UK football: Cats see culture shift as key to bright season

jsmith3@herald-leader.comJuly 17, 2014 

HOOVER, Ala. — Coaches sit down at a restaurant and know it's coming.

They go to events for their kids and wait for the question.

Every haircut and dentist appointment, every grocery store trip.

How many wins will Kentucky get this season?

It was the unavoidable question for head coach Mark Stoops, too, in his second trip to the Southeastern Conference Media Days on Thursday.

After back-to-back 2-10 seasons, will Kentucky be any better?

How many wins can fans expect?

But Stoops isn't in the crystal ball business, he's in the football business.

"You know I'm not going to put a number on success," Stoops said. "If we go out there and prepare to win and compete and do everything we can to win each and every game, then that's a success."

The head coach, his coordinators interviewed earlier this week and his players that took part of the annual Media Days circus seem confident that UK will be a much better team when it takes the field at the end of August.

It all starts with Stoops, who has changed the culture, said UK senior defensive end Bud Dupree, the Cats' only preseason All-SEC selection.

"He brought a different mindset, and it started with: if you aren't all in for the team, you gotta go," Dupree said of his head coach. "Once people started leaving the team who were cancers, we just got matured up. Once, all the people who were on the sideline saying, 'Oh, I hate practice' and stuff like that — they gotta go, so once everything happened that way, the team started to rise up."

Neal Brown, UK's offensive coordinator, has seen a team that looks more prepared to win games, that seems more willing to put in the work to win games.

"This group we have here now, they're a hungry group," Brown told the Herald-Leader on Monday. "We've got most of our team that is fully bought in and all in to everything he brought. And I think that our work ethic is better.

"Our guys understand what it takes to win more. We were really close in several games last year and for whatever reason we couldn't get over the hump. And as a coaching staff, as a group of players on offense, defense and special teams, I think we've got a better understanding."

Things like going to class on time every time, practicing hard and being a good teammate aren't things to strive for, they're the only acceptable standard, junior offensive lineman Jordan Swindle said.

"Before, if you did (those things), it was above and beyond," said Swindle, who said he's gotten in a face or two this offseason to demand change. "Now it's become something that if it's not that, it's not right. (Stoops) brought this mindset of get it done or you're out."

Even if the coaches don't want to consult their fortune tellers, the UK players seem to have a wins number in mind: the number it will take to get Kentucky back to a bowl game for the first time since 2011.

"A successful season for us is to go to a bowl game," Swindle said. "That's what I'm trying to get toward. I'm trying to get our team to where we can win six games and get to a bowl game. That would be a huge success for our program."

Dupree looks at teams like Auburn and Missouri that struggled two seasons ago and then came back and had not only winning seasons but also championship-caliber seasons.

It inspires him and his teammates.

"It gives us hope," Dupree said. "Seeing players of high potential level being able to go in and take over a program and change it piece by piece, as well as coaching — they had good coaching staffs as well — and everything they did, we're starting to do."

It comes with winning on days that aren't game days, Dupree said.

"We're taking everything with a winning mentality," Dupree said. "Even if it's a small change-of-direction drill. I want to win a walk-through. If we got a walk-through, I want to win a walk-through. Everything we do, we just gotta be the best at it."

But don't necessarily ask Dupree or his coaches how many wins that will mean this fall.

"We don't expect a number of wins," he said. "We want to win every game. ... I really don't think anyone should ever put a number of wins on their register. We want to make it to a bowl game."

The media gathered were not so optimistic, voting UK to finish last in the Eastern Division.

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

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