Jen Smith on UK Football

Q&A: Mark Stoops discusses team developing a winning mentality

MARK STOOPS

“Dramatic, exciting win for us this past week. I was proud of our players, proud of our coaches. I thought we had great preparation. Again, it wasn’t always perfect. It wasn’t always as clean as we wanted it to be. But we’re certainly getting better in a lot of areas. Most importantly, we’re getting better in toughness and grit and finding ways to win. I’m pleased with the outcome. The trick now is to get right back to work today. Obviously coaches were back in preparation yesterday. Our players gotta come in and compete and practice with the same mindset. We talk about it all the time. It’s extremely important to win on Saturdays. What are we going to do throughout the week to prepare ourselves to put us in position to win this game? So looking forward to challenging the players and getting back to work today.”

On confidence of team in close games: “Yeah, I think it verifies a lot of things we talk about and the belief system and staying the course and never knowing when your number’s going to be called. There’s so many guys that you could use as an example, but Jeff Badet is certainly one that comes to mind. Again, we touched on it briefly -- I don’t want to get into all the details -- but Jeff and I had a good heart to heart on Friday and he comes out and plays one of his best games and it was really good to see.”

On why he opted to have heart to heart on Friday: “I’ll keep that between us. Come on, Alan. Nothing major. Just to build on the things we talk about. We have a lot of players you have to be very selfless and we have a lot of guys who are doing that. Look at our running back situation. Look at the o-line rotations. Look at the depth at receiver and the rotation there. And things, finding a way to win. We were talking prior to that, there wasn’t a lot of footballs down the field and they had to block and do other things. It’s just staying the course and having that preparation and mindset and energy and focus to when your number is called, you’re going to deliver.”

On Badet’s progression: “He’s been steady. He’s been making progress. And we need him to, and that was part of the message Friday. We need him to have a strong mindset, to be a leader, to make plays when his number’s called, whenever that may be. He certainly came up big Saturday.”

On getting rid of losing mentality and how win Saturday helped with that: “Again, it’s big. It helps. Players need to see some fruit from all the labor they put in to get the payoff. That’s always the challenge as a coach, and you’ve heard me talk about it and you always see. You know you’re making progress. But the players need, and the fans, everybody needs to see payoff. I talked about it after the game and I meant it: That I was proud, whether that field goal went in or not, I was really proud of the team. Again, there’s mistakes that we can’t make. In particular, a late fumble when you’re icing the game that cannot happen. That we have to get fixed. You take that out of it and even with the ups and downs, our team really is playing some pretty good football.”

On what it says about Stephen Johnson on last drive bouncing back from the big mistake: “It say a lot because when he came off the field, obviously, he had a bunch of people in his ear starting with me. And that’s just it, too, that we never stop coaching. It’s just always gotta coach and get in their ear and understand those situations because they’re always different. There are times on the goal line when we have the option to pull the ball and run it in and there are times when there’s not. And even if he pulls it, there’s times when that extra yard is meaningless. Another 40 seconds and going to third down and at worst going up 13 is really all he needs to be thinking about.”

On coaches like Vince Marrow encouraging Johnson even after mistake: “All of us, and it was even with Jeff in Friday’s conversation, and Stephen in the moment right there. And our team. I constantly remind them and tell them that we’re not fragile. You’re not fragile. You’re not a fragile group. You’re going to get coached hard. You’re going to do some good things; you’re going to do some bad things. And you’re going to respond. That was part of it with Jeff. That was part of it with Stephen. And he can take criticism -- understand because you have to teach and put it in his ear and you have to go now -- that we all said, ‘No, let’s go. We’ll go right back to work.’ That was a great example of the preparation. We do that drill all the time. A lot of those scenarios. We do the two-minute drill, we’ve been doing it quite a bit. We’ve been doing the field goal and we’ve been doing the second to the last play. We do that every week as well and it was nice to see the execution of that with the time management at the end of the game.”

On if he tells recruits he’s going to coach them hard: “Oh yeah. They know. They can watch a game and see that probably. They understand that. That’s never an issue with my players. They know how I feel about them. That’s never going to be in doubt.”

On if guys have answered the team being fragile issue: “Absolutely. I feel like that we’re over the hump there. That’s for sure. And that takes a long time because when you don’t have the success, and they constantly hear that and hear that and hear that, the minute you hit adversity, the minute you hear coaches riding and pushing them to the brink, if they don’t respond the right way then it’s not gonna work. It’s never gonna work until they respond the right way.”

