Kentucky has advanced to two straight bowl games.
It has recorded back-to-back winning seasons and finished in the top three of the Southeastern Conference standings for each of the past two seasons.
That’s progress, but Coach Mark Stoops expects more.
He made that clear to the Cats before and during winter conditioning and again as spring practices have started.
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There’s still a lot of work to be done
“We’re going 100 miles an hour right now,” Stoops said last week. “It’s full-force accountability. You’d better be doing what you’re supposed to be doing 24/7.”
More so than in years past, the Cats coach called out players by name, making it clear that they had work to do to earn more playing time this season when UK has 17 starters returning and dozens more who played significant snaps a year ago.
“It’s really important to make those players (go) from good to great,” Stoops said, “and I think we have some good players and it’s time to get them to go to great and that’s where the details come in play.”
He talked about players like defensive lineman T.J. Carter, who had 18 tackles including three sacks and two quarterback hurries last season for Kentucky, which finished the season 7-6 with a loss in the Music City Bowl.
“T.J. Carter also needs to have a big year,” Stoops said. “He’s a guy that he has to take the offseason serious.”
We’re so much further ahead in terms of guys that are leading. We’ve got a handful and they’re coaching them. It’s a lot of fun. When you get ownership and you get guys to take ownership, you’ve got a chance.
Eddie Gran, UK offensive coordinator
Stoops also called out sophomore defensive tackle Kordell Looney, who had 10 tackles in 11 games on the defensive line in 2017.
“He needs to take a step,” Stoops said.
“We’re going to put tons of pressure on him. He’s either got to be accountable, do the things that he’s supposed to do to become the player I think he can be or he’ll get caught in the wash.”
That’s been the message not just to specific defensive linemen, but to all players who have interest in playing this coming season: improvement must come and it must start this offseason.
And it’s not just on defense.
“We’ve talked about just really owning it,” offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said of the message this season. “It’s no more ‘my bad, I’m sorry, I did it.’ Our standard is different right now.”
“We’ve kinda talked about being great. There’s no reason why we can’t.”
And while Kentucky lost key, vocal leaders on both sides of the ball like quarterback Stephen Johnson and middle linebacker Courtney Love, there is more leadership overall now.
“We’re so much further ahead in terms of guys that are leading,” Gran continued. “We’ve got a handful and they’re coaching them. It’s a lot of fun. When you get ownership and you get guys to take ownership, you’ve got a chance.”
I just remember when we first got here, there wasn’t much where you could have competition at each position. Now we’re three deep at each position and we’re really looking good. There’s competition at every level and expectations are very high. You’d better get on board.
Vince Marrow, UK tight ends coach
There’s a much higher expectation than there was even two or three years ago, tight ends coach Vince Marrow said of the offseason attitude adjustments.
A lot of it comes from having competition at nearly every position now, the coaches and players said.
“I just remember when we first got here, there wasn’t much where you could have competition at each position,” Marrow said. “Now we’re three deep at each position and we’re really looking good.
“There’s competition at every level and expectations are very high. You’d better get on board.”
And being three deep at nearly every position means if a player isn’t doing the right thing in the classroom, weight room or on the practice field, he’ll get passed by.
That seems to be the overarching message at the start of the 2018 season this spring.
“Some guys are going to like it and some guys aren’t,” Stoops said of the higher accountability.
He pointed to players who need to lose weight or gain strength and the offseason push to change bodies.
“Certain positions, we weren’t big enough last year and we need to get bigger,” the head coach continued. “We need to get stronger, and they have some personal accountability to do those things, whether it’s eating, lifting, going to class, going to tutors.
“There’s a lot of things, and as our accountability picks up off the field, it will directly reflect some of the things we do on the field, and I think our team is getting very much improved and we’re getting closer to that 100 percent that we’re striving for.”
UK football spring practice
When: Through April 12 (Three practices per week)
Where: Joe Craft Football Training Center
Notable: All practices closed to public
Key dates: March 23, Pro Day; April 13, Blue-White Spring Game
Off dates: No practices during spring break March 10-19