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Video: Signing Day 2014 promo

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Video: Nutter Training Center weight room renovation

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This offseason, the weight room at the Nutter Training Center underwent a dramatic facelift with a new floor, new equipment and new surface on the upstairs track. In this video, High Performance Coach Erik Korem walks about what the upgrades mean for UK football.

Larry Warford was a three-year starter at UK before become the Detroit Lions' third-round pick in 2012. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics) Larry Warford was a three-year starter at UK before become the Detroit Lions' third-round pick in 2012. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Offensive linemen, even in the NFL, are normally relatively anonymous. Larry Warford, however, is making quite a name for himself one season into his professional career with the Detroit Lions.

Last week, Mel Kiper named him one of the top offensive rookies in the league. On Tuesday, Pro Football Focus disagreed. The popular NFL analysis website said he was the best.

PFF named the former UK star its Offensive Rookie of the Year on Wednesday, with Warford beating out Keenan Allen of the San Diego Chargers and Eddie Lacy of the Green Bay Packers. Here's what Khaled Elsayed had to say about Warford:

I'll confess to not watching much college football in years gone, but out of interest last year I started studying some defensive players. One of those was Sheldon Richardson and it was impressive to watch the Missouri defensive linemen. Except in one game where one particular right guard continually got the better of him. That man would end up the Lions third round pick, a second team All-Pro selection for us and our Offensive Rookie of the Year.

It's not the flashiest of picks. He didn't rumble into the end zone for touchdowns or make leaps at the goal lines to pick up scores. He doesn't play for a playoff team and you don't see him getting a lot of talk in review programs or during the actual game. Yet what Warford has done is look like an NFL player since Day 1. Of every guard in the league who we graded on every single play, Warford would finish fourth out of all of them. Positives in every area with no sacks allowed in pass protection and just four penalties called on him all year. While others experienced peaks and valleys, Warford was a model of consistency, grading out positively in all but three games.

On the subject of PFF's grades, Warford had a rookie season for the history books. He posted a total grade for the year of plus-22.8, the highest of any guard graded by PFF ... and by a wide margin. Mike Iupati -- a 2012 All-Pro selection for the San Francisco 49ers -- had the previous high grade of 14.8 in 2010.

For more on Warford's impressive honor, check out the complete story from Pro Football Focus.

Every spring, John Calipari's latest class of star recruits plays in a series of high-school all-star games with the Big Blue Nation watching closely. With Mark Stoops at the helm, Kentucky fans will need to start doing the same with future football Wildcats.

Drew Barker -- the highly touted Burlington, Ky., native viewed as the ringleader of UK's 2014 class -- played in the Army All-American game on Saturday and showed why ranks him a four-star prospect and the No. 6 quarterback in the nation.

Playing on the West squad, Barker came on in relief and led his team on its first two scoring drives and an eventual 28-6 victory. In total, he played three drives and completed 4-of-6 passes for 54 yards. Final rushing totals were not available, but he also flashed some impressive athletic ability.

His play did not go unnoticed by his soon-to-be coach.

With the winter semester set to start in less than two weeks, Barker and six more early enrollees will arrive on campus soon. Included in that group are running back Mike Horton and wide receiver Thaddeus Snodgrass. Horton will play in the Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl on Sunday (9 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 1), while Snodgrass played in the Offense-Defense All-American Bowl on Friday. No statistics were available for the game.

Former Cat Warford on ESPN's all-rookie team

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A three-year starter at UK, Larry Warford just completed a standout rookie season for the Detroit Lions. (Chet White, UK Athletics) A three-year starter at UK, Larry Warford just completed a standout rookie season for the Detroit Lions. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
After watching him open holes and protect the passer for four years, Kentucky fans were pretty confident the Detroit Lions had gotten a steal in taking Larry Warford in the third round of the NFL Draft.

A season into his professional career, they've been proven right.

Warford stepped at right guard immediately and experienced a minimal learning curve. He started all 16 games for a Lions team that contended for the NFC North title until the end of the season and made a strong case for Pro Bowl honors.

