Mark Stoops Signing Day Press Conference
University of Kentucky Football Signing Day Conference
December 20, 2023
Coach Mark Stoops
MARK STOOPS: All right. I’ll try to keep you updated. Thanks for being here. Really excited to talk about this class. As you know, this is a great deal of work that goes into this for sometimes weeks, months, years for some of these guys. So, it’s a culmination of quite a bit of work. Really want to thank our staff and support staff for all the work that goes into this. We put together a very good class, top 25 class, very balanced. As of right now, we have, I think, 14 offensive players and 11 defensive players to talk about [plus one kicking specialist]. I feel like there’s very good balance within the high school and the (transfer) portal as well. Nine high school players on offense and we’ll talk about five out of the portal. We need a few more guys to add to some gaps on the offensive side.
Defensively, really 11 high school players and one portal. We could — we expect to add one more high school player today [later proved to be Brian Robinson] and we just added the offensive portal (player) I’ll talk about here in a minute. So, starting with the quarterback position. Obviously, Cutter (Boley) was a guy that we had targeted and recruited for years right here at LCA. What a great year he had! What a great program, and we are proud to have Cutter be our high school quarterback and a guy that will come in, compete, he will develop, and we expect him to be a dynamic player. He’s a guy that has a contagious personality, works extremely hard, very likable, guys are attracted to him and helped us recruit players. And so Cutter was a very big get for us.
And then out of the portal, getting Brock Vandagriff out of (the University of) Georgia. Obviously, very important for us, very important piece. I think the thing you look at with Brock is, you could look at a lot of his film going back to high school, you look at what he did at Georgia. You look at the offense that he ran at Georgia, they are complex. You know going through that he will be able to come in and work with us. When he came on his official visit, really — I think if you would have just locked him in a room and him and Coach (Liam) Cohen would’ve talked football all day long. He would’ve been just fine with that. He’s definitely a football guy, extremely talented player, and very excited about him. Four wide receivers, two high school. Hardley Gilmore here practicing with us out of Florida, and then David Washington, two very good players.
And then, two portal guys that we really needed. Ja’Mori Maclin from (University of) North Texas, is one heck of a player. Started (his collegiate career) at Missouri, was at North Texas, and just a dynamic player. Again, one of those guys that’s very serious, very skilled, a very talented player. Love his work ethic. Love his attitude, and I think he’s going to be a big-time addition to our wide receiver room, along with Raymond Cottrell from Texas A&M. He has a few more years (remaining), but again, a big strong receiver that can really run and somebody we needed.
Go to tight end, Willie Rodriguez is really a guy that’s a complete tight end. He’s a dynamic player. Another just like Cutter, another Kentucky guy out of CovCath (Covington Catholic) and Willie is just — he’s exactly what you’re looking for at tight end. He’s big and physical, he can run, he can catch, he’s dynamic. We love everything about Willie. Extremely tough guy and again, great addition.
Running backs, we needed some depth there. Got two high school guys, in Tovani (Mizell) and then Jason (Patterson). One out of Fort Lauderdale, one out of North Florida Sneads, and then one out of the portal (Chip Trayanum of Ohio State). I think the big one that a lot of people are talking about, a big get for us out of the portal was Chip. Chip Trayanum is one heck of a football player. Again, just like everybody we got out of the portal, extremely mature, extremely hard-working, great fit for us and for our culture. Very physical running back, so very excited about him.
Offensive line, we got three high school guys in Hayes Johnson, Marc Nave, and Aba Selm, another northern Kentucky guy there in Aba. And then we have one transfer out of the portal in Jalen Farmer from (University of) Florida. Gives us a big physical presence. Jalen is a guy that I was harassing him while he was here, told him we were meant to be together. We recruited him pretty hard out of high school and ended up coming back to us. Jalen is a big physical presence we’re looking for.
Defensively, you could see we went pretty heavy with the linebacking unit. We needed that. Really, it’s good balance all the way around. You know we have good depth at defensive line, but we added some really, a really good player there and expect to add another one. But (we) went really heavy at the linebacking position. We needed that both inside and outside.
You got Caleb Redd, would be an outside edge guy. Antwan Smith, an inside guy. Devin Smith, very versatile, but inside guy. Jacob Smith right out of Corbin (Kentucky). Again, a guy that has such big upside on the edge for us, along with his brother, Jerod. Those two guys are dynamic players. Congrats to Corbin for having such a good year and I think those two were a big piece of it. Both guys play extremely hard and have such big upside, just like the rest of the linebackers that I just mentioned. And then Steven Soles out of Tennessee is the last linebacker out of the high school ranks.
