John Clay: Stoops making all the right moves, but how quickly will Kentucky improve?

jclay@herald-leader.comAugust 8, 2014 

  • MARK YOUR CALENDAR

    Important upcoming dates for UK football

    Saturday: Fan Day

    Aug. 11, 12, 18: Practices open to the public

    Aug. 30: Season opener vs. UT-Martin

Will Kentucky be better?

Plenty of questions were asked at Kentucky football Media Day 2014 on Friday. Questions about the quarterback competition. Questions about the heralded freshman class. Questions about changes in Mark Stoops' second season as UK's head coach.

D.J. Eliot was asked what he knows now that he didn't know at Media Day a year ago.

"I didn't know the media was going to be so good," cracked the second-year defensive coordinator. "I didn't know the media was so talented."

The most important question went unanswered, however, and it will remain so until the Cats kick off Aug. 30 against Tennessee-Martin at the under-current-renovation Commonwealth Stadium.

After going 2-10 in 2013, will Kentucky be better in 2014?

It says here the answer is yes, even if the final numbers may not necessarily reflect the level of improvement.

"We're much improved," Stoops told the media Friday.

You can dismiss that as the happy talk that fits the Media Day job description. And there was plenty of happy talk in the coaches' question-and-answer periods at Wildcat Den, and then the player interviews inside the Nutter Field House. Everyone was loose. Everyone was smiling. Everyone was optimistic about the season ahead.

Happy talk doesn't win games, however. Players win games. Skilled players directed by smart coaches, that's the winning combo. To bring skilled players into a program, coaches must recruit. On that front, Stoops has exceeded expectations.

His first UK signing class was ranked 29th by Rivals.com. This past February's group clocked in at No. 17. Kentucky isn't used to those sort of heady recruiting numbers. Not in football.

As a media member navigating Nutter field turf for interview possibilities Friday, you kept thinking: "I need to talk to that guy, and I need to talk to this guy, and don't forget to talk to that guy."

In past years you might have thought to yourself: "Now who's that guy?"

Heralded and large defensive tackle Matt Elam — check. (No more sodas for him, by the way.) Freshman quarterback Drew Barker — check. Wide receiver Dorian Baker, who's earned a raft of raves the first week of camp — check. Not-shy running back Stanley "Boom" Williams — check.

No one is predicting an overnight turnaround, here. Chances are, Stoops and company will take more lumps. The SEC is too rough, too tough for a program to take a talent level dip as far as Kentucky's did and then expect to quickly rise again.

Having more quality players, however, means more quality chances to point matters in the right direction. First step: Recruiting. Second step: Development. There's no skipping steps.

Stoops knows that. The former Florida State defensive coordinator has shown an impressive grasp of the situation and the necessary drive to push past it.

"As far as the overall plan of the program and where we're headed, no," said the coach when asked if he had changed any part of his plan heading into his second season. "We're staying the course, and I really love the direction of the program."

The stadium is being modernized. The practice facility is being moved and recast. Financial investments are being made in the product.

"We have a lot of great momentum here in football now," Stoops said. "We need to keep that."

That doesn't mean immediately competing for a division championship, or even qualifying for a bowl game. It does mean keeping things moving forward. It means getting better.

John Clay: 859-231-3226. E-mail: jclay@herald-leader.com. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv.

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