John Clay: Viewing Stoops through rose-colored glasses

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMay 11, 2013 

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Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops stalked the sideline during the Blue/White Spring Scrimmage on April 13.

PHOTO BY JONATHAN PALMER — Lexington Herald-Leader

Mark Stoops, you're making this tough.

You know us columnists. We are the Nattering Nabobs of Negativism. (Spiro Agnew said that line, but it was a soon-to-be-columnist named Bill Safire who wrote it.) We lemon-suckers love to mock, criticize and crank up the doom machine. It's what we do.

Since you, Mr. Stoops, ascended north from Florida State last December to take over the reins of Kentucky's flattened football program, however, you haven't given us squat.

Let's start with your staff.

For defensive coordinator, you didn't pull some retread out of mothballs happy to cash another paycheck. You brought along D.J. Eliot, a 36-year-old ball of kinetic energy, who rocks back and forth when you talk to him as if he hopes to quickly move on to his next important task. Oh yeah, at FSU, Eliot coached defensive ends, one in particular, kid named Bjoern Werner, who was the first-round pick of the Indianapolis Colts.

For offensive coordinator, you coaxed state-born Neal Brown, someone you didn't even know, to give up his offensive coordinator job at Texas Tech to return home and bring the Air Raid sirens back to Commonwealth Stadium.

Plus, under most everyone's radar, you hired Vince Marrow, a grad assistant on the staff at Nebraska, who may now be the most valuable recruiter on your entire staff, thanks to his ability to talk multiple Ohio prospects into exporting their grid talents south to Lexington.

Which brings us to your mantra, voiced early: Recruit, recruit, recruit. And, oh yeah, recruit some more.

That's exactly what you've done, signing on late notice a surprisingly good class for 2013, topped by turning Louisville Trinity defensive end Jason Hatcher from a future Southern Cal Trojan into a current Kentucky Wildcat. No easy job, that.

Now you're picking up right where you left off from signing day, your 2014 commitment list strengthened Friday when star Conner High School quarterback Drew Barker announced he was snubbing Steve Spurrier and South Carolina for a seat on the speeding Stoops bandwagon.

Let's tap the brakes on the bandwagon just a second. For all the happy headlines thus far, the fact remains that Stoops has yet to be a head coach for a single college football game, much less the death march that is a Southeastern Conference college football game, no matter what brother Bob might have to say about that.

But if you think this is where this columnist injects a negative tone to this tome, you're wrong.

In my mind, when fall does arrive and the football is placed on the tee, Stoops gets a first-year pass. He inherited a team that went 2-10 last season, a team that not only didn't win a single SEC game, but got smoked in most of those games.

Add to that, UK's 2013 schedule is beyond brutal. Louisville, Florida, Alabama, Missouri and Tennessee all come to Commonwealth Stadium. The Cats must travel to South Carolina, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt and Georgia. Talk about mine fields.

Must-win games? Please. Yours truly came away from Western Kentucky's spring game thinking Bobby Petrino's Hilltoppers are further along than the Cats. What about archrival Louisville? The Cards have Teddy Bridgewater, assorted offensive weapons and the confidence of a team that beat Florida in the Sugar Bowl. Kentucky hasn't beaten Florida since 1986.

Stoops isn't likely to beat the Gators in 2013, but that's OK. For all the strides made off the field, the new coach will need time and fans' patience to produce the desired results on the field. At some point, reality must rear its ugly head.

That's OK, however. No one promised Mark Stoops a rose garden when he stepped into this bed of thorns. And there are sure to be a misstep or two for your local columnist to point out from time to time.

So far, however, Mark Stoops has done just about everything right.

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

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