UK Football

UK football notebook: Kentucky players aim to turn belief into results

Kentucky head coach, Mark Stoops, and team run onto the field prior to the University of Kentucky-Louisiana-Lafayette football game in the newly renovated Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday 5, 2015.  Photo by Ken Weaver
Kentucky head coach, Mark Stoops, and team run onto the field prior to the University of Kentucky-Louisiana-Lafayette football game in the newly renovated Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday 5, 2015. Photo by Ken Weaver Ken Weaver

Perhaps it's the 28-game win streak.

Perhaps it's the three-overtime loss at The Swamp last season.

Perhaps it's the quest to be 2-0 in the Southeastern Conference for the first time since 1977.

Perhaps it's that Kentucky fans already have sold out Commonwealth Stadium for a game against Florida on Saturday night.

Most likely, it's all of the above that will motivate the Cats as they take on the Gators.

Kentucky's players can use whatever motivation they want to use, Coach Mark Stoops said several times this week.

"Our players know we've moved beyond the belief, that they know we can play, it's just a matter of attention to detail," Stoops said. "And I think that's what the big message is this week: Let's worry about us."

There's no trickery or hocus-pocus needed to match up with the Gators (2-0) on Saturday.

"They look at it like we can play with anyone in this league," tight ends coach Vince Marrow said of UK this week. "They think they can beat anybody."

But thinking it and doing it are two different things.

The Cats certainly have Florida's attention, Coach Jim McElwain said this week.

"We're going on the road into an environment that will be really kind of cool," he said. "It will be loud; it will be fun. They'll be motivated and rightfully so. They've done a heck of a job there building that thing into a contender. And I do believe they are."

The new coach comes to Commonwealth Stadium with the same record as Kentucky but with a group that seems to be still finding itself. McElwain hardly sounds like a coach whose team owns an FBS-best 28-game win streak (which he called "pretty amazing") over its next opponent.

"We're as far from being overconfident in anything we do based on what we've been through," he said.

With so much back-patting after breaking the 22-game road losing streak at South Carolina last week and so many fans telling players how great they are, Stoops has had to guard against a team getting overconfident.

"They're young kids in a lot of situations and I love them, but a lot of them are very immature," he said.

On Thursday, Stoops said the team struggled with focus a bit on Wednesday, but the coaches have done what they need to do to get the players' attention.

"They're young guys and constantly need reminding of things, but that's what we're here for," he smiled. "We're all just trying to do the very best we can and stay focused but also be on that attack mode and be ready to play."

Cats to watch

Five Kentucky players to keep an eye on versus Florida:

Jason Hatcher: The junior defensive end/linebacker was suspended for UK's first two games of the season and returns to go up against a Florida team that probably will use two quarterbacks and has a young offensive line. "He's done a good job," Stoops said. "It'll be good to have him back." Hatcher had one of his best games against the Gators last season, charting four tackles, including two for a loss as well as a sack.

Mikel Horton: The sophomore running back looked ready for a breakout game against South Carolina last week, running in UK's first touchdown before sitting the rest of the game with an injury. He was coming off a go-ahead touchdown in the opener. Stoops is eager to see what Horton can show in this game. "We've been talking about him," Stoops said of the sophomore. "We feel like we have some good backs and he's a little different, so it'll be good to have him out there."

Boom Williams: Florida has yielded just 25.5 yards a game this season on the ground — including minus-13 yards last week versus East Carolina — and UK's top running back is averaging 10.1 yards a carry. Also, who can forget Williams' amazing change of direction for a score in overtime at The Swamp last season? As a group, Horton, Williams and junior Jojo Kemp are averaging 8.4 yards a carry and could be difference makers in this game. "They're always tough and physical up front and they're very quick off the ball," Stoops said of the Gators. "They have good cover guys so they can load the box quite a bit and challenge you."

Garrett Johnson: Kentucky's leading wide receiver had the best game of his career against his home-state school last season with six catches for 154 yards (a UK freshman record) and touchdown catches of 60 and 33 yards. This season, Johnson has nine grabs for 124 yards and has shown flashes. "We've known he's a big-play guy; we see it in practice all the time," Stoops said.

Chris Westry: Florida has some big-play wide receivers, including junior Demarcus Robinson, who has 11 catches for 89 yards and a score. Coming off a huge game at South Carolina (game-saving interception, first career sack and a key pass breakup), can the Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Week build on that big game?

Finishing touches

Fans visiting the renovated Commonwealth Stadium for a second time Saturday will see a nearly polished product.

"Overall a much more finished state, things are much closer," said Guy Ramsey, UK's director for strategic communication.

With an extra week to get finishing touches on the $126 million renovation, Ramsey said that 95 percent of the site work surrounding the venue now is completed.

That means sod work, landscaping, lighting, sidewalks and other things are nearly done. Fans also will notice additions like large vertical signage outside of gates to make getting around easier.

Inside, most of the work was completed before the Sept. 5 opener. Since then, the entry into the premium spaces has been finished and includes a few stunning pieces like a wall of reclaimed barn wood that matches other parts of the stadium.

Conflicted?

There will be no more conflicted fan in Commonwealth Stadium than former Kentucky men's basketball coach Joe B. Hall. His son-in-law, former UK offensive line coach Mike Summers, now has the same job at Florida.

"I don't know," Hall told the Herald-Leader's Mark Story, when asked which team he will be pulling for Saturday night. "I think it would be truly great for Kentucky to be 3-0. Think that would be a big step toward a bowl. But Mike is my son-in-law, he's working with a new (head) coach at Florida and his livelihood depends on how they do. I guess I'll find a reason to be happy whichever way it goes."

Summers isn't the only Florida coach with a Cats connection. Another ex-UK assistant who will be on the opposing sideline is Greg Nord (tight ends/special teams).

Another coaching connection is Florida defensive line coach Chris Rumph, uncle of former UK defensive lineman Donte Rumph.

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