LEXINGTON, Ky. --- The dark cloud of an NCAA investigation and sanctions hovering overhead made recruiting difficult for Guy Morris & Co., but the Kentucky coach said Thursday he was pleased to salvage a signing class that addressed many of the Wildcats' immediate needs.
Speaking to the local media in the aftermath of national signing day, Morriss labeled his 21-man signing class as a "very good class" that will perform above the expectations of some recruiting experts and their team rankings.
The early reviews place UK's haul in the bottom third of the Southeastern Conference. But the other side of the coin is that most of the league teams ranked ahead of the Cats have landed what are thought to be among the best classes in the nation.
"I don't really believe in ranking them," Morriss said. "I've been around football long enough, and some guys who are the "can't-miss" players are a bust, and vice versa. If you look at the numbers in the NFL right now, there's probably more free agents going to the pro bowl than ever before. So I don't think it's an exact science. It's kind of a crap shoot.
"I think you judge a class two to three years down the road. We're certainly not hung up on class rankings and that kind of thing. All of these kids, we recruited them because we sat down as a staff, evaluated them, and we think they're good enough to help us win... As far as ranking them, that's silly to do that now."
The Cats' class includes 12 offensive players and nine defensive players. The staff intended to distribute the scholarships evenly on both sides of the ball, but the plan changed as they began to take the best athlete available in many instances.
"We had it pretty much 50/50 and tried to balance it up, but as it turned out in this particular recruiting class, we just didn't land as many defensive players," said Morris, whose team ranked 11th in the SEC in scoring defense (33.4 ppg) and total defense (475.4 ypg).
"But there are some players here who were two-way players in high school, really good athletes. We'll bring them in and start them off at the positions they asked to play, but generally what happens with kids like that is they may see they're down the depth chart a ways, see an opening at another spot, and a lot of times will approach us about making a change because they want to get on the field and play early. The opportunity may be that it's at another position from what we specifically recruited them to be here."
Morriss was pleased by the balance of the group, but noted he intended to sign more defensive linemen, a premium position each year in the recruiting battles.
"We were hoping to get another defensive lineman or two, and we're still shopping for a real quality player in that area, but overall, it shook out pretty good," said Morriss, noting the one remaining scholarship available for 2002 will be reserved for a defensive lineman who may become available.
"We addressed our needs at O-Line. We had to get our numbers back in balance there. We went through spring training this past year with eight linemen. We don't want to do that anymore, so we had to go out and find us some good offensive linemen. I think we helped ourselves defensive-back wise with some good kids coming in."
Morriss identified six players who he believes has the best opportunity to make an immediate impact with the Cats. They include junior college products Kamaal Ahmad (LB), Chris Bernard (WR) and Yancey Reynolds (OL), as well as prep players Chad Anderson (LB/DE), Jared McGowan (OL) and Durrell White (LB/DE).
Bernard and Reynolds were juco All-Americans. Both players enrolled at UK in January and will go through spring drills beginning March 26.
Bernard (6-1, 190) caught 61 passes for 957 yards and eight touchdowns at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, Calif. Ahmad (6-2, 230) played in only seven games for Northeast Oklahoma A&M due to a high ankle sprain, but recorded 25 tackles and one sack. Unlike most jucos, he has three years of eligibility remaining after redshirting a season.
"Ahmad and Bernard were recruited to come in here and play," Morriss said.
The same was said for Reynolds, a mammoth 6-5, 325-pound guard. "Yancey Reynolds, the All-American out of Georgia Military, was recruited to be a starter. We didn't recruit him to come in here and back up.
Morriss, who played offensive line for 15 years in the NFL, beamed as he spoke about his two main line prospects.
"He's a big, strong, physical guy,," he said of Reynolds. "We'll probably start him out inside (at guard)."
"Jared McGowan (6-4, 295), the big lineman from Mississippi, I think he has a chance to get on the field next fall," he said. "It was a tough battle (with Mississippi State) to get him. He's got size and frame and feet. And he's got a little attitude that we like. He's the kind of kid that's not lacking for self-confidence whatsoever.
"His host (on his official visit) was (junior offensive tackle) Antonio Hall, and they got along magnificently. Tony did a good job of recruiting him. They're of the same cut of cloth. They're talking about themselves as bookends already.
"The only thing he's got to do, starting right now, is to get in the weight room and start lifting. He's physically blessed and mature enough to get on the field next fall."
Anderson (6-2, 240) is a linebacker who originally signed last year but was ruled academically ineligible due to missing a core curriculum class. He was a Super Prep All-American in 2000 at Canton (Ohio) McKinley High School, recording 115 tackles and two sacks.
"We're counting on Chad to come in and play some. He's a year older and more mature. I think he's got a chance to help us," Morriss said.
The staff got a brief look at Anderson during last year's two-a-days before the NCAA overruled his appeal to play. He weighed in at 255 pounds at that time, leading the staff to suggest he may also be tried at defensive end during his career.
"We've got about 12 linebackers that will start off there in the spring, but out of that group, a couple of guys are going to end up having to put their hand down (at defensive end)," Morriss said. "We'll determine that during the course of the spring."
