UK Football

Q&A: Mark Stoops on Kentucky’s big win and big task ahead at No. 1 Alabama

Mark Stoops: Defense heard what I had to say

Kentucky coach Mark Stoops talks about the improvement in his defense against South Carolina after he voiced his displeasure with the way they practiced during the week.
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Kentucky coach Mark Stoops talks about the improvement in his defense against South Carolina after he voiced his displeasure with the way they practiced during the week.


“Again, it was a good win, great team victory. It was really nice to see us play well in all three phases. I was very proud of the effort. We needed to improve. We made some big gains and we need to continue to do that. Offensively, it was really good to see the one-two punch with Boom (Williams) and Benny (Snell). They complement each other very well. We did a very nice job of running the football. It’s going to take those tough yards to win tough games and sometimes you’re not going to be always accurate throwing the football, but it was great to see that one-two punch.

“On defense, it was a group effort led by Denzil (Ware). I really felt like he played his best football of the year. We really needed him to step up and he did. I felt like we had some good pressure when we needed to with just rushing four and as you know, we hadn’t done that a lot. It was good to see them step up and get that pressure. Felt like also it started with the defensive line playing more physical, being more accountable and precise in the execution of our pressures and getting them behind the chains. It was good to see improvement there along with the secondary. The secondary played great, they kept things in front of them and played smarter and made good plays on the football, so I was very pleased about that. So we’re going to go back to work. Today will be a normal Monday, we’ll get back out there fundamentally keep on pushing this team, keep on getting better. Very tall task as you know, playing an amazing football team, an amazing program, the No. 1 team in the country for a good reason. They are absolutely a quality, quality team from top to bottom. It will be a real challenge but it will be exciting. Looking forward to the opportunity and we’re going to get back to work and we’re going to worry about ourselves today.

“We’ll start on Bama of course and look forward to a great week of practice. I was proud of the team and proud of their focus and the way they executed this past week. When the season doesn’t start the way you want it to, there’s always going to be a lot of outside noise and distraction. I was very proud of the team and the coaching staff of focusing on the task at hand. We know who we are and what we’re capable of and putting our head down and going to work. I was proud of the effort and I was proud of the outcome.”

On what blows him away about Alabama: “Top to bottom. They’re led by arguably the best coach of all time in college football and it starts there. What impresses you about them is their whole program. Top to bottom, they do things right. They’re extremely talented and very well coached. There’s a lot you could talk about what they do right.”

On the players saying that win was for Stoops: “I don’t really, I appreciate them. They know I love and respect those players as they do me. We know what goes on in our locker room and I told them, don’t ever worry about me. I’m never going to flinch and they can’t either.”

On not flinching carrying over and what it was like on sidelines on Saturday: “It was. It was poised. It was exciting. They were energetic. But we knew what we had to do. It’s about getting out there and executing and playing and there’s a lot of things for us to clean up still and that’s the good part. You can do that after a win and after you do some things good, but there’s still several plays we’ll get cleaned up and we’ll execute better.”

On things he admires about Nick Saban: “I admire an awful lot about Coach Saban. It’s hard to define all those things, but anybody that’s in this business – this coaching profession is built on respect, and it starts there. I have great respect for what he’s done and how disciplined he is and the work ethic that he has. But I always things that he does things right, he does things with class, treats people the right way. And how could you not admire that? It goes back to the days he recruited – he recruited me out of high school. He was the position coach and the recruiting-area coach that recruited me to Michigan State.”

On memories of that: “I remember this: I – I was not a very good player, first of all. But I got recruited by Iowa – my visits were Iowa and Ohio State. My two brothers were at Iowa, so I visited Iowa. I visited Ohio State. And I knew if I didn’t go to Ohio State, I was going to go to Iowa because of the relationships I had with all of those coaches and I wasn’t going to go anywhere else. So I cancelled my visit to Michigan State. That phone call didn’t go very well. And I was really young and naïve and had no clue. I knew I wasn’t a great player or anything like that, but I couldn’t believe – he made it very difficult for me, and I remember getting off the phone and saying, ‘Wow.’ He was very persuasive and very good. But I’ve just always had great respect for Coach.

“And he’ll tell the story better than me, but I always thought my uncle was exaggerating. He and my Uncle Bob were at an establishment after recruiting one day in the spring; my uncle was the head coach at an inner-city school in Youngstown. Coach Saban and my uncle were out, and Coach will tell the story better than me, but they were talking Xs and Os and they were so wrapped up in the Xs and Os that they had no idea somebody came in and robbed the place at gunpoint. I always thought my uncle was full of it. You know, he’s a little crazy. I said, ‘You’re exaggerating this story.’ But I heard coach Saban say it on one of his shows that he was on. He verified it, so that was like, ‘Wow, Bob, you were telling the truth.’ You never know what you’re going to get in Youngstown.

