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March 15, 2013
Dallas Jackson is the National Columnist for Rivals.com. Email him your comments or story ideas to DallasJ@Yahoo-Inc.com and follow him on Twitter.
Mark Stoops doesn't view the country the way Rand McNally draws it up.
"Ohio is in-state recruiting for us," Stoops said. "The proximity of our campus to Southeast Ohio and my ties into the Northeastern part of the state made it an easy decision to focus efforts there.
"It is also a talent-rich state, so we have to go in and get kids."
The defense-minded coach comes from a defensive-minded family from Youngstown, Ohio -- where his parents and eldest brother still reside. He played football at Youngstown (Ohio) Cardinal Mooney and coached at Macedonia (Ohio) Nordonia.
Stoops set his sights on the state early, and it paid immediate dividends in the class of 2013.
The aggressiveness in flipping McWilson was not limited to Ohio players.
Louisville (Ky.) Trinity Rivals250 defensive end Jason Hatcher signed with Kentucky after being committed to USC for months; Orlando (Fla.) Freedom receiver Jeff Badet flipped from USF and agreed to be a part of Big Blue Nation just before National Signing Day; Weston (Fla.) Cypress Bay receiver Alex Montgomery spurned Wake Forest to play for Stoops as well.
Going after committed players is part of the culture change in Lexington.
"I don't know how it was done before I was here," Stoops said. "I didn't recruit too much against Kentucky, but that is how we will be recruiting now.
"Until guys are signed, they are fair game. We are going to recruit hard and do what is best for us. If there is a player we feel like we still have a relationship with, then we are going to stay with him until the very end."
As the recruiting process gets under way for the class of 2014, Stoops has proven to be a man of his word.
He is staying in Ohio -- and the Midwest -- going against heavyweights in the region.
Jones is an offensive guard from Cleveland (Ohio) Glennville -- a school that has traditionally been a Buckeyes feeder program coached by Ted Ginn Sr.
It is the relationship that assistant coach Vince Marrow has at the school, combined with the honest approach taken by Stoops, that has opened the dialogue.
"I like (Marrow)," Jones said. "He was honest and upfront with me.
"(He) and my other coach played together. My coach said I will love Coach Marrow, and he's just real friendly."
Bucking the trend doesn't stop with bucking Ohio State.
Lima (Ohio) Central Catholic safety Darius West recently put Kentucky in his top five. The No. 194 player in the Rivals250 listed the school with Notre Dame, Michigan, Michigan State and Tennessee as places to visit before deciding his future this summer.
Mikel Horton also has increased his interest in the program. The No. 209 player in the Rivals250 may follow his former Lakota West teammate Meadows to Lexington. Horton has offers from Florida State, Indiana, Minnesota and Purdue, among a dozen others. He said he planned on returning to Lexington for the spring game in April.
Cleveland (Ohio) Shaker Heights offensive tackle Ja'Merez Bowen may put Nebraska and Kentucky into another showdown because the two have been the most recent offers for the 6-foot-5, 270-pound offensive lineman.
The rest of the Big Ten might soon feel the wrath that Nebraska and Ohio State have.
Kentucky has been involved with Hinsdale (Ill.) Central offensive lineman Brian Allen as well.
"I'm not scared to say the SEC is the best football conference in the country right now," Allen told Rivals.com. "I want to play the best football I can, the most competitive football that I can. So it doesn't bother me that Kentucky isn't in the Big Ten."
With recruiting on track, Stoops must continue to improve what has been left for him.
His hire was met with universal approval from fans and recruits. His reputation precedes him, and players and their parents are quick to build lasting relationships. How quickly he will turn the energy into victories is yet to be determined, but the initial buzz is positive.
Stoops said there is a lot of work to be done.
"The phase we are on right now is conditioning," he said. "There is a long way to go, but we have to start by getting bigger and stronger and building our mental toughness.
"After conditioning is done, we will go on break and then get ready for practice. The kids have really embraced the new demands, and I like their work ethic."
It is a cycle that he hopes will feed on itself.
"We are being aggressive with everything we do right now," Stoops said. "We are getting on the same page with the coaches and the players, and we are on to 2014 recruiting. It is exciting, and we are ready to pave our own way at Kentucky."