John Clay: Reasons for optimism during UK football's growing pains

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistOctober 26, 2013 

Offensive coordinator Neal Brown (wearing visor) and Coach Mark Stoops, right, talked to Kentucky's offense during the Louisville game. Kentucky's coaches remain optimistic despite an SEC losing streak that has reached 12 games.

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  • NEXT GAME

    Alabama State at Kentucky

    When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 2

While we know Kentucky is a young football team, Kentucky is also a young football team coached by a young football staff.

The average age is under 40. Offensive coordinator Neal Brown is 33. Defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot is 37. Head coach Mark Stoops is practically the old man at 46.

If so many first-year Cats are making their adjustments to major college football, so too are staff members.

This is Eliot's first year as a defensive coordinator. Brown is in his sixth year as an offensive coordinator, but his first scheming against SEC defenses. This is Stoops' first year as a head coach.

How are they doing? Bill "You Are What Your Record Says You Are" Parcells would frown. UK is 1-6 overall, 0-4 in the SEC. The 12-game conference losing streak is third-longest in school history.

Numbers paint part of the picture. The effort is there. The fight is there. Down 21-0 at South Carolina, UK lost 35-28. Down 21-7 at Mississippi State on Thursday, UK lost 28-22.

It would be naive, however, to believe the young staff hasn't experienced some growing pains of its own. Not everything has been perfect, nor would you expect it to be. Thursday's loss in Starkville, with every mistake magnified, produced several learning-on-the-job examples.

There was the 17-yard throwback touchdown pass from MSU wide receiver Jameon Lewis to quarterback Dak Prescott that put the Bulldogs up 28-19 with 36 seconds left in the third quarter.

A trick play, but not a new play. Dan Mullen had unveiled the slight-of-hand in September during the Bulldogs' 62-7 trouncing of Troy. Lewis took a lateral pass from Prescott and threw back to the quarterback for a 36-yard score.

Three times the Cats failed to stop State on third down during the home team's clock-eating drive in the final period. The third hurt the worst.

On third-and-11 from the UK 48-yard line with about three minutes remaining, Prescott completed a 14-yard pass to Lewis for a key first down.

Replays showed middle linebacker Avery Williamson out of position. The team's top tackler and defensive leader incorrectly took a deep drop which vacated the middle for the wide-open Lewis.

"Busted coverage," ESPN's booth analyst Jesse Palmer proclaimed immediately and the former Florida quarterback was correct.

The offense has experienced its share of first-time foibles, as well.

Introducing the Air Raid to UK in 1997, Hal Mumme believed in playing one quarterback and only one because of the practice repetitions needed to master the essential timing with receivers.

At previous stops, Brown has been a one-quarterback coordinator, as well, but for various reasons that hasn't been the case here.

Inconsistency and injuries have split the duties between sophomores Max Smith and Jalen Whitlow and neither has become proficient.

Inconsistent throws led to dropped passes on Thursday. When one major part of the offense isn't working, other parts feel the stress. UK failed to convert a single third down in the second half, going 0-for-7.

"I can talk all I want, but our passing game has got to get better," Brown said.

Continued improvement in all areas — playing, coaching, recruiting — is Stoops' mantra. The team's competitiveness and effort indicates matters are moving, er, creeping in the right direction. Improvement will come.

In fact, in my mind, an encouraging testimonial for UK's new staff came Thursday afternoon.

On his radio show, ESPN's Scott Van Pelt asked college football analyst Robert Smith how Florida State was able to cream Clemson 51-14 the previous Saturday.

Smith talked up Florida State's cutting-edge conditioning program and referenced a 2012 interview he had done with Erik Korem, then FSU staffer in charge of the program.

"By the way," Smith said, "Korem is now at Kentucky."


Next Game

Alabama State at Kentucky

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 2

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

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