Jen Smith on UK Football

Q&A: Kentucky’s Mark Stoops previews Southern Miss

Does Kentucky-Southern Miss 2016 have any bearing on 2017?

Kentucky football opened its 2016 season with a 44-35 home loss to Southern Miss. Saturday, the two teams open the 2017 season in Hattiesburg. Kentucky coach Mark Stoops was asked Monday about the matchup.
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Kentucky football opened its 2016 season with a 44-35 home loss to Southern Miss. Saturday, the two teams open the 2017 season in Hattiesburg. Kentucky coach Mark Stoops was asked Monday about the matchup.

MARK STOOPS

“I can’t help but having mixed emotions today. So excited about the opening week, but I also wanted to acknowledge the loss of a great Wildcat last night in Talbott Todd. We’re thinking about him, and praying for Marilyn and the family. Excited about this week. We’ve got real challenge ahead of us, but we’re excited to get going.”

On how he would summarize camp and where the team is at: “I think we got a lot better. We had a physical camp, we feel liked we developed some depth and I like where we’re at, I really do. I feel like we’re an improved football team.”

On how Southern Miss is different this year than last: “I think the big thing is their quarterback. With losing a great player in (Nick) Mullens like they did, I’m sure they have very capable guys that they’re plugging in and very high on right now. I think that would be a major difference. But again, a very good football team, a team that beat us a year ago in our home stadium. We know it’s gonna be a real challenge going on the road playing them, a team that won a bowl game a year ago, won seven games. We’ll have our hands full. We have great respect for Southern Miss. It’s really about us. It’s about our football team and our preparations and how we play. That’s the concentration, that’s the focus this week. Anytime you head into Week 1, there’s a lot of unknowns. You feel good about your team, you feel like you know you put in a lot of work, but the first game is your first game. The fact that we’re going on the road, we always have a plan, but things change very quickly. We’re gonna have to make sure we adapt much better than we did a year ago in the opener and play a more sound football game. I think we’re a much different team than we were Week 1 last year. But, again, it’s Week 1. There are a lot of unknowns. There are players that are gonna be playing that really have not played a significant role. We feel like we do have some experience. So, we’ve got to really emphasize this week about the big thing is doing our jobs and doing their jobs. I think last year you look at the film and one bad thing led to another — guys trying to do too much. We have a lot to learn from, but we learned last year from the loss and we have to do our best as a coaching staff to offset that before it happens this year.”

On what he’d consider the team’s greatest unknown: “Well, I don’t know about any specific position. I just think as a football team, when you go into the first game, it’s definitely a little different. You feel the confidence, the preparation and the work that’s gone into it for an entire year, but it’s just different in Game 1. Like I said, we always have a game plan. As we all know, those game plans change very quickly at times. We have to make sure we rely on the responsibilities, the keys and the system that we have on offense and defense and make sure we do that. Again, big point of emphasis that we’ll be drilling into our players this year is doing their job. You have to have a trust. You have to have a great amount of trust in the system, and you have to have trust in the guy next to you.”

On if the way scheduling works will lead more Power 5 programs to travel to smaller schools to get games: “When we lost UAB through a wrinkle in our schedule obviously. I couldn’t even tell you what we have next year to be honest with you. Mark Hill is back there. You can ask him. I’m going to play the schedule that’s in front of me.”

On how he would describe the chemistry on his coaching staff: “Very, very good. I feel comfortable with this staff. I really like the guys we have in place. I feel like there’s a great camaraderie within our staff. It’s been a lot of fun. Like I mentioned it the other day, with camp, camp’s long. We were just in there four weeks beating heads against each other for four weeks. That gets old. It’s nice to get into game week finally and prepare for somebody different. But sometimes that can be very challenging and very competitive for four weeks. We’ve had very few problems, very little drama within the team and we hope to keep it that way. I think the guys are really focused and working hard — the same with the staff. I think there’s a great chemistry there, there’s a great camaraderie. I have high trust in all these guys and we’re looking forward to it. I think the new guys have been really good additions as well.”

