Jen Smith on UK Football

Q&A: Stoops on prepping for Mississippi State, Cats QB questions

MARK STOOPS

“It’s good to be back in a game week. It was really good timing for our bye. I felt like we used it wisely to heal up, look at all areas that we needed to improve on and continue to build on the things that we were doing well. So, it really came at a good time. Our players really seemed fresh and recharged and ready to go. Looking forward to getting back on the practice field this afternoon. Ready for another big night. Really looking forward to the challenge of playing Mississippi State and being at home for a night game. Should be a beautiful weekend and really looking forward to this game.”

On what he learned about his team during the bye week: “Again, we went back and looked at all areas, things that we needed to improve on. We had been doing that. As you know, we looked at that throughout the season because of the areas where we were falling short. We had already been dissecting that pretty good. So, we continued to work on the areas of weakness for us, and, again, build on the things that we’re doing well. So, I’m not going to get into exact specifics what we did, but we did a lot of work and we got better. We had some really good, physical practices last week and also had the weekend to freshen up without playing the game. That just helps with the wear and tear on our players’ bodies.”

On any update on Drew Barker: “Yeah, the update is it’s about the same. No big jump one way or the other.”

On if he has any hope of Barker returning this season: “Not going to rule it out yet. So, not ready to make that decision – or the doctors aren’t ready to make that decision.”

On if Barker still is not planning on surgery: “Not at this point. I will let you know, obviously, if that’s the avenue that we move towards. I’ll certainly let you know.”

On if he sees any players stepping up like Derrick Baity and Mike Edwards did around this time last year: “I think we’ve obviously talked about it quite a bit, but defensively certainly a lot of those guys with the inexperience are getting better. And the practice time was really good for us because when you’re game planning so much you feel the pressure of working all these scenarios. Sometimes it’s really good just to go back out with young guys and fundamentally really work ‘em to get them better. The game time, the experience helps just because they’re always seeing new things and the game moves so fast. So, again, it’s a combination of things, of experience and seeing the plays during games but also fundamentally just working hard because that area, it’s hard for us when you’re game planning so much and you’re playing offenses that are so multiple. You have to find that time to continue to develop guys.”

On how happy he is to not see Dak Prescott on Mississippi State film this year: “Well, I caught about 10 minutes of that (Dallas Cowboys) game in Lambeau yesterday, so definitely we talked about it. I just had great respect for him and have such great respect for him. Playing him, I always felt like he was so underrated. I talked a lot about that in this press conference last year. I think I said he should be a Heisman Trophy candidate, and I think most people laughed at me. I just had great respect for him. I knew what he was doing for that team.”

On how different Mississippi State looks without Prescott: “Well, they’re still very hard to defend. They’ve always been multiple. Coach (Dan) Mullen, he’s always been difficult to defend because of the things that we constantly talk about with the quarterback run game, the pressure that they put on you, the stress that it gives defenses with the quarterback running the football and spreading you out and still have playmakers across the board.”

On what he sees from Mississippi State QB Nick Fitzgerald: “Just a guy that’s big and strong and can definitely throw the ball and can run it. So, it’s just reps and getting more and more comfortable.”

On if they rebuilt Stephen Johnson’s confidence in the bye week: “I hope so. We had a good week, and he looked good. He looked sharp. Mentally had a weekend to decompress for a moment and take a step back and recharge a little bit. So, anxious for another good week of practice and see how we move forward.”

On if team is a lot more confident with some success: “I do. I definitely believe our players realize just by taking a step back and watching a Saturday, which we don’t get a chance to do a lot, and just sit back and watch all the football games and the football teams and you realize that a lot of people’s margin for error is very small. On any given Saturday things go different ways, and I think they realize some of the good things that we have done and not just with coaches and with everybody constantly harping on the things that we need to improve on. We do some things well, and we need to continue to build on that. They realize that we have a good opportunity if we continue to progress, if we continue to get better.”

On feeling really good about his team right now: “I feel better. I do. I feel good. We feel like we’re at the break. We had a good bye, and we’re ready for the last half of the season, starting with Mississippi State. I feel like our players and our coaches – we know that everything has to be earned and everything, you have to continue to work at it, but we’re up for that challenge and excited for this week.”

