Jen Smith on UK Football

Q&A: Stoops checks in with local media before he starts Media Day festivities

Kentucky coach Mark Stoops speaks to the media at the Southeastern Conference NCAA college football media days, Wednesday, July 13, 2016, in Hoover, Ala.
Kentucky coach Mark Stoops speaks to the media at the Southeastern Conference NCAA college football media days, Wednesday, July 13, 2016, in Hoover, Ala. AP

MARK STOOPS

“It really is exciting. Going into year four, I think that the comfort level of myself, our program, our players are very confident because we’ve worked extremely hard. I’m very proud of the effort that they’ve done. We’ve worked extremely hard this summer. It’s been a relatively quiet summer, which is always a nice thing. And our players are putting their head down and going to work. All things are in good shape right now and we’re looking forward to the start of the season. This is always the first event that kind of gets you going, gets the juices flowing. It gets you started, gets you amped up and ready to go to work. It’s great to be here.”

On Jordan Bonner status: “He’s set to be here in August. With the injury he had, it set him back a bit academically.”

On what changed on the projections of Bonner getting to campus in late June: “It’s set back academically. He had to finish up a couple more classes. There were a couple classes that he actually had to drop because he couldn’t catch up because of the injury.”

On if there are any health updates on Bonner: “Until I see him and get a physical and all that, we’ll see where he’s at when he arrives.”

On if he saw this kind of career from Toth after moving to center spot after his first game: “We knew he was a special player. We really did right away. It doesn’t take much, through all the practice time that he had. It’s our first game. But we had all that time through the spring and the summer to work with him. He’s a special person. I think most of you know that by now. The more you’re around him and get to spend some time with him, he’s an incredible guy. Very quiet, but he does his work. He’s really amazing. He’s a guy who’s an engineering major, but he’s constantly around our building. He makes it look easy. As you know, it’s very difficult for these players. They get pulled a lot of directions. They have a lot to do, a lot of responsibilities with their classes and their workouts, but he seems to do it very easy. He makes it look easy. You know he’s a special guy when he can do that, when he can handle the academic work load that he has and also always be in the building working out. He gets his workout, gets his lift, gets his run. But he may be in there stretching, getting a massage, doing the little things that makes him a special player. He’s incredibly intelligent on the field and off. Really handles himself in a great way. And we’re excited about him. We love having him.”

On if he could imagine being an engineering major playing college football: “No, it’s very difficult. It is difficult. It’s funny you ask it because in recruiting it comes up a bunch. It’s extremely difficult, but it’s great to say, ‘Hey, talk to Jon Toth. He’s able to do that.’ We have to give those guys the latitude in the offseason and the spring to do the coursework that they have to do, but then again, he makes it look easy. He does not miss very much. He’s a workout junkie. He’s always in there.”

On Toth being a slim 300 pounds and his body fat percentage: “I’m not sure. We’ll get back and they’ll do the bod pods here later in the summer. He’s in incredible shape. Going back to the workout, he’s always training, eating right, doing the right things. Our kids are finally understanding the nutrition piece and the education we give them there. It makes a big difference. And as those guys prepare, as they get older and prepare for great junior and senior year and also for an NFL future, they start taking that stuff very seriously and you see the results.”

On where Minnesota transfer linebacker De’Niro Laster will play: “That has been an issue that I’ve fought quite a bit, to be honest with you, because he’s a very good football player. He may be most natural inside, but as you know we had a need for outside backer as well. So we’ll continue to explore what we do about that this summer, when we get in camp and get in two-a-days, to see exactly where to settle in on him, because I want him to have the best chance to be successful for himself and to help this team. But he is versatile; he can play inside, he can play outside. And that is a bit of a work in progress. It’s an area where he’s been great about saying, ‘I’ll play where you need me.’ So we’ll continue to work with that.”