“They were talking and drawing plays on a napkin is the way my uncle describes it, and then I heard Coach verify it: They’re sitting there writing Xs and Os and the police are coming in asking, ‘What happened?’ And he says, ‘What do you mean what happened?’ They said, ‘Did you see anything.’ He said no, they didn’t see anything. They were working on football.”

On going head to head with Saban in recruiting lately: “It’s a challenge. It always makes you do the very best you can when you play them or you’re competing with him in recruiting or anything. They have great success, but we’re going to do our very best. There’s a difference. Again, we respect everything that they do, but we’re going to go try to get ours, too.”

On if he has to do anything different with former UK assistant Derrick Ansley on Bama’s staff: “No, no. Our signals are different. They already changed. He knows what we do and what our basic philosophies are and adjustments and things, and we know a lot of what they do. They’re very good at what they do. They’re about execution. They’re very well coached and they execute at a very high level all the time with dynamic players.”

On if Elam got half a sack despite stats saying otherwise: “Yeah. We’ll give him that credit. He definitely got around that quarterback behind the line of scrimmage, which was a good thing. He really played some good football Saturday. Matt played the best he’s played and he really had good effort and was disruptive in some of that stuff that goes unnoticed. We had some guys play more physical.”

On drawing on road loss at Florida for this trip: “Yeah, I think you do have to learn from it, and it’s about playing each play. And that’s it. You can’t worry about the back end of anything. It’s just too much. You’ve gotta just control what you can, and it starts today. They’re a fabulous football team, but we’re going to go out there and play every play the best we can and execute the very best we can and compete at a high level on every play.”

On how they build on consistent performance and not have players revert to bad habits:I’m confident we’ll continue to push forward. I really (am). Our players are growing, and it is what it is as far as our experience and what we have, especially defensively. And I think they learn every time they take the field and every time we practice and we’re gonna continue to do that.”

On if he feels like defense played more physically vs. South Carolina:I do. Definitely. Definitely. Again, when you have – and you’ve heard me talk about this – but when you have plays defended or you have guys in the right spot, you gotta do that. If you have the right thing called in the right situation and you’re in perfect position and they’re supposed to be in 2nd and 10 by the play they called and the play you called, then it better be 2nd and 10. It better not be 2nd and 2, because then you got no shot. There’s enough pressure on you across the board. You have to make the plays that you’re in position to. We’re getting better at that.”

On if South Carolina did anything that surprised him:No. Again, I said it last week in my press conference. I felt like once they settled in on their quarterback, I thought they would evolve off of that, off of him and what he can do and what his strengths are and what they were gonna move to, so we had a pretty good idea of what that would like. But there’s always new plays and new situations. Everybody has rules, and you just apply your rules and play.”

On what he has seen from Boom Williams’ development in the last year:He’s really grown up. He’s really maturing. And he’s really – you know, it’s great to see Boom because this game is so mental. It’s such a big part of it, and he’s maturing. He’s always been a talented guy but he’s more detailed in his runs, and his mentality is much better. It’s great for him to see – him on the sidelines smacking Benny on the head and giving him a high five and cheering it with that complement, instead of it just being about Boom. Boom’s gonna get his. He had, what, (15) rushes for, you know, averaged at eight yards a carry and doing a heck of a job, and Benny’s doing some good things with the physical runs, so it’s a great complement to each other. But you just see growth in all areas and I continue to see that.”

On how Landon Young graded and how Adrian Middleton has developed:Adrian Middleton has done a much better job, and all those guys up front played much better this past week. It starts there. And Landon is getting better and better, just like I said. He got beat on a few plays but did some very good things. That experience, you’re out there on an island at the position he plays and it’s very difficult on him at times. But he’s getting better and better and we’re very pleased with him.”

On if Wednesday’s practice motivated the team: “I believe they heard what I said on Wednesday. I wanted them to hear that because it was true. And so, they know that. That’s our job to keep them, pushing them, get their attention by any means necessary. That’s part of what we have to do daily.”

On what the defense was doing differently Saturday: “Obviously it starts with technique and effort. I’ve never denied that. I’ve said it every week that football is a game that’s gonna be played by guys playing it the right way and fundamentally playing the game. I was not at all pleased with the way we have been playing fundamentally. We know we have some limitations but that’s no excuse for not playing the game fundamentally the way you’re supposed to do it and with the passion and energy you’re supposed to play it. We had to look at what we’re doing to put them in a position to play that way, to play with the technique and to play fast and to play harder. I think we’ve made strides in doing that so you put that all together and there’s a lot of things: there’s better technique, there’s better effort, we executed our assignments much better. And so, you’re going to get progress that way.”

On Damien Harris: “Damien looks very good. Just like we knew recruiting him and watching him play here in Kentucky. He’s just like you would expect. He’s a very talented guy. He looks very explosive — the great vision and the great jump cuts you see out of him. That’s what you see on film.”

On one thing he wants to see this weekend: “Yeah, I wanna see us continue to worry about us, and to continue to progress and to continue to improve in the areas we need to improve on.”

