John Clay: Kentucky's spring practice 'grind' frustrating and fulfilling

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 27, 2013 

Mark Stoops was matter of fact.

It was Wednesday morning, just after a two-hour practice he opened to the media, and Kentucky's new football coach was talking to the same media that, for the first time, had gotten a peek behind the curtain.

"Sometimes, as you can see from the assistant coaches and from myself and different people, it's frustrating," Stoops said from behind an imported podium. "We've got a lot of work to do."

OK, it's not that dire.

"Nobody's discouraged, nobody's down," Stoops said. "That's our job. Just keep on grinding, getting better and better. But we are improving."

What? Six practices into spring drills, you were expecting Stoops to find 10-2 talent from a team that went 2-10 last year?

"It's about where I thought it would be," the coach said Wednesday.

Stoops wasn't a happy camper after Monday's practice. Said it wasn't good enough. Said he let the team know. They got a dose of the Angry Mark Stoops.

So how did the players respond?

"We're just trying to show them they don't understand the sense of urgency that it takes to win at a high level," Stoops said. "But that's our job to get them going."

Are these the growing pains of a group learning new systems from a new set of coaches?

"Some of it's learning the system," Stoops said. "Some of it is just bad habits. Some of it is simple things, playing high, and you're not finishing plays. Some of it is not being focused enough to get the call and get lined up and thinking about things before they happen."

He also said this: "I don't know that anything has surprised me."

It has to be different, however. The past two seasons, Stoops coordinated a Florida State defense that was among the best in the nation. Last year's defense was No. 1 in the nation until season's end when it dropped to second behind Alabama.

Last season, Stoops helped coach a team that went 12-2, that won the Atlantic Coast Conference title game, a team that later won the Orange Bowl. It has to be an adjustment coaching players who went 7-1 in a BCS conference to players who went 0-8 in a BCS conference.

"It's not much different," Stoops answered. "When I went to Florida State it was the same way when I got there. It wasn't maybe the same position, but I'm talking defensively as the coordinator at Florida State.

"It's a fight each and every day — to get them lined up; to get them to play with a sense of urgency; to get them to comprehend the defense. All those things. It's a grind."

"Fortunately for me, I've had a lot of different jobs," D.J. Eliot, Stoops' defensive coordinator, said when asked the same question. "I've been with a lot of different teams. Every team is different and every situation is different."

Someone asked about depth, were there positions in which the coach has seen a need for depth?

"Yeah, I mean," Stoops said. "Yeah. Yeah. Yes."

And then: "All of them."

He clarified.

"We need depth, but we're no different," Stoops said. "I'm not going to demean our team here because everybody would say that in the spring. We're thin. We need numbers. I bet if you asked just about any team in the conference they'd say the same thing."

And, yet, Kentucky was one of just two teams in the conference not to win a conference game last season. Auburn was the other. Both schools brought in new coaching staffs.

"You have a place that you want to get to and a place where you start at, and I'm taking that in stride," Eliot said. "I know that you've got to adjust and handle different players in different ways but you also have a standard that you're trying to reach."

Anything surprise Eliot so far?

"Anything surprise me?" the defensive coordinator repeated the question. "No, it's about what I thought it would be."

Back to the grind.

"That's where we're at, but that's fine," Stoops said. "We're good with that."

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com Twitter: @johnclayiv Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com

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