Putting together the first staff of his head coaching career is no doubt the top priority for Mark Stoops since being formally introduced as the new leader of the Kentucky football program.
Not too far behind that, though, is the business of assessing his team's talent level and making determinations on what the Wildcats' recruiting class needs to look like on the first Wednesday in February.
When a team finishes 2-10 and winless in its conference, as UK did during the 2012 season, upgrades are needed across the board. Raising the overall depth of talent in the program is the biggest challenge awaiting Stoops.
But here's our best guess at what his top priorities will be when he gets a staff locked in and hits the recruiting trail with authority:
1. DEFENSIVE END: No other position underscores the gap between the UK defense and the elite defenses in the SEC quite like this one. The Wildcats have been undersized and not particularly athletic at defensive end for years. That lack of size and explosiveness has manifested itself not only in some gaudy rushing yards surrendered, but also a lack of pressure on the quarterback in passing situations.
Kentucky's starting ends in 2012, seniors Collins Ukwu and Taylor Wyndham, combined for only six of the Wildcats' 26 sacks. The third end on the depth chart when the season ended, redshirt freshman Farrington Huguenin, had none. It's possible that hybrid linebacker Alvin "Bud" Dupree (6.5 sacks as a sophomore) could be moving to end in Stoops' 4-3 base, but the Cats will need more impact players at this spot to slow down opposing offenses in the SEC. It will be interesting to see how Langston Newton, who redshirted this season, performs in the spring. He has the prototype size and burst to be a future star.
With former Seminole D-Ends coach D.J. Eliot rumored to be coming in as Stoops' defensive coordinator, there's no doubt he'll want to upgrade the position as soon as possible. One of his stars this season at FSU is Bjoern Werner, who was rated only three stars coming out of high school, but had 13 sacks and 21 tackles for loss in 2012. He was named ACC Defensive Player of the Year.
Holding on to four-star verbal commitment Alvonte Bell, a 6-foot-5, 240-pound end from Everglades High School in Miramar, Fla., would go a long way toward solidifying this need area.
2. WIDE RECEIVER: Kentucky expects to be anywhere from solid to potentially very good at the quarterback position next year. The big question is who will Maxwell Smith, Jalen Whitlow or Patrick Towles be throwing the ball to, and will the Cats have any big playmakers in the receiving corps?
Senior La'Rod King led UK with a modest 48 receptions for 488 yards and four touchdowns in 2012. The unit produced only 10 touchdowns on the season, and eight of those are lost via graduation. There is high potential in DeMarcus Sweat, who caught four passes for 84 yards and two touchdowns as a freshman, but he also missed the final two weeks of the season after falling behind academically. If he does not get things in order, it would be a big blow to the Cats' offense. Sweat is said to be one of the most physically-gifted receivers to ever step on campus. Stoops needs him back, as well as guys like Demarco Robinson, A.J. Legree and Daryl Collins to show big improvemet this spring.
In the meantime, look for the new UK staff to make an all-out push for Franklin County's Ryan Timmons and target some potential impact playmakers in Florida to round out this recruiting class. Hiring an offensive coordinator like Neal Brown would go a long way toward convincing a four-star prospect (or two) to walk right into an attractive playing time situation in Lexington.
3. SAFETY: Kentucky bids farewell to productive senior Martavius Neloms this year, as well as walk-on-turned-starter Mikie Benton. But the fact that Benton was starting on an SEC defense tells you a lot about how much better UK's recruiting needs to be in order to do the things Stoops preached during his introductory press conference.
There are still some promising names returning on the back end of the secondary – sophomores Ashely Lowery and Glenn Faulkner and freshman twins Daron Blaylock and Zack Blaylock – but none are proven quantities just yet, and a couple of those guys could be subject to position changes in the spring. You may also see guys like Miles Simpson or Josh Forrest move back to safety after spending last season as hybrid linebackers.
Florida State has always featured impact players at safety – athletic, rangy defenders who are equally adept at run support and pass coverage. Terrence Brooks and Lamarcus Joyner were fifth and sixth, respectively, on the Noles' defense in total tackles this season. Usually, that's a bad sign for a defense to have its safeties up that high on the stat sheet, but not in the aggressive style that Stoops coaches. He'll be looking for difference-makers at those spots.
THE NEXT THREE: Tight End, Outside Linebacker, Defensive Tackle.
Early recruiting priorities for Stoops
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