What latest four-star QB commitment means for future of Kentucky football recruiting

AUGUST 04, 2023 6:51 PM
What high school quarterback recruiting drought?
For all the success Mark Stoops, Vince Marrow and the rest of the Kentucky football staff have had elevating the Wildcats’ recruiting over the last decade, the one consistent struggle was landing top-level high school quarterbacks.
No high school signee recruited as a quarterback has been the primary starter for a UK team with a winning record since Morgan Newton in 2010. Of the seven consecutive bowl teams in the Stoops era, six featured quarterbacks who transferred into the program from a junior college or other FBS program. The lone exception was the 2019 Gator Bowl squad that was forced to play wide receiver Lynn Bowden at quarterback after the top two quarterbacks on the roster, both of whom arrived at UK as transfers, were sidelined by injuries.
Those struggles are starting to seem like a distant memory after the commitment of four-star class of 2025 quarterback Stone Saunders on Friday. Saunders is the second four-star high school quarterback to commit to Kentucky since May, following Lexington Christian star Cutter Boley.
It is no coincidence that the uptick in high school quarterback recruiting coincides with the return of Liam Coen as offensive coordinator.
“I think what any big-time high school quarterbacks look for is they want to play in the NFL,” said Jeff Weachter, Saunders’ coach at Bishop McDevitt High School in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. “That’s a big draw. When you look at probably half the NFL teams are running that offense that Liam runs, that’s a big factor.”
During his first stint as UK offensive coordinator in 2021, Coen signed Penn State quarterback transfer Will Levis. Over two years at Kentucky, Levis went from run-first backup at Penn State to second-round NFL Draft pick.
Levis’ success helped Kentucky land North Carolina State transfer Devin Leary, the top-ranked quarterback in the transfer portal this offseason, according to multiple rankings. If he can thrive in Coen’s offense with a promising group of young receivers, Leary will have the chance to make it back-to-back years with a Kentucky quarterback drafted after the Wildcats went 15 years without a quarterback drafted. No UK quarterback has started a game in the NFL since Tim Couch retired in 2003.
“For years, it’s difficult, and then you get a couple quarterbacks,” Coen said Friday morning when asked about high school quarterback recruiting at UK’s annual Media Day. “Will helps us out a ton with his success. Then you go get a Devin, who is an experienced quarterback, has a lot of snaps under his belt and he comes in. That helps.”
Four-star Pennsylvania quarterback Stone Saunders committed to Kentucky over finalists Georgia, Michigan, Nebraska and Miami.
Coen pointed to the success of wide receivers Dane Key and Barion Brown as freshmen as further help in recruiting high school quarterbacks. Those receivers could be seniors when Saunders enrolls in 2025.
If Leary can match or improve Levis’ production at Kentucky, it would have been easy for Coen and Kentucky to continue to look to the transfer portal for its starting quarterback, but landing top-level high school talent would make it easier to build cohesion in the offense from year to year.
Boley plans to graduate a semester early to enroll at UK in January, but the staff could look to the transfer portal for another quarterback to avoid forcing Boley into a featured role as a freshman. Kentucky could then hand the reins of the offense to Boley in 2025, marking a shift away from the revolving door of transfer quarterbacks.
Saunders would be a freshman that season if he sticks with his Kentucky commitment through signing day in December 2024.
“By the end of this year he’s essentially ready to play college football,” Weachter said. “... He’s at that level.”
Saunders, the son of former Baltimore Ravens strength and conditioning coach Steve Saunders, committed to Kentucky over finalists Georgia, Michigan, Nebraska and Miami. As a sophomore for Bishop McDevitt, Saunders threw for 3,583 yards, 54 touchdowns and five interceptions while helping lead his team to a state championship.
The 247Sports Composite, which averages the ratings of the major recruiting services, ranks Saunders the No. 20 quarterback in the high school class of 2025. Rivals and ESPN rate Saunders as a four-star prospect.
“His arm is elite,” Weachter said. “... His processing, his understanding of defenses and also our offensive concepts, his processing is really good. He’s my seventh Division I quarterback, and he processes better now going into his junior year better than any of them did when they were seniors, which says a lot.”
Recruiting rankings do not guarantee college success. An early commitment does not even guarantee a player enrolls at Kentucky (Stoops and Kentucky held a commitment from New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones before he flipped to Alabama), but Saunders’ pledge does signify with Coen as offensive coordinator Kentucky has written a new narrative with its high school quarterback recruiting.
“When you are recruiting the quarterbacks at the high school level they see the future, they see the possibilities of what this can be at some point with good athletes around them,” Coen said. “We’ve always been solid up front. … Some of the pro-style system, all of that can kind of help with the potential of where they can go.”

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