Friend and Arkansas coach Bret Bielema walks in: “Hey, Bret! What’d he say (about Stoops in interviews earlier). I’ve got a couple jabs I’m going to throw at him later. I’ve gotta make sure he leaves, you know? He’s one of those guys: You can’t get in a pissing contest with a skunk.”

On the importance of bulking up at linebacker, literally and figuratively: “Very important, very important. With Courtney (Love) coming in, everybody talks about the young and inexperience, and that’s true, but he’s played college football. He wouldn’t be here if he wasn’t a mature, strong football player. He’s played a lot of football at Nebraska, he sat out last year, he’s been in our system for a while. He’s an incredible person and a great leader, so he’s exactly what you want in the foundation of your defense, even though he has very little experience here. I feel very good about Courtney. And he’s always been a strong guy; he’s looked like that since he’s been in high school. But it is important for the rest of our backers, in particular Jordan (Jones) and Eli (Brown) to gain some weight, because both of those guys are electric. They can really, really run. They have very good instincts. But they do need to put on some weight. That’s critical. I think the rest of the guys, inside and outside, De’Niro and Denzil (Ware), have good weight for their position. But I think you’re talking about the core and really the Will linebacker position in particular is where we gotta grow a little bit.”

On how former 5-star Matt Elam can take the next step: “Matt has been, and again, we talk about this a lot and you don’t want to put too much pressure on him, but we’ve worked hard together with a solid plan to help Matt really get in great shape. The kid works out and does everything right in our facility. He can go through every workout and he’s explosive, he runs well, he does a lot of good workouts, but he has to manage his weight to play at a high level. We’ve worked hard at that. I don’t want to jinx him right now and tell you any weights or anything like that, but he’s looking a lot better and he’s been very serious in approaching that in the right way. He is a great kid. He wants to do well. He wants to play at a high level, I think he’s very capable of playing at a high level. We all have imperfections and he’s working extremely hard to get his under control and play the very best he can.”

On saying Elam’s OK in the facility, so is going home a facility? “You know, I don’t want to get too personal with that, but I’ll tell you this: We’ve worked extremely hard addressing and really analyzing everything and getting down to the nuts and bolts and being very truthful in what we can do to help him. And he wants to do right. He has a great heart. He's a hard working guy and he's talented, but he does have to get the eating under control and make sure he's staying at the appropriate weight. That's not much different from players you see throughout the country, whether it be college and certainly in the NFL. So it's not just unique to Matt Elam, it's just something that we're addressing.”

On what his SEC Media Days message about Kentucky football is:The big thing is I'm proud of the culture change. It's easy to change the climate within a program and I think it's difficult to change a culture. A culture is very, very deep rooted and it has a long history. I know we're creating a positive winning culture within our program. The results will happen. I'm confident. I wouldn't say it if I didn't believe it, that our administration, our fans, our players, our coaches, everybody's on the same page to win and to do the things necessary. Things and times get frustrating. We all know that. But the positive winning culture, attitude within our program is there and that starts with the players being diligent and policing themselves and doing the right things away from the facility, as we talked about before, because they always work, they have a good attitude, but they have to buy in and do all the little things necessary to create that winning culture.

“The other thing is capacity. Capacity can encompass a lot of different areas. In particular, our attention to detail, whether it's in meetings, to be able to study and have that attention to detail for longer periods of time and carry that to the football field. Whether it's in the classroom, for them to do the right things, to be at tutors on time, be at classes on time, listen to the message and grow up. It certainly goes to the training sessions, being able to lift more, longer. To be able to run more, longer. To be able to practice longer with perfect practice. I signed my signature a thousand times today. It still looks like crap. (Laughter) But it comes down to perfect practice. As we expand our ability to be able to concentrate and work at a high level for longer periods of time, mentally and physically, we will grow, we will win. It'll help us in the close games and the close situations.

