Success can be measured in a lot of different ways for Kentucky football. It could be two recent 10-win seasons. It could be four straight bowl victories and six straight bowl appearances.
However, nothing might be showcasing the improvement of Kentucky football more than the NFL draft.
The Wildcats had four players drafted in last week’s draft, including three in the top 65 picks, and three signed free agent contracts immediately after the draft ended.
“Coach (Mark) Stoops is one of the top 10 coaches in college football right now. I don’t know if any other coach could have pulled off what he has built,” said Vince Marrow, Kentucky’s associate coach and recruiting coordinator. “There are a lot of coaches who do it very well at their schools but I don’t think they could have done what Mark Stoops has done here.
“He took over a program that was 2-10 in the most dominant league in football. We were worse than Vandy. I was telling coaches I was coming here and they would say, 'Why go there? You will be fired in two or three years because you can't win there. Culture is bad, never have a draft pick and you can never recruit the type players to win in that conference.' That's why Mark Stoops has shown he's one of the best coaches in the country.”
Obviously, Marrow is a bit biased, but he brought NFL draft picks Wan’Dale Robinson (43rd pick, New York Giants), Josh Paschal (46th, Detroit Lions), and Luke Fortner (65th, Jacksonville) all to Kentucky. He was also the lead recruiter for fifth-round pick Darian Kinnard.
Robinson, a graduate of Western Hills, was Kentucky Mr. Football in 2018.
ESPN’s Peter Burns noted that UK had more players selected in the first 65 picks than Ohio State, Clemson, Florida, USC, Texas and Oklahoma. He said Stoops “continues to be one of the best coaches in developing talent” to back up Marrow's belief.
Adam Rittenberg, ESPN college football writer, said Kentucky is “rapidly becoming a program like Iowa, Utah and Wisconsin — outperforming the recruiting rankings on NFL draft weekend. Really good player development by Mark Stoops and his staff.”
Former Cats’ Pause publisher Oscar Combs has followed UK for over 50 years. He knew how historic having three players go in the first 65 picks was for the Kentucky football program.
“It’s truly amazing what last season’s 20-17 Citrus Bowl win over Iowa and 10-3 record have done for the reputation of UK football. No better example of this than watching and hearing TV analysts toast UK during the NFL Draft when three Wildcats were taken in the third round,” Combs posted on Twitter.
Kentucky has not had that many players picked so high since 1966 — offensive lineman Sam Ball, 15; tight end Bob Windsor, 26; quarterback Rick Norton, 29; receiver Rick Kestner, 47; and tackle Doug Davis, 72.
Last year UK had linebacker Jamin Davis picked 19th overall in the first round and cornerback Kelvin Joseph 44th in the second round. In 2019, Josh Allen went seventh, Lonnie Johnson 54th and Mike Edwards 99th.
From 1999 to 2015, Kentucky only had 11 players among the first 100 picks in the NFL draft.
Kinnard, an All-American lineman, was expected by many to be in the top 100 but fell to Kansas City in the fifth round with the 145th overall pick. That meant UK now has had four or more players picked in the first five rounds twice in the last four years. The only other time that happened was in that historic 1966 draft.
Marrow believes Kinnard will still have a long, productive NFL career and can rattle off a long list of players drafted in the fifth round or later who have been successful.
“Darian was a high profile guy and a lot of people were saying first round. You always have the potential to be a first-round pick, but I was sure he was a lock to go in the second round,” Marrow said. “Sometimes the NFL gets too cute, but the good thing for Darian is that he slid to a Super Bowl team where he can compete for a starting job.”
SEC Network/ESPN host Alyssa Lang watched Kinnard play the last two seasons and was as shocked as Marrow and UK fans that Kinnard did not go sooner.
“This pick is among the best steals of the draft this year,” Lang said after Kinnard’s selection Saturday. “I fell asleep early last night and woke up astounded that he hadn’t been picked up. Loved watching and talking to him this year."