On if being in the thick of the East race right now motivates team: “It won’t be if you don’t take care of this week. You can’t look that far ahead. We’re really focused on this week. I think our players do realize that if we continue to take care of our business, then we’ll have a good opportunity this week. It’s just week to week. That’s where our focus needs to be. To dissect it even more is what are we going to do today? How are we gonna work today to prepare ourselves for this Saturday.”

On if he anticipates De’Niro Laster returning to play this season:Not right now. He’s got an injury that he’ll be out for a couple weeks.”

On if SEC East standings after bye week are validation for young team to worry about itself:I think our kids understand that if we handle our business there’s opportunity for us. Just week to week. It’s so hard to look at that big picture. Six weeks is so far from here in a football world. We’re worried about today, and I know that gets boring sometimes to talk about, but that’s what we’re focused on. I do think there’s some truth to that, that yes, if we handle our business today and the rest of this week – let’s go take care of business this Saturday and then we’ll worry about the next one. Because as you know and as you can see, it’s a real struggle week to week for a lot of people.”

On if Vanderbilt’s win over Georgia validates UK’s win over the Commodores:I mean, it doesn’t surprise me. I know what kind of team it was and I think maybe some other folks that don’t watch the film that we do. But we know. Just because they don’t have a lot of wins – that’s a good football team and we knew that. Again, after that game, why I was positive, because I felt like we really were playing very well and had a couple bad breaks or it could’ve been – we were playing some good football. We had the scoop-score which is very unfortunate. That comes back and puts a lot of pressure on you. To that point we were playing extremely well.”

On if the College Football Playoff model changes how teams are viewed week to week:I think a lot of people – I’m not concerned with the CFP because we have so much work to do here that I really don’t pay any attention to it, but what I do know that a lot of people that are going to vote or take care of that, I think they do look at week to week. That’s the difference now between the polls back in the day. I think they’re looking at who’s playing well right now and all that. But again, that really is not much of a concern of mine. But I am concerned about our team and our attitude as we move forward into this week and the rest of the season. But as I was alluding to a little bit earlier is as you sit back and watch all those teams and you just see that it’s tough and anything can happen any week and there’s not a lot of easy victories in this league.”

On if he watched a lot of football over the weekend:I did. I did. I got back — Coach Gran and myself and (wide receivers coach) Lamar (Thomas) got back from South Florida Saturday morning and had an opportunity to spend it with the family and watching football. So, had a good day Saturday. Enjoyed the day off. I did.”

On if Mississippi State does anything differently on defense this year: ”No, they’re the same. They’re the same. They’re the multiple. They’re the same, which when you go play ’em — they always look good on film but then you go play them and it always jumps out on me that they’re very long and athletic. They always are. They’re multiple. They’re playing quite a few different coverages and doing some different things. They play both fronts. They always have some good looking players and play hard.”

On Vanderbilt confusing Stephen Johnson with different coverages and if Mississippi State does the same:No, I think if you look at Vandy they’re always gonna do some different types of zone pressures and different looks. Maybe a wrinkle here or there but a lot of it’s the same. There’s only so many things you can do coverage wise. But I think you always have to be ready for that, yes, and I think it always simplifies things when you’re able to run the football because there’s only so much you can do in the back end if you’re running the ball. Hopefully we’ll continue to do that and take a little pressure of Stephen. Of course, as we’ve talked about, we want to be able to have balance and throw the ball and a great way to do that is continue to run it, to run the football. That opens up a lot of windows. Stay in front of the chains and take your shots.”

On how they translate Johnson’s sharpness in practice to games:I think a lot of what I was just talking about. Yeah, comfort level is a big part of it. You’re more comfortable when you’re staying in front of the chains and your offense is hitting on all cylinders, when you’re able to run the ball and you’re able to throw our RPOs off the run game. RPOs don’t work if you’re not running the ball. So I think that’s a big part of it, and just having guys step up and having that balance and making plays when we’re available and having the protection when he needs to. All those things. I think there was an effect from the week before when we played Alabama, because you don’t have any time against them if you’ve noticed. And so the next week as you’re coaching it and working on it and protecting the ball, he rushed a couple but that comes from experience and playing. Again, I’ve said this a couple times this year and I’ve talked about the offense, I think some of it’ll be an easy fix, just settling in and having the comfort level and experience and some of it we’ll continue to work on.”

On if it’s a challenge to keep Stephen Johnson even keeled when he’s struggling: “Yeah. Yeah, I think it’s always a challenge to make sure your quarterback keeps at an even keel and plays with good poise and good patience. That’s a big part of our game at any level. You’ve got to have good play there.”

