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Stoops, Cats thinking process, not big picture at Media Days

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- More than seven months in, Mark Stoops has essentially created a checklist for starting a head-coaching tenure.

He hired a coaching staff with a mix of Kentucky roots, knowledge and enthusiasm. He has established momentum on the recruiting trail with a record first signing class and the makings of a follow-up that could be even better. Along the way, he has both unified and energized a fan base.

"Everything has been positive," Stoops said. "From the moment I arrived on campus at Kentucky, I just felt so good about the support. The people are starving to have a good football program."

From the outside looking in, the change seems to have happened almost overnight. The student-athletes and coaches who live and breathe Kentucky football know otherwise.

One word is coming to define UK football under Stoops, and it's nothing to do with taglines ready-made for a billboard. It's all about process, and it took Stoops just six sentences into his opening statement at his press conference at Southeastern Conference Media Days on Wednesday to say so.

"We understand there's a lot of hard work that lies ahead, but we're embracing that process and working hard each and every day to improve this team," Stoops said.

While outsiders are wondering where UK's 2014 class will finish in final recruiting rankings next spring or where the Wildcats will be among the SEC pecking order five years from now, Stoops, his staff and players are thinking about the here and now. They're not bogged down in the enormity of the task at hand, instead thinking about the next workout, the next film session, the next practice.

"(Stoops) always tells us it's about the process and you just gotta win each process, starting with the winter," Donte Rumph said.

No one understands that better than Rumph.

Four years ago, the defensive tackle was in his second year at Fork Union Military Academy working to qualify so he could follow through on the National Letter of Intent he signed in 2008. Now, he's recognized among the top defensive tackles in the league and was one of three seniors to represent his team at SEC Media Days.

The journey has been a long one, but Rumph hasn't reached this point by thinking about far-off goals.

"You don't focus on the future," said Rumph, whose "Uncle Rumph" nickname was revealed on Wednesday. "Everything is a process in life, just like with me getting here. It's a slow process, but I finally got here and it makes you appreciate things more too. I enjoy the process and I embrace it and I'm just honored to have Coach Stoops."

Rumph and fellow Media Days representatives Avery Williamson and Raymond Sanders are all seniors, which could have made learning the personalities and system of a new staff a daunting prospect. But thanks to Stoops' process-driven approach, it's been tough but manageable.

"It's difficult, but you have to change what you're doing to get different results," Sanders said. "That's something that's happening and I'm glad to be a part of it. I wish I could start all over. It's new, but it's nothing that we can't handle as seniors."

UK is now nearing the end of the summer, during which Stoops and his assistants are unable to work with student-athletes due to NCAA rules. That means getting bodies right through the High Performance program - all three players in attendance reported major improvement across the team in that area - and, above all else, establishing what will be demanded come fall.

"I think having that great work ethic, that great understanding of what it takes to be successful and being consistent with that," Stoops said.

Though there's much work ahead, Stoops is fairly pleased with the attitudes of the players on his roster, particularly those he elected to bring with him to Birmingham, Ala.

"If you ask all three guys who are here, they're tired of losing," Stoops said. "They want to be put in a position to be successful and that's what I love about this team. I know we've had to make some changes and dismiss some players and we'll continue to work on our character as a football program, but I'm very excited about them. They want to be led in the right way. They're working extremely hard and they have a positive attitude."

Those three seniors have completely bought into the process mentality, and Williamson even has a metaphor to prove it. Inspired by High Performance coach Erik Korem, UK's star linebacker compares it to "slow cooking."

"You've gotta put the meat in first and then dice up the potatoes, put the seasoning on and it takes a while," Williamson said. "It's a process for everything. You can't rush big situations like this. It's slowly going to take place and I feel like that's what we've been doing over these last few months."

Rumph, Sanders and Williamson also understand that they won't be on campus when some of the seeds they are planting each day bear fruit. At the same time, they don't want to hear too much talk about the future. The 2013 season, after all, is the first of the processes that will define the Stoops era.

"We expect to do big things," Rumph said. "We expect to win every game. We never train to lose. We're trying to stay humble, stay on the grind and we're blue-collar workers. We work hard every day. We're just trying to take it day by day."

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