On if he brings up last year’s loss to Southern Miss with the team: “I think if you’ve heard me talk over the years, I look back very little. But you have to learn in every opportunity. You’ve heard me say that a bunch too. We’re in a learning environment and we have to learn from the first-game mistakes a year ago, in every week and every day. We learn from the mistakes. There will be some of that. Not so much as motivation but just to try and offset some issues that pop up early in the season.”

On preparing for multiple quarterbacks:“We’re prepared for whatever they decide to do. We’ve worked very hard this camp at many different styles of offense and all the quarterback runs that could go with it, the designed quarterback runs. Of course the offense that you know is going to be in place, the plays that you expect to see year in and year out. The nice thing is our offense is extremely versatile and they give us quite a bit. We get a lot of different looks from them as well.”

On if he anticipates to play Drew Barker this game: “Yes. I would love to get Drew in the game. I think he deserves an opportunity and we’ll see where it goes. That’s very difficult at that position but we have a lot of trust in Drew. We absolutely would love to get him in this game.”

On if Southern Miss will see some things they didn’t expect to see? “There’s always wrinkles in game plans. There’s always wrinkles in your system from year to year. You look at things that you didn’t do well, the things you did well and how you build off it and build your system. There’s always a few new wrinkles. (Southern Miss) will have some and we’ll have some.

On how many freshmen he plans to play:“I would say possibly up to eight. True freshmen. (Josh) Paschal, (Quinton) Bohanna, (Cedrick) Dort, (Isaiah) Epps, (Lynn) Bowden, (Josh) Ali, possibly (Bryant) Koback and (Naasir) Watkins.”

On how comfortable he is at punt and kick return: “I’m comfortable. He’s very talented. He looks very at ease catching them back there in practice, but as we all know practice is different. We anticipate trying to get him some catches.”

On the “ors” on the depth chart at offensive line and how much of it is ripple effect of losing Cole Mosier:“We put it that way because that’s how it is today. That’s truly how it is. So we’ll see. We are evaluating that situation. We know we can start Landon at left tackle and Kyle has been comfortable at right but he can play left. The reason being is because George (Asafo-Adjei) has been so good. George has played extremely good football for us. He’s been the most consistent he’s been. You feel like you have three starters there with George, Kyle and Landon. I have confidence in all three of those. Whichever way we decide to go, that’s the way we go. There’ll be a rotation, they’ll play at some point. Kyle will definitely play left tackle at some point in that game.”

On center and guard: “They’re always interchangeable there. We feel very fluid at that situation.”

On if that’s a sign of how athletic and versatile the group is: “It is. I think Nick (Haynes) is very versatile and Bunchy (Stallings) is as well. You definitely feel like Nick can certainly have the benefit of playing center but he’s also very athletic at guard. They’re interchangeable and that’s a nice thing.”

On if punt return is a fluid situation:“We’ll see. Ball security is key. That’s the number one objective, to get the ball back. Charles (Walker) has been very reliable in that area. We’ll see how that goes.”

On the camp Jordan Jones had: “I think he’s been more disciplined. Played more disciplined football. He’s always got that ‘wow’ factor. He has great passion, energy and explosiveness. He has the ability to get to the football, but I think he’s understanding concepts much better than he ever has.”

On punting: “We’re working on it. We’re working through it. I’m interested to see how Matt (Panton) does in the game. I’m not sure how it’ll go. Whether both punters get an opportunity, we’ll see how it goes. I think it’s been close. They’ve both had some days. But I’m excited to see what Matt can do with the ball. I think the same thing with Grant. I think he’s been more consistent than he’s been and he’s had some better days. He’s improved. But there’s still some inconsistencies there.”