White (6-3, 230) is another player who fits that mold. One of the state's top prospects, he recorded 147 tackles and two interceptions at Bell County this season and was a finalist for "Mr. Football."
"Durrell White, I think he has a chance to come in and play, and play quite a bit," Morriss said. "His speed and his athleticism (will help him compete for playing time), and lack of numbers. It's not like he's got to plow through a depth chart that's a mile long.
"He's a linebacker/defensive end type. Durrell has indicated to us he really doesn't care where he plays. He just wants to get on the field and play. I think it depends on how other kids progress along, too. Where they end up, he has the versatility to play either place. We'll find a spot for him."
Morriss cautioned that it's too early to expect any of the high school players to contribute from the first day they arrive at UK.
"It's hard to say at this time because you never know what's going to happen with these kids between now and the time we kick it off next fall," he said. "We will give every one of these kids on this list of signees an opportunity to earn a starting job. Whether they're ready to do that or not remains to be seen. We don't try to make those decisions until two-a-days are over."
The staff is also excited about four players it signed from Florida, one of the most productive prep football state's in the nation. Three of those players --- Glenn Holt Jr. (WR), Michael Aitcheson (OL) and Kareem Reid (DE) --- come from the greater Miami area. Another, Andre Jones (6-0, 182, DB), hails from Ft. Walton Beach.
"That was an area we felt like we needed to get into," Morriss said. "And we'll continue to recruit there in the future. Coach (Wesley) McGriff has done a great job in that area.
"Aitcheson (6-3, 270) is very athletic for an offensive lineman. Michael is the kind of kid who may get a chance to help us next year. The same thing with all of these offensive lineman --- usually they're giving away strength coming out of high school --- so he's like Jared (McGowan). he needs to get in the weight room and start training as hard as he possibly can right now.
"Glenn Holt (6-2, 175), I think he'll be a special kid here. I think he's going to have a great career. He's kind of a guy you're looking for, body-type, who's tall and lean and can run. He has the attitude that he wants to be the go-to guy, ' just give me the football, coach.' Which, as much as we throw the ball, we'd like to have four or five just like him.
"Kareem Reid is a big kid, about 6-5, 240, who can run. Kareem looks like the kind of defensive ends you play week in and week out in this conference. He's got a bright future ahead of him. He's a bright kid, real sharp. I think he's got a chance to come in maybe this fall and contribute also."
Two other top recruits from the Bluegrass State were running backs Monquantae Gibson (6-1, 195) out of Louisville Moore and Arliss Beach (6-0, 185) of Ashland. The Cats figure to be deep at running back next year with Artose Pinner, Martez Johnson and Alexis Bwenge returning, but Morriss wouldn't rule out the high school stars competing for playing time.
"(Gibson) and Beach both will be here in early June going through summer workouts. They will both have a chance to compete for the starting job," Morriss said.
Gibson finished his senior season with 2,756 yards and 43 touchdowns, leading the state with 288 points scored. The runner-up for "Mr. Football" had a state-record 574 yards and nine touchdowns in an amazing 23-carry performance against Louisville Shawnee.
Beach rushed for 2,533 yards on only 244 carries, an average of 10.4 yards per carry, and scored 39 touchdowns as a senior. He had three games of 300-plus yards and also caught 15 passes for 176 yards and four touchdowns.
Four in-state players --- Bowling Green's Brad Booker (LB), Glasgow's Randy Driver (DB), Louisville Ballard's Maurice Marchman (WR) and Johnson Central's Paul Webb (DL) --- agreed to sign with Kentucky as "grayshirts." That means they will delay enrolling until January 2003, allowing the Cats to sign more players than they had scholarships available (16) for this period.
"It gives them a year to basically mature and grow and work out in the weight room, to get stronger," he said. "It also gives them an academic jump in the classroom. They get the spring semester and summer paid for before their football clock even starts in September. There's a huge advantage for them to do that.
"These four were willing to do that for us, and we really appreciate them doing that."
Other UK signees included: offensive linemen Joe Brady (6-3, 280, Ft. Mitchell, Ky.), Hayden Lane (6-5, 265, Lawrenceville, Ga.) and Travis Slaydon (6-3, 275, Harlingen, Tex.); defensive lineman Lamar Mills (6-1, 285, Metarie, La.), and defensive back Bo Smith (6-0, 180, Owensboro, Ky.).
Morriss said he was relieved that the current recruiting season was over and praised several groups for assisting in the process.
"Recruiting goes a lot further than just coaches going to see players and calling players and that kind of stuff," he said. "It involves the whole university... Certain deans and professors made themselves available to help us recruit, and I tell you what, the tour for the engineering school is unbelievable, to walk through there and see what people are doing over there. That knocks the socks off of recruits. Same thing with the medical school... You talk about impressive. I think that makes a huge difference with recruits, and especially moms and dads.
"I think it's important that when we recruit we go down to Rupp Arena and watch the basketball team play. The fans are unbelievable, and our recruits and parents take notice of that. We talk to our recruits, just imagine three times this many nuts that will come see you on Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium... I really commend the fans and the student body."
"This is not a one-man band type of operation here. We recruit as a staff, as a university and as a state."