The stadium was still a shell of itself and the practice facility was a mound of dirt when most of the Kentucky seniors committed to the Cats five or so years ago.
“We had to buy into a vision and we did that,” tight end C.J. Conrad said of the 16 seniors who will be honored on Saturday before Kentucky’s game with Middle Tennessee State at Kroger Field.
It’s a senior class with star power even if it didn’t start out that way.
“I want to give recognition to that senior class and what they’ve done, what they’ve meant to this program and how much I greatly appreciate them,” Coach Mark Stoops said Monday of the group that includes several probable NFL Draft picks.
“I think the Big Blue Nation appreciates them. They will, it’s a fact in the last three years they’ve won the most SEC games since anybody in the history of this school. That’s a long time, folks. I appreciate what they’ve done.”
Those players include linebackers Josh Allen and Jordan Jones; offensive linemen George Asafo-Adjei and Bunchy Stallings; defensive linemen Tymere Dubose and Adrian Middleton; defensive backs Derrick Baity, Mike Edwards, Lonnie Johnson, Darius West and Chris Westry; wide receivers Dorian Baker and David Bouvier, tight end C.J. Conrad, and specialists Miles Butler and Tristan Yeomans.
The group has been an integral part of helping the Cats get to three straight bowl games under Stoops, starting in 2016 and leading up to this year’s postseason trip.
This senior group has won 26 games and has been a part of ending several streaks, including the one against Florida. It also upset a ranked Louisville team on the road and went a combined 8-0 versus Missouri and South Carolina.
The seniors finished .500 or better in the Southeastern Conference three straight seasons and recorded the school’s first winning record in league play in 41 years.
“This senior class, we’ve done a lot for this program,” Allen said. “It’s only right to go out with a bang. We decided coming here that we would do something special and we have done something special.”
And while the players have helped change the program, they’ve grown, too, said Stoops, talking specifically about players like Jordan Jones and Tymere Dubose.
It hasn’t always been a perfect road or an easy one, but Stoops is proud of the journey he’s taken with them.
“Eventually the light clicks on and they want to get that done and they want to be successful both on the field and off,” Stoops said. “Very proud of a lot of these guys for the work they’ve done. I’ve seen them change. They’ve been a really good group, special group.”
An emotional farewell
When asked who among the 16 seniors to be recognized on Saturday might be most likely to be emotional, right guard Bunchy Stallings said: “It might be. It could be me, honestly.”
With good reason, the senior already got tears in his eyes talking about family and friends joining him on the field, some whom have never seen him play.
But it was the family member who won’t be at Kroger Field that had him emotional.
“My mom’s not going to be here, just things like that,” he said of his mother, Cynthia, who passed away after battling cancer last year. “I’ll have a lot of my family here, a lot of her side of the family here, so just with them being able to watch me for the first time ever, I can’t ask for a better opportunity than to go out there and put on a performance for family and fans and teammates.”
Stallings already is an emotional player, but he knows it will be amped up on Saturday.
“Just the passion I have for my teammates,” he said. “I want to play the game well; I want to finish well.”
Stallings might not be the only senior to get a little emotional. After a couple teammates predicted it might be linebacker Josh Allen, he didn’t deny it, adding: “That’s a game-day decision.”
‘You can’t fake it’
It was 31 degrees, windy and tiny ice pellets were falling from the sky, but Kentucky was outside practicing at Kroger Field for the second straight night on Wednesday.
The change in practice location was one way that Stoops was trying to get the attention of Kentucky’s players after a 24-7 loss at Tennessee last week.
“There will be a different message, believe me,” the coach said just after the game. I’m the one that has to get the team ready to play. We didn’t have enough juice today. That starts with me and ends with me.”
Offensive coordinator Eddie Gran could sense a difference.
“A lot of energy. It was really good,” he said of doing some offense vs. defense work at the stadium on Tuesday. There was a lot of energy, which is something coach talked about, that edge and energy. You can’t fake it.”
Getting in the stadium, making it feel more like a game and breaking up the weekly monotony seemed to resonate with the players, too.
“He was trying to light a fire under some of us and to come out and practice with a sense of urgency,” Conrad said.
A player with some ‘moxie’
Kentucky could have its hands full with Middle Tennessee senior quarterback Brent Stockstill, who is in the top 50 nationally, averaging 229.8 passing yards a game with 21 touchdowns and five interceptions.
His numbers don’t tell the whole story of a player that Mark Stoops said plays with a ton of “moxie.
“You can tell he’s the coach’s kid and he plays so hard and makes such critical plays and he’s one of those guys who is a real gamer and you put pressure on him, get him out of the pocket and he finds guys open,” Stoops said of the senior and son of head coach Rick Stockstill.
The quarterback holds school career records with 11,249 yards and 98 scores through the air.
“He puts it in good spots; he throws such a catchable ball,” Stoops said. “He really plays — you’ve got to have a lot of respect for the way he plays — he plays the game the right way and really intelligent and with great touch on what he does.”
News and notes
▪ Middle Tennessee State has forced six more turnovers than it has committed, including a plus-eight margin in its last four games, all victories.
And the Raiders are turning the mistakes into points, scoring 67 points off of them this season.
“We’re taking advantage of the opportunities that we have to create a turnover,” said Rick Stockstill, whose team is No. 18 nationally in turnover margin. “If you look back at last year, we had opportunities to have a bunch of turnovers but we didn’t. We dropped interceptions, close to recovering fumbles but not coming up with it.
“This year we’re coming up with it. I’m proud of our players and our coaches. We worked very hard at it last year but the ball didn’t bounce our way. This year we’re taking advantage of them.”
▪ Middle Tennessee has four players from the state of Kentucky on its roster in running back Landon Board (Owensboro), wide receiver Peyton Burke (Tates Creek), cornerback Joseph Freeland (Christian County) and offensive lineman Cole Kirby (Franklin-Simpson). But the most familiar connection between the Cats and Raiders is offensive coordinator Tony Franklin, who was UK’s running backs coach from 1997-99 and the offensive coordinator in 2000. He also coached the Lexington Horsemen, an arena football team, in 2003.