Head coach Mark Stoops and his staff have been out on the road since day one searching far and wide for the top prospects to help comprise their first recruiting class at Kentucky, one they hope will lay the foundation for years to come. Though recruiting never stops, the staff will finally get a chance to spend some time with their current players as they get prepared for spring practice.
This spring may be the most crucial timeframe of many of the returning Wildcats' careers. They will have 15 practices to improve their game and make an impression on their new coaches. Although they will have watched plenty of tape on their players, it will be the first time the staff gets a chance to lay eyes on them up-close and in person.
As the saying goes, you only get one chance at a first impression.
"The guys that are on campus now," said offensive coordinator Neal Brown. "We'll tell them, 'You've got these 15 practices to show what you can do. When we get into fall camp, the first two weeks of fall camp we're going to give these guys that are coming in an opportunity.'
"By the time we get to fall camp we're going to have a good idea of what these guys can do on campus. We'll have an idea of what their limitations are and what their strengths are."
After that, it's open season.
Out on the road, Stoops and co. used a particular pitch to prospects that would be particularly alluring. Though nothing was promised in terms of playing time, they made it clear opportunities would be plentiful.
"We always present an opportunity," said Stoops. "We're never going to guarantee anybody - that wouldn't be fair or be right to the players that are on our - in our program, but, you know, we always tell them they're going to have a great opportunity."
Every recruit is looking for something different. Each chooses a different path based on what he sees is a best fit for him. Some are looking for strong academics. Some look for immediate playing time. Some want to be part of a successful, championship-winning program and carry on that tradition.
Kentucky strives to be a place that provides all of those options in the future. But right now, they are in a position to sell to recruits that if they come to Kentucky, the opportunity to play is there, and when they get there, they won't be too far behind to catch up.
Those 15 practices in the spring will be as much about evaluating returning talent as it will be about installing Brown's spread offense and Stoops and defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot's defensive packages. Each player has a completely clean slate, and for incoming freshman, that will be no different.
"The first two weeks of (fall) camps, the new guys, especially the skill guys, are going to have the opportunity to earn playing time," said Brown.
The opportunity for playing time is not just a sales pitch. It's a reality. Kentucky didn't just go out and find only guys who already liked UK, but they went out and changed many recruits and families' minds and perceptions about the program. While doing that, after identifying difference-making people for their program, they went all-in for the players they coveted most.
Those players were most coveted because the Kentucky staff believed they could immediately impact the roster. Brown's offense requires multiple weapons and skill players, so 2013 offensive signees Jeff Badet and Ryan Timmons figure to be guys that Brown will look to, provided they do what is asked of them before they arrive on campus, to be immediate-impact players.
Another offensive weapon UK will have is four-star running back JoJo Kemp out of recruiting hotbed Florida. Knowing that they wanted one more running back for the class, the staff identified him as the top prospect available at the position. Though Kentucky has six running backs returning for 2013, the staff expects Kemp to be in the mix from day one.
"JoJo Kemp had everything, and that's why we went all-in with him to be honest with you," said running backs coach Chad Scott. "He was the best one. He had such a diverse skill set and the complete package, a guy that can help right away."
Running back is a position that actually has quite a bit of depth. But overall, Kentucky lacks in numbers for several positions on the field.
When prospects are assessing their options and potential destinations, all things are considered. Immediate playing time is something that perks their ears up as much as any sales pitch, but they usually have an idea if that's a possibility even before they talk to the staff and make their decision.
"That's always something you talk to recruits about because that's something they want to hear," said offensive line coach John Schlarman. "Right now, we don't have the most depth in the world here, so the opportunity to play is there."
The fact that Kentucky has several players graduating or is thin at certain positions makes the chance to play immediately even closer to a reality for incoming freshman.
"Recruits look at those depth charts and they get online and do their research also," said Schlarman. "When they see that you don't have a bunch of guys coming back, that's something that they're going to pay attention to."
Kentucky wants those types of players. The staff wants players who love the game and want to play right away. Once coaches find those them, they make sure that they have the kind of work ethic and motor that will allow them to get to that level.
Internal competition is one of the best motivators and vehicles for improvement on any team, and bringing in new blood that pushes others for time on the field can only make this unit better. And at the end of the day, may be the best man win.
"If they are that talented to come in and play, play them," said Scott. "It also helps the guys here with the guys coming in, as competitive as they are, it makes those guys better. It brings out the best of those guys in here."
Though the signing period is still open and a few more additions to the 2013 class could still be made, Stoops can finally start focusing on what he was brought here to do: win football games.
As he settles into a more normal routine, he and the staff will finally get to spend more time getting to know and train the current players on the roster. That process isn't easy with so many new faces to get acquainted with, but it will be a critical task in talent evaluating for the 2013 season. Regardless of performances in the spring, however, everyone will get their fair opportunity to compete this fall.
"That's just the facts," said Brown. "They are our players regardless of if we recruited them or not. They are our guys. They've got 15 practices to get better, prove what they can do, and then when we get in fall camp, these new guys are going to get that same opportunity. Then two weeks into camp we'll know exactly who we're playing with."