It was Kentucky's habit a season ago to hold one final full practice on Thursday of game week before a lighter practice on Friday.
Mark Stoops is flipping the script in his second season.
"We're actually changing things up this year," Stoops said. "We're going very light and minimal on Thursdays. We're going to go fast on Fridays. It's a little different changeup."
The thinking is that the new schedule will allow the Wildcats to be at their best on game day. By the time Saturday rolled around a season ago, players had gone 48 hours without going full speed. By moving the recovery day earlier in the week and a more intense practice later, Stoops anticipates the Cats will be primed to play fast against UT Martin this weekend.
Though the move is a departure, it's not unprecedented. Stoops cited Oregon as one of a handful of college teams to make the change.
"There's plenty of other schools who have done this and so we did a little study in the offseason and looked at it and it's just another part of the plan to play faster," Stoops said.
With the nervous energy around the Nutter Training Center these days with the season opener so close at hand, players aren't likely to mind the chance to fly around on Friday.
"Just anxious to get going," Stoops said. "I think the players are anxious. Just seems like the summer went extremely fast, but this week seems a little bit slow. We're ready to get out there and tee it up and get playing."
Patrick Towles will make his college starting debut in UK's season opener on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Last Monday, Mark Stoops summoned Patrick Towles into his office.
After briefly letting Towles hang out to dry, the second-year head coach told the Fort Thomas, Ky., native he had won Kentucky's long-running quarterback battle.
Considering Towles had spent most of his football-playing life working toward the moment, the celebration that followed was more short-lived than you might expect.
"Obviously I got the nod, I'm excited about that," Towles said. "It's what I've always wanted, but that's over with now. I've gotta worry about playing Tennessee Martin on Saturday."
Once he was named the starter, Towles went from competition to preparation for UK's season opener at noon ET on Saturday. The transition has been relatively seamless, mostly because Towles hasn't really changed his approach. In the huddle, he's the same guy.
Of course there's some extra adrenaline flowing, but he's still managing to stay on an even keel.
"It's hard, but I'm excited," Towles said. "You know that you have to get prepared for the game and you can't be all excited and your mind going everywhere and 25 different places during practice or else you're not going to get anything productive done."
Adopting that mentality, Towles following the lead of his head coach.
"I think just try to stay as normal as possible," Mark Stoops said. "He doesn't need to put any more undue pressure on himself. The whole team needs to play well. I expect that he will be a little bit antsy, I'm sure, like you said. But he's just got to calm down and stay within himself and operate the offense."
Though Towles will certainly have the most eyes on him come Saturday, he really isn't much different than most of his teammates. The Wildcats a team full of players who must fill roles for the team to succeed, regardless whether they're the Southeastern Conference's active sack leader like Bud Dupree or a true freshman like Blake Bone, Stanley "Boom" Williams or Matt Elam.
"We've improved," Stoops said. "Our football team has worked hard. We'll see where we're at. I know we're going to play better. It will be good to see these young guys get out there and play, see how we've improved, see the veterans, guys like Bud and (Za'Darius Smith), see them come out and see how much they've improved."
For the first time since 2007, a home crowd will be able to see UK's offseason improvement firsthand. With eight true freshmen, six redshirt freshmen and three first-year junior-college transfers on the two-deep depth chart, Stoops knows UK can't afford to squander the opportunity to get off to a quick start.
"I know our fans are ready to go," Stoops said. "We need to do our part. I know we'll have great support. We need to go out there and start fast and play good football, play with great energy, play with great discipline, make it exciting for the fans."
Neal Brown is thinking the same thing.
After implementing his version of the Air Raid last season through fits and starts, the second-year offensive coordinator says the Cats are already ahead of where they were a season ago in terms of tempo. UK is far from a finished product, but Brown believes fans will see his group has made significant strides.
"I want to make sure that we're not playing so fast that we're hurting ourselves, you know?" Brown said. "But we're in a position now, going into our second fall, that we're able to play really fast when we need to. And there's going to be some times in this game where we'll play at a really quick pace -- faster than we ever executed last year."
UK's offense will contend with a UT Martin defense led by All-American linebacker Tony Bell. Bell led the Ohio Valley Conference with 10.5 sacks and 15 tackles for less.
"They have a great defensive player, No. 40, the linebacker, an exceptional player," Stoops said. "He's a really good football player. He can play anywhere in the country. Really like the way he plays. Like I said, I think they're a well-coached team. They're very multiple on both sides of the ball, can do a lot of things."
With an offseason for UT Martin head coach Jason Simpson to make changes, Stoops knows better than to try to predict what he'll see from the Skyhawks on Saturday. It's a good thing, then, that his primary objective for Saturday is all about his own team.
"We've got to go play well and be consistent," Stoops said. "We're not good enough to make simple mistakes and shoot ourselves in the foot, turn the ball over, things like that obviously. We want to be very consistent. We want to pick up our tempo offensively and continue to grow and move the ball like we want to move the ball.
"Defensively, again, be more consistent. We need to get more turnovers. We certainly need to get more interceptions."
As a freshman, Kentucky utilized Kaelon Fox in just about every position on the field except goalkeeper.
Now, entering his sophomore season, UK head coach Johan Cedergren is hoping that a firm positional role for Fox will help the standout from Louisville's St. Xavier High School.
A 6-foot-2, 155-pounder, Fox is firmly entrenched as a center back, alongside 6-foot-3 sophomore Jordan Wilson. The duo helps the Wildcats boast the potential for a dynamic defensive squad, with outside back Charlie Reymann also in his second year as an everyday starter.
As a freshman, Fox started eight games and played in 19 of UK's 20 games, totaling two goals and one assist, firing 29 shots. He saw starts on the backline, in the midfield and as an attacking player.
