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January 13, 2013
Kentucky keeps pace with Louisville
Dallas Jackson is the National Columnist for Rivals.com. Email him your comments or story ideas to DallasJ@Yahoo-Inc.com and follow him on Twitter.
With the combination of its victory over Florida in the Sugar Bowl, a move to the ACC from the Big East and the major coup in retaining head coach Charlie Strong, one would figure that Louisville is making a major run in recruiting, leaving rival Kentucky in the rearview mirror.
Except it isn't.
Kentucky replaced Joker Phillips after a winless season in the SEC with coach Mark Stoops in early December, and since that time Stoops has helped land five commitments and push the Wildcats to the No. 49 class in the Rivals.com team rankings -- ahead of No. 57 Louisville.
Stoops is one of the coaches hired during the latest spin of the annual college football coaching carousel who is being thrown into the heat of a burgeoning recruiting battle -- one in which he will square off with Strong and the red-hot Redbirds from Louisville.
"We have to go out and recruit," Stoops said upon getting hired. "You have to recruit each and every day, each and every year, to keep on building your program."
The program is hosting one of the top official visit weekends of any school in the opening week of the calendar year.
The focus on bringing in talent, Stoops told Rivals.com, is not accidental. Attracting higher-level prospects is the only way to elevate the program to relevancy.
He will compete for players in his backyard, but with ties to Florida -- and a plan to go into Ohio -- the expansion of Big Blue Nation appears to be moving forward.
The battle against Louisville is one that Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell expects to heat up in a hurry.
"Neither Louisville nor Kentucky is really in a great spot with limited in-state talent, so both schools have to look elsewhere," Farrell said, "Usually when that happens, each head coach or coaching staff has some footprint elsewhere, but in this case they are both well known in Florida and the two will fight for kids at some point. That is for sure.
"Strong has a leg up with what he has been able to do and has set the bar high in South Florida. These teams aren't going to be battling down to the final two for many of the elite players, but you can bet that there will be a lot of three-star guys getting mined out by both teams."
Louisville has six Floridians on its list of 13 commitments. It recently secured a commitment from the top-ranked player in its state, Louisville (Ky.) Trinity receiver James Quick.
Rivals.com regional analyst Josh Helmholdt said both schools have done well but that Kentucky could be in a position to make a move.
"What I think Stoops is doing now in doubling down in Ohio is smart and should help Kentucky," he said. "It is a state that is annually fourth, fifth or sixth in talent, and it is less than two hours from campus. The Wildcats have had very little presence there in the past, but he has come right in and done immediate work in establishing the program.
"Louisville has a lot of momentum right now and a lot of buzz, deservedly so, but I think Stoops can have Kentucky on the right track."
The emphasis that Stoops has put on recruiting was exactly what Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhardt expected when he made the hire.
"Our desire to get better defensively and continue to expand our recruiting base helped guide us to Mark," he said in a press release.
Within weeks of his appointment, Stoops landed four-star defensive tackle Za'Darius Smith from Scooba (Miss.) East Mississippi Community College and closed on three-star defensive back Hytchye. They are two of the top four prospects in the class.
According to Helmholdt, the next step will be for Stoops to try to reposition the Wildcats as the top program in the state.
"Recruiting has really rotated between the two, so I don't know if either can be the truly dominant school," he said. "Obviously that is the goal, and the next couple of classes could be really strong in the state and the talent is pretty well spaced between both schools.
"If Stoops is able to win some games on the field and show that he is transforming the program, I think there is a reason to believe Kentucky can overtake Louisville."
The impact of all 27 coaching changes will not be fully measured for some time, but here are four additional new hires who are creating an immediate interest at the national level.
NEW HEAD COACHES INVOLVED IN RECRUITING BATTLES