A big get for us (Jamon “Pop” Dumas-Johnson of the University of Georgia), I’m sure that’ll get a lot of attention as anytime you get a transfer like that that’s a Butkus finalist and a first-team All-American in Pop Johnson from Georgia brings an awful lot to our football team. Again, a guy that has unbelievable experience, but has that burning desire to bring that winning culture with him and work extremely hard and fit in with us and Pop is a guy that obviously will have an immediate impact in our program, so we’re very excited about him.
And then on the defense backside, we needed some depth there. Cam Dooley, an Alabama safety we’ve been recruiting for a long time. Quavo Marshall, Quavo is a guy we’ve been on, love everything about him. Terhyon Nichols is a guy, both Terhyon and Q (Quay’Sheed) Scott out of South Carolina, and Terhyon out of Cincinnati, both are corners, DBs, versatile, guys we needed and I believe guys that could play early, two guys we really worked hard to hold on to and to recruit.
And then, of course, we had to go to Montana to get a kicker with Jacob Kauwe, but very strong leg, can do a lot of things and very talented. So, that’s where we’re at at this point. We could, we definitely will be adding hopefully a very big-time high school player here very shortly (Brian Robinson). And you never know where it’s going to go with the portal as far as maybe one or two other guys, but very good class, very balanced. Again, just appreciate the hard work that the coaches put in. I love these players. I think they’re guys that fit. They fit Kentucky and we’re excited to welcome into our family.
I don’t have in front of me the exact numbers how many guys are coming midterm. 13, 14? Yeah, 14 coming in at midterm [number later updated to 18]. That will help us with depth, that will help us with spring practice. So just want to thank, I mentioned the coaches, the support staff, SIDs, all you guys (media), the coverage that you give us throughout the year, just appreciate it. You guys work hard. Little shout out to Justin Roland for mentioning the 15 Club and since his article in promoting that and helping us with that, I think 70 people have joined since he put that article out.
So, anything that you could do to help that, it helps. It helps our current players. I can’t tell you how many people are trying to attack the great players that we have on our team and try to lure them and take them away from us, and I think relationships from us won out, along with the help from many people, and I just want to say thanks to the people that have helped and to the people that are going to help in the future. Thank you to all of them as well. I’ll stop and open it up for questions at this point.
Q Re: large number of linebackers and versatility
MARK STOOPS: I think the versatility is big for us, inside or outside. We play with quite a few, there’s many downs we can play with four linebackers. We need that. I feel like we got short on time and want to make sure we’re continuing to develop guys from the high school level. With this model, with the way things are now, things are different. I talked about that at length this year. We still want to concentrate on the high school player and bringing them in and developing them and having them around our program for a long time. But there’s also that form of free agency, if you will, to plug some gaps.
Q Is that position on the edge, you almost need to focus more on certain positions in high school because they’re harder to find in portal?
MARK STOOPS: Yeah, I think that’s fair. When you want to develop your guys, you want to develop them and you want to keep them. That’s always a challenge as well for everybody, all of us coaches. This is a great day and I’m very happy and appreciative of the work that’s gone in, so it’s no time to whine and complain. It’s definitely challenging times.
Q You mentioned culture several times talking about those guys. How much is that a big factor?
MARK STOOPS: I think it’s a very big factor. It always has been. You’re never going to be perfect. We always work hard to educate our players and to inform them. I think we have to expediate that process now. There’s an urgency to teach and develop and have them understand what we’re all about quickly because some guys aren’t here that long anymore.
Q Brock (Vandagriff), it seems similar to Will (Levis) in terms of he hasn’t played a ton — he has those NFL skills. Is that a conscious effort to try and find a quarterback like that?
MARK STOOPS: Yeah, I think it was. It was a conscious effort. The nice thing is with Liam and what he does, I think he definitely draws attention and there’s people that are very interested in our program, which excites us. I think a guy like Brock, what you can see at that point and the fact that you know he’s coming from an offense where they do a lot of things very well and are extremely well trained and work hard and have all the intangibles you’re looking for. I think that’s a big piece of it.
Q You’ve had some bad luck over the years recruiting high school quarterbacks, with injuries and other things, what makes you confident Cutter can be developed so that you’re not going to the portal every year?
