Thanks to agents of change, Kentucky football can sense a tougher culture seeping in

jsmith3@herald-leader.comAugust 24, 2014 

  • 5 players you know

    Bud Dupree: Versatile defensive end opted to forgo the NFL Draft and come back to lead Kentucky. Coaches say not only is he the best player (61 tackles, 9.5 for loss) on the team but also its best, most vocal leader.

    Za'Darius Smith: Junior-college transfer could be Cats' best run-stopper and works in tandem with Dupree to anchor UK's defensive line. The duo make it tough to double-team one side.

    Javess Blue: Cats' leading wide receiver last season is looking to make the jump to an elite level as did several recent UK junior-college transfers at wide-out.

    Jojo Kemp: Led Kentucky's ground game as a true freshman despite nagging bone spurs in both ankles. After offseason surgery, Kemp could be even more dangerous.

    Ryan Timmons: A year in the weight room and in the system will help Timmons make the leap to the playmaker he was in high school. Look for him to be a potential special teams star, too.

    5 players you will know

    Jordan Swindle: Mean and aggressive on the field, Coach Mark Stoops called him "the unquestioned leader of the offense" in the preseason. Coaches hope that side of the ball will take on the junior right tackle's personality.

    Blake McClain: Started final 11 games of the season as a true freshman, drawing regular praise from Stoops and staff at the nickelback spot. McClain returns as team's second-leading tackler (59) from last season.

    A.J. Stamps: The struggling Kentucky secondary needs a jolt and coaches think that will come from the junior college safety, who was the talk of spring for his versatility and athleticism.

    Braylon Heard: The running back transfer from Nebraska is one of the team's most mature players and one of its hardest working. He likely will split carries this season with Kemp and could be a serious threat.

    Ryan Flannigan: Could be the center of Cats' defense at middle linebacker, replacing Avery Williamson, a team leader and the tackles leader for the past two seasons. Junior college player will have to get up to speed quickly.

He can't quite define it, but Erik Korem knows it when he hears it.

"We'll be at training sessions and guys will start calling each other out, who's giving effort and who's not," Kentucky's High Performance coordinator said.

"Things will start getting tough and guys will start picking each other up."

He can't quite define it, but cornerbacks coach Derrick Ansley knows it when he sees it.

"We had a guy late today in the meeting and the guys handled it," Ansley said in early August. "I didn't have to handle it; they handled it out there later at practice."

He can't quite define it, but senior Bud Dupree knows it when he feels it in every tackle that is more physical. He can feel it in every muscle that aches a little bit more after weight lifting.

"I've seen a lot of players who weren't all in before doing all the things they need to do now to be their best," the defensive end and undisputed team leader said. "A lot of guys have gotten faster, bigger, stronger."

So excuse Mark Stoops when he's asked about the culture shift that is shaking up his program in its second full year and he's not quite sure how to explain it.

"It's hard to define that in any one sentence," he said a week into fall camp.

The head coach has tried to explain it on the summer speaking circuit and in interviews. He hopes fans will start to understand it better when they see plays on the field and rising grade-point averages.

Stoops hopes that the culture shift is one from a team that has been in the sub-flooring of the Southeastern Conference to a team that is shouting about its success from the rooftops.

"There's a lot of areas we needed to improve," he said at a recent speaking engagement. "We know that. We started with leadership and we started with accountability. That's where we've made drastic improvements. This team has a better attitude. They have a tougher mentality."

The cultural shift has come from individuals like Korem and his team of trainers and educators. It has come from a team dietician that has taught the players how to fuel their bodies more effectively.

It has come from others like Jason Cummins, a leadership coach, who is at nearly every practice.

It has come from the core values Stoops defined for the team, which are printed in big, bold letters on almost every structure of the practice facility: All in, Accountability, Character, Dependability and Attitude.

"Guys are doing the things they don't enjoy doing in an excellent manner," Korem said. "And when you're willing to do those things in an excellent manner, football will take care of itself."

And when they see one another not meeting the standard Stoops has tried to set, it's not quiet anymore. There are voices other than the coaches demanding a higher standard.

Stoops points to players like Dupree and junior offensive lineman Jordan Swindle, whom he called "the unquestioned leader of the offense" as players who are holding teammates accountable.

"Jordan was the first one when we put him in a leadership role to take charge and do an excellent job of developing team chemistry and developing leadership," Stoops said.

And even though it wasn't initially in his comfort zone, Swindle said he follows the lead of his head coach, saying it's his goal "to make our team better every single day.

"If I catch a guy that's not working out as hard as he could be or he's not practicing as hard as he could be or he's slipping up in class, I need to go get that guy and confront him and tell him he shouldn't be doing that; he needs to get back on track."

Maybe the new standards will mean more than the standard two-win seasons Kentucky has had in the recent past.

Or maybe it will take a little more time.

But make no mistake, there's been a cultural change, players and coaches alike said.

Korem goes back to the adage about how many miles a tanker has to travel to turn itself all the way around.

"You can't just pull a 'U' with an oil tanker," the high performance coordinator said. "We had the tanker going one way and we're getting it to turn around. I don't know where exactly we are in that process, but we're definitely moving it."

Kentucky's players can't quite define it, but they'll know it when they taste it, when they taste success, Korem continued.

"I see a group of guys that are pretty hungry to change things," he said. "We're trying to get guys addicted to success, to becoming the best person and player they can be and I'm seeing it every single day. When we start winning football games, that addiction's going to grow and grow."

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

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