UK Football

Stoops says Cats learning how to be tough

WKU wide receiver Joel German (6) got upended by UK defensive back Blake McClain.
WKU wide receiver Joel German (6) got upended by UK defensive back Blake McClain. Herald-Leader

All 5 feet, 11 inches and 190 pounds of Blake McClain aches.

"My whole body hurts; it's not like high school," the Kentucky defensive back said.

But nothing hurt quite like his hand did after the opening kickoff against Florida.

On that first play of the game, he felt a shooting pain as a bone in his finger popped out of place.

"I've never broken anything before," he said. "That was probably the worst pain I've ever felt in my life."

The trainer went to UK Coach Mark Stoops and said McClain was done for the day. The freshman disagreed: "I just told the trainer: 'Cast it up. I wanted to play,'" he said.

A few minutes later, UK's defensive back was in front of his coach asking to go back in the game.

"The trainer told him he was out and he begged him to put a cast on him, came back and played and made some plays," Stoops said.

So all 5 feet 11 inches and 190 pounds of McClain has become an example of what Stoops expects from his Kentucky players.

"He's absolutely fearless," Stoops recently said of McClain, who is the only freshman among the top 15 tacklers for UK this season with 28, including one for a loss. He has also broken up four passes and forced a fumble.

"He comes in, plays and has a pass breakup," Stoops said. "Goes and plays Alabama, gets pressure on the quarterback, has a pass breakup. He's absolutely fearless and he has the mentality and attitude we need."

McClain isn't alone.

There's Avery Williamson and Jason Hatcher, who have been playing in casts for the better part of the season. Stoops mentioned safety Ashely Lowery, who has been banged up most of the season but doesn't want to "miss a practice, never wants to miss a snap," Stoops said.

The coach pointed to guys on the offensive side like running back Raymond Sanders and lineman Kevin Mitchell, who have been playing hard despite some obvious pain.

There's Alvin "Bud" Dupree, who has been battling a strained pectoral muscle among other things, and managed to get a season-high 13 tackles last week.

"Plays his tail off, gives unbelievable effort, unbelievable leadership," Stoops said of the defensive end. "He's not feeling great, and went out and played one of his best games ever. Hopefully that'll get contagious. I think we're learning as we go and getting tougher and getting tougher mentally."

It's players like them who are helping to change attitudes in the locker room, Stoops said at his news conference to preview the Cats' game against Alabama State.

"It's up to the players, and they have to decide what they can handle, and our medical people do a great job," Stoops said. "But I think that toughness comes from a culture, and we're trying to build it. I don't think we're there yet, and we're going to get there. I can promise you."

But how do you build toughness?

Is it something that can be taught or coached?

"You just emphasize a tough mentality in practice and you don't accept it when there's not physical play in practice and in the game, you harp on that," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "We just continue to celebrate those that play physically and we continue to criticize those that don't play physically."

This coaching staff has been pushing the team to be tougher mentally and physically, defensive tackle Donte Rumph said. The senior has been playing with a banged-up shoulder off and on all season.

"They come out every day and find new ways to push us harder," he said. "It's not really one thing they do specifically, but just everything that they teach us and coach us that makes us more physical."

As shorthanded as Kentucky has been this season, it's been important for players to play through some discomfort, to help their team even when it hurts a little bit.

Stoops clarified himself. He is not advocating things that will make injuries worse or cause serious damage.

"We have to learn to differentiate between being injured and just being a little bit banged up," he said. "That's for the players and for the trainers to decide. But if they can go, they need to go."

Eliot agreed. "We need everybody; we can't lose anybody," he said. "If they get hurt, it's going to affect us. We have the next-man-up mentality, but we need everybody to play."

It's why guys like McClain beg for a cast and then race back onto the field for the next play.

"Football's a tough game," McClain said. "You're gonna get hurt, you're gonna get bumps and bruises, but you've got to be warrior-minded and go out there and just keep playing and fight through it."

Whitlow 'looked good'

Quarterback Jalen Whitlow, who has been battling his own injuries the past few games, was back running the UK offense on Tuesday, Stoops said after practice.

"It seemed to be pretty good from what I saw of it," he said of Whitlow's time running the offense. "I was with the defense most of the day, but when I was with them, Jalen was in there throwing the ball good, moving around pretty good. Looked good."


Alabama State at Kentucky

When: 7:30 p.m.

Records: Alabama State 6-2, Kentucky 1-6

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