On balancing motivating the team through his passion vs. getting caught up in his emotions on the field:“It’s an emotional game. That’s for sure. But there’s also a lot of poise that it takes to execute in this game. Our players are the same way. I want them to have great emotion, but they have to play with discipline. As a coach there’s always that fine line that you have to go with your gut instincts on what those players need at that moment. That’s the way I’ve always been and probably how I’ll always be. But, certainly, you have to have the poise and the execution. That’s what’s most important.”

On if he feels even more comfortable and stable now in year five: “Definitely. I felt it today for the first time because – the things that are necessary, that you know, all the things you have to do as a head coach and the fundraising and the recruiting, just everything, you’re getting pulled in a lot of different directions. But then you get into training camp and it’s a lot of fun because you get to just hone in and coach ball for the most part. When Tony (Neely) doesn’t come in and bug me all the time, I do get to go to work enjoy the film (laughter). Then game week comes around and all the duties start popping up again. I love that (smiles).

“It is better. It is. It’s better, and I’m not complaining. I want to stay as a head coach, so I’m not complaining the duties that it takes. Yes, I think I’m more comfortable. I felt like this year it was a benefit in a way because of the coaching change on defense with starting over. Even though the guys were in place and Matt was an in-house promotion, it was nice to kind of strip it all down and start over again. To nobody’s fault, going back through the many years when we started here, of all the different things we’ve put in and I’ve talked about many times, trying to patch things and do things, it was nice going into year five, stripping it down, seeing what we do well, what we can do, and kind of building it again from the ground up. It just kind of gave us an opportunity to do that. So, spending a lot of time in the offseason, kind of building it to where I’m much more comfortable and much more knowledgeable the way it was built from the ground up. I think that has been helpful.

“It’s been a joy to work with Matt and the entire defensive staff. So, hopefully we’ll play a lot better and a lot cleaner early than we did a year ago. Again, I don’t want to go back, but to nobody’s fault the inexperience on defense is hard to replace. Early in a season, it’s rough, and we definitely have some guys that have some more experience and hopefully that helps us.”

On health outside of Dorian Baker, Cole Mosier injuries: “There’s nothing significant besides the two season-ending injuries. Those were significant enough for us to last awhile, hopefully.”

On if it’s weird being the only Stoops with a head coaching job entering the season: “Yeah, it is a little bit strange. Certainly if I see a clip once in awhile promoting college football or something and I see the Sooners on there, it definitely is a little different for me, that’s for sure. Still got one brother there, so I’ll always be rooting for them. But yeah, it’s definitely a little bit strange and different. It’s been, what, 18 years or 19 years? So, certainly. It’s part of our life.”

On if Bob Stoops will be at any UK games: “I hope so. We’ll see. He’s a tough guy to track down right now. He’s enjoying himself. But yeah, I’m sure he’ll plan on getting here.”

On what Cedrick Dort did to get in mix to play: “He was here in the spring and he’s gotten better. He’s one of those guys that he is consistent. He’s just out there, kind of quietly going about his business every day, but he’s taking the medicine, as I like to say. He’s taking the coaching, he’s getting better every day, and he kind of quietly going about his business. He’s been consistent. He’s earning the trust of us. With that, it gives us the ability to move Jordan (Griffin) around a little bit and play him possibly some inside (in the secondary) as well.”

On Dean Hood: “Dean is a great addition. Again, a seasoned veteran, a guy that’s been around. He’s got a good demeanor about him. He’s a fun guy to work with, and he’s helping in a lot of ways I think with the input on defense and also with special teams and his ideas on special teams. And as well with just program building, because he’s a guy that I have a lot of confidence in and a lot of trust in. He’s been wonderful to work with.”

On his relationship with Matt House: “I have a lot of confidence in Matt. It’s been a lot of fun to work with him, but he’s a guy that has good experience. He’s been around here for a year, had the opportunity to sit back and see what we did a year ago, what went well and what we didn’t do so well. Having an opportunity to kind of start fresh in that way, so I look forward to it.”

