UK football: Senior class eager to reignite the flame at Kentucky

jsmith3@herald-leader.comAugust 8, 2013 

  • UPCOMING SCHEDULE

    6 p.m. Friday: Fan Day at Commonwealth Stadium

    Season opener: Aug. 31 vs. Western Kentucky at Nashville

    Home opener: Sept. 7 vs. Miami (Ohio)

Sometimes promises made in living rooms aren't fulfilled.

Sometimes the big talk during a recruiting pitch goes high and wide.

Most of Kentucky's seniors know those things now.

Most of the group of 15 signed on with either Rich Brooks or Joker Phillips when UK was in the middle of its five-game bowl streak. The players thought they'd be headed for even better, warmer January destinations if they came to Kentucky.

In the past three seasons, most of them have been a part of a team that has gone 13-24. They've seen coaches depart. They've seen their once packed stadium nearly empty on game days.

And in this their final season at UK, they're having to adjust to new coaches, new systems, new ways of doing things.

"It was a little tough at first," senior linebacker Avery Williamson confessed.

"It's been difficult," running back Raymond Sanders concurred. "But you have to change what you're doing to get different results."

That change has come in the form of Coach Mark Stoops and his staff. They are doing what they can to make the transition easier, especially on the seniors.

"It's important to all of us that those players are 'my guys,' not the previous coaches' guys," Stoops said recently. "They're our guys and we embrace that and want them to feel fantastic about Kentucky, about where we're going. They're a big part of it. It's very important to go out with the seniors and have a good year with them."

Defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot has had seven jobs in the past 12 seasons and he knows all about transitions. He still talks regularly to many of the players he only got to coach for one season, the seniors in each transition.

"I've had some great relationships and experiences from dealing with players for just one year," Eliot said. "There's still a lot of room to grow for all of our seniors and I'm looking forward to working with those guys in their last year."

Many of the players who could make or break this season are seniors, defensive stalwarts like linemen Mister Cobble, Tristian Johnson, Donte Rumph and Williamson, the linebacker who has been a key leader this summer.

On offense there are regulars like Sanders, Kevin Mitchell, Jordan Aumiller, Anthony Kendrick and Tyler Robinson.

The seniors have impressed their new coaches and vice versa.

"We've had great coaches that came in and helped with the transition," Williamson said. "Having great coaches made it a lot easier."

Stoops said the seniors have bought in, which has made it an easier sell for the rest of the team.

"I'm very excited about them," he said. "They want to be led in the right way. They're working extremely hard and they have a positive attitude."

It helps that the seniors want to get the team back on the winning track that led them to sign with UK in the first place.

"We are too tired of losing," defensive tackle Rumph said this summer. "We're working hard. We're putting in work this season. We expect to win big games and we expect to do big things this year."

Williamson, who led the team with 135 tackles last season, said he's doing what he can to help the team start winning again.

"We're so, so inspired to go out on top," he said. "We are tired of losing and we're tired of being at the bottom of the SEC. We really want to go out and leave with some respect."

Many of the seniors in this class believed they were signing on to help carry the torch, but now they feel like they can help ignite it again.

It's a big job, but Sanders thinks they're up for it.

"We've been in this SEC and this environment," the running back said of the senior class. "Our job is just to help everyone catch on and help everyone else see how the tradition is."

The seniors have even gotten in on the act of making those sales pitches.

Even though they've been through so much, they don't mind helping sell Kentucky.

They have promises to keep.

"I just tell them if you want to be part of a change and something great, then this is it," Sanders said when asked what he tells new recruits. "You've got strong coaches. It's a great opportunity to get better and it's good to be part of something that's growing."


UPCOMING SCHEDULE

6 p.m. Friday: Fan Day at Commonwealth Stadium

Season opener: Aug. 31 vs. Western Kentucky at Nashville

Home opener: Sept. 7 vs. Miami (Ohio)

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukfootball.bloginky.com.

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