UK Football

Kentucky’s Mark Stoops ponders life after two-a-days and breaking into Michigan

Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops, center, argues with Referee Reggie Smith, left, during the first half of the TaxSlayer Bowl NCAA college football game against Georgia Tech, Saturday, Dec. 31, 2016, in Jacksonville, Fla.
Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops, center, argues with Referee Reggie Smith, left, during the first half of the TaxSlayer Bowl NCAA college football game against Georgia Tech, Saturday, Dec. 31, 2016, in Jacksonville, Fla. AP

When the rule change became public recently that the Southeastern Conference was mandating the end of two-a-day practices and cutting down on live-contact practices, there were no doubt lots of old-school football types saying “back in my day …”

Maybe they will boast about two-a-days for 40 straight days and being tackled to the ground every day of an entire college football season.

Sitting relaxed in his office on Thursday with a cup of coffee in his hand, Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops joked about being one of those guys who did two-a-days for decades.

“Of course I did with my bent up knee,” laughed Stoops, who played at Iowa for legendary coach Hayden Fry.

But a lot has changed in college football and the moves by the league after recommendations from the NCAA Sports Science Institute make a lot of sense to Kentucky’s coach.

“We ask an awful lot of these guys,” he said of the players. “They work tirelessly around the clock. These guys are in a lot better shape than I was because we never let them get out of shape.

“They work all year long, so some of the benefits we needed on those two-a-days, we don’t need now. Things constantly change and evolve, and we want the very best for these guys. They do a lot for us, and we try to protect them as well.”

The physical aspect has changed. There’s no need to do two-a-days when the players get back on campus to get them ready for the season. But the multiple practices in the same day serve a different purpose altogether.

“I’ve always felt like they were important, for anything as much as that, the mental strain and the attitude it takes to go through that,” Stoops said. “We’ve never had that much serious contact in both practices. It’s more just their time and stressing them and pushing them, getting them in condition.”

So the new ruling means that Stoops has to find new ways to push the players mentally without putting them through two practices in a day during the month of camp before the season.

He’s still working through the logistics of that and probably will be for a few more weeks before UK sets the schedule for its preseason camp. Kentucky opens the season on Sept. 2 at Southern Miss.

It’s likely that Kentucky will begin its camp a week earlier than normal. That means five weeks of preseason camp, which already feels like a lengthy grind for coaches and players (and media!), instead of the usual four weeks.

When asked if he was worried about extending fall camp an extra week, Stoops nodded over and over again.

“Yes,” he said. “Very much. Very, very much.”

Coaches around the country have been calling each other to discuss schedules and ideas, hoping to come up with a plan to keep players mentally and physically engaged. Stoops has pondered when to put breaks in and how to manage the time so it’s used well.

“I’m still putting a lot of thought into that,” he said. “Day and night with them for five weeks before our first game? Then the season is extremely long. There’s definitely some things to think about.”

▪  Another part of that new rule from the SEC includes cutting back on live-contact practices, which Stoops said the coaches are waiting on a clearer interpretation of from the league.

“Very few of us tackle to the ground — we try to protect our players as much as possible,” he said. “The original interpretation that was given to us — that an expert was brought in to discuss with us — that it wouldn’t drastically change things.”

It’s likely it won’t change anything that UK does as it practices on game weeks, but Stoops said he was still waiting for some clarity on what “full-contact” does and does not entail.

More Michigan mining?

Fans are used to seeing Kentucky in the mix for top recruits in Ohio. Behind Vince Marrow, UK has been aggressively grabbing guys out of the Buckeye state since Stoops was hired.

Fans no doubt were a little surprised when a player considered the top player in Michigan (according to Rivals) committed to the Cats a few days ago. Don’t be shocked to see more pickups like offensive lineman Marquan McCall out of Oak Park, Mich., show up on UK’s campus in the future.

Without directly talking about the 6-foot-3, 280-pound prospect who is rated among the top 100 players in the country and the No. 3 offensive guard by Rivals, Stoops confirmed that Michigan is a place UK hopes to mine in the future behind secondary coach Steve Clinkscale.

“We always look to see where we can improve and where some of our coaches have relationships,” Stoops said, likening it to UK’s recent ability to sign kids in southern Florida behind offensive coordinator Eddie Gran. “And Steve had strong relationships in here. When he got in here and I hired him, we discussed those relationships, and it’s just a touch further for us to branch into there.

“We’re always looking for new areas to get a few players here and there. We have to go a lot of areas because of the number of recruits and proximity to our place. We have to expand a little bit.”

Michigan fits within the Stoops plan, which includes recruiting as many players as possible within a 6-8 hour radius of campus. There are presently no players from there on the UK roster.

“We’re trying to hammer it because those kids will come to campus,” Kentucky’s director of recruiting operations Dan Berezowitz said of players within that driving radius. “Michigan kids will get in the car and come to Junior Days, come to camp, come to spring game.

“We’ve had multiple kids from up there come down for visits. It’s just like West Virginia, D.C., you hit that 6-7 hour radius, those kids will come to your campus. St. Louis, just taking a complete circle and saying, ‘How many kids can we get to come down and visit and check it out?’ That’s ultimately how you get kids in the end.”

▪  If you haven’t lately, head over to the NextCats recruiting page. Recruiting guru Ben Roberts updated the page recently to include UK targets and more.

Championship destination

Kentucky’s coaches and staff members were excited when they learned recently that the school has secured the KHSAA state championships this season and next.

Stoops likes the idea of making Kroger Field a destination for the top high school players in Kentucky much in the same way Rupp Arena is thanks to the Sweet Sixteen being played there on a yearly basis, Berezowitz said.

“Anytime you can get those kids on campus is great for us,” he continued. “There’s a lot of states — like in Ohio, they all play championships at Ohio State, they play them in Columbus at that stadium. If you’re a kid in Ohio, you want to play in the horseshoe. We want that here, too.”

The 2017 finals are tentatively planned for Dec. 1-3 with two games played each day. It is the first time since 1976 that the state’s high school football championships will be decided in Lexington. That was the only year the state title games were held in what used to be called Commonwealth Stadium.

The facility upgrades, including the move to turf recently, helped make Kroger Field an attractive destination for the high school state championships.

Jennifer Smith: 859-231-3241, @jenheraldleader