UK Football

UK football notebook: Cats scrambling to find replacement for UAB

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.

For a couple of weeks, all eyes were on Kentucky's search for a new offensive coordinator.

Now Coach Mark Stoops has turned his attention to another search for a new special teams coordinator and safeties coach.

While all of those searches have been going, a less discussed and dissected hunt has been under way for an opponent to replace Alabama Birmingham for the 2016 home opener.

That university announced plans to eliminate the Blazers football program on Dec. 2, which left Kentucky short an opponent.

It's been a complicated search process for Marc Hill, UK's executive associate athletic director for Internal Operations.

"I thought I was real close ... and then somebody else stepped in and grabbed it," Hill recently told the Herald-Leader about the search.

"We'll get to the point — and I'll use the school I thought I was real close to having a game with, Army — and all the sudden Ohio State stepped in and paid them more. I wasn't going to pay them what Ohio State was paying them, so then you have to say: Who's next?"

It was back to the drawing board for Hill, who uses an ESPN schedule database to look for potential opponents and then begins talks with schools that potentially could meet UK's needs.

Kentucky is hampered by the desire to keep the date where it was originally scheduled on Sept. 3 and not start moving around the Cats' bye week, which Hill said is ideally located in the middle of October.

After seeing how beat up Kentucky got playing eight games in a row this season and the toll it took on the team, the goal is to keep the bye week at a time that it can most help the Cats compete.

"We'd love to keep the bye date where it's at, so I have not yet ventured into that," Hill said of the idea of looking for an opponent for a different date. "I'm still trying to knock it out that first week of September."

There are six to eight teams that UK is talking with, Hill said, declining to name them because those schools also are negotiating with other schools. The administrator's original goal was to get the 2016 schedule fixed and then move onto future schedules before the holiday break.

Now he thinks the first week of February, before National Signing Day, is a more likely timeline to have a new opponent in place.

Scheduling is a complicated dance in general, but it's been made more complicated by the emergence of the Power Five conferences.

"I get to where I think I'm really close and then something will fall apart," he said. "It's unfortunate because the other teams are holding the cards now because they know that we need games. So who knows in the end what it's going to cost us?"

The nullified contract for the UAB game called for Kentucky to pay the Blazers $800,000 for one game.

This past season, UK had to pay its first $1 million contract for a guarantee game to Louisiana Monroe (Oct. 11). For three non-conference home games against Tennessee-Martin, Ohio and Louisiana Monroe, the Cats had to spend more than $2 million.

Don't be surprised to see those numbers continue to rise because the lower-level conferences now "hold all the cards."

"MAC guys, Sun Belt guys and the Conference USA guys know 'They're coming after us. And they've got to have one of us,''' Hill said. "So as a league — I don't know if it's a written rule or an unwritten rule — (they hope) to get as much as they can because it helps everybody in their league.

"I hope it doesn't go crazy," Hill continued, noting that some teams on the West Coast ended up going to nine conference games in part because it saves them money.

The upcoming schedule includes games with Eastern Kentucky ($450,000) and Charlotte ($900,000), according to contracts obtained by the Herald-Leader. UK officials said via email that the contract with Louisiana- Lafayette was not yet available.

UK recruiter in Alabama?

Even in Alabama, former Kentucky offensive coordinator Neal Brown still plans to do his part to recruit for the place where he started his playing career and helped propel him to his first head coaching job.

"Troy and UK aren't going to compete on recruiting fronts," Brown told the Herald-Leader before he was introduced as the new head coach at Troy in December. "Geographically Troy is going to recruit the South. I really believe and will continue to tell the in-state kids that Kentucky is best place for them."

The Boyle County native was one of UK's best weapons recruiting the state and had a hand in every recruit from the state in his two seasons at Kentucky. He had spoken to or texted with most in-state UK targets and urged them to keep the Cats on their lists.

"Big things are going on at Kentucky," Brown said he told them.

In his season wrap-up news conference, Stoops talked about how pivotal it was to have Brown on his staff as the new UK head coach was learning his way around.

"It was good for me coming in here with the Kentucky ties and not knowing a whole heck of a lot about the culture and the people and the history and things like that when I took this job a couple years ago," Stoops said.

"It was really good to have Neal with me. He really has a great feel for the state. He's really recruited the state exceptionally well, and helped me bridge some relationships here throughout the state with coaches and people."

'Great to play for'

New Kentucky offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson is scheduled to arrive in Lexington this week, a team spokesman said, and one former quarterback who played under Dawson said UK's players shouldn't worry about a difficult transition.

Jeremy Moses, a two-time All-American under Dawson at Stephen F. Austin, was a sophomore when Dawson took over the Lumberjacks offense, which he quickly helped turn around.

The new coordinator has a gift for making the offense simple and easy to understand, and he's teaching it to a team that already has spent two full years in an Air Raid style system.

"It was the easiest transition I could go through," Moses told the Herald-Leader. "We hit it off pretty quickly and the three years he was here with me, I don't know if we had too many days where we left the field house pissed off at each other."

The simplicity of the offensive style was one of the things Stoops liked about it and why he implemented it when he got his first head coaching job.

"What I like about this style and some of these guys, is there's some simplicity about it," Stoops said. "It looks very complex at times, but I think simplicity is very important and continuity is very important as you're dealing with college kids and where we're at."

Dawson's relaxed demeanor will help make the transition even less complicated, Moses said.

"He was great to play for," the former quarterback and current SFA running backs coach said. "He's definitely a players' coach, knows how to get the most out of the guys he's coaching."

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