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Stoops unwavering as UK looks for week-two improvement

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Mark Stoops and UK will return to the field for their home opener vs. Miami (Ohio) on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Mark Stoops and UK will return to the field for their home opener vs. Miami (Ohio) on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The Mark Stoops era has inspired grand visions about what Kentucky football could become under the new coach's leadership.

Such long-term thoughts are inevitable and have even contributed to building the momentum that defined the offseason, but UK's loss to Western Kentucky University served to redirect that focus back to the short term.

The season-opening defeat was an unmistakable reminder that there is much work to be done, not that Stoops himself ever forgot.

"I know exactly what we're in," Stoops said. "I knew what I was getting into, and I know what I'm into. So we're not going to flinch. We're going to do the best thing we can to move forward and win games."

That's why Stoops' locker-room message in Nashville was, "Back to work tomorrow." With six days to prepare for a home opener against Miami (Ohio) at noon ET on Saturday, Stoops told everyone on Monday what's at the top of his to-do list.

"The first thing is we all have to do is accept the reality of what it is," Stoops said. "We have to accept that and embrace that. It is what it is. I'm not discouraged.  I'm anxious to get back out there today, and I know the team will."

UK will return to the practice field on Monday afternoon, but Stoops and his fellow coaches didn't take Sunday off. They studied the WKU game film closely and identified adjustments to be made, of which there will be plenty. That much is clear from the updated depth chart released on Monday.

There will be new starters at left guard (Zach West replacing Teven Eatmon-Nared), wide receiver (Ryan Timmons for Daryl Collins) and weak-side linebacker (TraVaughn Paschal over Khalid Henderson), but the most talked-about move is at quarterback.

After coming on in relief of Jalen Whitlow and leading two fourth-quarter scoring drives, Maxwell Smith is now listed at No. 1 among quarterbacks on the depth chart. Asked directly whether that means Smith will start on Saturday, Stoops simply answered, "Yes."

The UK offense functioned best through the air when Smith was in the game, as the redshirt sophomore completed 8-of-13 passes for 125 yards and a touchdown. Considering Miami (Ohio) allowed 287 yards and five touchdowns through the air to Marshall in its own opener, Smith could be poised to continue his first-game success.

"Max, he came in there and did some good things, and Jalen did some good things as well, just like we thought he would," Stoops said. "There were some critical errors from both quarterbacks. So we need to improve at that position. We just feel like Max gives us the best opportunity this week."

Smith has always had the respect of his teammates, but they took special notice of the way he remained committed to preparing even after his coaches informed him he wouldn't be starting last Wednesday.

"As soon as they gave him the go, he came on and got everybody on the offense like, 'Let's go y'all,' " said wide receiver Demarco Robinson, who caught his first-career touchdown from Smith against WKU.  "When he shows that confidence, it makes us have confidence in him."

Immediately following the game, Smith put the onus on himself to step up as a leader regardless of his role. Stoops noticed that attitude even before then.

"I thought he did a great job during the game when he was not playing," Stoops said. "I've said that all along, that those guys have handled the situation very well. He did a great job, and we do need that kind of leadership."

Leadership will be particularly important this week as Stoops goes to work on his team's psyche. He will rely on his veterans to reinforce the messages he sends.

"The big thing for me is just finding the right chemistry and psychologically getting them ready to play, getting them over the hump," Stoops said. "I saw some wide eyes out there on Saturday, and we got to get over that. We've got to cut it loose and play."

Assuming that happens, Stoops anticipates the Commonwealth Stadium crowd will see the coaching cliché that teams improve most from week one to week two coming true.

"I thought about that because I do anticipate that," Stoops said. "I really do. I think we're all disappointed because we know we could have done better.  So that's where we're looking to make that improvement this week."

Nonetheless, UK won't make the drastic progress that Stoops has come to be known for from his previous coaching stops in a matter of a week. Stoops will never be patient in demanding the best from his players, but he has enough experience to know these things take time.

"There's no easy formula," Stoops said. "There's no easy switch. There's no magical scheme on either side of the ball that we can do overnight. We just got to get back to work and handle it with the right attitude and embrace it and get better."

Quinn's status uncertain; Budde out for season

Cornerback Cody Quinn has been battling an ankle injury since early in fall camp and missed the season opener after suffering what Stoops termed a "minor setback" in practice last week. Stoops said on Monday he is once again nearing a return, but Quinn is not listed on the depth chart due to the injury.

Stoops also announced that backup long snapper Kyle Budde suffered an injury on Saturday that will require season-ending surgery.

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