When Blake McClain made his recruiting visit to the University of Kentucky a few years ago, he felt good about the direction of the program.
He was hopeful that he could be part of a football renewal.
But he didn't get such a positive vibe from Commonwealth Stadium, where the team played its home games.
"It just didn't feel like an SEC stadium," he said.
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And now, after a $120 million renovation that has changed every corner and cranny of the home of UK football?
"When I walk in here every time, it's like, 'Dang,'" McClain proclaimed. "It gets me every time."
As the team conducts its preseason workouts and scrimmages with construction all around, McClain can't get over how the mood has been altered in the Cats' home venue.
"You can feel the atmosphere change even when nobody's in here," he said. "When all the fans do get in here, it'll just be that much more great."
That will happen Saturday night, when Kentucky opens the 2015 season against Louisiana-Lafayette.
The thought made head coach Mark Stoops giddy.
"We want a packed house," he said. "We're proud of the brand-new stadium. We're proud of the work that these players have done. We're getting in a position to be as competitive as we want to be. We're getting to that point where we feel good about our team."
He's hopeful that this will be the season the Cats will sell out the stadium for the first time since 2010 (versus Georgia). As of Tuesday, several hundred seats were still available for the opener.
"I do ask them to show up and support us and pack that stadium, because we're proud of the work we've done so far," Stoops said. "We know we've got a ways to go, but it's fun trying to get there."
Following is a look at many of the changes and new amenities UK officials hope will change the experience for fans.
New look (outside)
From top to bottom, Commonwealth Stadium will have a different look — a different feel — which was the goal when Mitch Barnhart embarked on the renovation more than two years ago.
"When I drive up from the outside now, it's not what I wanted it to feel like," the UK athletics director said in November 2013 as UK was set to unveil the new stadium design.
Some highlights include a stacked limestone base that runs all the way around the stadium and gives it an exclusively Kentucky feel, which Barnhart said was the goal, along with other design touches like reclaimed barn wood found in various lobbies and outdoor spaces.
"We want it to feel like Kentucky, look like Kentucky," Barnhart said.
Outside the entrance to the stadium facing Nicholasville Road, the back side of the scoreboard will have a full-size graphic. Below that area is a line of rock benches and a landscaped area where fans can mingle.
"It's going to look really neat on that side," said Russ Pear, the UK official who has overseen the stadium renovation. There is new landscaping all along the outside of the facility as well.
Massive graphics will hang over the old ramps on the sides of the stadium and there is a new exterior color and texture to the entire place.
New look (inside)
Kentucky spent more than $2.3 million on new signs and graphics throughout, including two noticeable blue walls with "UK" on them flanking the South tower that were constructed to help keep the sound in the stadium.
A new bank lighting system was installed on the North side of the stadium last season and one was added to the tower side this summer, eliminating the massive light poles on both sides.
The short blue wall that separates the fans from the field will feature new graphics.
On steel beams that line the new, wider concourses are vertical signs that will serve as the Kentucky "Ring of Honor," paying homage to former Wildcat greats who have had their jerseys retired. Names such as Bear Bryant, Tim Couch and Shipwreck Kelly will be on permanent display for fans as they walk around the stadium.
In the upper deck where the former student section used to be, there is a family-friendly section where Scratch, a UK mascot, will make regular visits to the children. The concession stands there will offer kid-centric items in the stands behind sections 201-204.
Throughout the stadium fans will find larger concession stands with new food options.
Restrooms have changed, too, with the elimination of the "trough" toilets in the men's rooms and much larger spaces to help fans get in and out faster.
Before and after
Drag the vertical slider in the center of the scene below for a before and after view of the south side tower containing suites, press box and wider concourses.
There are sure to be some parking and transportation hiccups on opening night. UK officials report that since 2013, roughly 2,000 parking places have been lost due to federal, state and athletic construction, including the new football practice facility going up next to the stadium.
There will be signage and staff throughout the Commonwealth Stadium complex to help traffic flow, and the reverse side of each parking pass has a suggested route of entry to assigned lots, explained Guy Ramsey, UK's director for strategic communication.
The reverse side of each ticket also has a suggested gate of entry. A new graphics package inside the stadium also will help fans get around.