Warford didn't end up getting picked for the Pro Bowl, but he's still drawing plenty of praise, most recently from Mel Kiper of Kiper gave his picks for the top rookies in the league and Warford got the nod at one of two guard spots:

OG Larry Warford, Detroit: A total steal in the third round, he was the best rookie guard in the NFL. A better pass-blocker than I thought, and good in space.

Kiper also ranks Warford as the 10th-best rookie overall in the NFL.

Link: 2013 NFL all-rookie team (ESPN Insider)

Artose Pinner rushed for 1,414 yards during his senior season at UK in 2002. (Ed Reinke, AP Photo) Artose Pinner rushed for 1,414 yards during his senior season at UK in 2002. (Ed Reinke, AP Photo)
Artose Pinner was the exception. The thought of playing in the NFL didn't cross his mind until the last second.

Even as he was running to first-team All-Southeastern Conference honors during a banner senior season, the Hopkinsville, Ky., native only ever had one thing on his mind.

"I didn't get to start until my senior year, but everything I did was always bigger than me as far as thinking about all my teammates who put in the same time I put in," Pinner said.

It wasn't until his final season as a Wildcat that Pinner moved into a featured role, and he excelled. In 2002, he rolled up 1,414 yards -- second most in a single season in UK history. He topped 100 yards in seven of his 12 games, totaling 13 rushing touchdowns and adding 37 catches for 264 yards.

In spite of all that, Pinner was surprised by a phone call he received not long after the season ended.

It was an agent exploring the possibility of representing the bruising running back and he began the conversation by asking Pinner about where he expected to be drafted. Since he hadn't heard anything, Pinner threw out "fifth or sixth round."

"He laughed at me," Pinner said.

The agent explained that Pinner, in fact, was projected to go in the second round. A broken ankle sustained during the preparation process hurt his stock, but Pinner was still taken in the fourth round of the 2003 NFL Draft by the Detroit Lions.

"It just didn't hit me," Pinner said. "I was having a great year and I was having fun doing what I was doing and the NFL was just a blessing that came from making it bigger than myself and working hard."

Pinner would go on to a five-year professional career with three teams, far exceeding his own expectations for where football would take him. He only ever wanted to help his team win games and fulfill his famiy's vision of receiving a college degree.

In that memorable senior season, he did the former. Last week, he took care of the latter as well by graduating.

"It was something that I wanted to keep my word to my mom and grandma that I was going to do it."
Pinner said. "And to myself."

Pinner returned to Lexington over the summer to restart work toward a degree in media art studies.

Pinner admits that all the changes on campus made adjusting to life as a college student challenging, but the people -- many of whom were around more than a decade ago during his playing days -- made it feel like home.

"I don't think many people can say that they can leave a place and they still treat you like family," Pinner said. "From athletics to academics, the professors, everybody is a close-knit family and that is blessing."  

With that support system in place, Pinner completed his coursework this fall and graduated in December.

"It's an overwhelming feeling," Pinner said. "It's a humbling experience because I knew realistically I couldn't do it all by myself. This is not only for me, but also the people who helped me get to this point."

He isn't exactly sure what he will do with his degree, but his immediate plan is to continue his work mentoring children through the NFL's Play 60 program and an author. He published his first children's book -- "Willville" -- earlier this year.

"It's a book about encouraging kids to believe in themselves and chase their dreams," Pinner said.

Similarly, Pinner hopes his graduation can serve as motivation for others working toward their diplomas, continuing what he believes has always been his reason for being.

"I think my whole purpose was just to inspire people," Pinner said.

He certainly did that during his UK career, persevering even as he was labeled as a blocking back in Hal Mumme's pass-happy attack. When Guy Morriss took over in 2001, Pinner almost gave up, telling his new coach of his intent to transfer.

"Coach Morriss said, 'If you stay here we are going to run the ball and run this offense around you,' " Pinner said. "I was shocked. I didn't believe it."

