UK Football

UK football notebook: First impressions important as Cats open season in renovated stadium

The south side of Commonwealth Stadium underwent the biggest facelift, getting a tower of suites along with a new press box above and club seating and more suites below. (Jennifer Smith photo)
The south side of Commonwealth Stadium underwent the biggest facelift, getting a tower of suites along with a new press box above and club seating and more suites below. (Jennifer Smith photo)

Even in the weeks leading up to the grand opening of the renovated Commonwealth Stadium, Kentucky's players were buzzing.

"I've always loved the stadium, just being able to have the opening be my first home game of my senior year, it's going to mean a lot," said Zach West, who went to high school just a few miles down Nicholasville Road from the stadium.

Fellow senior offensive lineman Jordan Swindle has been contemplating running out of the new tunnel onto the brand new turf into the stunning, $126 million venue for a while now.

"It's going to be awesome, can't wait," Swindle said. "Think about it probably 20-25 hours a day. It's really exciting."

To players like Swindle and West, it's not just about a shiny new place to play their last season of football, it's about their part in the rebirth of the football program as the Cats start their 2015 season on Saturday night against Louisiana Lafayette.

"We've been building this thing up and now it's finally coming to fruition," Swindle continued. "I feel like we're going to start being a winning program and this stadium is kind of the christening of that."

While worrying a little bit about the buzz — and heavy pressure — that comes from being a part of something of this magnitude, Coach Mark Stoops said he doesn't want to completely contain the excitement.

"The anticipation for a new season — we better have to tell them 'whoa,'" he said. "I'd rather tell them 'whoa' than 'giddy-up.' I think they'll be ready to go and anxious, but that's where it's gotta come one play at a time."

Junior quarterback Patrick Towles, who grew up watching games there, is as excited as anyone to get going.

But he said UK's players are trying to look beyond the largess of the event and focus on starting the new season with a victory and ending a six-game losing streak dating back to last season.

"We're worried about us and going out and playing well," he said. "We can't worry about those kind of distractions.

"It's a wonderful thing; the new stadium's going to be awesome. But if we get caught up looking at the stadium, while play's going on, we'll be in trouble."

Stoops has reminded Kentucky that it has just one chance to make a good first impression this season and he hopes fans walk away from the new digs impressed with that and what they saw on the field.

"This is the first opportunity to go out and show everybody what our team is like this year," he said. "So we have a great opportunity and we just gotta make sure that we're all ready to go, and I anticipate we will."

'Better' defense has tough first test

The retooled Kentucky defense, playing for the first time without star ends Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith, will get a big test early in Louisiana-Lafayette junior Elijah McGuire.

The 5-foot-11, 208-pound running back was the Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year last season, gaining 1,264 yards (a whopping 7.1 yards a carry) with 14 touchdowns.

"He's a fantastic player, I tell you," Stoops said. He's just a very dynamic player. He gets an awful lot of yards."

Even with Dupree and Smith, UK wasn't adept at stopping the run last season, finishing 12th in the league giving up 191.2 yards a game. In three games last season, the Cats gave up 300 or more yards and 200 plus in six contests.

Still, the head coach, who has 12 sophomores or younger in the defensive two-deep, thinks this defense will be better than last season's even with some question marks.

"I certainly believe we'll be better," he said. "We have some inexperience, and it's going to be interesting to see how those guys play. But it is what it is. I anticipate they'll play well."

Many happy returns?

Coaches have made it no secret that they want to see more spark from the Cats' return game.

New kickoff returns coach Tommy Mainord regularly tells his group that UK has failed to find the end zone on that play since 2009 when Derrick Locke did it against Louisville.

Why point out the ugly? "Pride. Pride. We're trying to instill some pride," Mainord said. "Most of them didn't know that, so we're trying to instill some pride and something they can hang their hat on and something they can relate to, say, 'Hey, we can change that.' And at any time."

Look for running back Sihiem King to lead the way.

"We need to improve and become more explosive in the return game and hopefully he has that spark," Stoops said of the true freshman. Junior defensive back J.D. Harmon and wide receivers Ryan Timmons and Jeff Badet also could see time.

It hasn't been rainbows and butterflies on punt returns for UK either with the Cats' last return for a score coming in 2010 from Randall Cobb.

"That's a long time; it's bad," said Timmons, who will be the Cats' top punt returner. "We're hoping to change that this week and this season."

Now might be as good a time as any for UK to make some special teams noise. Louisiana-Lafayette will start a true freshman kicker and punter. And the Ragin' Cajuns have been porous on special teams, allowing a punt return for a score as recently as last season against Appalachian State.

The year before that, they gave up two kickoff returns for touchdowns (92 yards and 100 yards) in the same game against Texas State.

Special opening day festivities

Several special events have been planned for the re-opening of Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday night, including a concert headlined by Sundy Best, a country duo from Kentucky. That concert will be at Gate 1 around 4 p.m.

Before Sundy Best takes the stage, Matthew Mitchell and the Go Big Blue Band with the women's basketball coach as the lead singer, will do a free concert in the same spot starting at around 2:45 p.m.

There will be a break in the festivities for the Cat Walk around 4:45 p.m.

■ The national anthem will be performed by a choir made up of singers from each of Kentucky's 120 counties. The Team Fastrax Professional Skydiving Team will deliver the game ball via parachute around 6:55 p.m.

■ During the break between the first and second quarters, an ultra-high resolution 360-degree fan photo will be taken. Fans can find and tag themselves in the photo. They can sign up to be notified when the Kentucky Wildcats Gigapixel is ready to view at this link:

■ New Kentucky Proud concessions will feature something call the Bluegrass Burger and Brooks Italian Sausage. Drinks will be served in special cups commemorating the first game in the renovated stadium.