Kentucky’s head coach stood in his regular place during practice this week directly behind his secondary.
He smiled as he saw Jordan Jones flying around, throwing himself into tackles, making play after play.
“Darius (West) turned around and said, ‘He’s back,’” Mark Stoops recalled with a smirk on Thursday night. “You know what I mean? Making everybody’s tackles.”
Jones made his tackles and then some a season ago, leading Kentucky with 109 of them, including 15.5 for a loss.
And while his backup Eli Brown played well when Jones was out for four games with an undisclosed left shoulder injury, Kentucky’s defense is happy to have its energy source back on the field again in time for a game at Mississippi State on Saturday.
Brown said he’s ecstatic to have Jones back for myriad reasons, noting that the Cats’ defense feeds off of the junior linebacker’s endless motor.
“Now you have two great will linebackers back there, you don’t lose a step,” Brown said. “I’m happy he’s back. I think he’s going to take our defense to a whole other level.”
Did Jones miss a step while he was out?
“Nah,” Brown said with extra emphasis. “When you do stuff for so long, you don’t miss a step. … Once (Jones) sees the ball, he’s going to go.”
It “killed him” not being able to play in the past four games, Brown said of Jones, who was not available for interviews.
“When you finally do sit out, you’re like, ‘Man, I didn’t know I missed this sport this much,’” Brown said. “You can tell when he first came back he was running around and excited. Felt good seeing that.”
Getting Jones, who had a team-best 11 tackles last season in UK’s win over the Bulldogs, back also means Brown won’t be forced into playing 60-plus plays a game.
It started to take a toll on his body by the Missouri game, the former Warren East star said.
“I felt it most in the Missouri game,” Brown smiled. “I was in my mind like, ‘Let’s go,’ and my body was like, ‘Nah.’ … I really needed that break. It’s like the first game now.”
Because of the bye week, UK was able to ease Jones back into the rotation, getting his reps in practice with no contact a week ago, Stoops said. Then this week, he was able to ease back into it, including full speed on Wednesday.
Kentucky’s offensive coordinators haven’t had to search far nor wide to find out more about new Mississippi State defensive coordinator Todd Grantham.
They merely needed to “peek” at the Louisville game film from last season when Grantham was running the Cardinals’ defense, Darin Hinshaw said.
“A lot of the same concepts, a lot of the same stuff that he does,” co-offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said of Grantham. “He does a great job. Those kids know where to go. They’re playing hard.
“You look at their statistics, and they’re stingy. So, it is a lot the same. He’s not going to change overnight just because he’s got different guys. Their personnel matches a lot with what Louisville was. They’re really good, they fly around and they’re physical.”
Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen noted that Grantham gives that side of the ball a bit of swagger this season.
Statistically, it’s easy to see why. The Bulldogs are ranked in the top 10 nationally in three categories: total defense (eighth, allowing just 284.8 yards per game), passing defense (fourth overall, allowing 155 yards per game and they’re first in first-down defense.
The Bulldogs have allowed only 17 points and two touchdowns in 12 quarters playing at home this season.
UK had some success against Grantham’s Louisville defense last season, gaining 581 yards of offense on 72 total plays. It was a balanced attack with 352 yards passing and 229 yards rushing.
The Cats’ offense hasn’t had that kind of output since then.
A road losing streak haunted Stoops in his first few seasons as Kentucky coach, but the Cats have been on a road roll for about a year now, winning four of their last five true road games dating back to last season.
Kentucky’s last true road loss was on Nov. 12 at Tennessee, but the wins have included victories at Missouri, No. 11 Louisville, Southern Miss and South Carolina.
This team has adopted a business-like mentality on the road, Stoops said recently.
“I felt like as a coach through the years that it’s good sometimes to load up and get on the road,” he said. “Sometimes you feel like that. We’re playing good football and we have to be able to play well at home or on the road.”
Being in a road environment helps UK’s players pull together more, running back Benny Snell said.
“It’s like we’re going to work and we’ve got a battle to go to where we’re surrounded by none of our people,” he said. “When we’re on the road, it’s just us. It’s us traveling. We do what we do and leave.”
Brown, the inside linebacker, said the team enjoys spending time together and being on the road helps them grow closer.
“It’s just us on the road,” he said. “Just us brothers, clowning around, playing around. … I love playing away. They’re yelling for your team but you feel like they’re yelling for you.”
At Mississippi State, it’s going to be more than yelling, though. It’s a unique road environment with 60,000 or more fans yelling in between ringing their cowbells. To prepare its players, UK piped in cowbell sound this week during practices.
Other news and notes
Kentucky’s head coach didn’t quite give an NFL-style rundown of injured players, but he did mention a couple of key players during his final meeting with the media on Thursday night.
Nearly every player that was injured after the six straight games is healed up.
“We’re in pretty good shape,” he said. “We had two pretty good practices this week.”
Punt returner and wide receiver Charles Walker is back after missing a game, Stoops confirmed. And outside linebacker Jordan Bonner has been out and will be out for a while. It’s meant Boogie Watson is moving back outside to back up Josh Allen, which was reflected on the newest depth chart.
▪ How do you simulate a 6-foot-5, 230-pound mobile quarterback like Nick Fitzgerald? For Kentucky, freshman QB Danny Clark has been the answer. “Danny’s a big, physical guy and he’s done a heck of a job,” Stoops said. “Danny just goes all out. He’s given us good looks.”
2017 UK football schedule
Home games in capital letters. Times are p.m.
Sept. 2: at Southern Miss (W, 24-17)
Sept. 9: EASTERN KENTUCKY (W, 27-16)
Sept. 16: at South Carolina (W, 23-13)
Sept. 23: FLORIDA (L, 28-27)
Sept. 30: EASTERN MICHIGAN (W, 24-20)
Oct. 7: MISSOURI (W, 40-34)
Oct. 21: at Mississippi St., 4
Oct. 28: TENNESSEE, 7:30
Nov. 4: OLE MISS
Nov. 11: at Vanderbilt
Nov. 18: at Georgia
Nov. 25: LOUISVILLE