Pinner couldn't help but believe it when he became the main weapon for one of UK football's best teams in recent memory. With Pinner carrying the load and standouts like Jared Lorenzen, Derek Abney and Dewayne Robertson surrounding him, the Cats went 7-5 after managing just two wins the season prior.

Perhaps somewhat unjustly, the 2002 is best remembered for being ineligible for postseason play and for falling victim to the "Bluegrass Miracle" against LSU. But Pinner and his teammates -- many of whom he still calls close friends -- recall their three SEC wins and three defeats that came by a touchdown or less.

"It was bigger than us," Pinner said. "It was bigger than the individual. Everybody was just for team. When you make things bigger than yourself, good things will happen."

Now that he is a fan, Pinner can draw on his experience as a player as he gets ready to watch Mark Stoops' second season from his home in Lawrenceville, Ga.

"You are playing against top-notch competition every week and I know and have been there with Coach Morriss and those guys when we went 2-9 his first year," Pinner said. "Everybody has to buy into the system and once they buy into the system and what the coaches are saying there is going to be a big difference."

Busy with classes, Pinner didn't spend a lot of time around the Nutter Training Facility, but he did meet much of Stoops' staff and knows of the work the group is doing on the recruiting trail. Based on all he has seen, Pinner looks forward to seeing what's ahead.

"I think next year that is going to be a huge difference," Pinner said. "They are going to be reacting and playing and he is going to bring in more guys that are buying into what he is doing which is going to add to the guys who are there and who are buying into what he is doing. I am excited to see the future of UK football."

Degree in hand, Pinner feels the same way about his own future.

"It makes me a little bit more marketable, I can say that," Pinner said. "But I'm interested to see what the future holds with it."

Congratulations to the following 30 current and former student-athletes who received their degrees in December: Jessica Stiles (women's tennis); James Jasis and Katie Fretts (rifle); Cassie Ransdell, Kirsten Robinson and Alyssa Telang (women's soccer); Caitlin Satkowiak (gymnastics); Cameron Wilder (men's soccer); Jerad Grundy, Walt Wijas and Chris Bisson (baseball); Tripp Crosthwaite and Travis Green (men's swimming and diving); Kelcy Perry (women's swimming); Ashlee Rose and Ashleigh Albrecht (women's golf); Anthony Rossi and Matt Davis (men's tennis); Cally Macumber (track and field); Jordan Aumiller, Max Godby, Mister Cobble, Jonathan George, Patrick Ligon, Kory Brown, Tristian Johnson and Artose Pinner (football); Chase Parker (men's golf); Whitney Billings and Alexandra Morgan (volleyball)

Quarterback Drew Barker with Mark Stoops on a visit to Lexington this fall. (UK Athletics) Quarterback Drew Barker with Mark Stoops on a visit to Lexington this fall. (UK Athletics)
By the nature of his position and his ranking according to most recruiting services, Drew Barker is viewed as the centerpiece of Kentucky's highly rated 2014 recruiting class.

A prolific high-school passer and adept runner, the Burlington, Ky., native projects as UK's quarterback of the future. But as good as Barker could be down the road, he's already proven invaluable as the lynchpin of Mark Stoops' first full class.

"He's played a critical role in this," Stoops said. "He really has, just with first of all with his commitment to us early in the process. And he did that to help solidify the rest of his class and help us recruit the rest of his class, and he's done that."

As soon as he chose UK over South Carolina -- and really even before that -- Barker went about the business of building relationships with classmates throughout the country who were considering joining him in Lexington. Many followed him and Kentucky is positioned to reel in its best class ever come Signing Day.

On Wednesday, Stoops praised the personality of the group, comparing camaraderie that has already been built to a brotherhood. That has a lot to do with Barker.

"It just shows he's just a very mature young man and he's got great leadership skills and obviously those are important qualities when you're looking at a quarterback," Stoops said.

Those qualities and more will position Barker to compete for playing time this spring. The 6-foot-3, 217-pounder graduated from high school in December and will enroll in classes in January.

"Drew, you know, coming in at mid-year is different than a regular high-school kid coming in obviously, coming in, in the fall," Stoops said. "So he's going to go through offseason conditioning. Again, going through spring ball."

