UK Football

UK football notebook: Cats looking for leaders

Kentucky running back Boom Williams (18) eluded Charlotte linebacker Daquan Lucas (24) on his first touchdown run on Nov. 21, 2015.
Kentucky running back Boom Williams (18) eluded Charlotte linebacker Daquan Lucas (24) on his first touchdown run on Nov. 21, 2015.

While so much of the discussion this offseason will be dominated by who is coming and going on the Kentucky coaching carousel, it will be the names that Cats fans already are familiar with that will matter most.

Names such as Boom Williams, Drew Barker, Jon Toth, Jason Hatcher and many more.

At some point, the people wearing the jerseys are going to have to step into leadership roles, both Cats Coach Mark Stoops and UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart said in interviews this month about the issues surrounding Kentucky football.

When UK found its success under former coach Rich Brooks, it was because players took over key leadership roles and willed the team to win, Barnhart argued.

“Players in the locker room were strong and wanted to win,” Barnhart said. “The Jacob Tammes, the Keenan Burtons, the Wesley Woodyards. They controlled that locker room and said they were going to win. They said we believe in what we’re doing. We’re going to fight for our teammates and our coaches and this program. We will win and they did.”

Where does that leadership come from at Kentucky next season with so many leaders departing this season — guys named captains by their coaches, such as Patrick Towles, Josh Forrest, A.J. Stamps, Jordan Swindle and Melvin Lewis, among others?

It’s a lot of pressure to put on a player before the first tackle of spring practice to dub him a team leader. So Stoops was hesitant to name names, but he did say there are more players in the locker room now who aren’t afraid to step into those roles.

The Jacob Tammes, the Keenan Burtons, the Wesley Woodyards. They controlled that locker room and said they were going to win.

Mitch Barnhart, on UK’s success under Rich Brooks

“There’s so many more with the right mentality, that want to do the right things, that want to be leaders, doing the little things,” he said in an interview with the Herald-Leader and The Courier-Journal on Tuesday.

As he was leaving to go on the road recruiting after the Cats’ season-ending loss to Louisville, he saw something that made him feel better about the future at Kentucky.

Stoops said he saw some of the freshmen grab their teammates, saying ‘Let’s watch this film and see what we can do better.’ You’re starting to see more of that.”

The head coach is especially eager to see some leadership come from the 2014 class, the most highly rated recruiting class in the UK history.

Stoops has had individual meetings with many of them about taking on more vocal leadership roles and becoming more consistent playmakers on the field.

“There were certain guys if you ask them individually as we talk to and address it with them, they surely would say they know they could be better and play better,” Stoops said. “There were some guys that were coming in as true sophomores that maybe we expected a little more of and they expected a little more of themselves.

“They’re going to need to play better, and I believe they will. I know they will.”

That’s the only way forward for Kentucky football, Barnhart said: “Have leaders be leaders. Have young people take the next step in their leadership abilities. Grow up, be tougher and more disciplined in all the things that we do. Define what that looks like for them and allow them to lead our program, and I think we get there.”

Getting to know Gran

Before Kentucky formally had confirmed that it had parted ways with offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson and wide receivers coach Tommy Mainord, there already was chatter about who will take over the Cats’ offense.

A handful of published reports all are pointing to Cincinnati offensive coordinator Eddie Gran, a 28-year coaching veteran with Southeastern Conference ties (Auburn, Tennessee), and who previously coached at Florida State with Mark Stoops.

Some things to know about 50-year-old Gran, moving forward:

▪  The Bearcats were the fifth most prolific offense in the country last season, averaging 449.2 yards a game. Their 36.1 points a game was No. 24 nationally. On third downs, Cincinnati is No. 2 in the nation at 51.7 percent. UK completed 37.4 percent of its third-down plays, which was good enough for 81st nationally.

▪  Cincinnati will play in the Hawaii Bowl on Thursday (8 p.m. on ESPN) against former Cats quarterback Maxwell Smith and his San Diego State team. Smith is still hoping to play despite tearing his anterior cruciate ligament late in the season.

▪  Even though he’s a running backs coach as well as offensive coordinator, Gran’s offense ran the ball less than half of the time in the regular season (48 percent). The Bearcats passed for more yards this season (4,477 yards) than UK’s entire offense amassed (4,464).

Kentucky had 32 total touchdowns this season (22 rushing, 10 passing) while Cincinnati managed 53 (29 passing, 24 rushing).

▪  If the hire turns out to be Gran, it will be interesting to see what other staff moves are made since UK is looking for both an offensive coordinator and a wide receivers coach. Gran played wide receiver at Cal Lutheran, but has mostly been a running backs and special teams guru.

▪  Gran’s base salary at Cincinnati was $370,000 last season, 173rd nationally. He would replace Dawson, who made $550,000 last season, which was 59th in the country.

Avoiding familiar slides

If you’re a school recruiting against Kentucky, it’s easy to point to the Cats’ declines in two straight seasons.

In 2014, it was the six straight losses to end the season. And this season, UK won just one of its final seven games, including a second-half collapse against Louisville that cost the Cats a bowl trip. Again.

In an early December interview, Barnhart said he was concerned about that trend as well.

“You’re foolish if you say you’re not concerned,” the UK athletics director told the Herald-Leader. “What is not happening there? Is it because we’re beat up? Could be. Is it because of fatigue? Could be. You hope not.

Fantastic. It’s been fantastic.

Mark Stoops, on recruiting after the loss to Louisville

“Is it because others have adjusted to what we’re doing? All of those things; you have to ask all of those questions. So two years in a row, yeah, you want to make sure there’s not a trend developing. …You’ve got to address that. Those are things our staff has to answer and think their way through that.”

Those late-season slides — whether they’re connected in some way or not — are going to be used against UK in recruiting, Stoops admitted.

“That’s going to be an easy sound bite for everybody to hit me on for the next year, but until we change it that’s what you’re going to hear,” he said.

So what exactly does the Kentucky head coach tell parents and recruits when asked about the season-ending slides?

“That we’re getting stronger mentally and physically to be able to handle that,” Stoops said. “We were closer this year than we were last year.”

Many players think they’re the one that can help Kentucky get over the edge. He believes that’s the case.

“You could say a couple plays either way,” Stoops said. “Now, we didn’t make them — I get it. I’m not making excuses, but I’m just saying you’re a play or two away from winning the Vandy game. Right? We played a poor second half against Louisville. We’re closer. You’ve got to get better and better.”

So far it hasn’t been something that has hurt UK’s recruiting for 2016, the coach said. As of Sunday, the Cats still have the nation’s No. 21 recruiting class according to Rivals. If that’s where the ranking stands, it would be the second-best class ever for Stoops.

Of course, there are still seven SEC schools ahead of UK in the national rankings, though, in No. 1 Mississippi, No. 5 Florida, No. 6 Auburn, No. 8 Alabama, No. 9 LSU, No. 17 Texas A&M and No. 19 Georgia.

When asked how reception had been for UK during its whirlwind recruiting efforts after the Louisville loss, Stoops said: “Fantastic. It’s been fantastic.”

Jennifer Smith: 859-231-3241, @jenheraldleader