Mark Stoops says any extra motivation is good
In all likelihood, the University of Kentucky football team will be picked to finish toward the bottom of the Southeastern Conference’s Eastern Division when the media’s preseason predictions are revealed Friday morning.
A New Year’s Day bowl win over Penn State seems to have done little to improve the Wildcats’ stature among outsiders, and that’s just fine with head coach Mark Stoops and his team.
They’re used to being picked to lose game after game; that was the case in 2018 when they finished with 10 wins for the first time in four decades. Kentucky is worried about itself, and the work it’s doing in Lexington, not its perception inside or outside the commonwealth’s borders.
“You better be worried about yourself and what you’re doing, and preparing and continuing to stay focused on the disciplines, the principles, the practices, the systems that we have in place to be successful,” Stoops told reporters Thursday morning at SEC Media Days. “You better be focused on that.”
Stoops has not been one to shy away from using perceived slights in the past, though, and this fall will be no different.
“Take care of yourself, take care of your own backyard, do the things that it takes to be successful, and if there’s other things that motivate you, good,” Stoops said. “I’m a bit like that and I think some of the players are like that, and that’s OK with me.”
Questions from around the conference were predictable, and Stoops’ answers were the same as throughout the spring:
How will you replace Benny Snell? “It’s now time for guys like A.J. Rose to step up. Kavosiey Smoke is a young guy that we are very high on. Chris Rodriguez, so we have players there that are ready to step up and fill in.”
Who will be the next Josh Allen? “Josh is a hard guy to replace. I know people were asking me that. You don’t replace him with any one guy. Jamar Watson, Boogie Watson, is a heck of a football player. He’s going to do a heck of a job. He played a big role for us a year ago, but it’s going to be a group effort, a team effort.”
What will become of a secondary stricken by departures? “I feel like we have some inside guys — some nickels, dimes, safeties — that have played, that got their feet wet. Outside of corner, that’s going to be the biggest issue with the experience out there.”
There were still questions about Florida — not of the losing streak UK finally ended last September, but of the one it will look to begin in its own favor when the Gators come to town in two months.
“Good for South Carolina. We’re worried about getting ourselves ready to play,” Stoops said. “If I worried about that, we wouldn’t have climbed as high as we did the last three years. I think we’ve performed a little bit better than most people thought the last three years so hopefully we’ll continue to do that.”
Senior linebacker Kash Daniel was among the three player representatives UK brought this week to Alabama. Between questions about wrestling and Game of Thrones (his get-up was inspired by series character Jon Snow), he kept coming back to Kentucky’s evolution as a college football program during the time he’s been on its roster.
Daniel acknowledged that Kentucky in part doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt because its most recent history — three straight winning seasons — doesn’t jive with what most of its history suggests the Wildcats can do going forward. The program has yet to take a step back, record-wise, in six previous years under Stoops, and Daniel doesn’t expect for this unit to buck that trend.
“We’re five steps ahead of where we were last year,” Daniel said. “I’m pretty sure they were talking this same time last year about how we were gonna win four games, five games just like every other year and then we go out and do what we did. So you can keep running your mouth, you can keep talking about us, and we’ll shut it up for you on the football field.”
The country can keep talking about Josh Allen, Benny Snell and the downfall of Kentucky football. The Wildcats are focused much more on what they have — a quarterback in Terry Wilson who won 10 games and whom the staff expects to blossom in year two of its system; a defensive interior stocked with big experience and bigger bodies; a dynamite play-maker in Lynn Bowden — over what it doesn’t.
“These players know we lost great players, but our players know what it takes to put ourselves in position to win a bunch of games,” Stoops said. “We want more. We expect more.”