“I'm not going to defend – listen, we're doing all things necessary to win. There are frustrations, there are setbacks. If anybody thought that you would walk into the Kentucky job three years ago and hit a steady climb, you're crazy. There's gonna be ups and there's gonna be downs. The downs are very difficult. Our margin for error is very small, and we can't lose opportunities. That's my job. I accept that, I embrace that, I don't run from that and we're gonna hit that head on. What more can you do? I know we're doing the right things necessary. But those are the key points. The change in culture, the positive winning culture within our program and our capacity to do more, to embrace the work, to do it – not just put in time and doing that, to do it with fine details and do it with a winning edge. And that's where I know our program is going.

On how he's seen Jojo Kemp grow up:I've seen Jojo grow up because I haven't seen the highs and the lows. He's always had the great fiery attitude and always had good days but it's about consistency and it's about not having those setbacks. He's had great adversity. He's had very big highs and he's had very low lows. That comes with life. That's where I've seen him grow and fight through that, grow up and mature, that things are not always gonna be perfect.”

On if it feels strange not to be talking about a QB competition: “It does. It really does. I feel very confident about that. I really do. I feel at ease about that position, and you’ve heard me say it once you’ve heard me say it 1,000 times: It’s not always about that position, but we have to have great play at that position and we have to be consistent and we have to always progress. I really like what I’ve seen with Drew off the field and on.”

On if any true freshmen have injected some enthusiasm in workouts: “Yeah, I think it is. It’s nice to see us almost at 100 percent full strength and to have the depth that we need within the program. Those guys are very good players. They’ve got a great mindset. What I love about them is they’re very serious. They want to work. They’re always there. We push those guys. They’re always the first one up. Tomorrow morning I’ll see every one of them at 6 a.m. They’re there every day with a smile on their face and ready to work.”

On how he deals with summer decommitments heading into pivotal season: “Again, just stay the course. You don’t think I anticipate some ups and downs in that? It’s going to happen. It happens to everybody in college football. You can’t panic about it. Stay the course. We’ll continue to recruit those guys. We still love any guys that decommitted or whatever. Listen, I want our fans to embrace them. They’re good people. These are hard decisions for these kids. They get pulled a million different directions. We try to have an approach where you don’t put a lot of pressure on guys, but let’s face it there’s pressure. There’s pressure on these recruits. It’s our job to make it very difficult for them to say no to come to Kentucky. I don’t think anybody made these decisions very lightly. They still have great respect and feeling for Kentucky. We still love – anybody that we’re recruiting we believe in whether that’s a decommit or anybody else out there that we’re recruiting.

“We want to recruit the very best to Kentucky, but no one play, no one coach, no one person is going to affect the outcome of this program and where we go. Certain positions are very important. Certain skill positions are very important and certain defensive linemen are very important. Those are guys that you really have to battle for and work for to get the right ones. That’s what makes this league what it is. Certainly we’re good top to bottom and the top teams are good across the board obviously, but you have to have great quarterback play in general and you have to be very good up front.”

On where he’s most concerned about depth: “Well, we need to continue to build depth at offensive tackle. I think our offensive line – we return four starters, and I think we’re getting very good depth up front in the interior. I think we need to develop depth at tackle. I feel good about the depth and the skill positions on offense. A year from now – the nice thing is for about two years here we have a good run of a lot of experience. After that second year we’ll lose a big group of some skill guys, in particular on the offensive side of the ball, so we’ve got to make sure we manage that and keep that depth there. Defensively, always a battle with defensive line. We’ve got some inexperience at outside linebacker, I feel like we’ve got some great young guys to grow into that role. I feel really good about the depth of our secondary. I feel like we have – man you want to talk about an enormous difference from when I got here, because I’m a DB guy by nature, you know that. My whole career. I know what I’m looking at when I look at defensive backs, and what I saw when I walked in here and what I see now is a drastic change. So, I feel good about those guys. I feel like we have some superstars in the making at that position, and they’re relatively young, which is nice.”

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