Mark Story

For Mark Stoops, 2018 feels like a pivot point

After a bit of a lackluster off-season, Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops will rely on a veteran team in 2018 to change the narrative around the UK program by producing positive on-the-field results.
After a bit of a lackluster off-season, Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops will rely on a veteran team in 2018 to change the narrative around the UK program by producing positive on-the-field results.

Mark Stoops was a winner Tuesday night. Throwing out the first pitch before the Lexington Legends faced the Columbia Fireflies, the Kentucky Wildcats football coach hummed a strike over the heart of the plate.

In what has been a disquieting period for the University of Kentucky football program, it was a feel-good moment.

Right now, we are in an uncommon circumstance with UK football.

The dark joke for many years has been that the best part of "the Kentucky football experience" tends to be the off-season.

That is when Wildcats backers can find a reason — the promise of unseen recruits; a belief in improved strategies from new coordinators; the impact of facility upgrades — to galvanize hope.

Alas, more often than UK fans would have liked, the off-season bubble of hope has been burst by harsh reality once the games start.

In 2018, the circumstance of Kentucky football is flipped 180 degrees.

The current Wildcats off-season has been discouraging on varied fronts. This year, for once, it is the games starting that may allow Kentucky to restore some positive momentum around its football program.

Suffice to say, the time since Kentucky's 24-23 loss to Northwestern in last season's Music City Bowl has not been great for UK football.

Mark Stoops spring 2018 open practice
University of Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops will try to coach the Wildcats to a third straight bowl game in 2018. Charles Bertram

For the second season in a row, no Wildcats player heard their name called during the NFL Draft.

Also for a second-consecutive off-season, Kentucky lost a returning starter to the graduate-transfer exit. Two seasons ago, it was wide receiver Jeff Badet leaving for Oklahoma. This year, it was outside linebacker/rush end Denzil Ware moving to Jacksonville State.

In a year when the in-state class of senior high school football players is considered unusually bountiful, UK continues to face headwinds in wooing those players.

With this week's commitment by Manual running back Aidan Robbins to Louisville, five of the top 10 in-state prospects in the class of 2019 according to have already made verbal commitments to colleges.

Not one of them is currently pledged to attend UK.

Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops talks about fact there are no Kentucky high school players in his 2018 signing class.

The May 24 arrest of Kentucky junior safety Marcus Walker on charges of trafficking marijuana and cocaine has been a public-relations blemish for UK football.

Even though Stoops has dismissed Walker from the UK team, the release this week of court records showing the Lake Wales, Fla., product allegedly had more than $95,000 and 52 grams of cocaine in his apartment at the time of his arrest gave the bad publicity extra legs.

Obviously, Stoops could use some good news more substantive than a well-thrown first pitch.

Kentucky having 17 starters returning from a bowl team in 2017 is the reason to think that, for once, positive mojo could return for UK football once this year's games start.

Benny Snell
Star running back Benny Snell (26) is one of 17 starters returning for Kentucky from a team that won seven games and played in the Music City Bowl in 2017. Alex Slitz

Among those returnees are one of the best running backs (Benny Snell) in school history; a likely NFL tight end (C.J. Conrad); a proven player at all five offensive line spots; and three legitimate All-SEC candidates (linebackers Josh Allen and Jordan Jones; safety Mike Edwards) on defense.

That should be the core necessary to produce a winning football team.

Of course, nothing is ever easy for Kentucky football.

The three SEC East teams that Stoops has enjoyed the clear upper hand over — South Carolina (four UK wins in a row), Missouri (three straight) and Vanderbilt (three of four) — all have one vital thing in 2018 the Cats lack:

A talented, experienced starting quarterback who is returning.

Terry Touchdown
After starting his college career with a redshirt season at Oregon, Terry Wilson comes to Kentucky after a year as a junior-college quarterback. “The nice thing about Terry is he’s a year older, played a year of college football, he’s already been at a Power Five school for a year, so he knows what he’s getting into,” UK Coach Mark Stoops said. Mark Mahan

Meanwhile, Kentucky catches two SEC East teams trying to rebuild from horrid seasons a year ago — Florida (4-7, 3-5 SEC) and Tennessee (4-8, 0-8) — on the road.

UK has not beaten Florida in Gainesville since 1979. Kentucky has not won over UT at Knoxville since 1984. The Wildcats have never won football games at Gainesville and at Knoxville in the same season.

To re-energize the UK fan base, Stoops needs to produce some kind of breakthrough.

As The Long-Suffering UK Football Fans know all too well, the Wildcats have not won eight games in a regular season or nine overall since Jerry Claiborne and crew did it way back in 1984.

Cats backers are desperate to see a head coach change the paradigm of what is possible in the Kentucky program and prove the ceiling on UK football success doesn't have to be 7-5 regular seasons.

After what has so far been a fairly sour off-season for Kentucky football, wouldn't it be something if 2018 was the year Stoops provided that?

Mark Story: 859-231-3230; Twitter: @markcstory