UK Football

Despite rough stretch, Cats' coaches, players '100 percent' invested in Stoops' process

Mark Stoops
has expressed confidence in "where we're at" on the  recruiting trail.
Mark Stoops has expressed confidence in "where we're at" on the recruiting trail.

Process.

It was Mark Stoops' word of the week every week last year as he took over a Kentucky program coming off a 2-10 season.

Not a news conference or team meeting or fan luncheon went by that Stoops wasn't referencing the "process" UK had to go through to get back to winning and playing in bowl games again.

Maybe after five wins in the first six games this season, the process felt more complete than it actually was. Or maybe Stoops just forgot to bring it up as much, but somewhere along the way this season, people forgot that rebuilding takes time.

Five straight losses have been a sobering reminder.

"Everybody says, 'We know it's going to take time. You're going to have time and you need that time,'" Stoops said Wednesday during UK's bye week. "I'm talking everybody: fans, boosters, the whole deal. And then here you are in Year 2 and that feels like a long time to people."

But two years does not change a culture or fix depth or make players into super heroes. It does not build a Southeastern Conference football team, Stoops said.

"You don't take a job like this and just think — you don't just wave a magic wand and walk in here and turn it overnight. It doesn't happen," he said. "You have to put the time in."

Later he added: "That's not an excuse; it's just the truth. People in this league have been doing things right for a long, long, long time, and we're trying to do that here at Kentucky, and we will do that."

Stoops has been reminded of where UK is in the "process" as he's watched his Cats lose five straight games by an average of 25.6 points. After a particularly painful 50-16 loss at Tennessee, the coach was asked what Kentucky needed to do to get better at tackling.

He hedged for a minute before saying: "I don't even want to go there."

But ultimately Stoops' answer was "we need to recruit and develop."

"Things don't happen overnight. We need to continue to pound the weight room. We need to continue to recruit and get our players better and bigger."

Sometimes there are exceptions to the process, Stoops conceded. There are traditional powers that can bounce back faster, places that have some talent and depth remaining after a coaching change.

But Kentucky isn't exactly a traditional power. Earlier in the season, Stoops said the only position on the field where he thought UK had SEC-level talent and depth was at defensive end and running back.

He might not even believe that now.

"It's frustrating at times, but I'm not discouraged," he said this week as Kentucky tried to heal up from eight straight games and prepare for a game at Louisville on Saturday. "It's an ongoing building situation and I'm pleased with some things and frustrated with others."

Kentucky's coaches are trying to find solace in small victories, like winning as many SEC games this season (two) as the team had total victories each of the past two seasons.

For offensive coordinator Neal Brown, the small victories might be in that Kentucky is averaging nearly 50 yards more per game and is more than a touchdown better than it was last season.

Maybe it's that the Cats' passing attack has significantly improved despite youth at wideout and a first-year quarterback in Patrick Towles.

But Brown echoes Stoops, too.

"We talked about this a few weeks ago: We'd love to go from where we were a year ago to the national championship, but there's a process you gotta go through as you build a program," he said.

And despite losing streaks and lopsided scores the past couple of weeks, the coaches are sure they still have the players' confidence even if the fans' confidence is waning a little bit.

"You can tell when teams have (mailed) it in," Brown said. "Not during the games as much, but you can tell during the week. ... When they start not wanting to practice, that's when you know you've lost them."

The players said they still trust Stoops' process and others should, too.

"We're totally 100 percent in," Towles said. "One of our big things is, 'All In' with him and with everything. We're going to get it done. That's going to happen. It's just a matter of time."

Forward facing

While looking backward at the last few games is painful, sometimes looking forward helps.

Coaches and players say there are plenty of reasons to be excited about the future when talking about the nearly 20 players that are redshirting this season.

The bye week often offers glimpses of players that have been working with the scout team or rehabbing injuries, and UK seems pleased with potential personnel coming up.

"It's a really good group," Stoops said. "All the o-linemen redshirting, all the d-linemen (redshirting) with the exception of Matt (Elam) have really worked hard and lifted hard and gained some weight and look better. I'm excited about those guys."

Several defensive players have caught Brown's eye on scout team duties this season, including Denzil Ware, who has "what it takes to be an edge rusher in this league, especially in the three-down front stuff that we're doing. I like his demeanor. He's got a good burst."

Brown also mentioned another defensive lineman in Adrian Middleton, and that Jared Tucker always plays the next opponent's best cover corner.

The offensive coordinator and Javess Blue, a senior receiver, both mentioned linebacker Nico Firios as someone who will help UK next season.

"He breaks up a lot of our stuff," Brown said. "I like his demeanor. I like how he attacks every day. He takes advantage. You've got some guys that feel sorry for themselves for being on scout team. Maybe a little bit moody. He gets it, man. He sees the light at the end of the tunnel, and he uses this to get better every day."

On his side of the ball, Brown said he's seeing big things from redshirt linemen like Bunchy Stallings, Nick Richardson, Josh Krok and Jarrett LaRubbio. "I'm excited about that group as a whole," he said.

UK defensive end Alvin "Bud" Dupree mentioned that injured sophomore wide receivers Jeff Badet and Alexander Montgomery have been impressive as has true freshman tight end Darryl Long.

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