On if he’s surprised no one has mentioned Shannon Dawson yet: “Yeah, I am kind of surprised, but that’s an easy one. That’s not a difficult question for me. Again, I said it a year ago. We’re passed that. Shannon is a good football coach or I wouldn’t have hired him, you know what I mean? He’s a very good coach, and he’s done well. Certainly he proved that a year ago right here in this stadium. So, I’ll leave that in last year, but he and I have no issues and I wish him nothing but the best – and his family.”

On if Clevan Thomas will play too: “He will. Did I not mention Clevan? Yeah, he will definitely play. Might be the first one in.”

On Dort: “Like I just said, I think he’s just been steady. he’s gotten better, every day, just goes about his business. He’s a guy that we need to continue to develop and get stronger and get bigger, but he’ll do that. He just, he’s steady. He has good instincts. He comes from a great program. Dwyer high school, good friend of mine with a beautiful name, Jack Daniels. Jack and I got back many, many years, both fugitively and literally. Jack’s a good man. So is the bottle. I can’t say that in Kentucky. That was back when I was in college.”

Extra motivation:Well, I mean, again, you have to learn from every situation. There are things most definitely that we’ve taken from that, that have changed us, the whole program. You know, there was issues last year, there were things that I was not real happy with, obviously, It goes back to day one, and you heard me talk about this, it’s a fundamental game. Football is about fundamentally playing the game. We didn’t fundamentally play the game very well last year at times. Scheme is scheme, fundamentals is fundamentals. It’s a big piece of it and we grew from that point on last year, the inexperience and all those things pop up. When you fundamental can do things, again, if you’re position and you just play with fundamentals and you don’t do those things, then you have a real problem. We grew from that and I think that’s part of everything we do in the offseason now, is not letting those things happen and beating a dead horse and beating guys over the head to the point where they will not make the same mistakes again. We know nobody is perfect, there’s going to be mistakes but you have to be able to overcome them. There’s many things we we’ll take from that. As I prepped for my team meeting today, there’s a lot of points from that and a lot of points of emphasis that we had to learn from a year ago.”

Advantages to starting on the road: “That’s part of it. I think so, because I know, again, without getting too in depth and certainly without making an excuse, there are things that we have to learn from going into game one because these players work an awful lot all year long and they get so emotional, so jacked up to play a game. The emotion is only going to take you so far. You have to be able to execute and play with poise and that is part of it. And that’s part of my talk, yes, that there are some benefits from playing on the road. I know we’re going to be fired up and excited for the opener. How can you not be? But it’s about containing those emotions and playing with some poise and the heat and the first game of the year I think we left a lot in the locker room. I talk about it a year ago, we went in there at halftime and there was not a lot of energy left. We have to learn from that. We have to be able to make sure we have more depth, we have to play a lot of guys early in this game and rotate some guys in to have some in our tank to play in the second half. But I think emotionally players have to learn how to deal with that. That’s where playing on the road hopefully will help you.”

Defensive line: “I think the first thing is they’re taking more pride in their work and the way they’re going about their business. I think it starts there, and I think their work ethic has improved. Fundamentally we’re improving. We’re gaining more depth. So there’s a lot of things we’re doing better.”

on Luke Fortner: “He was sick for a while, so he’s back. He’s back practicing and he’ll work his way into the rotation.”

How is Stephen Johnson better:I think the number one issue is ball security, and I think he’s worked really hard with that. I think he’s, as you know, a very conscientious young man and that’s very important to him. I think that’s the biggest area. I think he’s worked hard at accuracy and the defenses and the offense and where to go with the football and a lot of areas, but the number one issue would be protecting the football.”

