John Clay

Mark Stoops can see “the turn” in Kentucky football since Citrus Bowl win

Mark Stoops’ reaction to Super Bowl defensive plays by New England Patriots

University of Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops gives his reaction to New England Patriots’ head coach Bill Belichick defensive plays in the 2019 Super Bowl held in February.
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University of Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops gives his reaction to New England Patriots’ head coach Bill Belichick defensive plays in the 2019 Super Bowl held in February.

So, Mark Stoops, how’s life?

Has your world changed any since your Kentucky football team won 10 games last season, including five in the SEC, plus a Citrus Bowl victory over mighty Penn State?

Are people treating you any differently now that you’re the reigning SEC Coach of the Year? Have all the good things that happened in 2018 changed the way people perceive UK football?

“Nationally, it has, without a doubt,” Stoops said Wednesday, the second of college football’s two national signing days. “You go through the different states, places where we recruit, and people already had a great belief in what we were doing, (but) you can see it now taken to another level.”

That level wasn’t enough to help the Cats get everything they wanted Wednesday, however. MJ Devonshire, a four-star cornerback from Aliquippa, Pa., signed with UK, while two other targets opted for LSU and a third chose South Carolina.

Oh well, win some, lose some. And on the field, the Wildcats won more games than any other UK football team since 1977. The 2018 Cats were also the school’s first team to win a New Year’s Day Bowl in nearly 70 years. But then, you already knew all that.

Next year, next question. What kind of carryover can Stoops expect for a team that loses many talented, experienced and important pieces from last year’s success story.

“I’ve been pleased,” Stoops said Wednesday of the work that has been done since Jan. 1. “I see the turn in our program. I see the response from the players we have on campus. It’s earlier than expected.”

Take the quarterbacks and receivers. Having completed his first year as the starter, Terry Wilson is looking to a junior season with a group of largely untested receivers. With that in mind, they are already out on the field throwing and catching, earlier than before. “That’s a good sign,” Stoops said.

Off-season strength and conditioning is always a priority, but there’s always more. Stoops relies heavily on Individual Development Plans, or IDPs, for each individual player with specific assessments and goals, both on and off the field.

Stoops said just the other day he was looking at Josh Allen’s IDP going into his junior season. That’s the same Josh Allen who is likely to be among the first handful of players to be selected in April’s NFL Draft.

“It’s amazing what he’s done,” Stoops said. “His own perception of himself, his perception of his peers and his coaches. He’s the poster child of player development.”

There is much to develop in 2019. “One thing I’m proud of is we haven’t taken a step back and no one else can say that,” said the coach, meaning that in his six seasons the Cats have won at least as many games as the season before.

With that in mind, Stoops provided assorted updates Wednesday. He expects backup quarterback Gunnar Hoak to remain in the program and participate in spring practice. Offensive tackle Landon Young, who missed 2018 with a torn ACL, is near full-go.

Wide receiver Zy’Aire Hughes will not be a part of the team as he goes through legal proceedings stemming from his December arrest on an assault charge. Hughes pleaded not guilty.

There is potential in a secondary hit hard by graduation, but Stoops said he wanted to hold off before singling out names.

When asked about the importance of keeping his staff together, Stoops said that just 15 minutes before the press conference, he had taken a phone call from an NFL head coach inquiring about one of UK’s assistants. “That doesn’t end,” said the coach.

Football doesn’t end, either, not for the players, the staff or the coaches. Did Stoops even get a chance to watch the Super Bowl?

“I thought it was a great game,” said the former defensive coordinator with a grin of New England’s 13-3 win over the Los Angeles Rams in the lowest-scoring Super Bowl ever. “But I can’t say that, or people will say, ‘I told you Stoops doesn’t like to score.’”

John Clay: 859-231-3226, johnclayiv

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John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.