On how players will handle their recent success: “That will be a challenge right now. Kind of what I said in the opening statement. That’ll be the challenge, getting back to work, and what’re we going to do on Saturday to prepare ourselves starting today? And that’s a big part of it. You know, we play an 11 a.m. game. What are our players going to do? They have to play selfless again all week. They have to prepare, they have to watch film, they have to practice hard and they also have to get some sleep. We have to wake up and play at 11 o’clock their time. You know, most of our guys are still in bed. I shouldn’t say that (laughs). They, you know, we have to wake up ready to go.”

On if that was one of Marcus McWilson’s better games: “I think it was. I think starting early with the third down when he made a great tackle in the open field, man-to-man in some space. That was a big third-down stop. And he needed to make that and he went and made it for a one-yard loss. He had been really practicing and playing well. You know, I’m really encouraged by that. I thought he would play good down the stretch. I thought he’s really been playing well.”

On any injury updates: “I think we’re in pretty good shape honestly. We are, we’re banged up but you know that’s going to be the message to the team, too: ‘Tell me who’s not.’ You know, everybody is. Again, we appreciate them. Our team has been that way. Kids are playing banged up, bruised and fighting through it, but we have to. It’s definitely getting a concern, even with the backers we were talking about last week, the guys that were out for the season. It starts hurting you on your special teams. It does get to be an issue and we have to have other guys step up. We fell a little short there again Saturday. We have to have some guys make plays that don’t normally get those opportunities. We just, we’re going to have a lot of plays, this team. Looking forward to Missouri, and the challenge there is that they play absolutely extremely fast. So, they played 112 offensive snaps last week. Yeah. 112. That’s two games. So, we need to, depth is an issue. We can’t let them have 112 plays. But depth is an issue and we have to have more guys step up and be ready to play.”

On if they can take advantage of any fatigue given Missouri played 112 snaps last week: “Well, I think that they would look at is as defensive fatigue. You know, so that’s what would make any team that likes to play with that many plays, they want to play, yeah, fatigue for us. Certainly. Fatigue for us. Not so much for them. They rotate in guys and they have different ways to stress you. Put in other receivers. And when it’s not going to well, still running the ball. Still running a lot of plays. Because on defense, we talked about it. We’ve got to continue to build on what we’re doing. But you’ve got to play with an edge about you. With an attitude about you. And you have to strain on 112 plays. You play 112, and you’re going to strain and you’re going to play hard on 112.”

On the team maturing and if it’s encouraging that so many of them are still sophomores and juniors: “Well, I think it’s nice to see it kick in. I think that’s why we’ve had more success. Experience does matter. Talent matters. And experience matters. And so, we’re growing up. I thought we had some really good plays, and the nice thing is, defensively there’s still a lot to build on. We made some plays Saturday, and give them credit, they’re tough to defend. I said it all week and they are. The quarterback run game and his ability to throw. We managed the shots well. We played exceptional pass defense with the exception of the pass interference call. That could’ve been obviously a difference maker. We had them in third and long. But outside of that we played really good pass defense. But there were some things we could’ve and will play better in the run game.”

On being in second place in the SEC East after all they’ve been through: “I won’t talk about that much, because I’m really concerned about this game. But I think our players know that, they see that, they realize where we’re at. And they also realize how tough these games are. They watch everybody play everybody. You know, we watch so much film, we’re seeing a lot of the league, and we see the battles that everybody has and the stress that everybody has. So they know we have an opportunity, but it’s all about this week. It really is. It’s about our preparation and our focus on this game.”

On the only loss in this five-game stretch being Alabama and if they actually took something from how well (relative to the rest of the Tide’s opponents) they played in defeat: “I certainly think you always have to look at small victories, and you have to look at what you’re doing, and a lot of times you have to live with the results if your preparation and your assignments are right. If you feel like you had the right game plan, if you had the right situation, if your guys competed, did the very best they could, then as a coach you’ve gotta live with the results. Because you’ve gotta move on. But you always analyze yourself, see what you did good, what you did bad, what you would do over. So you always gotta take small victories, in your preparation and in your play. Doesn’t mean you’re content with it. You’re never going to accept losing – that’s never the case – but it’s about everything you can do to win, and put yourself in a situation. And everything you can do in your prep and in your effort.”

On if he says anything to Dorian Baker after that big drop against MSU as he was trying to make his first real impact of the season after injury issues: “Yeah, we’ll talk to him about – if there’s one thing he does, he presses because he wants to make big plays, and he’s capable of making big plays. And I do think he really wants to deliver for his team and play and he wants to break out. And that may be part of it. It was a tough catch, but certainly one that he can make.”

