UK Football

UK football notebook: After frustrating first half to season, Cats 'upbeat' heading into second half

Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops talked with defensive end Alvin "Bud" Dupree (2) during the Cats' game against Florida.
Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops talked with defensive end Alvin "Bud" Dupree (2) during the Cats' game against Florida. Herald-Leader

When a game is as lopsided as the Kentucky loss to top-ranked Alabama was last weekend, coaches sometimes throw it out as an anomaly.

Just forget it and move on.

Not the Wildcats' coaches.

There was much to be learned from playing against a team that amassed nearly 700 yards of offense against the UK defense and held the UK offense to its fewest yards of the season.

So UK's coaches showed the team the footage from the Alabama loss. Every painful minute.

"We showed them every play," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "Yep, showed them every play and tried to learn from it. That's been our approach all season.

"It can be tough. It's hard, but there's a lot of learning moments there, so we take advantage of those."

Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops said he'd been feeling pretty good about the team and its progress going into the game against the Crimson Tide.

"I really felt like the team was in a good mental state, that we were practicing hard, going about our business the right way, we were on track, we were improving," Stoops said on his radio show last week. "Then we get to Alabama and that was tough."

The bye this week came at a good time for UK to heal some injuries, but it also came at an interesting time for introspection: the exact halfway point of a 12-game season.

Stoops took that time as a chance to reflect inward as a team.

"We worked hard on Sunday and Monday to look at ourselves," he said on Tuesday of UK's coaching staff. "Self scout ourselves and see what we're doing good and what we're doing bad and where we can improve. So I think there's always room to tweak things and keep on improving on your package and do things better and at the midway point, see what we can do."

So what did Eliot take away?

"I think that until this last game, I thought we were getting better every week," he said. "We didn't perform like we should, but I thought we were executing better, we were playing harder. I thought we were playing more physical until this last week."

Offensive coordinator Neal Brown was asked for his biggest surprise and disappointment six games into the season, including four against top-20 opponents and three of those with top-10 defenses.

"The biggest disappointment probably is our not making plays in crucial situations," he said. "We've had some opportunities to make plays and extend drives and we haven't made them."

He's been most pleased with UK's ability to run the ball. Taking out some negative-yardage plays and sacks, Kentucky has made significant strides in yards per carry. It's been "pretty good against some really, really good run defenses."

So what was Brown's message to his relatively young offensive unit as it goes into the final six games of the season?

"I've said, 'Hey, we've played some really good people. Now, our production's not what it should be. We should still be able to move the ball against whoever we're playing,'" he relayed. "But they're upbeat. They understand. They believe in the system. They believe in what we're doing. They understand we've got to get better, but they've been good. Attitude's been really good."

The players are receiving the coaches' message at this midway point.

"We've just got to keep working," quarterback Maxwell Smith said. "Got a whole second half of the season left to go and just keep getting better."

It's tough to do a complete comparison in statistics between last season's Kentucky team and this season's Kentucky team because of the four straight games against top foes, but there are some eerie similarities in numbers beyond the matching 1-5 records.

This week, Stoops said he's seeing plenty of progress being made on the practice field and in games.

"I'm as frustrated as anybody with some of the results, but we knew this was going to be a hard fight and a hard grind building this program to where we want it to go."

Seniors such as linebacker Avery Williamson still are optimistic moving forward. The new season starts Thursday night at Mississippi State.

"The first half of the season is over with; we're in the second half," Williamson said. "I feel like these games are winnable and we can still become bowl eligible. We've got to win five games to be bowl eligible. We've got to really grind and dig to try and get some wins."

Mid-year additions?

To put it simply: Reinforcements are on the way.

Kentucky has struggled with depth and size at multiple positions, but the Cats might add to those ranks not long after this season ends.

During the bye week last week, Stoops said UK might add as many as 11 mid-year players to the roster, depending on how UK's seniors do academically.

"We're on track to graduate several ... and if you graduate those guys, you can bring in some mid-year replacements, some guys who are graduating high school or some junior-college players at mid-year," he explained Monday on his radio call-in show.

Stoops also was asked about the mid-year enrollees during practice last week and added: "We're gonna have no problem filling those gaps. I'm not allowed to talk about specific people, but whether it be high school mid-year guys or junior-college mid-year guys, we should have the opportunity to fill some spots there."

One of the players expected to enroll early is Conner quarterback Drew Barker, one of the cornerstones of this recruiting class, ranked No. 7 by as of Friday.

Don't be surprised to see some of those players come from the junior-college ranks, where UK has had some early success this season in players such as Javess Blue, who leads the Cats in receiving with 24 catches for 319 yards and two scores; cornerback Nate Willis, who is one of UK's top tacklers; and Za'Darius Smith, a defensive end, who has 4.5 sacks this season.

As Kentucky continues its rebuilding efforts, junior-college players will be key.

"You need junior-college players," Stoops said. "We will recruit junior-college players. I don't think it's necessarily a great thing to go recruit eight or nine, because the turnover is so quick. By the time you get them ready in your system, playing how you want to play, then they're gone."

But their import can't be overlooked, especially in these first few seasons.

"They've been very good for us, and we've had great success, whether it be at my previous stops and here, they're working out good, and I like having them."

Stoops also talked about the number of scout team players that have impressed the coaches and show reasons to be optimistic about UK's future.

"I feel good about that nucleus of guys, I really do," Stoops said. "They've got a great work ethic. They're getting extra lifting, so they're on a different lifting plan than the guys that are playing. They're hitting the weights much harder, and I think that's really gonna pay off."

A Mark Stoops fan club?

Two of the most influential names in college football had some nice things to say about UK's Mark Stoops before their respective teams played Kentucky over the past few weeks.

Alabama Coach Nick Saban said the Cats' 1-4 record going into their game was deceptive.

"These guys have played three really good football teams in a row, played them all tough, played them all well," Saban said. "So Mark has done a really good job there. They're playing hard, they play with a lot of toughness, they're really good on special teams, which sometimes to me shows the character and attitude of your team as much as anything."

Usually one to needle Cats fans (remember the "Kentucky has a heck of a punter, I know that" jab?), South Carolina's Steve Spurrier had some kind things to say about Stoops as well.

"He's a good guy, really good guy and good coach," Spurrier said. "It's a tough job there at Kentucky, especially right now, but they supposedly have one of the best recruiting classes going into next year so maybe they are heading in the right direction."

Spurrier has known Stoops a long time through older brother Bob Stoops, the head coach at Oklahoma. Spurrier hired the elder Stoops as his defensive coordinator at Florida in 1996. They have vacation homes close to each other.

After the Cats staged a huge fourth-quarter comeback in Columbia a couple of weeks ago, Spurrier met with Stoops at midfield after the game.

Did the head ball coach have any punter wise cracks?

"He just said, 'Good luck, I'm pulling for you,'" Mark Stoops said.


Kentucky at Mississippi State

When: 7:30 p.m. TV: ESPN

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