UK Football

Stoops, players assure Kentucky is ready to take next step

Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops will attend SEC Media Days in Atlanta next week with running back Benny Snell, linebacker Josh Allen and tight end C.J. Conrad.
Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops will attend SEC Media Days in Atlanta next week with running back Benny Snell, linebacker Josh Allen and tight end C.J. Conrad. AP

It’s easy to see the changes around Kentucky’s football program.

There’s the 100,000 square feet of a new practice facility tucked in next to the towering, renovated Commonwealth Stadium.

There’s a new logo, some new uniforms.

But in the wins column, there’s the same old Kentucky with a 12-24 record in Mark Stoops’ first three seasons and just four Southeastern Conference wins in that span.

The Cats’ coach didn’t gloss over that during his turn at SEC Media Days on Wednesday, but he did make clear to the hundreds of media that filled the Wynfrey Hotel this week that the changes are more than cosmetic.

We’re tired of being close. Our players are doing what it takes in expanding that capacity, expanding everything we’re doing to give us a larger margin to not have to play a perfect game all of the time.

Mark Stoops

“I’m not going to sit up here and boast a team if we’re not quite ready,” he said Wednesday. “We’ve done the work. We have the pieces in place. We will take the next step.”

Within those new facilities, there’s a rebuilding process, too, Stoops and his players said.

It is nearing completion.

The biggest change I’m excited about is the culture change within our program,” he said. “I think it’s very easy to change a climate within a program and very difficult to change the culture, and I’m very proud of the administration, our coaching staff, our players, to continue to push for that winning culture.”

What does that mean, though? What is a winning culture?

To senior Jojo Kemp, it’s about feeling cramped in UK’s weight room and locker room even though campus was empty this summer.

Players who would have gone home for most of May cut trips short, maybe just a handful of days, before coming back to get extra work in.

“It was like nobody left,” Kemp said. “That facility was crowded. That wouldn’t have happened my first year. My first year, everybody was excited to go back home.”

12 Combined points Kentucky lost by to Florida, Auburn and Vanderbilt last season.

The extra work is motivated by the bitter taste of losing so many close games, each incredibly costly in hindsight as the Cats fell one game short of their first bowl game since 2010 each of the past two seasons.

“We’re tired of being close,” Stoops said. “Our players are doing what it takes in expanding that capacity, expanding everything we’re doing to give us a larger margin to not have to play a perfect game all of the time.”

Those close losses have been on a loop on players’ iPads and in film study, Kemp said.

“Actually going over the game film and seeing the mistakes we made, knowing there are things we need to do to have gotten the victory,” Kemp said. “It was mistakes that was hindering us from winning certain games, coming so close and then not being able to finish.”

A team that maybe lacked the maturity — hurt considerably by attrition-riddled junior and senior classes that were part of the transition to Stoops — has been able to develop an identity, linebacker Courtney Love said.

“We’re going to be tough; we’re going to be consistent; we’re going to be disciplined,” said the junior transfer from Nebraska. “We’re going to be a team that’s going to fight, that’s going to finish. … We want to get to the next level.”

For Love, the biggest change he’s seen is players working to better their football IQs, including getting together to do more drill work, learning how to study film more efficiently and drawing up plays on the board for each other.

“We’re trying to get a lot more fine tuned right now,” senior center Jon Toth said. “Coach Stoops has laid a great foundation ever since he’s been here and we’re looking forward to putting it together.”

Stoops sees more attention to detail in every meeting he attends.

“It certainly goes to the training sessions, being able to lift more, longer,” he said. “To be able to run more, longer. To be able to practice longer with perfect practice.”

So many of the things discussed are signs of a mature football team, something Kentucky hasn’t had since Stoops arrived. The coach said he now sees players with the capacity to get through the difficulties of the offseason.

“To be able to study and have that attention to detail for longer periods of time and carry that to the football field,” Stoops said. “Whether it’s in the classroom, for them to do the right things, to be at tutors on time, be at classes on time, listen to the message and grow up.”

The message was clear Wednesday. Kentucky’s players believe the culture within the buildings has changed as much they have on the outside.

“And that will make all the difference,” Kemp said. “Guys really want to get the job done. Our fans, the culture, the BBN needs it. They need a winning football program. We have everything now. (Winning is) the only thing that’s left on the list to do.”

Jennifer Smith: 859-231-3241, @jenheraldleader

Season opener

Southern Mississippi at Kentucky

When: Sept. 3 at 7:30 p.m.

TV: ESPNU

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