Jen Smith on UK Football

Has new signing period changed recruiting timetable? Are staff changes coming? Stoops tackles many key topics.

MARK STOOPS

“Excited about the opportunity to play in the Music City Bowl. Honored to play Northwestern. I have great respect for Pat Fitzgerald and for Northwestern. They’ve played some very good football, obviously winning nine football games. It’ll be a real challenge, but we’re excited and honored to be a part of it. Looking forward to, like Tony said, wrapping up this recruiting, getting back on campus and working our players and getting ahead, getting going on this bowl preparation. It’s an exciting time and a busy time right now.”

On if he learned anything from last year’s bowl that changes the approach this time: “Yeah, I think so. You always learn and try to get as much information as I can from the simple things about even when you arrive, and what you do, how many practices you have before. I think there’s a fine line there with the players as well of using it like we needed to a year ago to really just push the program and use it as basically another spring practice and develop guys. There’s such benefit to that, but there’s also the balance of the morale of the football team and what you’re doing with them. So, how hard you practice, how long, how many practices, when to get there — all those things. It’s always a learning experience.”

On if he talks to the players about their bowl prep preferences: “Without a doubt. As a matter of fact, I planned to get together with several of the guys today and if I can round up our Unity Council. I’m only on campus here for about a day, day and a half. But yes, that’s part of it.”

On how the new recruiting timeline changes bowl prep: “It won’t change the bowl prep much. I think it’ll make for very busy weekends. With the coaches being on the road, we didn’t have a recruiting weekend this past weekend. We will have one the next two, and then trying to balance practices with that because our players are in school getting ready for finals. And then the following week they will be in finals. So you really can’t have practices that week. We’ll have to pick some practices up over the weekend for the next couple weekends, and then we will go straight through when they’re done with their finals for a few days and then cut them loose for Christmas. But it’ll be busy. Our coaches have done a great job. We’ve been on the road. We’ve been hitting the pavement pretty hard, and very, very encouraged with what’s going on in recruiting, with what our coaches are doing. Very, very positive response we’re getting from the players and from people in their communities. So it’s been great. It’s been a really good, exciting time for us.”

On initial impressions of Northwestern: “Yeah I think just you’ve gotta have a lot of respect for Pat and what he’s done and the way they play. I know they won, I believe seven in a row, and three of them with some very close games. A play here and a play there, you have to give them credit for finding a way to win the football game. To win that many in a row you’re doing something right. I know they’re very well coached and just saw some things statistically. But you’re right, I haven’t had time to watch them on film yet.”

On if he drove to the press conference in a Bentley: “It’s right out back (laughs). Drove it all the way from you know where.”

On what it was like to visit Shocky Jacques-Louis: “I don’t know who you’re talking about. I did not say that (laughs). I’m not allowed to talk about any specific recruit till after they sign.”

On not having to face a triple option in this bowl game and what he knows about Northwestern’s offensive style: “Yeah I think that is important because that was unique for us to have to prepare for that and put so much time into that. I agree with (Courtney Love) that the prep will be much nicer that way. Because we could even get into good against good and just go against our offense. That helps with the development of your young guys as well, just to be able to put the ball down and play some football for a while. I know just from watching them, I don’t cross over much with them obviously on tape, just to always have a chance to peak at them every once in a while on Saturdays whether we’re waiting at our hotel or whatever. But again, I’ve known Northwestern for a while playing in the Big Ten and having some familiarity with Big Ten teams. You know they’re always very well balanced and I know they can throw the football, I know they’ve been very stout in their run defense. It doesn’t surprise me with a team coached by Pat and his crew. So, I don’t want to get to technical with the X’s and O’s till I watch them a little bit more.”

On if he has a close relationship with Pat Fitzgerald: “No, I say we know each other just from the business. I have talked to him via text since we’re matched up against each other.”

On if there’s a balance between getting Stephen Johnson ready and getting a head start on the quarterback competition: “Yeah I think that’s important just to get some confidence and get some practice with our guys. Of course you know they’ve done that all year with preparing. But it will be important to get some of those guys some reps I think, yes. Along with all the guys that are gonna return.”

On if he implied on his radio show that he wants bowl practice to be more physical: “Well, no, I didn’t mean to imply it like that. I just meant we have to continue to develop as a program. I think there’s some areas we need to improve that we didn’t do as well down the stretch, certainly in the last two games. We’ve got a lot of work to do fundamentally and I think it’s been real important to give our players a little bit of time to step away and decompress a bit. Hopefully heal up and they’ve been in there working hard in the weight room. And we’ll be anxious to get back with them.”