On Gran saying he could see Stephen Johnson grow in the third quarter and if he sees that: “I do. I felt like we threw the ball better. We had some drops in there early (or) we could’ve move the ball better early. The strip, the early fumble, you want him comfortable – we talked about that after the Vandy game about carrying that from the Bama game, getting too antsy; he was trying to protect the ball too much, so he was all antsy in the pocket and he didn’t throw the ball very good against Vandy. So then we talked about having poise, stepping up in the pocket. Well, then an O-lineman gets beat and he gets stripped. You know, you can’t overcoach that one. The late fumble is inexcusable, but that one you want him to trust his O-lineman, because later he did sit in the pocket and he did deliver the ball to open receivers, and that you have to build on.”

On Benny Snell’s progression: “Yeah, it’s been remarkable, really, how steady he’s been. And we’ve touched on that. He’s just been so steady for a freshman. He shows great maturity and he’s handled every situation very well. Any mistakes he’s made, he builds on and he gets better. He has a large capacity for a freshman.”

On how much he knows Mizzou coordinator (and former Oklahoma QB and assistant under Stoops’ brother) Josh Heupel: “Oh yeah, I know Josh. Josh and I go way back. We spent time. Where were we at together? We coached together at Arizona. But yeah, I love Josh. Josh is a good friend.”

On the characteristics of that offense: “Well, you’re seeing a lot of characteristics of a Big 12 offense: extremely fast (tempo), extremely wide splits at times – they’re spread all over the field – and balance. They can run the ball and throw it. I think their quarterback is coming along exceptionally well. He’s got an extremely big arm and he’s getting more comfortable every down, every game, and he can throw the heck out of the ball. They put great stress on you with their RPOs with their splits, with their run-pass options. That’s a big trait of Big 12 football. So you’re seeing that. It puts a lot of stress on a defense, and they have several guys that can run extremely fast. They have a freshman back that’s emerging that’s 220 pounds but he’s got speed like Boom. So they put some stress on you, for sure.”

On somehow winning despite losing the turnover battle, which is rare: “Yeah, especially with our margin for error. It’s been tough. I think a big piece of that – we’d like to stop turning the ball over, obviously, you’d like to see us win the turnover margin, that’s for sure – it is unheard of, but we like to put a little drama in it, as I said Saturday after the game. Trying to make sure you guys get your work. It can’t happen. We make light of it, but our players know. We’ve harped on it. We’re going to continue to harp on it. We didn’t have any fumbles or put the ball on the ground from a wide receiver or a back Saturday. The one with Stephen, like I said, you can almost live with. The one at the end is inexcusable, so that we have to get straightened out.

“And Stephen, what we have to be smart about with Stephen is physically he still has some work to do in the offseason with getting stronger and things like that too. So with him having the balls in his hands down in those situations we’ve got to be smart about that.”

On if adding an “or” between Kyle Meadows and George Asafo-Adjei on the depth chart was about Asafo-Adjei getting better or Meadows needing to improve: “Both. Both. Kyle has been very good and is doing some really good things, but he can play better. And George is doing a lot better things. So, you have to always give your kids an opportunity and George is playing faster, playing better at tackle where he’s starting to pick it up out there. Kyle needs to continue to progress. I love Kyle because I think he’s grown. He’s one of those guys we talk about that’s grown a lot and I appreciate him that way but can’t be content with it either because there’s things he could have done better Saturday.”

On if there’s any update on Drew Barker: “No. No update.”

On any unique ways he can coach Marcus McWilson because of their relationship: “I think – he and I still have a very close relationship, and most players I coach like I coach him probably wouldn’t have a personal relationship because I’m very hard on him because I know he can take it and I know he needs it.”

On if something about Stephen Johnson’s personality lends itself to coming through in the clutch: “I think it’s certainly a great quality for a quarterback to have. He really does have good poise and resiliency. You have to at that position. You hear us talking about it at all positions, but certainly at quarterback you have to put it behind you and move on to the next play. And we’ve seen that throughout games, throughout between series and plays. I like the way he is doing things. I said leading into the game that I had confidence that he would play better, throw the ball better, make better decisions because he has throughout the year, and he did that Saturday and he’ll continue to do that. I mean, he had a bad – like all players, it’s not all perfect. Not only that fumble, but there were other things he did very well and things he can improve on.”

