Don’t ignore Kentucky football’s recruiting ranking, but it doesn’t really matter

With college basketball dribbling its way into February, college football’s official national signing day may have slipped under your radar.

It was last Wednesday, in fact. Actually, the new real class of 2023 signing day was Dec. 21, 2022. That’s the “early signing day” when the vast majority of high school prospects pledge their allegiance to the college program of their choosing. Or the program’s choosing. Last Wednesday was for the add-ons.

How did the local Division I program fare? The 247Sports gurus ranked Kentucky’s class 31st overall, 12th among the 14 SEC schools. Rivals was more optimistic, placing the Cats’ haul 26th nationally and 11th in the conference.

Here’s the thing: Recruiting rankings matter until they don’t.

Remember the recently completed NFL conference championship games? Not one of the four starting quarterbacks was a coveted five-star recruit out of high school.

Sunday, Patrick Mahomes will be quarterbacking the Kansas City Chiefs in his third Super Bowl in the past four seasons. Out of his Texas high school, Mahomes was a three-star prospect ranked 398th-best nationally in the class of 2014 by 247Sports when he signed with Texas Tech. Mahomes was considered the 22nd-best pro-style prospect.

His counterpart, Jalen Hurts of the Philadelphia Eagles, was a four-star prospect out of Texas. Hurts was rated as the fourth-best dual-threat QB and 192nd-best prospect nationally overall in the class of 2016 by 247Sports when he signed with Alabama. Beaten out by Tua Tagovailoa, Hurts transferred to Oklahoma.

San Francisco’s Brock Purdy rocketed from Mr. Irrelevant, final player selected in the 2023 NFL Draft, to the NFC title game with the 49ers. Coming out of his Arizona high school, Purdy was a three-star prospect rated as the 36th-best pro-style quarterback in the class of 2018 when he signed with Iowa State. Purdy’s national ranking? Look way, way down the list to No. 839.

What about Joe Burrow? The Cincinnati Bengals quarterback led LSU to a national title in 2019 and the Bengals to a Super Bowl season in 2021. Burrow was a four-star prospect ranked eighth as a dual-threat prospect and No. 280 nationally when he entered Ohio State. Beaten out by Dwayne Haskins, Burrow relocated to Baton Rouge. Tragically, Haskins died last April.

The lesson here: It’s about development. As a prep quarterback, not one of those four was ranked best at his position. As a professional, all four have developed to the point of leading their teams to the highest levels of success.

So what about Devin Leary? The transfer from North Carolina State is Kentucky’s new quarterback. The New Jersey native was a four-star prospect when he signed with the Wolfpack. National ranking: 372. Pro-style ranking: 16.

The hope is Leary will match if not surpass the success of his UK predecessor, himself another transfer-portal find. Will Levis was a three-star prospect when he signed with Penn State out of Connecticut. Levis was ranked as the 28th-best pro-style quarterback and No. 652 prospect overall nationally.

In case you haven’t heard, ESPN’s veteran draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. insists Levis will be a top-five pick in April’s draft. Not top five quarterbacks. Top five pick overall.

This is not to say recruiting rankings are to be ignored. Georgia has won back-to-back national championships on the back of relentless recruiter Kirby Smart. The Bulldogs’ coach has signed one ridiculous class after another.

UK wide receiver Dane Key, right, and head coach Mark Stoops watch Frederick Douglass face Bowling Green during the Class 5A state championships at Kroger Field last December. Douglass, Key’s alma mater, won the title.
UK wide receiver Dane Key, right, and head coach Mark Stoops watch Frederick Douglass face Bowling Green during the Class 5A state championships at Kroger Field last December. Douglass, Key’s alma mater, won the title.

As for Kentucky, this year’s ranking fails to reflect the Cats’ portal success. There’s Leary, who threw for 3,433 yards and 35 touchdowns in 2021 before his 2022 season was curtailed by injury. There’s running back Ray Davis, a 1,000-yard rusher at Vanderbilt last season. There are offensive linemen in Marques Cox from Northern Illinois and Tanner Bowles from Alabama.

There’s also this: Mark Stoops has proven he knows a football player when he sees a football player. Josh Allen. Mike Edwards. Jamin Davis. Josh Paschal. Wan’Dale Robinson. Za’Darius Smith. Luke Fortner. Benny Snell. To name a few. NFL players all.

No doubt there are goodies in Kentucky’s class this year, no matter the rankings.

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