Every spring football practice is important, of course. Ask Jim Harbaugh. The Michigan coach packed up his Wolverines and traveled to the sun and fun of Florida so his team’s first week of drills would not be distracted by the northern chill. Spring practice may be only 15 practices, but those are 15 practices a coach can’t get back.
Spring practice is important for Kentucky, maybe even more so than usual. This is Mark Stoops’ fourth spring here and the UK coach doesn’t have to go to Florida to feel the heat. He’s 13-24 overall as the UK coach, including just 4-20 in the SEC. After strong starts the last two seasons, his Cats have faded fast, the perception of progress replaced by the disappointment of multiple defeats.
“There’s no denying it’s a very important spring for many reasons,” the coach said Tuesday after his team’s first set of drills.
Stoops knows football. No one doubts that. The people who follow such things, insist he has recruited better than any previous UK coach in recent memory. But Kentucky is a hard job. And for whatever reason, the task appeared to get a little bit away from him over the last half of last season. Things were running in reverse.
So changes were made. Out went one-year offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson and receivers coach Tommy Mainord. Running backs coach Chad Scott departed for North Carolina. In came the ex-Cincinnati tandem of offensive coordinator Eddie Gran and quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw. Lamar Thomas, former Miami and NFL wide receiver, left Louisville to join Stoops’ staff.
Drew Barker is now the heavy favorite to be the starting quarterback. Linebacker and defensive leader Josh Forrest has graduated. The team’s best defensive linemen, Melvin Lewis and C.J. Johnson, are prepping for the NFL Draft. Jason Hatcher, who would have been the team’s best defensive end/outside linebacker, is no longer on the squad.
A bigger and possibly more important change happened off the field with the offseason conditioning program. Stoops followed through on his promise to kick it up a notch (or three). He hired away Indiana strength coach Mark Hill to work with current strength coach Corey Edmond and high-performance coach Erik Korem. Call them the Triad of Toughness. The players felt the burn.
“I don’t know if I can say this, but I’m going to say it anyway,” said defensive back Chris Westry. “It was hell.”
One man’s trip to Hades is another man’s path to the promised land.
“We’ve had a better offseason than we have any other year,” Stoops said Tuesday. “I feel like we went longer this offseason as far as our fourth-quarter conditioning, and we went longer in those drills — longer period of time, longer duration each day.”
There was a need. Last season, Kentucky pulled to within 30-27 of Auburn with 4:06 left and couldn’t make that final push. It trailed 21-17 heading into the fourth quarter at Vanderbilt and spun its wheels.
It was outscored 28-7 in the second half by Tennessee and 31-0 the final 30 minutes of the season finale against Louisville. In the latter game, the Cats led 24-7 at halftime and lost by two touchdowns, its fifth straight defeat at the hands of the Cards.
Something had to give — and in this case Stoops asked his players to give more now so that they might be capable of giving more later.
“Mentally, physically, they tried to break us,” Westry said. “It was Division I football conditioning.”
That which does not kill us makes us stronger, or so they say. With the pain and the sweat came a bit of self-discovery and, Stoops hopes, a sense of urgency.
“I learned that regardless of what it is, it can be done,” Westry said. “Nothing really is impossible. If you push yourself, it can be done.”
That could be a metaphor for Kentucky football. It can be done and Stoops can still be the one to get it done. That’s what makes this spring so important. You don’t get these days back.