MARK STOOPS: We want to get to the high school recruiting (quarterbacks), as you know. This is a strong start. I think we have one committed in the future, so we want to build that high school pipeline going with the quarterback position for sure. But with Cutter, he’s a guy we know very well. We’ve been around him a bunch. We appreciate the time that (parents) Scott and Mary Beth and Cutter have spent over here visiting with us and spending time in our facility and coming to games and coming to junior days and visiting with him. He has all the intangibles you’re looking for. He has all the physical attributes that you’re looking for. Really had a great year and he’s just a guy I think we can build around.
Q Not many guys in the portal that have all-American next to their name and play in national championship games. Is that experience there, how does what he (Jamon Dumas-Johnson) did at Georgia translate?
MARK STOOPS: I think with both he and Brock, the nice thing is they’re bringing some elements and some things of what it takes to play at that level and to communicate that and work with our players and blend in with our culture, but to bring any of that winning attitude, that winning formula, the work ethic, what it takes and be leaders on this team. Hopefully educate and push our players to a higher level as well.
Q: Re: can offensive line recruits play tackle?
MARK STOOPS: Yeah. They can play. We have some versatility within that group and we’re also recruiting some as well.
Q Re: Dumas-Johnson what makes him so good?
>> MARK STOOPS: I think he’s extremely talented, extremely explosive, plays with great energy, experienced, you name it.
Q Re: managing all that comes with this time of year (recruiting, transfer portal, hiring coaches, bowl prep) and still trying to do things to improve the program?
MARK STOOPS: as you just mentioned, that’s kind of a little bit of a contradiction there. You just mentioned 18 things that we had to do (smiling), so it’s not exactly the right time to look at things and to change, you know what I mean? That’s not to say, you know me, we’re constantly trying to learn, we’re constantly trying to do things better. I think trying to make sure my feet were on the floor and in the right place at the right time was priority number one. So, we will take a deep dive and how you do things better at another time. Even coordinators, they had some time to prepare for this game, but we’ve been slammed 24/7.
Q How nice is it to flex your muscles on the recruiting Smith brothers (Jacob and Jerod) when the number one team in the country wanted them pretty badly?
MARK STOOPS: I think the Smith twins have been just a joy to recruit. We’ve had a strong connection with them for a while. Back when I visited their school up in Connecticut and spent time up there and fortunately they came back to Kentucky and I think it’s good for the state. I think it’s certainly good for that area, down in Corbin. Went down there and spent time with the high school and spent time with the boys and went in the community and ate some food and saw some people. I think they bring a lot to the state and that area in particular. We’re grateful to have them. Like I said, they’ve been a joy to recruit. They’re very mature young men. They work extremely hard and I think they’re the type of guys that can have an impact very quickly.
Q Re: can you tell the Smith brothers apart?
MARK STOOPS: Yes.
Q What’s the dynamics of recruiting brothers? Not just those — talk about younger brothers.
MARK STOOPS: Well, sometimes it makes a phone call easier. I was talking to Jacob the other day and I said ‘Get Jerod on the phone for me.’ He had to yell at him, he had surgery. It makes a phone call, maybe one less phone call (laughter). One less official visit because you knock them out at the same time, but, no, I think they’re both very close. They’re both tremendous football players right now with great upside, but they’re different people. They’ll tell you that. We’ll coach them differently, you know what I mean? Try to hone in on what each of them need on that particular day and help them grow and become the best players they can be on and off the field. I’m very excited about those two.
Q Re: Vandagriff having more than one year of eligibility and building continuity on offense.
MARK STOOPS: I think it definitely is. You know that with the inconsistency that we’ve had, continuity is important. Back to your question, Lonnie. You can see the progress made in practice. I definitely can see that. I see the guys at the end of the year following the Louisville game. They needed some time. We had a brutal schedule mentally and physically. We got time to heal up and go back out there at practice and see growth already. Then you add some guys like this and add some pieces, so it really excites me for the future.
Q You’re adding two running backs to the group you how excited are you about the future?
MARK STOOPS: You definitely feel like these two guys have some great size and then you bring in Chip as well. He won’t be here too long, but bring in a guy like Chip of that size and high schoolers and guys like Jamarion that can take it to the distance at any time. It will help. We needed it.
Q Is it easier to recruit multiple running backs the same class nowadays? Because guys don’t feel like they need 30 carries a game. They see so much more. You know, offensives are geared to having multiple running back.
