Restoring Cats' confidence was major undertaking for Stoops in preparation for season

jsmith3@herald-leader.comAugust 30, 2013 

  • Kentucky vs. Western Kentucky

    When: 7 p.m. Saturday
    Where: LP Field in Nashville
    TV: ESPNews
    Radio: WBUL-FM 98.1; WLAP-AM 630; WWRW-FM 105.5

There was no fanfare when Mark Stoops walked into the meeting room that day.

There was no rah-rah moment, no bold promises, no fight song blasting in the background.

Meeting with his new team for the first time as its head coach this winter, Stoops only promised that he was going to do everything he could to make them better.

And he believes he and his staff have done that as Kentucky prepares to take on Western Kentucky in its season opener on Saturday in Nashville.

Kentucky's players were still reeling from a 2-10 season, one that included nearly empty stadiums and coaching staff dismissals.

"Confused, didn't know what to expect; lost, didn't know what direction we were going in," is how senior Donte Rumph described his teammates.

Junior defensive end Alvin "Bud" Dupree said Kentucky wasn't in the basement emotionally, it was somewhere deeper and darker than that.

"It was at an all-time low," Dupree said. "We were an SEC team and we only won two games."

Enter Stoops.

He laid out his plan for how he would help the players get better, how he would help them change their bodies.

He charted a road map for success, senior Raymond Sanders said.

"The staff definitely came in and told you to keep your head high, be proud of what's across your jersey and they were preaching to believe in yourself, keep believing and be confident in yourself and your abilities, believe in yourself and your teammates," said Sanders, who has been labeled a potential playmaker this season for an offense that struggled.

It wasn't an overnight thing, Stoops would explain later.

He met with players individually. His coaches kept office doors open and stayed in the practice facility at all hours building connections.

Stoops said rebuilding confidence has been a full-time job, one that's still far from complete.

"I think we need to continuously work on that," he said. "That's something that does not come very natural to our team right now. So I think with confidence, you've got to prepare. If you prepare in the right way and go about your business the right way, I think they'll gain more and more confidence."

It's definitely been a gradual thing, the players said.

The confidence started to grow when they saw the numbers rise in the weight room and decline in their body fat percentages.

"The hard work we put in, they showed us videos of where we were and what we became," Dupree explained. "We're still not done — we've still got a long ways to go to get to the top training-wise and practice-wise — but really they've just made us believe."

The confidence continued to climb in fall camp when players talked in the locker room and plotted a plan to see how many good practices they could put together in a row.

"People are out there feeling better about themselves, and we also see them make plays," Sanders explained. "We've seen them making plays now and we believe in them. It's something we keep building on, that we can keep making those plays and believe in them."

The coaches exude a sort of quiet confidence, which the players have tried to emulate, senior defensive tackle Mister Cobble said.

"He's confident. He's a confident guy," Cobble said of his head coach. "But he also spends so much of his time telling us how much he believes in us and cares about us. It's like he puts us up on a high pedestal every time we do something good. He congratulates us, lets us know when he sees improvement."

As an outsider who was new to the staff and didn't have any connection to the UK players, cornerbacks coach Derrick Ansley has seen Stoops start to convince players that they can be special.

They've come a long way since their season ended in Knoxville with tears in the locker room as they said goodbye to their coaches.

Ansley said there's no "magic theory" to building confidence, but Stoops has been doing it slowly and methodically.

"He has a good heart and the kids realize he cares about them," Ansley said. "These kids would run through a brick wall for Coach because he takes care of them on and off the field. He coaches them hard, but at the end of the day, he puts his hands around their neck and wants to know how they are."

Jonathan George, a senior running back, said he understands now why the Florida State defenders doused their outgoing defensive coordinator with Gatorade after their bowl victory.

"We want to deliver big for those guys," George said of his new coaching staff. "They've worked their butts off and they've come out every day to get us to work ours off as well."

Will it be enough to win games this season? It's too soon to tell.

But this Kentucky team is a lot closer to believing it's filled with winners than it was a season ago.

Much like Stoops didn't come in with a phony bravado in that first meeting, he doesn't want his players' new-found confidence to come from a fake place, either.

"I want them to give it the maximum they can, and I feel good about this team," Stoops said. "I've said it all along. We can be a very good team, and we can shock a lot of people. We've just got to do what we can do and do it to the best of our ability."

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

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