How is Drew Barker better: “I think experience. I think he definitely has some more experience, and he had the opportunity to go in and get his feet wet a year ago and play in the opener and played very well here last year, in particular the first half, and did some very good things and now to come back and just be a year older. Obviously he missed that time, which doesn’t help any player to have to sit out, but he’s come back strong. He looks very healthy and looks stronger and mentally he’s more prepared. He’s chomping at the bit. The great thing about Drew is he has done what we’ve asked him to do and that’s really just — again, you’ve heard me talk about it and I’m not trying to beat a dead horse here, but just go to work and get better. Let’s not worry about who the starter is and who’s not. Whenever he goes into the game and gets an opportunity, he has to function at a high level and he’s taken that attitude of just going to work every day in practice to improve himself. And sooner or later, he’s going to get an opportunity to go in a game and play and hopefully, he’ll play at a high level.”

On if Barker’s been full contact in team: “Yes. We don’t hit quarterbacks anyway for the most part.”

On Bryant Koback: “He has been — he’s had a couple issues — he’s come back from the surgery he had in high school and coming back he was looking very good, but then because he wasn’t in the shape and wasn’t able to train all summer, he had a minor hamstring injury. That kind of set him back a little bit as well. Now he’s coming back off that and what we have seen out of him and what we saw in the last scrimmage, was very encouraging. We’ll see where it goes and how the health issues hold up with the running backs. So the good thing is we know he’s going to be a very good player. So we’ll see if we need to use him or not, let him get back to full strength and go from there. That’s why I saw, I’m not positive he’ll play in the first game.”

On if playing eight freshmen is optimal going into year five: “Yeah, I think, the nice thing about playing freshmen is because they jump out at you, not because you need them. So that’s the big difference. If a freshman can come in and help because he jumps out at you, that’s what you’re looking for: Guys that are prepared to come in and play and help you. We have some of those guys in this class because the depth is certainly there. Maybe not exactly what you want — everybody’s striving for great depth and building the program you want — but we’re not playing these guys just because they have to fill a hole. That’s the difference. A guy like Josh Paschal is a guy that is a great example of that. And all players we tell them that: Make us not play you. If you jump out and produce then we have to play you. He’s a guy I think that fits that role.”

On Sihiem King: “He’s been more consistent. He’s really grown in a lot of ways. I think he’s a more disciplined football player and I’ve been pleased with him. He gives us a nice change of pace and he’s had a consistent camp. He’s been a touch up and down in the past. And so I’m excited to give him some opportunities.”

On rebuilding and retooling defense now versus when he arrived at UK: “Well, again, I’ve gone back to that. That takes some time to answer that. Through the years, some of the media — I’m not sure how long you’ve been around — again, going back to year one and to now. Things change. You’re always building on your package, always tweaking it, trying to get it better in certain areas and then also through some situations where you’re trying to patch some holes. You try to start doing some things and it can be counterproductive at times. I think we’re beyond that point now and that’s where I see it’s different.”

On bowl expectations: “I answered (bowl question) last year when you asked me, I said what? (back and forth) You know what I said (Laughter) you know what I said. When people asked me last year, you know darn right what I said. I said, ‘Yeah, I expect us to go to a bowl game.’ I never dodged that question. I’m not going to put any definitive answers on wins and losses or make any predictions. But when I was asked a year ago do you expect to go to a bowl game, I said yes. I did. You can go back and research that. I’ve never dodged it. I’ve said it’s important. Again, going back to that. You’re in year four, people want results. They don’t care how you’re building a program. You do and you don’t. They know you’re there; they know you’re building; they know where you want to go, but you want to see results. Otherwise you just get a bunch of vultures. … I mean that with all the love.”

On sustaining that momentum: “It’s very important. It’s important to see progress. It’s easy in media or as a fan to see the bottom line. That’s easy for everybody. But if you really look closely, it’s also important to see progress and I think many of you work extremely hard at your jobs and you understand that and you see that. I think that’s where it’s important for us to continue to show progress. However that is in wins and losses, we’ll see. But we go to compete, to practice to win every football game. And that’s what we’re trying to do.”

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