On if he thinks they have underachieved, overachieved or met expectations: “No, I can’t answer that. That opens too much. Too much discussion there. I’ve said it over and over that I was not pleased with the start. I don’t want to go back there, we don’t need to write about all that, but some of that was not acceptable, wasn’t good enough and we were going to build on it. But, we were going to go back to work and get some things fixed. That’s what I like about where we’re at now: Because we’re able to build right now. All the weaknesses or areas where we did not play well we can work on, get corrected and the guys will have a focus about them and an understanding about them that we can get these things fixed. ‘Here, look at it and here’s how we can get better.’ There’s always going to be one-on-one situations in games. Those always can go either way. You’re going to compete for them, but the structure of things our players can see in our building of things.”

On if they could have had this success without establishing a run game: “No. (Shaking head). No. No. No, no, no. No. No. We would not have had the success. We would not have gotten better defensively. We would not have been able to win those games if we were not physical enough to run the ball.”

On if part of the reason he hired Eddie Gran was to establish that run game when he hired him: “It was, because what you see with Eddie right now is you see the talent that he has and the experience that he has. Because when I hired him from Cincinnati – him and Coach Hinshaw – they were super-fast and they were throwing the heck out of the football. But I know Eddie’s roots. I know who he is, and I talk about that at length. And he’s an experience coach. We want to play with balance. If we can play fast, we’ll play fast. If we need to spread people out, we will. At Cincinnati they had five talented wide receivers and experienced quarterbacks. They threw the heck out of the ball. But he knows how to run the ball, he knows how to put stress on a defense. We set things up well and we've morphed into a team that has found a way to win games, however that may be. I think early in the game Saturday, it goes unnoticed, but when you start the game with four straight three-and-outs and you have a 15-play drive – even though you'd love to see it even with three, we can't have that missed field goal, because you start with three-and-outs and you're getting a 15-play drive. The three would've been big there because you're controlling things, you're setting things up for later in the game. So I think that helped even though it was 0-0, we ended up going down at half. We were still in good control with still some turnovers and the kickoff return in the second quarter.”

On if Gran's experience has helped Kentucky change its identity since early in the season:Well, we have in certain ways. And again, that's a sign of any good coach. You have to find the ways, and he understands and I talked about that early. He gets it. He looks at it, and as I said, even when we were not playing great defense, but you can't score on two plays or turn it over on two plays. You have no chance, you have zero chance to play defense then. He gets all that. I'm never gonna complain, and we just talked about that again this morning. Big plays, shots, we could score, do it. But we understand also with a team that plays that fast and that many plays, that you have to control it some too, like we've been doing.”

On if their offensive identity changes the pitch in recruiting:No, no. Heck, we're playing with a backup quarterback. We threw it for, what, darn near 300 Saturday against a good team. So we throw it, we spread it around and we run it. You look at most good teams and that's what they do.”

On what close wins do to him emotionally:Well, you know, there's no denying it. Not many people really care what you're doing. It's about the bottom line. It's about wins and losses, but if you're in this business you understand that. It's quite a bit different with a W or an L. Yeah, it is. It just is. But it's most important and very gratifying when you see the players buying in and seeing it and understanding it and getting it. That's what you coach for, to see their smiles and their growth and the way they're changing.”

On if there is one guy he has seen the light bulb come on for the most:I think there's a lot. I think there's a lot. But again, I think you have to credit – there's a lot of 'em. The running back room has changed and I think, again, you have a really seasoned, veteran coach in there with that group. I think that group has really come along, because it can be difficult to manage. There's a lot of competitive guys in there and some talented guys. Receivers, the O-Line has been very selfless. There's quite a few guys. You look at Marcus McWilson. He's been a starter here, played a lot of football, been beat out. I've already talked about the way I'm hard on coaching, put him on the bench, comes back, gets his opportunity to do it, because that's how he can play. What he did Saturday, that's how he can play.”

On past struggles in second half of season and if getting first win after bye week helps:It's always one week at a time. I said last week that we were refreshed, we were focused and we were prepared for that game. We're one week removed, even though it was a physical game, everybody is in that situation. Everybody in college football is in that situation right now where you're banged up and you're bruised and you're tired. But yeah, it does. It helps to win and give them that motivation. We know this game will not be easy. Missouri's a lot better team than their record indicates, and they're gonna be extremely passionate and hungry to get a victory. We know this will be a real challenge and we have to go on the road and we have to wake up and play an 11 o'clock game, so we better be getting it first thing in the morning.”

On Missouri's Big 12 style offense and if he's calling his brothers for help:Some. Some. Obviously Oklahoma's had their struggles this year defensively, for sure, but that's the way it goes in their league. Last year they were No. 1 in the Big 12, this year they're probably last, but that league is just ridiculous. Offensively, it's ridiculous.”

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