On who UK is: “We’ll worry about that in the locker room (laughs). You’re opening a big Pandora’s box right there. Let’s not worry about that. Don’t worry about us.”

On what he saw from Stephen Johnson: “I saw a guy that made plays when he had to and really did what he had to do to manage the game and win the game. There were some throws he could’ve forced later, but he didn’t. He made good decisions getting critical first downs with his legs, took care of the football later on. There’s still some things we know we’ve got to clean up that I’m not happy about with the turnovers and the ball on the ground, but late in the game, you know, did a better job at that.”

On if he would say his team is capable of winning this game: “I’m not gonna make any prediction like that. You know what we’re up against. What’re you trying to get a headline. We’re worried about getting better. We’re worried about preparation today to get our football team in a position to win that game.”

On Jalen Hurts and his different style than most Alabama quarterbacks: “He does. It’s different. Played against Lane and some of his offenses for a long time, and they are different in their approach, but the same in a lot of ways. The same in a lot of ways in that it starts with being extremely physical. Big backs, big line. The quarterback is different and they’re doing it different ways out of the gun. He adds a different dimension with pulling the ball and running it with another big guy. That sets up big plays off it. They love the waves, play actions, over routes, boosts, getting the ball down the field. They can certainly do it and he can deliver the football. So, that puts a lot of stress on you. And that’s, that just goes back to a different way of running it. But that goes back to USC and Lane really having a great run game and throwing off of it. They put a lot of pressure on you and have talented guys. Extremely physical. That’s the big thing. Their wideouts outside can go. It’s stress across the board.”

On facing other dual-threat quarterbacks this season: “Yeah but we’ve never seen, we haven’t faced anything like this where they’re so physical. Again, it starts with physicality up front. With their line, with their backs and tight ends. Everybody. Their wideouts, it starts with that run game and then everything off that.”

On if he’s ever talked to Nick Saban about recruiting him in high school: “No, no we really haven’t.”

Not even on the golf course or something? “No, no. I’ve never played golf with Coach Saban, no. He usually comes into those meetings, comes in and goes out and doesn’t say anything…But, no. I do enjoy getting to know him a little bit off the field. But no, we haven’t talked about that experience. I’m sure he’s recruited a few more talented football players since then. (Laughs).”

On the play where Chris Westry took down South Carolina player trying to hurdle him: “Yeah, I thought it was good. I certainly wouldn’t want to see a highlight of somebody jumping over one of our guys, so I liked seeing the highlight the other way.”

On if he worries at all about Matt Elam putting too much pressure on himself this week because of picking UK over Alabama in high school: “I don’t. I think he’s needs to build on some of the good things he did this past week and continue to push forward.”

On Kash Daniel playing a bigger role on defense against South Carolina: “Yeah, yeah. We wanted to get him a few more (snaps) than we did, but as you know the game was always so close and it was always so tight and every possession was so important that we didn’t get him quite as many reps as we had planned on. But he did play a couple series and is doing some better things. And we need to continue to get him on the field.”

On Grant McKinniss flipping the field with a couple punts: “He did. We got a little fortunate on a few of them that the end result was pretty good on our net but some of that was kind of some punts that weren’t so good that got some good roll. But he did boom one or two, one in particular. Our guys have really been covering well. So we were fortunate on a bounce or two, and he’ll continue to get better.”

On what he’s seen from Alabama on special teams: “(Sighs). Same thing I’ve seen on their offense and defense. (Laughter). A bunch of war daddies playing hard, that’s what I see.”

War daddies? “That’s right. That’s what I said. (Laughter)”

On his thoughts about Les Miles getting fired: “I was sorry to hear that. Obviously news travels very fast, I hear, on social media. So I was in there working on the game plan and somebody said that. I was very disappointed to hear that. I just like Les personally. I like him, and he’s obviously been extremely successful. I got to know his family a little bit. I love his wife and his kids. He’s got an awesome family, so I was just sad to hear it. Coach has had a great run, and I’m sure he’ll be a coach again somewhere else if he chooses or when he chooses.”

On what it says about college football when coaches with the record of Les Miles or Mark Richt are getting fired: “I mean, what can you say about that? You know, it is what it is. We all know that. In coaching it’s a fraternity. There’s people that – the relationships and the respect that people have within that fraternity understand it very clearly. So, like I said, I’m sure nobody wants to go through that and it’s not fun. But Les will be right back on his feet at another place probably as soon as he wants to. Goes with the territory that we all know.”

On if he anticipated Benny Snell making this kind of immediate impact when they recruited him: “I knew – he is what we had hoped: An extremely disciplined guy, very physical, tough yards. And the mentality helps our team, it helps our room, just the mentality that he has. That’s what we thought we had when we were recruiting him, and it’s great to see that come true.”

On how close he thought he was to getting Damien Harris as a recruit: “Um … I thought we were very close. So, I’m not going to tell you what -- He and I had some conversations, and I’ll keep that between he and I. It was good. I caught up with Damien recently, in the summer. Had lunch with Damien, and I’ll keep that between he and I.”

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