Kentucky's football coaches witnessing improvement — a little bit at a time

jsmith3@herald-leader.comOctober 3, 2013 

Kentucky Wildcats offensive coordinator Neal Brown and Kentucky Wildcats head coach Mark Stoops talks to the offense as the University of Louisville defeats the University of Kentucky 27-13 at Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington, Ky. on September 14, 2013. Photo by Mark Mahan

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  • Saturday

    Kentucky at No. 13 South Carolina

    When: 7:30 p.m.

    Records: UK 1-3 (0-1 SEC), South Carolina 3-1 (1-1)

    TV: FS South

The fuming Mark Stoops from after Wednesday's practice probably could have used a good talking to from the Monday Mark Stoops.

At his weekly news conference, that Stoops had a bigger message about the state of this year's Kentucky football team.

Just two days removed from a 24-7 loss to Florida at Commonwealth Stadium, Stoops said this: "I know I may set myself up for the shots or whatever — I can't worry about all that — all I'm worried about is getting better every day. I thought our players did a good job, I really do."

Stoops and his coaches spent Sunday picking over the film from the loss.

All of them had been frustrated after the defeat, but they all also noted players getting better, parts of the team getting better.

"I thought we gave ourselves some chances, I really did," Stoops continued. "We need to do things better, we know that."

He knows the small increments of improvement might not equal wins right away, like on Saturday night against No. 13 South Carolina in front of an already sold-out crowd at Williams-Brice Stadium where the Gamecocks have won 13 in a row.

But he knows that if his team keeps making strides, the scores eventually will tilt in UK's favor.

Stoops noted improvement against the run — taking out the 67-yard scamper by Matt Jones — something UK has struggled with not only this season but also the last few.

"Some of the base run plays that we need to improve on defending or you're never going to be good, we improved," he said. "Outside of that long run we made them work for their yards and did some pretty good things, like I said, the overall fight was pretty good."

Defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot was willing to look on the bright side for a few minutes this week, too.

"We're tackling better," Eliot said. "I don't know if you remember that last game, but we didn't tackle very well at all in that first game (against Western Kentucky). And I think that we're tackling better now.

"We're not always getting off blocks and we're not always in the right spots, but when we are there, we're making the play more often."

It's not just the defensive coaches that see the improvements.

Offensive coordinator Neal Brown, whose team had its lowest offensive output of the season with just 173 yards, saw signs of hope in a loss to Florida as well.

"We blocked much, much better on the perimeter," Brown said. "And we played the game — really for the first time all season — we played how you're supposed to play as far as from a physicalness standpoint and from an effort standpoint. We played how we teach our guys to play."

Three negative yardage plays: the throwback that didn't happen by Daryl Collins (-11), the Javess Blue end-around that wasn't (-3) and the four sacks of Maxwell Smith (-22) hurt UK statistically, Brown said, but those are teaching points, too.

There was improvement between the loss to Louisville and the loss to the Gators two weeks later.

On the film against the Louisville defense, UK coaches would find three or four players not executing in most of those short-yardage situations, Brown said.

"It's still not good, but it's better: We only had one this time," he continued. "It was one person, whether it was a receiver that didn't win in one-on-one coverage or the quarterback made a bad throw or, like, our O-line — one person messed up a protection. Now we've got it down. Instead of three or four, it's one person."

Four games into the season with a record of 1-3, the players and coaches are trying to build on what they can and focus on improving enough to become a winning team.

"I'm not discouraged," Brown said. "I knew this was going to be a lengthy process."

It's especially lengthy given the young offense UK is working with, which included starting three freshmen and a junior-college transfer at wide receiver and a true freshman at running back against the Gators.

"We've gotta keep getting those guys better," Brown said of the young play-makers. "I'm not discouraged. Obviously we've gotta play better, but it's not going to happen overnight."

For senior running back Raymond Sanders, his silver lining was UK's ability to move the ball on that first drive against the Gators' defense, which is statistically the top defense in the nation.

"It's not as bad as it was before and that's what's encouraging," Sanders said. "Eventually, it will all click together and we'll be a good offense."

It may not happen this Saturday or the Saturday after that when top-ranked Alabama comes to Commonwealth Stadium.

But the Stoops on Monday didn't rule it out.

And if he could have a chat with himself, he'd probably remind Wednesday's fiery Stoops that he said this: "When I went up and put on the film Sunday I was pleased with the effort. I was pleased with the effort on offense and on defense and on special teams."

And then the Wednesday Stoops would go back in time a few hours and remind his team before its tirade-inducing, lackadaisical practice: "You have to give it everything you got or, again, you have no chance."


Saturday

Kentucky at No. 13 South Carolina

When: 7:30 p.m.

Records: UK 1-3 (0-1 SEC), South Carolina 3-1 (1-1)

TV: FS South

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

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