MARK STOOPS: I believe so. There’s good backs out there and they know they need some help. They get banged up. It’s pretty physical position.
Q You got a lot of big in-state names. How important is it to keep those guys in state and keep them from going down the road?
MARK STOOPS: It’s always our number one priority. I always say that. No matter how many there is, no matter the numbers, we want the right players here and we want to keep them in state. That’s our priority. We were fortunate to get some really big-time players out of the state this year.
Q I think you offered some to other guys you’ve recruited before such as Jalen Farmer. Just how important is it to keep those relationships?
MARK STOOPS: Yeah, I think it is important. I can’t say, I didn’t tamper, I didn’t keep in touch with them that way. Once he went into portal, it was good to make that contact and get him back here. I think him being familiar with us and being on campus when he was here recently definitely helped.
Q Re: Kentucky’s success producing running backs and how that helps recruiting?
MARK STOOPS: I think it has to play a role because, obviously, he (Chip) was in a good situation at Ohio State on a very good team that is well coached and a lot of talented players. I think it has to help to see Benny (Snell), C-Rod (Chris Rodriguez) and this year and the way we’ve had success with running backs. Want to be committed to that, want to be committed to the running game. Obviously, I don’t want to get into detail. We had our ups and downs with that, but that’s part of our DNA and we what we want to look like and want to be able to have that physicality. And so, you’ll have to ask him, but I definitely believe that’s a piece of it for a guy like that to want to come to a place that’s committed to running the football like that.
Q Hardley Gilmore already on campus practicing with you guys?
MARK STOOPS: He is here. I don’t really want to get into the details of some of that, but we had a waiver and have some extenuating circumstances that he is here.
Q Can he play in the bowl game?
MARK STOOPS: He cannot but he can practice.
Q On Gilmore coming from an area that produces pros quite frequently and speed. Has that shown up?
MARK STOOPS: He definitely is one of those guys, that where he comes from, I have great respect for a lot of tough guys come from there and guys that can run and he has all the skills you’re looking for at wide receiver. He’s just out there trying to put it together right now. Great young man. Always has a smile on his face. Always works hard, so we’re excited about that.
Q Raymond Cottrell, was he a guy that maybe Jimbo Fisher give you heads up?
MARK STOOPS: No I had not talked to Jimbo about him, but we just watched the film and felt like with the years left on him and his size and speed was something we needed to fill. You He’ll help us.
And I can also add now the 12th high school player (on defense), Brian Robinson. His paperwork is in. Obviously, another extremely highly rated player. Him and Jerod and Jacob and some of these other guys together did a great job. Coach (Vince) Marrow is going to talk to you guys here in a minute, but has a great relationship with Brian and the family. He’s a Youngstown guy, so we better not lose a Youngstown guy like that (laughter). He’s another young man that has let us recruit him and has come here so many times and dedicated a lot of his time and energy to us and to a lot of schools to do a lot of due diligence. So it says a lot about our staff and about our program to be able to sign Brian because he is, obviously, had all options. Came here so many times, and he was very thorough in what they do. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a more dedicated high school player, too, as far as the way he goes about his business with training and nutrition and flexibility and coaching and you name it, extremely dedicated. So, another guy (who is) very mature that will bring — continue to add to the strong culture that we’re looking for.
Q You guys talk so many times over the years how hard it is to recruit an edge rusher — because he does so many of those training things, does that put him in position to play early?
MARK STOOPS I think it does. Him and Jerod are guys that have the physical ability and they play so hard that (they) could definitely help us.
Q Re: Ja’Mori Maclin
MARK STOOPS: With Ja’Mori what stood out was really just all business with him. Obviously, relationships are always strong, but just a very serious young man. Again, somebody that you can tell — works with his cousin, Jeremy, and trains and is a very well trained wide receiver already. Definitely has his eyes set for the future and he’s got his priorities in order and we love that. He’s a guy that can come in and help us right away. Just love his attitude. His skill set kind of speaks for itself. The way he gets out of breaks, the way he catches, the competitive nature that he has. He has a lot of qualities we’re looking for. He’s also very intelligent and he is also very versatile.
Obviously, he’s going to be a dynamic inside guy to complement Dane (Key) and Barion (Brown) and the other guys we have. But to get a dynamic inside guy is really important for us, but he also can move around a little bit if he had to as well.
Q You had a couple guys go into the portal and come back. Especially Jordan Dingle. How big was it to get him back?