Due to the staggered practice schedule, Stoops says the spring is a better time to learn than fall camp. Instead of the daily grind of practice after practice, Barker will typically have off days during which he can process all the information being thrown at him.

"I think that's very big, and I think it's big at quarterback," Stoops said. "So, I'm excited to get him in here and get him rolling. I expect him to come in from day one and compete for the starting job, and that's why we recruited him."

When spring practice does begin in a few months, the competition will begin between Barker and returners Maxwell Smith, Jalen Whitlow, Patrick Towles and Reese Phillips.

"I think any of us who have been around football would like to walk in here and say, 'Yeah, that's my guy,' " Stoops said. "We're not in that position, and that's the way it is. We'll go back to the drawing boards and open it up in spring. We've got some new additions, and we'll see where that takes us."

Stoops not slowing down in second year

Stoops has hardly had time to breathe since he was named head coach.

In his first months, he moved his family, hired a staff and rushed to put together a recruiting class. As soon as that was done, it was time for spring practice. After playing catchup and laying the foundation for the 2014 class over the summer, fall camp and his first season began.

That's exactly the way he wants it.

"So I've been going 100 miles an hour for a year now, and now this is the first week you can really decompress and put your feet on the ground and I'm pretty bummed out about that to be honest with you," Stoops said. "I'd rather keep going."

Even so, Stoops admits it's nice to have settled in.

"Obviously the comfort level is much greater, it's much more comfortable this year than it was at this time last year," Stoops said. "I was just trying to find my way around town this time last year."

Now officially in his second calendar year in Lexington, he's still finding plenty of ways to keep busy. He's also just as excited about the future as he was last December.

"Wrapping up 2013, obviously disappointed in the wins and losses, but very pleased and thought we made progress in a lot of areas," Stoops said. "We are excited about recruiting and the offseason and moving forward with wrapping up this recruiting class and moving forward with the program. Some good things are happening right now with the renovations getting started and all those good things."

Dupree, Smith return to solidify pass rush
Defensive ends Za'Darius Smith and Bud Dupree will return for their senior seasons. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Defensive ends Za'Darius Smith and Bud Dupree will return for their senior seasons. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
They won't fax in letters of intent, but UK's 2014 recruiting class got what Stoops would call its biggest two commitments in Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith.

"This past week, probably two of our biggest splashes in recruiting really came from Bud and Za'Darius with both of those guys announcing they were coming back," Stoops said.

The two defensive ends announced they will bypass the NFL Draft and return for their senior years. Dupree and Smith were UK's second- and third-leading tacklers in 2013, combining for 120 tackles -- 16 of which came for loss -- and 13 sacks.

"That was big for us and very important for our defense and team and leadership to have those guys return," Stoops said. "I am excited for them and to help them improve their stock in the draft the following year."

Stoops proud as FSU prepares for title game

All year, Stoops has watched as his former colleagues and players at Florida State have put together a dream 2013 season.

"Very happy for Florida State," Stoops said. "Very proud of those guys. I have an awful lot of good friends down there, and just love the way they play."

The No. 1 Seminoles are in the midst of preparations for the BCS National Championship, where they will take on No. 2 Auburn. As much as Stoops might like to see the Southeastern Conference extend its title streak to eight, he has to root for FSU.

"I'm sorry, I've got to go against the SEC on this one," Stoops said. "I've got too many close relationships with the people there and certainly the players there. I wish them the best of luck."

It wasn't as chaotic as National Signing Day will be in February, but Mark Stoops was a busy man on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.

With mid-year junior-college transfers able to sign, Stoops and his staff were hoping to add two players to Kentucky's 2014 class and they wouldn't rest until those faxes came through.

"Believe me, we were working all night last night," Stoops said at a noon ET press conference. "This deal, one of these deals didn't get closed until about an hour ago. We were working all the way through."

The work ultimately paid off, as defensive tackle Cory "C.J." Johnson and cornerback A.J. Stamps put pen to paper and signed with Kentucky.