On what he makes of the SEC coaching changes, specifically Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M: “Yeah it’s been a crazy year. I appreciate where I’m at and the stability that I have here in this program. I just look at a guy like, we’re talking about Pat and Northwestern, he’s been there for 12 years already. It’s remarkable. It’s good for him and it’s nice to see that kind of stability. In our league, just in general as you know, there’s a lot of turnover. There’s a lot of my close friends that won’t be in those meetings this year that I’ll miss. That’s for sure. Some very, very good football coaches. But with Jimbo going to, it probably wouldn’t be right for me to comment on that to be honest with you. I do talk with Jimbo and wish him the best. That’s all I can really say. … I did talk to him the other day and remind him that we play there next year. I don’t even think he was aware of that he had so much going on.”

On philosophy of getting guys on campus for visits in December versus during season: “Well, I think there’s always some give and take with that. We do have some official visits during the season. The negative to that is we’re preparing for a game, and so we don’t get to spend a whole lot of time with them. Myself, personally and the coaches really don’t get to spend a lot of time. If you have a night game and you’re on an official visit, I mean I’m done — y’all get tired of me at, what, midnight? Or whatever it is — well, I have to do other things once I leave here. I have the TV show and the radio show. I get out of here very late on the night game. That’s the negative. The good thing is they see the experience. It just depends on whether the athlete has an opportunity to come see a game or not unofficially and see the environment and how important that is to them or if they want to bring their family up and spend 48 hours. When they come in December, we get to spend two full days with them. We get to go sit and sit with meals and enjoy them and get to spend time with them and really get to know them. We always prefer to spend time with these kids. That’s the big thing. Some of them want to come and we always give them that option, but we always have big weekends in December. Kind of nice a lot of times what we’ve done is paired it with a bunch of our commits and they all like to come up together and get to know each other and spend some time with each other and their families get to know each other and have a big celebration. That’s been successful for us. It is a change in landscape. When it comes to recruiting, it’s very different. This is the first year to go through this. We’re working our way through it and it’s been an exciting time, I can tell you that. I really, really enjoy the visits that I’ve had and from our other coaches with the quality of players, but more importantly the quality of people we’re bringing in here.”

On if stability here and turnover elsewhere is a talking point: “I don’t think it hurts. I definitely do think it helps and, yeah, I’ve had to reiterate that to some kids because I am recruiting some players that have been very close to some of our guys who have been let go. That is on their mind because these kids have been committed somewhere and their coaches have changed and maybe they don’t necessarily want to go through that again. It is a talking point and it is nice to say, ‘You don’t have to worry about that, that I do have a new contract.’ And I’m so greatly appreciative of that and it is nice to be able to give those kids some stability.”

On if UK knew the type of man it was getting when it got transfer request from Courtney Love: “Absolutely I did. If you recall, I’ve mentioned it several times with him being awarded a scholarship in my father’s name back in high school. I’d been around Courtney for a long time and knew very, very clearly what I was getting with Courtney. I really can’t emphasize enough what he’s meant to myself and to our program and how proud I am of him. I know him and I know his father, Cory. We go back a long way. And just he’s a special, special individual. Obviously winning an award like the Wuerffel Trophy, which is basically like the Heisman Trophy of that particular area, and what he’s done says a lot about him and I’m so proud of him. I know our fan base is and you guys are as well. Everything about him is authentic. He is genuinely a great person, a good teammate, a great citizen. He’s just fun to be around. I have great respect for him. He’s talking to me about getting into coaching, and I have to sit him down and ask him, ‘Is he completely nuts?’ I mean really with this day and age with the way things are, it’s very difficult to get into this business, but for him, I think he would be successful in anything he chooses to do. I definitely would have a spot for him with anything he chooses to do because he’s a special guy. He really is. He’s a difference maker. He’s going to have a bright future. Very proud of him and appreciate him.”

On if his ability to relate to kids would make him a good coach: “Oh, I think he would — again, I think he would be successful in anything he chooses to do — if that’s what he wants to do when he gets done, then I’ll help him. He’ll be very successful.”

On if he’s comfortable with staff: “I really don’t even have time to even get into that right now, but I do feel good and appreciate our staff. Change is inevitable in certain ways within the turnover of our roster and coaches may get other opportunities and move on, so we’ll see what happens and work our way through that as time goes here.”

