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Patience pays off with surprising recruiting class

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Joker Phillips had barely closed the door on hours, days and months full of phone calls, sweat and tears to round out the 2010 recruiting class before he had a chance to breathe.

But there he was at his first Signing Day as head coach, smiling, upbeat and as relaxed as ever. Just 30 minutes since announcing a last-minute signee - junior college defensive back Michael Bailey - Phillips reflected on his previous statement leading up to college football's national holiday that he was confident Kentucky's football recruiting class would meet the fans' expectations.

"Did I say confident?" Phillips said, prompting room full of laugher among the scribes at Wednesday's news conference. "Sometimes you've got to act a different way (than you feel). I wasn't confident until a couple of them came across the board. I said, 'Dang, did I promise there would be some surprises?' I'm glad it came through."

Before the clock struck noon Wednesday, Phillips had managed to bank in on his promise to land a few surprises, propelling UK's recruiting class into most top-50 rankings while transforming a once disappointing recruiting class among the fans into a deep and talented 26-man class.

In a matter of 48 hours, Phillips and his staff managed to turn the sour, somber song of the message boards into a day of praise.

"I have not been a part of a class (that has changed this much in the last 24 hours)" Phillips said. "It says something about how relentless we were in this last 24, 48 hours in trying to get these kids to get the faxes in for us."

Inside the Nutter Training Facility, the football headquarters on Signing Day, all eyes were on the fax machines and phones. Coaches jumped at the sound of a ringtone and shouted with the joy of a signed piece of paper.

The day was filled with anxiety, excitement, jubilation and disappointment.

"It's always nervous because you want to know who is in and who's not and that sort of thing," recruiting coordinator and linebackers coach Chuck Smith said. "It's a nerve-racking deal."

Because anytime you're dealing with 18- and 19-year-old kids, nothing is for certain. We're talking about kids who can't decide what color shoes they want to wear to school. Choosing school colors is inevitably tougher to decide.

In other words, banking on a kid's word is hardly worth kicking back and relaxing. What makes a class certain is that final drop of ink on an "i" or the final cross on a "t."

That's why Phillips and Co. stuck to their convictions that they were going to churn out another step-stone building recruiting class amid the early disappointment that UK wasn't signing enough three-, four- and five-star recruits.

They continually put faith in the belief and the foundation of the program that had allowed the coaching staff to take a gamble on recruits the program had previously never had a shot at.

"We're not worried about recruiting," Phillips said. "We're going to continue to do what we do which is battle 'til the end. We'll sign great players. We'll be in some of those battles late in the game. That's what we did in this class."

Generally speaking, the more touted a player is the higher the chance he's being courted by more schools. That means more options and tougher choices and often times, last-minute decisions.

If UK wants to start nabbing those upper-echelon players, the coaching staff might have to take risks. More like calculated risks, actually, because the coaches believe in the facilities, the tradition and the foundation they've built.

"If you want better players, you're going to have to wait it out, you're going to have to sweat it out," Phillips said. "Believe me, we sweated it out a lot."

The historic four-year run allowed the coaching staff to go into homes they'd never been into and talk to recruits that would have never considered UK five years ago. The results spoke for themselves Wednesday morning when the fax machine started spitting out Phillips' promises.
Out came Brandon Gainer, the nation's No. 15 running back, according to ESPN.com. Gainer, who was generating a significant amount of buzz in South Florida, was thought to be headed to Central Florida or North Carolina.

Just before then, four-star tight end Alex Smith, a highly touted tight end that originally verballed to Cincinnati and then North Carolina ultimately settled on Kentucky. Among Phillips' first duties as a head coach was making a trip up Interstate 71 to visit a player many have called the best pass-catching tight end since Jacob Tamme.

"When you get into a kid's home and he starts bringing out his Kentucky gear that he got when he was a little kid and he wants you sign it, the first thing I can think of is he's always wanted to come to Kentucky - his dream was to play either basketball or football at Kentucky - and he wanted my signature," Phillips said. "I said, 'Hey, live out your dream. I am.' "

It's a dream that's become a reality for so many of these recruits in and around Kentucky. It's no longer just going to UK to get playing time. Now there's a proven environment of winning and bowls. In turn, that allows Phillips and his coaching staff to sell the vision to players that never even dreamed of playing for Kentucky.

Take for instance Tim Patterson.

The highly touted linebacker, considered one of the Commonwealth's top recruits, grew up a Louisville fan and was strongly considering the Cardinals when Charlie Strong was hired. But the Central High School star saw something in Phillips that made him believe in the direction Kentucky continues to head.

"That's real crucial for us," Phillips said. "We've gotten those guys that have grown up not being fans of Kentucky. The ones that we've gotten, they've come over here and had success and it's opened up the eyes of the other ones like Tim Patterson and Ridge Wilson. They were not Kentucky fans, but we slowly convinced them that they could be Kentucky fans."

That means recruiting in a rival's backyard.

"We always talk about the heart and soul of our program has to be in the state of Kentucky," Phillips said. "What's the biggest population in the state of Kentucky? The city of Louisville. We have to be successful in the city of Louisville, and we have."

One could go on and on about the recruiting class and its surprise signees. Defensive lineman Nermin Delic was a big get, Jerrell Priester adds Randall Cobb-like athleticism, Joe Mansour might have the strongest kicking leg in the country, etc., etc.

But whether we're talking about recruiting pipelines in Louisville, Georgia, South Carolina or Alabama, the belief is spreading among the bigger names. The recruiting stars won't all come at once, but they are growing with the addition of the late surprises.

Were they surprise signees? Sure. Should we be surprised at this point that Kentucky is getting higher profile athletes and putting together another recruiting class that will likely continue its recent trend of success? Not at all.

"The first phase of Operation Win is recruiting," Phillips said. "We finished strong with the 2010 class. We feel good about the class and how it ended up. Our staff was relentless in the last two or three weeks in trying to get names to fill this class. We feel like we fulfilled not only the things that we were looking for, but we add some size, speed and athleticism."

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