Kentucky’s players might want to put their pads on before watching the Southern Miss film this week.
“We’re beyond dealing with fragile mentalities,” a fiery but optimistic Coach Mark Stoops said Monday of the 44-35 loss to the Golden Eagles that included a 25-point comeback at Commonwealth Stadium. “They’ll be called out and shown in front of everybody, the plays that we had the opportunity to make.”
Earlier in the news conference, Stoops said his more veteran Kentucky team is capable of taking the criticism that will come this week.
“We’re beyond having to be delicate with these guys because they can handle more,” he said. “They are tougher, but you’ve got to be honest with them. We’ve got to show it to them.”
But everything he has to show the team isn’t bad. What Stoops saw was a vastly improved football team in spurts, but a second half where it didn’t show.
After a strong first-half showing that included four touchdowns and 387 yards, the offense turned the ball over three times on its five possessions.
That left the Kentucky defense on the field for too many long drives (54 plays in the second half and 96 for the game) and that side of the ball is still dealing with some depth issues.
“We got to do a better job of mixing our depth and getting some guys in there, because that’s a lot of possessions and they did a really good job of keeping us off balance,” Stoops said.
Nose guard Matt Elam played upwards of 70 plays. Jordan Jones played 80 or more, and middle linebacker Courtney Love played all 96, Stoops said. He wasn’t saying those players were the problem, just that it’s a lot to put on those guys.
Coaches need to develop the depth and have some faith in it, too, Stoops said.
“As the momentum got going against us, you sometimes are a little hesitant to put in some guys that haven’t had a lot of experience,” Stoops said. “We have to get more confident in the guys that we have before them to develop that depth in game situations.”
Even some veteran players got away from playing team ball, which made things more difficult. The Cats allowed Southern Miss to convert on 56 percent of its third downs in the second half.
“When things go wrong, we have guys that start rat trapping, doing some things that are inexcusable,” Stoops said. “And that’s gotta stop. That’s a losing mentality that we will not tolerate. And that’s gotta change because there are so many people doing so many good things and we cannot do that.”
The head coach did say that some guys on defense can and will improve.
“We know we have some inexperience there and some limitations at places, but we can play better than we did,” he said with Florida and its 29-game winning streak over Kentucky up next.
And despite everything that went wrong on Saturday, Kentucky is still a confident football team, quarterback Drew Barker said.
“It’s not a confidence issue at all,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of talented football players on this team. We all know that.”
McClain absent from depth chart
Versatile senior safety Blake McClain was not on the Kentucky depth chart after sustaining a head injury late in the game against Southern Miss on Saturday.
But Stoops seemed confident that the player, who was listed as the starting free safety and starting nickelback for the opener and who also played on nearly every special teams unit, would return.
“He’s injured,” Stoops said without being specific. “We anticipate him back, but he won’t practice today.”
If he doesn’t, the latest depth chart has Marcus McWilson as starting free safety with Marcus Walker behind him and J.D. Harmon at starting nickel with Kobie Walker backing him up.
Linebacker Josh Allen, who appeared to hurt his shoulder against the Golden Eagles, was still listed on weekly depth chart at strongside linebacker. Stoops said: “We’ll see how the week goes on. I’m not sure. He’s injured. Whether it’s one day, two days, three days, I don’t know.”
If there are other significant injuries, Stoops wasn’t sharing them on Monday.
”Nothing I care to comment on at this time,” he said. “Nothing that I feel like somebody’s definitely out. If somebody was out I’d tell you, but I don’t feel like that’s the case yet. Too early.”
Other than the McClain change, the depth chart looked similar to last week, with the “or” positions still up for grabs at running back (Jojo Kemp and/or Boom Williams) and wide receiver (Tavin Richardson “or” Dorian Baker, who is still coming back form a hamstring issue).
In that role on Saturday, Richardson had a good game with two catches for 74 yards.
At weakside linebacker, which was an “or” position last week between Eli Brown and Jordan Jones, Jones seems to have grabbed that starting spot with his 19 tackles versus the Golden Eagles.
Stoops noted that the sophomore missed just two assignments in the game despite playing more than 80 percent of the snaps.
The punter situation still appears murky, listed as Grant McKinniss or Bryan Kirshe. McKinniss, the true freshman, punted four times for a 36.8 yards per punt average. His long with a 45-yarder and he placed two of the four inside the 20-yard line.
“We have to punt the ball better,” Stoops said.
Kentucky at Florida
3:30 p.m. Saturday (CBS-27)