While Mark Stoops was “Keeping up with the Bafferts” at the Kentucky Derby, the UK football coach’s program was enjoying a blue-letter day.

When four Cats were selected on Saturday in the final two rounds of the 2021 NFL Draft, it gave Kentucky six total selections overall.

The last time more UK players heard their names called in an NFL Draft — it was eight in 1979 — Jimmy Carter lived in the White House and the draft was 12 rounds long.

A recruiting analyst for 24/7 Sports, Steve Wiltfong, ranked the Wildcats as one of his big winners coming out of the draft. Saturday Down South used Kentucky’s draft showing to call attention to “the incredible job Stoops is doing in Lexington.”

From 2013 through 2018, UK did not even lead its own state in number of NFL Draft picks produced, finishing behind Louisville or Western Kentucky — or both — for five straight years.

Now, over the past three NFL Drafts, Kentucky has had 13 players taken. That ranks UK sixth in the SEC in that time frame, behind only Alabama (28 players selected), LSU (24), Georgia (23), Florida (19) and Auburn (16) (the Cats are tied with Texas A&M).

Those NFL Draft numbers merely confirm what has been evident on the field since 2016: Long an SEC doormat, Kentucky under Stoops has risen to become a solid, mid-level Southeastern Conference football program.

Without question, the goal should be to continue to rise, but elevating UK football out of the bottom tier of the SEC is not a small achievement for Stoops.

Recent NFL Drafts have also told the tale on the relative current strength of the football programs at Kentucky and Tennessee.

While UK had six players chosen this year, UT had two.

As the Cats have had 13 players taken since 2019, the Vols have had four.

Those figures reflect how Kentucky has gone 37-26 overall, 20-22 in SEC games, since the start of the 2016 season. They also show how Tennessee has gone 29-31, 14-28 in the SEC, over the same years.

In the past five seasons, UK is 2-3 head-to-head vs UT. That is both disappointing and an improvement over Kentucky’s dismal showing (1-31) against the Rocky Toppers from 1985 through 2016.

Fact is, other than the Blanton Collier coaching tenure in the 1950s, Tennessee has always pretty well “had Kentucky’s number” in football.

Moving forward, it will be fascinating to see if last season’s 34-7 UK beat down of UT at Neyland Stadium represented the Wildcats at last throwing off the Big Orange yoke. If so, the lagging indicator of overall program strength that has been Kentucky-Tennessee head-to-head may at last shift to reflect the other metrics.

It is interesting, entering this past season, Tennessee’s prior five recruiting classes, 2016 through 2020, were ranked 15th, 15th, 20th, 12th and seventh best in the country by Rivals.com.

Kentucky’s classes over the same time were rated 28th, 26th, 30th, 30th and 22nd by Rivals.

For UK, “recruit and develop” has clearly been more than a hashtag.

Of the 13 Kentucky players selected in the past three NFL Drafts, one, offensive tackle Landon Young (sixth round, 2021 draft) was ranked a five-star recruit by Rivals.

UK has seen three four-star recruits taken in the past three NFL Drafts — safety Mike Edwards (third round, 2019), flanker Lynn Bowden (third round, 2020) and defensive back and LSU transfer Kelvin Joseph (second round, 2021).

The other nine Kentucky players chosen over the past three drafts were all judged three-star prospects as they entered college football by Rivals.

That includes two of the more impressive developmental stories of recent years in the SEC, linebackers Josh Allen (first round, 2019) and Jamin Davis (first round, 2021) who went from unsung recruits to first-day NFL Draft picks.

Two junior college cornerbacks graded as three-star recruits both became draft picks at UK, Lonnie Johnson (second round, 2019) and Brandin Echols (sixth round, 2021).

Kentucky also saw three-star running back Benny Snell (fourth round, 2019), offensive linemen George Asafo-Adjei (seventh round, 2019) and Logan Stenberg (fourth round, 2020) and defensive linemen Quinton Bohanna (sixth round, 2021) and Phil Hoskins (seventh round, 2021) develop into draft picks in Lexington.

It should be an obvious boon for Stoops, Vince Marrow and Co. to be able to recruit off of an NFL Draft for which Kentucky has reaped so much positive attention.

Whether or not Stoops was cashing tickets Saturday at Churchill Downs as the NFL Draft was winding down, he was enjoying a winning day.

(Mark Story is a columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader.)

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