MARK STOOPS: I think it is very important. Jordan is definitely a guy we want in the program. Here’s a young man who does everything right. He’s darn near perfect in his grades and he’s been just a great teammate. He loves it here. He, I don’t think, wanted to leave. Just going to stop there before I get myself in trouble. You know what I mean? Because I don’t want to whine and cry. This is an exciting day. There’s a lot of money involved.
Q The transfer portal treated you guys very well at quarterback position, but I guess for you guys how maybe excited the expectation that Cutter can come in and be —
MARK STOOPS: I think that was clearly a priority for us. Clearly a priority when Liam came back to go zero in on a ‘24 quarterback. To get Cutter, we’ve been recruiting for years and years, the guy we wanted was very important. Now we want to continue to do that with high school guys.
Q What was it about Cutter that really made you guys go all in on him?
MARK STOOPS: Everything. I think with quarterbacks the physical attributes have to be there, right? You have to be able to have the ability to play at this level at the highest level and he clearly has that. And then with quarterbacks you look to the intangibles and he’s way above the norm there. He’s elite with the tangibles. His work ethic is likable, and what I mean about that is he can always round up guys who want to go work with him. They want to go throw. They want to do extra work. Those are the intangibles, the leadership qualities that come very naturally to him.
Q Cutter has been committed for a while, honestly. How much did Will (Levis) playing in the NFL right away have an impact in that?
MARK STOOPS: I don’t know. You’d have to ask Brock, I would imagine it has an impact. I don’t think there’s any question that what we do attracts quarterbacks because they know it’s going to get them ready. With terminology and how complex we are and what we do it definitely helps. There’s areas where, as we mentioned, we want to improve. We’ve got to adjust and we have to keep up with things and be current as well.
Q At the end of the day, obviously, when you hire coaches for what they can do on game days, Cutter was pretty blunt when he committed that if Liam wasn’t the offensive coordinator he probably would’ve come here. What can you speak on Liam’s influence on recruiting?
MARK STOOPS: I think Liam and Cutter had a relationship prior to Liam leaving. I think that hurt. And I think with Liam coming back, Liam has that personality, that charisma that people are attracted to. And that’s important to lead at this point. When you’re in front of the team or in front of an offense or defense for that command is extremely important. Liam has that and he can connect. Doesn’t mean it’s perfect. Doesn’t mean we connect with every guy perfectly because that’s not the case. But certainly that was very, very important to Cutter. And I think it was important for Cutter to know that he was always a guy that I wanted and that Liam wanted. As soon as he (Liam) came back, we went back on him (Cutter) full force. Maybe that wasn’t the case, you know what I mean? Maybe he didn’t feel that from a previous quarterback coach.
Q We talked to Coach Daikiel Shorts yesterday for the first time. Would you like about him in the hiring process?
MARK STOOPS: Daikiel is just a guy I was very, very impressed with. He’s a guy that, again, the energy that he brings, connecting with the players. I think the first thing was just getting complete control of that room because we have some talented players. Not that it was anything wrong with it. It’s just he’s a guy that can definitely bring some strong relationships to that room and develop the players that we have. Definitely will attract other players. I just was very impressed with Daikiel, he’s a guy that Liam and I, when we visited with him, didn’t take us long to figure out what we wanted to do.
Q Re: recruiting Quay’Sheed Scott early, then he “blew up” and how gratifying was it to hold on to him?
MARK STOOPS: I think was really important to hold on to him. I think the strong relationships definitely meant something. I think the fact that we identified early on what a player he was and that’s not the first time that’s happened. We have a tendency to do that. We evaluate in particular some DBs pretty early and he’s one that we’re very high on. I think the relationship, the fact that we never wavered on him, he never wavered on us. I think people came in and tried to attack it late. These kids get hit with a lot anymore. To his credit he locked in on us and he knew we were committed to him and very grateful for the strong relationships and the loyalty.
Q You had some very defined recruiting places that you go. With Jay (Boulware) and Daikiel (Shorts) you have two guys with a decent amount of experience with Texas. Do you think that might be a bigger emphasis for you guys going forward?
MARK STOOPS: You never know, we’ll see where that goes. You look at this year, we got Kentucky, Georgia, Ohio, Florida, Missouri, New Jersey, Tennessee, Alabama, South Carolina, Montana, and Maryland. So, we’re getting around pretty good. Thank you.