On 10th assistant: “I do want a defensive coach. I think we already have five on offense. We have four and a half on defense, and my time gets split with head coaching duties. I think in this day and age with the difficulties of defending such multiple offense and the challenge of all that it just makes sense for me to hire a defensive guy. I think just like always, I think in this hire that person will be obviously responsible for managing his players and will contribute schematically and obviously handling his position. We’ll see. Yeah, I have thought about it. I haven’t made any decisions. I am going to be patient on this and see what shakes out with so much turnover going on in college football right now and there’s going to be a lot of change. I’d like to just sit back and see what shakes out with our staff with hiring this 10th assistant. There’s no reason to rush into it right now for me. There’s different thoughts I have whether it’s a technical person or a person that can maybe help us in recruiting or a big-picture guy. There’s several options I could go with. I’m just going to sit on it for a minute and work our way through it and see what shakes out.”

On how he evaluates the regular season: “Yeah, that’s hard for me. You know I’m not going to define that. There’s no right answer for that. So, I’ll let the experts dictate that and give opinions on that. I really just always want to make progress. That’s the big thing. Like I’ve told you many times, I’m human. There’s always parts of you that would like to do things over and have different plays back, have different calls, different series, whatever it is. That’s human nature. I do think about that, but I can’t dwell on that and I don’t dwell on that. You know part of that’s true and part of it’s not. (Laughter). I try not to give you guys coach speak, you know that. I’m human. There’s parts of it that do hurt, and I understand that.

“You always beat yourself up because you try to do the very best you can. I can tell you this: This staff has worked unbelievable hard, our players have worked exceptionally hard to put us in the position we’ve been in this year. That’s to win seven games again, to go back to back winning seven games, and to be 50 percent above, .500 or above two years in a row in the SEC. We’ve never done that. That’s not just nothing, so our players need to understand that and our coaches need to understand that. I appreciate the work that they’ve done to put us in a position to do that and also put us in a position to win a few other games that we didn’t make.

“As I tell the players, there’s three, four, five, six plays in a game that dictate games, and we don’t know which plays they are. Sometimes everybody thinks it’s just the obvious ones, and that’s not always the case. We’re constantly working to put ourselves in a position to win football games. I really appreciate the work that a lot of people have done to do that. We all want more. We all except to win more and do more and we want to do that, but I greatly appreciate the work that they’ve done and we’re going to continue to push forward.”

On if he’s confident Jordan Jones will play in bowl game: “I don’t really necessarily want to make a final comment on any of that at this point. I really don’t, but yeah I expect him to participate in the bowl game. To what extent or how much and all that? I’m not ready to make any decisions on all that right now.”

On what they need to fix on run defense: “We have to do a lot of things. I think our players needed this time to heal up, and we need to get it full strength. We need to get some of our guys physically back stronger. We need to gain some weight back and get healed up and be able to hit that weight room and be physically in a good position to play this game. I think that’s a big piece of it. Technically, obviously we need to do things better, and we’ll work hard at that to put them in a position to be successful.”

On what the next step for Jordan Jones is to make the growth Stoops has talked about: “He’s got to be consistent in it, and it can’t be at the cost of the players and the people around him. He knows that. He works hard at it. He’s improved in a lot of areas. We all know — I don’t need to go back there, I don’t want to go back there — but we all know that’s unacceptable and that’s not going to happen and that’s not a part of our program. We tried exceptionally hard to do things right all the time and act right, but we’re not perfect and Jordan is not.

“Believe me, there’s parts of it with Jordan or any player that sometimes it’s easy just to say the easy thing to do to save my reputation is just get rid of players, but that’s not what I’m going to do. This is not about me and what people perceive me as. Just kicking kids to the curb or getting rid of them or dismissing them, that’s the easy thing to do sometimes. The hard thing to do is continue to work with them and develop them and making them a very constructive piece of our program and society, because that’s what I told them I would do when I recruited them. I know Jordan’s background and where he comes from and the difficulties and the struggles that he’s had. That doesn’t make it an excuse, but it means something to me to not just kick him to the curb and continue to help him grow and become the young man I know he can be.”

On his sales pitch to fans to come to Nashville: “Well, it’s going to be a fun day in general. I don’t make sales pitches. That’s why I’m in coaching. I just want it to be an enjoyable day for our fans. I know how important it is to play well for our fan base, and I take great pride in that and preparing our team. Believe me, it bothers me when it falls short of our goals and our expectations. I can promise you our team is excited and anxious and ready to get going with our preparation to play in this game and represent our fan base the way they want to be.”

On Benny Snell being named first-team All-SEC at loaded running back position: “It’s a great credit to Benny to, like you say, be awarded first-team All-SEC at running back. You are in with some very, very talented people. I think it’s a credit to our offensive players, our offensive coaches to put him in a position to be successful. And for him individually I touched on it after the game I think the last time we were in here, but he just has a great desire to play well. You really just can’t say enough about him and the desire and the passion he plays with. He’s a tough guy to tackle. I think our offensive line has done a very good job at times, and we speed things up at times, but I’ll say you have to credit him and his individual effort and his passion and his desire. He’s been very durable. That’s why he’s in the position that he’s in.”

