<
>

Two years later, can the 2014 class get Kentucky over the hump?

Why not us? Why not Kentucky?

That was the slogan that the Kentucky marketing team came up with for Mark Stoops and his staff as they began to put together their first full recruiting class once the ink had dried on the 2013 class. It worked, too. The Wildcats finished with a top-20 class in 2014, their highest ranking since ESPN started rankings the classes in 2006.

The class featured 28 signees from 10 different states. It included six players in the ESPN 300 and four of the top five recruits in the state of Kentucky. And more importantly, it had fans excited about football again.

“I agree with the slogan,” Stoops said at his signing day news conference. “Why not us? What the heck? Let’s go. That’s kind of the approach we’ve had since we’ve been here. We’re not here to play second to anybody. We’re here to compete at a high level in a great conference.”

Fast forward two years. The Wildcats have narrowly missed on a bowl game in each of the last two seasons, and that excitement that came with the 2014 class has started to taper off. Fans in Lexington are growing anxious. They want to see results on the field.

The players in that class are now sophomores and juniors, and they understand the importance of this upcoming season.

“There is a certain sense of pressure,” Kentucky quarterback Drew Barker said. “But I wouldn’t really call it pressure because we expect to get to a bowl game this year. We have to get there. There’s no other choice, really.

“So I wouldn’t say it’s pressure. It’s just something that we have to do. It’s our main goal, and I think everyone is working hard towards that. We just had the best offseason -- winter, conditioning, spring -- since I’ve been here, so I feel like we can definitely take that next step.”

Barker, who was recently named the team’s starting quarterback after the spring game, was one of the headliners in that 2014 class. He was the No. 1 player in the state of Kentucky, a top-10 player at his position, and he was instrumental in helping assemble the rest of the group. When he committed in May of 2013, it didn’t take long for others to follow suit.

Within a month, Kentucky received commitments from a trio of ESPN 300 recruits -- Stanley "Boom" Williams, Denzil Ware and Darius West -- along with a handful of other players.

“We were really close,” Barker said. “We all knew each other. We all came on a visit together. When I committed, that was a big thing I wanted to do. I wanted to bring a lot of other good players with me. I thought we did that, and we definitely have a lot of good players on this team. Coach Stoops and the rest of the staff have really recruited some great players here.

“It’s cool to see us all doing good things so far, but we’ve got to keep going. The work is really just getting started.”

Kentucky's 2014 class has already produced some talent. Williams, a guy who Barker says can take it to the house every time he touches it, finished with 855 yards and six touchdowns last year. He was among the SEC leaders with more than 7 yards per carry. Ware showed just how good he can be this past Saturday when he led the team with 15 tackles and four sacks in the spring game.

The team’s two leading receivers from a year ago, Garrett Johnson and Dorian Baker, were a part of that class. As was Matt Elam, a projected starter on the defensive line this fall.

But collectively, what will the 2014 class be remembered for?

“The goal is to be champions, SEC champions,” Barker said. “We want to leave a great legacy at Kentucky. I think we came in as one of the most highly-rated recruiting classes ever at Kentucky. We just have to put everything together, take it one day at a time.

“It’s not just our class. It’s all of the classes combined. But I’m looking for big things for everybody, and I feel like the guys from the 2014 class, we definitely have to step up this year and make a big impact."

The slogan still holds true two years later: Why not Kentucky?