On how comfortable he is in Stephen if he’s the guy to finish the year: “I’m very comfortable with him. He’s gonna get better and better as we go along. Look at the things he’s done to help us win. What, he’s 3-1 as a starter, right? He’s made some very critical plays. Maybe it doesn’t always look pretty as far as throwing the ball sometimes, but he’s doing the things, decision making and doing some things with his legs to help us win football games. That’s what it’s all about.”

On how much of the run game’s success is a result of Stephen being able to run: “I think that’s definitely a piece of it. Definitely. Again, you go back to our last football game, we rushed it for what, 259 or something against Vandy. Not very easy to do.”

On how much the run game helps the defense stay off the field: “Quite a bit. Quite a bit. It’s been a much better team effort. And again, we talked about that. About how, when no excuses for the way the defense was struggling, it certainly doesn’t help throwing them back on the field 30 seconds later. That’s not gonna help anybody. So, I think the balance of our team has played much better. We need to continue to push special teams. We’ve played very well but our last outing wasn’t our best effort. Hopefully we get back and playing at a very high level on special teams as well.”

On if Matt Elam is back on track to play: “He’s back out there this week. He’s supposed to be back out there tomorrow so hopefully he’ll be healthy and ready to go.”

On how the run game helps the toughness and physicality of the team: “Night and day is the difference. Night and day. You have to, to survive in this team you have to have some toughness about you, some physicality or it’s not gonna be pretty. We’re still gonna to continue to push that. Try to have balance within the program, have the skill that you need, be able to throw it like you need to. But you have to be able to run the ball.”

On if there’s been a factor in the improved running game or a combination of things: “A combination of the guys growing up. I think you’ve seen the running backs, with the exception of Benny (Snell), his addition has really helped, a different style. And our other backs have gotten older, more mature. And our O-Line has matured. You heard me talk about, we’ve played with a true freshman at left tackle for most of the season, but he’s surrounded by guys that have experience. And our inside guys have some physicality about them and experience. All the things that go on inside with the caliber of players that we play is not just simply big guys in there going one direction or another. People don’t realize all the different, how quickly things happen to a lineman and how quickly they respond. And you’re starting to see it, you know, for the good majority of our guys, they’ve been around for awhile. They’re playing some football and they’re growing up. They’re learning how to play better at a higher level.”

On more depth on the offensive line: “That helps quite a bit. And the depth that comes in are big, physical guys. It’s nice to be able to bring them along and let them play 20 snaps a game instead of 60 and be the guy. They can come back and kind of look at the film. They’re doing some good things, but again, the game moves very fast in there. It’s nice to get some depth and they’re doing better and better.”

On how Denzil Ware and Josh Allen are dealing with success: “They’ll deal with it very well. They have no choice (laughs). They know they need to continue to play. That’s what we expect. Really, I mean that. That’s how we expect them to play. With that kind of effort. And defensively across the board it was very nice as we watched the film last week of the previous game. They see that. They see the energy that they’re playing with and they see how fast they’re running to the ball and playing. That’s contagious. They need to continue to do that.”

On if Ware and Allen play off each other, heard they’re funny together: “They probably do. They do. They definitely have a little fun but that’s good. Let’s see who can get the first sack. I’m all for it.”

On if Josh got healed up over the bye: “Yeah. Both he and Denzil both needed a little bit of time. And we needed to bring (Kengera) and Jordan Bonner along because our other outside backers that we were playing a lot earlier are both out with Kobie (Walker) and De’Niro (Laster). So we had to bring those other guys along so we could function a little bit. The nice thing about KG and Jordan is that they’re both bigger guys. As we play some physical teams down the stretch we can get, we got all the reps with those guys. Josh and Denzil didn’t have to play every snap of the game and didn’t play every snap of practice. I think that takes it’s toll on those guys. So, they still got a lot of work. They were able to go in practice but they definitely got a little bit of rest and let us bring some other guys along.”

On if this is his toughest team: “Yeah, I mean, I would say so, the way we responded. Let’s put it this way, I don’t know if I want to put that label on it but I’m proud of the way this team has responded. And you know what, they’re a fun group to coach. They really have been. They’ve been fun to coach. There’s been a lot of frustrating pieces that we don’t need to rehash but the way they go about their business, the way they work, the way they care. They want to do well. You heard me say that after some difficult times. That I was confident we’d get if fixed because they’re toughness, because of their attitude. And I felt like we had a lot of good pieces in place and some pieces we need to continue to develop. That’s the way it is. I mean, heck, look at the league. I think every coach would say that. With the exception of one (laughs).”

