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Stoops encouraged as Cats finally open spring practice

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Kentucky football held the first practice of the Mark Stoops era on Monday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Kentucky football held the first practice of the Mark Stoops era on Monday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Mark Stoops has had a busy last four months.

He has hired a coaching staff. He has put together 2013 recruiting class and laid the foundation for 2014. He has moved his young family from Tallahassee, Fla., to Lexington. He has met more people than he could possibly count.

Notably absent from that list is doing what Mitch Barnhart brought him to Kentucky to do: coaching football. On Monday, that finally changed.

After months of interviews, handshakes and meetings, Stoops got to do what he loves.

"It felt good to get out there and chew some guys out a little bit," Stoops said with a smile.

In truth, yelling isn't the reason Stoops enjoys coaching as much as he does; it's the process of shaping a group of young men and leading them to perform at levels they didn't know were possible. With a good first spring practice on Monday morning, that process began in earnest.

"I thought the guys had a really good attitude, and what I can tell was that they had a clue on what to do offensively, a clue on what to do defensively," Stoops said.

That doesn't mean it was always pretty. Stoops said execution was at times "very sloppy" and footballs were too often on the ground, but saw only positive signs in terms of focus and effort.

"I felt like day one, their hearts were in the right place," Stoops said. "I felt like they were locked in. I say we had a good sense of urgency, not what we needed to be, but I felt guys were trying to move around and be locked in on both sides of the ball."

Stoops has consistently remarked that his players are committed having seen their habits in UK's new High Performance program. He has taken over a group that still has the disappointment of 2012 fresh in mind, making players eager to turn the page and move on to a new era of Kentucky football.

"With the losses we suffered last year and a few players kind of down about it, of course it's not the result that you want but we're all coming out with new attitudes and we're just attacking it," senior running back Jonathan George said. "We're attacking every day. Whether it's in the film room or whether it's on the field or in the weight room, we're attacking it."

As they seek to improve execution and learn new offensive and defensive systems, the best way the Wildcats can "attack" practice is by embracing the faster pace with which the new coaching staff is asking them to play.

"It was a little more up-tempo today and with it being the first practice the coaches had high expectations with us," George said. "They expect us to come out and play fast and fly around the field. And that's what we did today."

Stoops agreed, saying UK's pace was "very good" for a first practice.

What he didn't see were leaders emerging on either side of the ball, not that that's any problem. In fact, Stoops liked the fact that no one was trying to force his way into a leadership role when it wasn't yet appropriate.

"Everybody was out there holding on today," Stoops said. "They were holding on, so, you know, it was hard to get a sense of that leadership. Again, I'd rather have it that way than a bunch of rah rah phony stuff and guys not locked in and not being real."

Senior Avery Williamson - UK's leading tackler from last season and presumed starter at middle linebacker - figures to eventually emerge as a vocal presence. For now, he has enough maturity to realize it's not his time yet.

"I wasn't really trying to be out there trying to yell at everybody because I was messing up myself," Williamson said. "Just really trying to get a feel for everything, get a feel for the coaches and the plays and different things and then after a couple practices you can start stepping up."

The leadership isn't there, but neither Williamson nor his coach is all that worried. In the limited practice time the next few weeks has to offer, it's all about getting on the same page about what Kentucky football will be from this point forward.

"Offensively and defensively at the end of these 15 practices, these players should know, this is who we are offensively and this is who we are defensively," Stoops said. "There will be much more but the basics, you know, is a big part of who we are. They need to know that."

Here are a few more quick hitters from day one of spring practice:

  • Due to inclement weather, practice was moved indoors to the Nutter Field House. Of course he would rather be outside, but Stoops is pleased with the venue. "I like the indoor, I really do," Stoops said. "I feel like we can get good work in there."
  • Media in attendance for Stoops' press conference received guides for spring football 2013. Reporters quickly thumbed to the roster page and found a handful of interesting positional listings. Bud Dupree is at defensive end (not linebacker where he played much of last year), junior-college transfer Steven Borden is at both tight end and wide receiver and Zach West at both guard and center. Notably absent, however, is a depth chart. Players are listed only alphabetically by position right now. "I just didn't feel that was right until we had a chance to work with these guys," Stoops said of his decision not to release a depth chart.
  • Monday was the first time Stoops got the chance to see Neal Brown in action. He couldn't help but be impressed with his offensive coordinator. "I think Neal had the whole offensive side of the ball very organized," Stoops said. "I like the drills. I like the efficiency."
  • The offensive side is home to the positional battle that will surely draw the most attention throughout the spring. Sophomore quarterbacks Maxwell Smith, Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles all saw extensive action last season and will engage in open competition. On Monday, snaps were split equally among them. "We are rotating them each drill just to be fair with those guys," Stoops said. "All of them had their ups and downs. Each of them looked really good at times and at times, you know, they struggled just putting it all together, which you can understand."
  • It's clearly still very early, but UK's defensive players were struck by the relative simplicity of the base 4-3 system stoops and coordinator D.J. Eliot have brought with them. "It's so much simpler and less communication has to be made, which is kind of better," Williamson said. "It helps us out so we don't have to make as many calls."
  • On the injury front, Stoops says UK is healthy "for the most part." The exception mentioned on Monday was running back Josh Clemons, who missed all of last season recovering from a torn meniscus. When asked about Clemons' availability, Stoops said, "We'll see."
  • UK will practice twice more this week on Wednesday and Friday, opting not to scrimmage on Saturday in order to fully review installation. UK will practice in full pads on Friday.

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