It is year five for Mark Stoops as the Kentucky football coach, after all. Five years of recruiting better players. Five years of changing attitudes. Five years of implementing a culture. Five years of developing talent. Five years of building a culture.
“Going into year five we should be stronger,” Stoops said Sunday at the team’s annual Media Day to start training camp for the 2017 season.
To be sure, the Cats cleared a pair of hurdles last season, year four of the Stoops Era. They dramatically defeated arch-rival and ranked Louisville in Louisville 41-38 for a seventh 2016 victory and UK’s first winning season since 2009. They earned the school’s first bowl invitation since 2010.
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And yet, given the task Stoops undertook upon arrival in 2013, trying to re-assemble a program that had trap-door dropped to a 2-10 campaign in Joker Phillips’ final season, it stands to reason that 2017, Stoops’ fifth season, would be his put-up-or-shut-up season, the one where it is reasonable to believe the fruits of his labors would begin to pay dividends.
Sunday, the Cats looked the part. Stoops’ first year, you didn’t need the trained eye of an NFL scout to see the Cats lacked the necessary size and strength to compete in the brutal SEC. Turned out that book could be judged by its cover. Stoops’ first season duplicated Phillips’ last with a 2-10 record.
The next year, however, the Cats looked a little bigger. And a little bigger the next. And so on. The victories have gone from two to five to five to seven. And as players posed for pictures and conducted interviews on the sunny Kroger Field on Sunday, you couldn’t help notice that there just appears to be more SEC-looking players.
“I think our roster is pretty close to where we should be,” said Vince Marrow, Stoops’ recruiting coordinator and the man credited as most responsible for the talent upgrade. “Just now, I think our D-line has to catch up to everything else on our roster.”
Yes, the defensive line is a question mark. Offensive coordinator Eddie Gran must find a running back to team with 1,000-yard rusher Benny Snell and replace the 1,000-plus yards lost when Boom Williams turned pro. Veteran wide receivers must come through. Jon Toth’s leadership will be missed on the offensive line.
Stoops talked at some length Sunday about finding a nickel back to cover slot receivers on offense, and if you don’t think that’s a big deal you don’t understand today’s three- and four-wide receiver offenses.
Now the counter-argument(s): Stephen Johnson returns at quarterback. Drew Barker, once the starter, is 100 percent after back surgery. There is no reason for Snell to regress. The offensive line has experience. The sophomores — Jordan Jones, Josh Allen, Denzil Ware, Mike Edwards, Chris Westry, Derrick Baity — who spear-headed last year’s defense are now juniors.
Bad things can happen, of course. Injuries. Bad bounces. Unexpected problems. In the SEC, there is a monster lurking around every corner.
Plus, this is the first time under Stoops that Kentucky is coming off what can be termed a successful season. The win over Louisville. The TaxSlayer bowl appearance, even if it ended in a loss to Georgia Tech.
“Every year it seems like we’re getting a little more confident,” said tight end C.J. Conrad. “This group didn’t lose a lot of guys. There are lot of the same faces around, same coaches around. Definitely a different confidence about us this year.”
Confidence is good, but complacency is a killer.
“We’re definitely not satisfied,” Conrad said. “That’s the farthest thing we are right now.”
Year five. No excuses.
Said Stoops, “It’s really about us, it’s about where we finish.”
Kentucky football 2017 schedule