On Jordan Jones’ play being contagious: “Very contagious. It is. He’s fun. And it’s a big piece of that in practice like you said. Everyday he’s like that. There’s not one thing that’s fake or phony. He loves the game. He plays that way on Saturday and he plays that way on Monday. Love seeing that. We really did dissect — someone was asking me some of the things we did (during off week) — we really looked at a lot of plays, whether they were scheme or what players were in the game, why, and how to get them in better position. He is a guy that’s really grown because he makes an enormous amount of plays as you know. But there were some things that were going on that he needed to fix and not play as loose. He’s tightening up on that and getting a lot better. That comes from experience. He’s a true sophomore, so he’s six games into his sophomore season. He’s going to be a heck of a player.”

On youth on the defense and how much upside that presents: “Yeah. For sure. That’s why it’s so important for us to start playing better in this last stretch we’ve been playing better because you know they’re going to to get better and better with every opportunity. And as we get some depth and some strength, it is important and we’ll continue to get better.”

On any redshirt players who stood out: “Nobody that was redshirting. No. No. I don’t think there was anybody there.”

On timeline on Gunnar Hoak and when you wouldn’t pull the redshirt if needed: “We have his blessing and the blessing of his family. They know very clearly and they’re all for it. His father was a football player and understands it and is all for it. If we feel the need to play him, then he’s going to play. If Stephen goes down, he’s gonna, unless again it’s for one play or something, maybe get back. If it looks like Stephen has a significant injury.”

On if it’s standard to talk to families in those redshirt situations: “I just want to make sure. I like to just be very clear with them. Frank and Holly, they’re fantastic people and they’re football people, so whatever’s best for the team, they’re all for.”

On how Hoak has looked: “He’s looked good. He looks really good. I really do. We’re very impressed. He’s getting better and better with every snap. He’s very poised. But I think it’s fair to say that always at that position you have to get them in a game and see how they function out there. He shows everything that you want in a quarterback.”

On how mobile Hoak is: “He can move a little bit. I don’t think we’ll sit there and run zone read with him all day or anything, but he can move around a bit.”

On Mike Edwards and his import: “Mike, I think you’ve heard me say just about every week how solid and impressed I am with him as well. He’s, again I’ve mentioned it before, he very, very rarely makes the same mistake twice. It’s always fun to be able to communicate with a player like that and some guys they need to be communicated (with) differently. Some guys, I mean that joking, but it’s true. Some guys you’ve really got to lean on and some guys you’ve got to show them on film, you’ve got to show them on the board, you’ve got to show them with a lot of reps. And some guys just like Mike, you show them one time. You see why. You get that fixed very quickly. It’s always fun to coach guys like that.”

On if Drew Barker is helping QB group: “He’s been very supportive and he helps any way he can. I’ve been proud of him that way. He’s worked hard. It’s hard to get in the position he did and it was very quick start, so I don’t know how the ending is going to go and I don’t think he does, but he’s doing whatever he can to help and I appreciate that.”

On if Barker is at practice: “Yeah. Yes, he does part of it where he does some rehab as well. Just standing out there is not going to help him too much. Not good for him and all that. We do as much rehab as we can and then there’s meetings and part of practice.”

On Blake McClain: “Blake I just like the way he’s progressing. I wish I had him another year. I wish we’d redshirted him the first year, but didn’t and couldn’t. But I really think he’s getting better and better. He’s a versatile guy. He’s another guy with experience that he’s getting to that point — he plays the positions both nickel and free (safety) — which take some good amount of reps. And you’re not seeing nearly as many mistakes out of him as we have in the past. That position takes some savvy and some smartness, just be smart and be crafty in the way you pressure and all the different zone drops that you have at nickel and different responsibilities with some tough man coverages sometimes, blitzes. Takes a lot of reps and that’s something that we looked at because we have so many reps invested in him at nickel that in critical situations, I like to put him back in at nickel and put Marcus (McWilson) in at free because of that. Looking at the two-minute drill and the Vandy game and certain scenarios where he’s got a lot of reps invested in at nickel. Again, that takes some time.”

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