Mark Stoops needs to channel his inner Rich Brooks.
After a dispiritingseason that started 4-1 yet ended in Stoops’ second straight 5-7 record, Stoops faces the most consequential offseason since he left Florida State to come to Kentucky before the 2013 season.
Stoops (12-24 as Kentucky coach, 4-20 in SEC games) should look to Brooks for inspiration.
Never a popular hire, Brooks inherited a UK program in 2003 feeling the brunt of Hal Mumme-era NCAA sanctions. Brooks went 4-8, 2-9, 3-8 his first three years, and it seemed no one outside the coach’s immediate family believed he could turn it around. And that was before Brooks started the 2006 season 3-4.
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Yet midway through that fourth season, Brooks’ team found itself and won five of its final six games, including an upset of Clemson in the Music City Bowl.
That launched a string of four straight winning seasons for Brooks, and five straight bowl trips for Kentucky.
In his fourth season, Stoops needs a similar pivot point in 2016.
Here are four steps the Kentucky coach can take to turn things in a positive direction.
1.) Give Drew Barker 85 to 90 percent of the quarterback repetitions in spring practice.
Hal Mumme displayed many flaws during his four-year UK coaching tenure — but he knew how to produce a polished Air Raid quarterback.
Going into his first spring practice in 1997, Mumme fully invested in Tim Couch. “If you split reps, you will not win with our offense,” Mumme said then. “That is a known fact.”
No reasonable person is expecting Drew Barker to be Tim Couch, but with the transfer of Patrick Towles, Kentucky is now basically all-in with Barker. So why not acknowledge that up front and take maximum advantage of the spring to sharpen his game?
The former Conner High School standout has all of two starts in his college career. Enhancing Barker’s familiarity with the offense and having him develop rapport with the Cats receivers figure to be far more beneficial to Kentucky than a QB “competition” with backup Reese Phillips and incoming true freshman Gunnar Hoak.
2.) Hire a special teams coach.
There were 128 college football teams competing in the FBS in 2015. According to footballoutsiders.com, Kentucky’s average starting field position ranked 114th.
A lot of that was because of shaky special teams play.
After having two different special teams coaches his first two seasons, Stoops went through 2015 without anyone officially holding that title.
If Kentucky has staff turnover, Stoops should prioritize hiring a new assistant with special teams expertise. If there is no turnover, UK should designate a current Wildcats aide as specifically in charge of the kicking/return units.
Doing either will provide two benefits to Stoops.
In the short term, it would send a public relations signal to the UK fan base that Stoops is serious about trying to fix an obvious weakness.
Over the long term, who knows, it could actually improve the special teams.
3.) Put more emphasis on managing the games.
Back in the 1990s, a persistent knock on Bill Curry during his ill-fated run as Kentucky head coach was that he did not show enough emotion on the sidelines. With Stoops, the complaint is now the opposite. The perception has become that Stoops is so fiery during games — especially in challenging officials calls — that it might be impacting his ability to manage the action.
Whether that is true or not, UK’s in-game decision-making in 2015 was often questionable. Especially vexing, Kentucky repeatedly put itself in terrible situations just before halftime. In UK’s seven losses, it was outscored in the final 5:10 of first halves by a combined 48-12.
Doing a better job in this area is the biggest individual contribution Stoops could make to a Wildcats turnaround next season.
4.) Spend this entire offseason going to school on Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and Louisville.
During UK’s five-year bowl streak (2006-10), the Cats went a combined 10-5 against Vandy, State and U of L. During what is now a five-year bowl drought, the Wildcats are 1-14 against those schools.
For all the talk about Kentucky’s schedule being more difficult in 2016 — and, overall, that looks to be true — UK will get a Dak Prescott-less Mississippi State and Vanderbilt at home next season (not to mention South Carolina, a team UK has beaten two years in a row).
UK will travel to Louisville, but the Cats have a better record against U of L in The Ville (4-5) than in Lexington (4-9) during the modern Governor’s Cup series.
The reason Stoops has yet to take Kentucky bowling is because he is 0-3 against Louisville, 0-3 against Mississippi State and 1-2 versus Vanderbilt.
Simply put, the outcome against those three teams tends to determine the success or failure of UK football seasons — and, ultimately of UK football coaches.