LOUISVILLE — Even though the game is months away, the football series between Kentucky and Louisville has been front and center in recent days with luncheons and perceived snubs and such.
So while here at the annual Greater Louisville Alumni Association luncheon on Friday, Coach Mark Stoops fielded a couple of questions about the Cardinals and the rivalry, which was renewed in 1994 after a 70-year layoff.
"I think it's very important," Stoops told media and a select group of UK football alumni before the luncheon at the Galt House. "Any time you're an in-state rivalry, it's important. I think both groups, both institutions have such strong fans and fan bases, it's important to them; it's important to our players, it's important to us. There's no denying that."
Stoops preemptively sidestepped any questions about the Governor's Cup Luncheon — held annually in the summer to promote the rivalry — and his decision to not attend this week.
"Sometimes people don't realize there's 11 other games that we've gotta get to," he said. "But it is important, and we embrace that challenge."
The UK coach was asked whether he thought the rivalry would continue if the Southeastern Conference went to a nine-game league schedule.
"Oh, yeah. I do," he said. "As you know, that's probably above my pay grade, but I do anticipate that staying."
The Wildcats and the Cardinals meet this year in the season's final game, on Nov. 29 at Louisville. The game traditionally has opened the season or been held early in the year.
Kentucky leads the all-time series 14-12. Louisville leads the modern-day series 12-8.
The heat is on UK's QBs
Neal Brown can't get through a day without the quarterback questions.
Who is the starter is going to be? When is he going to name him?
So Kentucky's offensive coordinator tackled the topic early in his short back-and-forth with the media before the alumni luncheon Friday.
Brown met with the Cats' four prospective quarterbacks — Drew Barker, Reese Phillips, Maxwell Smith and Patrick Towles — on Friday morning before leaving for Louisville.
His message was to get ready to be tested come the start of fall camp Aug. 4.
"I've got a good feel for how they learn, what makes them learn, what makes them tick, what motivates them," Brown said of the quarterbacks. "Now what we're going to do is turn up the heat on them. I'm going to try to put a lot of pressure on them early, see which one of them reacts. We're going to throw a lot at them and try to put them in tough situations."
Brown reiterated again that he'd like to name a starter "sooner rather than later."
He's excited to see them throw the ball for the first time since the spring game, too.
"They're eager; they're excited," Brown said. "I think they're fresh, which is important at this time of the year. I know they've got a much better feel for the offense than they did even in the spring. I'm excited to see them."
Filling the 'big hole' at middle linebacker
One of the Kentucky defense's biggest concerns going into fall camp will be how the Cats can replace tackles leader and vocal leader Avery Williamson at middle linebacker.
"We have a big hole to fill there," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said before Friday's luncheon. "And so I don't know exactly who or how we're gonna fill that spot yet, but we're gonna have a plan before the first game."
A name that is often floated as a probable replacement for Williamson is junior-college linebacker Ryan Flannigan, who is expected to be on campus at the start of fall camp on Aug. 4.
As the center of the UK defense, Flannigan will have to get up to speed quickly.
But Eliot said UK's strength and conditioning coaches have been in constant contact with Flannigan to make the transition easier.
"He's doing the workout that he needs to do," Eliot said. "I've been on the phone with him on a regular basis explaining the defense to him, so he's gonna be ahead of the game before he gets here."
Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukwomen.bloginky.com.