Stoops must recruit 'swing states'

After spending most of the past several months in the national spotlight as "swing states" in the presidential election, Ohio and Florida will be equally important to Mark Stoops' campaign with the Wildcats.

Ohio and Florida are no strangers to the term "swing state."

They just played a key role in determining the future of the country with their coveted electoral votes in the presidential race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

Perhaps politics and football recruiting aren't all that different.

The future of the Kentucky Wildcats under new head coach Mark Stoops will largely be dictated by how the staff can stump for top athletes from the Buckeye State and the Sunshine State.

"Obviously, we're going to recruit Kentucky hard and take care of our home," Stoops said Sunday when asked what some of his recruiting priorities would be. "We're going to recruit Ohio very hard. I have strong ties in Ohio. There's very good football players in Ohio. We'll work through the Carolinas, Florida and Georgia a little bit."

The 45-year-old Stoops is an Ohio native who grew up in the football-rich Youngstown area, where his father was a coach at Cardinal Mooney High School. His old connections there, as well as those he has developed the last three years as a member of the Florida State staff were two of the big reasons why UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart saw Stoops as a good fit for the job.

"His recruiting ties were very, very important," Barnhart said. "You gotta have players. Everybody knows that. His recruiting, his ability and knowledge of Ohio, his knowledge of Florida having coached down there, ties to high schools in Florida, gives you the ability to go a couple of different places that we haven't done as well as probably could have or should have in terms of recruiting over time. It doesn't mean we haven't had our share of players out of there or found somebody here or there, but we've got to become more consistent in that. That was something we were hoping for. That recruiting piece was very, very important."

UK has tried to be a bigger recruiting player in Ohio for years. It is perennially one of the top five talent-producing states in the nation, along with Florida, Georgia, Texas and California, and all of its prospects live within an easy, five-hour drive from Lexington. But only nine Ohio players (including walk-ons) were on the Wildcats' 2012 roster.

None of the current 14 players who gave verbal commitments to the previous staff are from the Buckeye State. Only two from the 2012 recruiting class – offensive lineman Zach Meyers and defensive back Cody Quinn – are from Ohio. The Cats were shut out there in 2011.

Meanwhile, in Florida, Kentucky went through a similar drought until the last two years. Increased attention, thanks in large part to the addition of staff members Mike Summers, Greg Nord and Mike Cassity, helped the Cats land three players from the Sunshine State in 2012 and six more commitments in the current class.

"We need to make sure they're going to fit our system," Stoops said of the current commitments. "It would be unfair to them if we took their commitment and it didn't fit what we're going to do. We have to evaluate and work our way through that process."

There's a good chance most of the Florida commitments will have their scholarship offers recognized by the new staff. Some of those players, like defensive end Alvonte Bell, offensive linemen Ander Bodkin and Ramsey Meyers, running back Khalid Thomas and defensive back Blake McClain, are among the Cats' highest-rated prospects thus far in an otherwise underwhelming class.

Barnhart is confident the class will be strong when the dust settles on national signing day.

"His work ethic is relentless," Barnhart said of Stoops. "That's what it's going to take for us to have an opportunity. That is not to say that the people who came before did not work hard. Don't walk out of here with that. They worked hard. Sometimes it just doesn't work, and we had to move on and do something differently. He's going to come in, give us new hope, new energy, a new beginning, and it gives you a chance to believe again."

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