All season ticket holders received a letter last week encouraging them to go to the Cats' game day website for the most up-to-date information: ukathleticsgameday.com/football/important-for-15/
The new playing surface at Commonwealth Stadium could get its own "Kentucky Proud" sticker since it was installed by the company of a former UK player, Doug Vescio, who owns SportsFields.
The nearly $1 million project replaced the Bermuda grass field with a synthetic turf field, the same type used in the 2013 and 2014 Super Bowls as well as the Pro Bowl.
The end zones and team sideline areas feature a checkerboard pattern in alternating shades of blue. It was designed to mimic the pattern of Secretariat's silks, which has been part of the football uniforms for five seasons. The school's new interlocking "UK" logo is positioned in the center of the field.
For Pear, the new field is one of his favorite parts. "I tell people now any time you fly over this stadium — it doesn't matter when it is unless there's 3-4 inches of snow on the ground — it's going to look just like that every time," he said.
It's not just attractive, but it will serve an important purpose for the team, Stoops said. It will be used regularly for practices, especially at night.
The players said they were excited to play on the surface, especially wideout Alexander Montgomery.
"I had my best games in high school on turf," Montgomery said. "So it's a positive for me."
The most extensive change to the stadium is the multi-level tower on the south end near Alumni Drive.
The tower will house three levels of club seating, including the field level, which has a specialty lounge below the main seating. Above that is the mezzanine level, which has its own patio area and its own cushy lounge.
The loge level, where the old press box used to reside, holds specialty boxes for 4-6 people where fans can order food to their box and have covered seating that leads directly into another comfortable indoor lounge.
Many of the club areas — which include roughly 2,000 seats — will feature both indoor and outdoor viewing options, wireless Internet, outlets with USB ports for plugging in devices and hundreds of television screens.
There are 27 new suites (bringing the total to 67) as a part of the tower with VIP amenities and indoor and outdoor seating.
Other than the massive structure itself, the most striking change on the south side is the addition of the bright blue seats that are a part of the specialty seating areas. The hope in the next year or two is to add blue chair backs all the way around the lower bowl, UK officials have said.
The highest sections of the tower will hold the press box (top floor on the East end) as well as boxes for officials and coaches, broadcast booths for television and radio, instant replay facilities and additional suites.
A camera deck will sit atop the tower. Fans watching games on television will have a new view of the game with the movement of those cameras.
New recruiting room
One of the coolest new places at the renovated Commonwealth Stadium is one that the fans — even the highest rollers — won't see on game day.
The UK recruiting room has been a long time in the making with coaches complaining about not having a suitable location to which to take recruits on game days.
The new room on the East end of the stadium will be surrounded by the student section with roughly 5,000 students and the UK marching band.
"Our recruiting room will be a game changer for us," said Dan Berezowitz, UK's director of football recruiting operations. "It will be a showcase."
The room, accessible by a special elevator, features wall-to-ceiling sliding glass doors that open onto a patio with stand-up tables and umbrellas with one of the nicest views of Commonwealth Stadium.
If the views outside aren't enough, there will be massive LED walls for video and pictures with graphics. There will be several televisions, some equipped with gaming stations.
A focal point is a wall featuring former UK players now in the NFL. From one angle, the players can be seen in their professional jerseys, and from the other side it's them in their UK jerseys.
"The technology in that room, there's going to be nothing like it in the stadium," Berezowitz said. "There will be more technology and video screens than there will be anywhere else in the stadium."
NCAA rules don't allow recruits and their families in the room during the game, but their seats are conveniently located at the base of the student section above the new tunnel where the team will run onto the field. Coaches' families will be sitting nearby to make it more of a family feel, Berezowitz said.
New tunnel and student section
This season, the team will dress in its existing locker room space and then head to the field via a new tunnel directly under the recruiting room, surrounded by the student section.
Once the nearby $45 million practice facility is completed, the team will get ready there and then walk into the stadium.
The Cats did get some new digs this season, though, in the form of a new team room directly off the tunnel. The team will meet there before the games and at halftime. It is equipped with chairs and dry erase walls for play diagramming.
The new space also has an area for the medical staff and an in-house X-ray machine. There's also a new dedicated space across the hall for post-game interviews.
Commonwealth Stadium will have a smaller, more intimate student section surrounding the new recruiting room and team entrance. The former student section sat roughly 11,000. It has been downsized to about 5,000, a number that includes the band. That section already has sold out for this season.