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Stoops striking balance between preparation, motivation as game week begins

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UK will play the first game of the Mark Stoops era on Saturday vs. Western Kentucky University. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics) UK will play the first game of the Mark Stoops era on Saturday vs. Western Kentucky University. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics)
This offseason has been a long one for Kentucky football. From a coaching change to spring practice to summer conditioning to fall camp, it likely seemed at some points as if UK's trip to Nashville for its season opener would never come.

But in just five days, it will be finally be here. For Bud Dupree, even that's not soon enough.

"I wish we could play tomorrow," the junior defensive end said. "We've been going through a lot. We went through a lot last season and doing a lot of things this offseason, so it feels like we haven't played a game in forever."

Mark Stoops understands the feeling.

Ever since the end of his playing days - and probably even before - Stoops has been working toward an opportunity be a head coach. When he steps on the field for UK's game on Saturday against Western Kentucky University, even the process-oriented Stoops admits he'll have to take a moment to soak it all in.

"I think maybe briefly or at the beginning," Stoops said. "Certainly, I mean, I'm human, and it will be exciting for me."

He won't let his thoughts linger for long though.

"But then it's getting right back at the task at hand and getting your team ready to win," Stoops said.

Stoops' approach to his own feelings about coaching his first game mirrors the way he is handling his team. He's aware of the emotional side of things and believes the Cats will be raring to go, but his first priority is making sure they are mentally and physically ready to play.

"The energy is not going to win you the game," Stoops said. "The preparation, the team that's prepared and the team that's the best team is going to win, who makes the fewest mistakes and doesn't turn the ball over and things like that."

For that reason, UK got off to an early start in its WKU-specific work. The Cats have never been through game week with this new staff, so Stoops called for UK to practice on Friday and Saturday as if it were Tuesday and Wednesday during a game week.

"Coach did a great job getting us ahead of schedule with how he wants practice done and practicing in the afternoon," running back Raymond Sanders said. "We just want to prepare, execute and we think that we should be successful if we do that."

Sanders - expected to shoulder a heavy offensive load during his senior season - has no shortage of confidence in himself and his team, but not all of his teammates are there just yet. Stoops' solution to that is one you would expect.

"So I think with confidence, you've got to prepare," Stoops said. "If you prepare in the right way and go about your business the right way, I think they'll gain more and more confidence."

No matter how much work the Cats do leading up to Saturday, there's no knowing what will happen until kickoff.

"I think we're a team that's still growing, a team that's still learning and trying to put it all together," Stoops said. "Again, I've said it all along. I've been pleased with their attitude and their work ethic and the way they're going about their business. The character of the team to see how much of a chip on our shoulder we have and how we go out there and play and how confidently we play is yet to be seen."

What is certain, however, is the importance of the opener. Stoops isn't hiding from what a good performance could do to carry forward the momentum generated this offseason.

"I think it's very important," Stoops said. "There's a lot of excitement around our program and around the state, and nationally really. It's time for us to go out and prove it and see what we're all about. I'm excited, and I think our team will be as well."

That should provide plenty of motivation for UK to be focused and enthusiastic, both in its pregame work and come Saturday at 7 p.m. ET.

"It could set the tone for the whole season if we perform well, if we execute well," offensive lineman Kevin Mitchell said. "It'll give us a lot more confidence heading into the rest of the season and give the fan base confidence in us."

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