew of impressive verbal commitments for the 2014 recruiting class to hold up.
We won’t know for sure if that’s true until February, when national signing day comes around, but so far, Stoops’ optimism looks to be sound.
Stoops announced the signing of two junior college standouts Wednesday: Cory Johnson, a 6-foot-3, 300-pound defensive tackle from ASA College in Chambersburg, Pa.; and A.J. Stamps, a 6-foot, 190-pound cornerback from East Mississippi Community College.
Johnson is rated a 4-star recruit by Rivals and 247Sports and 3-star by ESPN.com. ESPN.com ranks him the No. 8 defensive linemen in the junior college ranks.
“Cory is a big, physical, very active player, and he’s very mature,” Stoops said. “The fact that he led his team in tackles as a defensive lineman is very impressive.”
Johnson could fill a critical need for the Wildcats with the departure of tackles Mister Cobble, Donte Rump and Tristian Johnson.
Stamps, meanwhile, helped East Mississippi’s Lions win the national championship this past season. He had four interceptions and helped East Mississippi to a No. 2 national ranking defensively.
“A.J. is a guy who really blew up this year,” Stoops said. “He started as a wide receiver his first year at East Mississippi, and played corner this year and did a fantastic job. He is a playmaker with the physical makeup to be an impact player right away.”
If you doubt the kind of hype coming from Stoops, consider that Stamps’ college choice came down to Kentucky and Ohio State, and Johnson chose UK over Texas Tech and Miami of Florida.
Stoops admitted that Kentucky nearly lost Stamps at the last minute to the Buckeyes.
“This was one of those deals that didn’t get closed until about an hour ago,” Stoops said. “We felt good about it for awhile, but it’s never over until it’s over, and the last 4i8 hours some things got turned. It’s always a hard-fought battle when you’re going after players of this caliber.”
Stamps said his reasons for choosing Kentucky were multiple.
“The relationship with the coaches and players when I visited,” Stamps said of his decision. “Also the city of Lexington and the fan support.”
Stamps and Johnson join five high school signees who are enrolling at UK in January and will participate in winter workouts and spring drills.
Those five are highly-touted quarterback Drew Barker (6-3, 217 pounds) of Conner High School; linebacker Dorian Hendrix (6-foot, 230) from Huber Heights, Ohio; running back Mikel Horton (6-1, 223) from West Chester, Ohio; wide receiver Thaddeus Snodgrass (6-1, 180) from Springfield, Ohio, and wide receiver T.V. Williams (5-10, 165) from McKinney, Texas.
All five of those guys have glowing credentials, which doesn’t guarantee anything, but brings justified optimism that Stoops and his staff are moving in the right direction.
Most eyes will be on Barker, of course, since he addresses the Wildcats’ most glaring weakness this past season - quarterback.
But Stoops said he will not make any effort to temper the immediate expectations for Barker.
“Drew coming in here mid-year is different from a regular high school kid coming in the fall,” Stoops said. “He’ll go through off-season conditioning, and through spring ball. And you have a day off, just about, in between every spring practice, so you have a lot of time to mentally soak things in. I think that’s big at quarterback, so I am excited to get him in here and get him rolling.
“I expect him to come in here from Day 1 and compete for the starting job. He’s a very mature young man with great leadership skills.”
Stoops had most of his verbally committed guys, and others, in town this past weekend together for a visit, and he brought them in en masse by design, because he already senses a bond with the 2014 class that is unique.
“Most of the high school guys have been committed to us for some time, and that’s so unique because they have bonded so well together,” Stoops said. “They interact with each other like they’ve known each other for years. If you look at some of the characteristics of this class that we’re bringing in, they are obviously talented football players, but also great leaders and great, humble kids.”
Stoops said he feels that kind of energy from his veteran players as well, despite the announced departures recently of running back Dyshawn Mobley and wide receiver Daryl Collins.
“The guys went back to work the Monday after our last game (a 27-14 loss to Tennessee on Nov. 30),” Stoops said. “I’ve been running since that Sunday recruiting, but I’ve stopped in and pulled the team together, and I think guys are very excited about the future.
“It was a tough year on everybody, but I think they are genuinely excited to get back to work, get bigger and strong and keep on working fundamentally to get better. I think the overall mindset is much different and much more confident as we move forward.”