On Northwestern having a stout run defense motivating Benny: “Yeah, I think it’ll be a real challenge for all of us. There’s no doubt. It seems like statistically it jumps off the chart at you with what they do and how tough they’ve played the run. Of course they’re in that conference. They’re in the Big Ten and it’s a big, physical conference. You have to be pretty good to be able to contain the run there. We’ll have our hands full, but yeah it’ll be a challenge for us. But we’ll be excited and ready for it.”

On players who shined on scout team that he’s eager to see: “When I say that, I haven’t been just saying it because I don’t want to single out one guy or two because there’s a bunch of them. We were borderline playing probably four, five, six of these guys. We did save their redshirt. I’m excited about these guys getting an opportunity to work and get on the field next year.”

On if there’s a position he’s focused on recruiting this month: “We’ve just gotta finish strong. I feel good about where we’re at. I’ve gotta be very careful with where we’re at in numbers. I think we’re pushing it. I’m already pushing the envelope on where we’re at and how many we can sign. We don’t have a big class. We’ll be pushing it to sign any more than 23 or 24. We’ll see. Sometimes you get some very, very good players down the stretch here that it’s very difficult to say no to. But I’m very pleased with this class. They have great character. They have great talent. I feel very good about it.”

On Northwestern and UK struggling historically and what that says about the competitiveness of college football: “We all just kinda concentrate on our own little niche here. You all see me all the time and I see you, but if you really look outside and just look at college football, it’s a competitive business. It’s fun. I think it’s an exciting time because you just look at us. You all cover me and our fans and all that, but we all have a tendency to the what ifs and how close things were, but it’s an exciting time. We are definitely proud to go to a bowl game back-to-back. Like I said, it’s human nature to want more and to push for more and we’re going to continue to do that. But we’re also going to enjoy this. Our team needs to understand that they need to feel good about some of the things we’ve done and put ourselves in position to go play this game. And how important would it be to win an eighth game for us? It hasn’t been done a whole lot. Our players have enjoyed knocking down some doors the past couple of years. We really embrace the fact that we need to go get this eighth victory.”

On if anything he saw during the season changed priorities in recruiting: “Yeah, there’s always some things like that. There’s always some of watching exactly what our commits did throughout this year and how they played. Maybe some guys that have redshirted that we feel very good about, that we feel like we have some youngsters that are going to step up, that may alter some of the positions that we go after. Again, there’s always some change and some hiccups that come along. You just have to deal with that and move on.”

On the importance of having a close relationship with Mitch Barnhart: “It’s key. It’s very, very important to have a great relationship with the administration. I have great faith and trust in Mitch. We have a good working relationship. He knows where I stand and I know where he stands. I know what the expectations are and what we need to do. He knows. He’s around quite a bit. He’s very hands on. He knows all of our players. To his credit he knows every athlete on this campus by name. He works exceptionally hard at it. He’s been fun to work with. We’re all in this together, but I think it’s very important to have continuity there along with the president’s office as well.”

On if he anticipates signing a quarterback this class: “I’m not sure. I’m not sure.”

On the team meeting after the Louisville game: “It was a typical Monday meeting after a loss. This one was a little bit different because it was the last game of the year. It was against our rival and there were some situations in this game that none of us were very proud of. But not everybody in that room. That’s the key. But we’ll keep most of that private. But it was a typical Monday meeting after a defeat. Sometimes those are tough. Our players at that point — I needed to address it. That’s why I was there that Monday and not on the road. I needed to visit with them and look them in the eye and talk to them. We did that. I felt very good, but at that point the players did need to get away for a minute. They needed to decompress and step away from the complex for a few days. And then they got right back in it. They did lift last Wednesday, Friday and they’re lifting of course this week until we get back to practice. But they needed to get away. They needed to mentally freshen up a bit and physically heal up a bit.”

On juniors who have expressed interest in getting draft feedback: “Yeah, I’ve officially submitted some requests to the NFL to get me some draft feedback.”

On if he recognizes Stephen Johnson with his new haircut: “He shocked me. I saw him the other day. I did not — I had to double take that. I’ve been on the road but I did talk to Stephen on the phone. It was yesterday or the day before. He’s healing up and needed some time off and getting some rest and ready to go.”

On if he plans to meet with the seniors before the bowl game: “I will. I definitely will. I have plans to try to get together with them and have dinner. Maybe have them over to my house for dinner and spend some time with them.”

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