"Cory and A.J. were outstanding players on the junior-college level and will help us address needs at their positions," Stoops said.  "They will be able to enroll in January, go through our winter high-performance program and participate in spring practice."

In discussing the pair -- as well as a number of other offseason topics -- Stoops confirmed that it was Stamps who kept the coaches up the night before. He also joked that the 6-foot, 190-pounder will be in for some additional running when he and Johnson enroll in January after the last-minute stress he caused.

"We've felt good about it for a while, but you know it's never over until it's over," Stoops said. "Then the last 48 hours some things turned, and it's always a hard-fought battle when you're going after players of this caliber."

Stamps -- a teammate of UK defensive end Za'Darius Smith in 2012 -- arrived at East Mississippi Community College as a wide receiver after he caught 77 passes for 1,289 yards and 19 touchdowns as a senior at Vicksburg (Miss.) High School. But before the 2013 season, he converted to corner and thrived.

Stamps registered 51 tackles, seven tackles for loss, four interceptions and nine pass breakups in leading the Lions to the 2013 national championship. Because of his late emergence, Stamps isn't listed in many recruiting databases, but the other finalist for his services says everything about the kind of player he is. Stamps chose Kentucky over Ohio State, citing relationships with coaches and players, the city of Lexington and UK's fan support.

Stoops admits it's a thrill to win that kind of battle.

"We want the best players," Stoops said. "We know that's the lifeline of our program, is recruiting. Very encouraged because I feel like we really try to do things right and cross every T and dot every I and don't leave any stone unturned. We try to go about our business the right way, and after that you let the chips fall where they may."

Johnson has an impressive offer sheet of his own. Rated a four-star prospect by and the No. 31 junior-college player by, he picked Kentucky over Miami (Fla.) and Texas Tech. Johnson attended ASA College in Brooklyn, N.Y., and led the Junior College Athletic Association's top scoring defense with 49 tackles to go with 15 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks.

"Cory comes from a very successful junior college, won a lot of games," Stoops said. "He is a very active, productive player. The fact that he led his team in tackles as a defensive lineman is very impressive. I look forward to adding a big, strong lineman to help at tackle."

Both Johnson and Stamps project to compete for immediate playing time, particularly after going through offseason workouts and practice next semester.

"I'm confident these guys will come in and help us," Stoops said. "That's why we recruited them."

With UK losing starters Donte Rumph and Mister Cobble, Johnson would appear to have a good opportunity to do just that at defensive tackle. Stoops praised his size, suggesting he is even bigger than the 6-3, 275 pounds at which he's currently listed. Stamps, meanwhile, adds a veteran presence to a corner position lacking that a season ago.

Johnson and Stamps become the sixth and seventh official members of UK's highly rated 2014 class. They join the following high-school mid-year enrollees: quarterback Drew Barker (Burlington, Ky.), linebacker Dorian Hendrix (Huber Heights, Ohio), running back Mikel Horton (West Chester, Ohio), wide receiver Thaddeus Snodgrass (Springfield, Ohio) and wide receiver T.V. Williams (McKinney, Texas).

Much of that class was together in Lexington last weekend, including the two most recent signees.

"The weekend was fantastic, really, this past weekend, and really a good portion of how this 2014 class is coming together is one of the most unique recruiting experiences I've been a part of," Stoops said.

Stoops is unable to get into specifics since the majority of the players remain unsigned, but he sees a personality developing in his first full recruiting class.

"I think if you look at some of the characteristics of this class that we're bringing in, obviously they're great and very talented football players, but they're great leaders," Stoops said. "I think they're very humble kids."

Growing out of that is a collective pride that makes the class feel like a team even before its members have arrived on campus.

"When they're on campus amongst themselves, they interact with each other in a way that they've known each other for years," Stoops said. "They feel like they're almost brothers, and that's coming from them and their quotes and different things. But I think that's why it's unique: because they just feel a very strong bond with one another and they feel a very strong bond with Kentucky and with our fans and with our people here and all the staff and all that."

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