So this is the year, the third year, the all-important third year, the year when in the general way these things are supposed to work, Mark Stoops and Kentucky football are supposed to shed the growing pains of the first two years and start making a move up the ladder.
If that sounds like a breeding ground for the angst and pressure that come with elevated expectations, you couldn't tell that by watching or listening to Stoops on Wednesday after his team wrapped up the final day of its 2015 spring drills.
The coach appeared, well, comfortable.
"It's definitely the most consistent we've been for 15 practices," Stoops said. "Overall, very productive, very good spring."
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Yes, coaches are supposed to utter such platitudes. No coach worth his weight in clichés has ever ended spring drills by pronouncing his team unfit for the season ahead. Such honesty is rarely good for ticket sales and since ticket sales are tied to a coach's employment status, better to steer the public pronouncements in a positive direction.
And yet with Stoops, you get the feeling this isn't coach-speak. He has three full springs under his belt, after all, so there should be a comfort level. Plus, Stoops has made a couple of moves — one on each side of the ball — that he believes are already showing signs of paying dividends.
One was hiring Shannon Dawson as offensive coordinator. The former West Virginia quarterbacks coach has that swagger that most of the Air Raid coaches seem to possess. But there's also a down-home quality about Dawson that makes it easy to see why he would be relatable to the players.
Scheme-wise, Stoops wanted two things. He wanted a coach whose scheme was similar enough to the one run by predecessor Neal Brown that Stoops could keep the rest of his offensive staff (check). He also wanted a coordinator who would take another step toward being a more balanced and physical offense (check).
"I really like what we're doing now," Stoops said Wednesday. "I just think it was exactly what I was looking for and I just feel like we made a lot of strides and I like what we're doing schematically."
The players appear to agree. After Saturday's scrimmage, quarterback Patrick Towles mentioned the fact that Dawson doesn't rip his players after mistakes. Brown's approach was more direct. Mistakes were to be called out and corrected. Dawson's approach leans more toward moving on.
"The ones that can get over it quickest and move on to the next play are usually the better ones," Dawson said Monday. "So it's not my job to hurt that confidence."
As for defense, it's official, Kentucky has switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4. Switched is not the right word. More like evolved. Last year's transition to the 3-4 was more of a poorly kept secret, mentioned but never heralded. This spring, it's more out in the open.
To that end, Stoops brought in former Stanford defensive ends coach Andy Buh to coach his outside linebacker/defensive end types. Stoops is now coaching the safeties. That's where he cut his coaching teeth.
The 3-4 gives the defense more flexibility. The Cats can be more multiple. The coaches can move things around. And Buh gives Stoops and defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot another experienced hand who can add to the game plan.
"I definitely feel like that's going to benefit those young outside backers," Stoops said Wednesday of Buh's presence. "Feel very good about it."
That feel-good sentiment summed up Stoops' mood in general at the end of his third spring.
Whether Kentucky is ready to challenge for a seat at the SEC's big boy table remains to be seen, but at least the head coach believes the program is in the right frame of mind.
"I think it starts mentally," he said. "I think mentally we're much stronger. Definitely feel like we're developing them to be a winning football team."