"I learned that college soccer is a difficult game," Fox said. "Coming in as a true defender and having to play forward, midfield and some defense last year, it gave me more knowledge how certain players move on and off the ball, how forwards move on and off the ball. It gave me more of an insight into how to properly defend those attacking players. It developed me more as a center back."
Fox netted his first career goal at Xavier, before adding a tally in UK's win over Florida Atlantic. He also added an assist vs. IPFW and had at least four shots in four games, including a six-shot effort vs. South Carolina.
After spending the spring playing on the backline with Wilson and Reymann, the three have formed a solid chemistry. With UK sophomore Alex Bumpus suffering a season-ending injury in the offseason, it means that the backline will feature a new face at the outside back position opposite Reymann.
"It is really good to have chemistry between your backline, because if you don't things can break down and that is not what you want from your back four and your keeper. Jordan, Charlie and I, the chemistry between us on and off the field is great. It just comes down to having each other's back on the field. When Jordan or Charlie steps up in the attack, we have the ability to cover for them. If someone gets beat off the ball, having their back there. I know Jordan and Charlie have my back. It is a great comfort feeling knowing we are there for each other."
With the backline supported by three veteran starters and a goalkeeper that Cedergren considers "one of the three best goalkeepers in the country" in Callum Irving, Kentucky will be anchored by its defending unit.
"Johan tells us that defense wins championships," Fox said. "That is a true statement. Having chemistry on the backline is great. Jordan, Charlie and I played the whole spring together on the backline which helped us with the chemistry. The defense that we have this year can be really great. We just have to keep building on it game after game."
While his defense will be a strength on the 2014 roster, Cedergren is going to count on Fox and Wilson to provide some scoring threats on set pieces with their size, physicality and athleticism.
"It is going to be pretty important," Fox said about the backline coming up on set pieces. "Johan wants our center backs to get four or five set-piece goals. We need to get our goals-per game up a little bit."
Kentucky opens its 2014 season Friday at 7 p.m. at Wright State. The Wildcats will debut the sparkling new Wendell & Vickie Bell Soccer Complex on Sunday with a twinbill with the women's soccer program, with UK taking on Belmont at 5 p.m.
If the Wildcats are nervous as the final days pass before Kentucky's season opener against UT Martin, it isn't showing in practice.
It was another day of productive work for UK on Wednesday.
"We had a good practice today," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "Guys were into it, focused, getting better fundamentally and ready to play."
Ready to play and mostly healthy. Outside of wide receivers Jeff Badet (eye) and Alexander Montgomery (recovery from knee surgery), UK is expected to be at full strength at noon ET on Saturday.
"We're right where we thought we'd be," Eliot said. "Everybody's ready to go. Everybody's geared up and ready for the game and we won't miss a beat."
That includes star senior Bud Dupree, who made it through fall camp even though he was prevented from doing his favorite thing: hitting the quarterback.
"It's horrible having the quarterbacks in red jerseys and having to stop on a play, stop before you can get to them and stopping on offensive linemen sometimes," Dupree said. "Sometimes you want to go through the linemen and just hit them but you know you can't."
The Southeastern Conference's active sack leader only has to wait three more days before getting a shot at an opposing quarterback, and he'll do it both standing and with his hand in the dirt. Dupree will play defensive end opposite Za'Darius Smith in UK's 4-3 set and linebacker when the Cats go 3-4.
"The 3-4 is great for showing athleticism and keeping as many good guys on the field as you can, as well as having big edge setters too," Dupree said.
In the starting 3-4 look, UK will play with tackles Melvin Lewis and Mike Douglas and Smith along the line. Dupree and sophomore Jason Hatcher will play outside linebacker. Hatcher hasn't gotten the attention of some of his teammates in camp with Dupree and Smith returning, but the coaches know they have to find ways to get him on the field.
"He's had a great camp," Eliot said. "Jason's gotten better every day. There's always a big jump from Year 1 to Year 2 and we've seen it with him. He's a better athlete. He's a better player. He understands the game better. And we're very pleased with his progress."
Josh Forrest and another player will complete the front seven in the 3-4 at the two inside linebacker spots. As for who will start with Forrest, a decision has not been made between junior-college transfer Ryan Flannigan and Khalid Henderson. Henderson, a junior, has experience on his side, but Flannigan is competing.
"He's right where I expected him to be," Eliot said. "He has transitioned well. He's picking up the defense. He's physically right where he needs to be. He's right on track."
Bryan Celis. Photo by Photo by Britney Howard, UK Athletics
By Brent Ingram
Kentucky's 2014 men's soccer team features four upperclassmen on a youthful roster with high hopes for the upcoming season.
Because of the nature of the roster, those four upperclassmen will be counted on to shoulder a large share of the leadership burden.
Among them is junior midfielder Bryan Celis, a talented product of Houston's Mayde Creek High School.
Celis enters his junior season after starring in the midfield for the Wildcats the last two seasons. Celis is coming off a sophomore campaign that was limited to 12 starts due to injury. Despite missing time, Celis totaled three assists, including a pass that set up on the game-winning goal in the season opener vs. Georgia State.
A 5-foot-8, 159 pounder, Celis stepped right into the UK lineup as a freshman in 2012, helping pace the Wildcats back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2003. Celis played in all 21 games in his collegiate debut, with 11 starts as an attacking midfielder and forward. Celis finished with a goal and four assists. His four assists ranked second on the club.
"Coming in my freshman year I didn't know what to expect," Celis said. "I didn't know much about college soccer so it was all basically new to me. Now that I've spent three years here, I've learned a lot, how to manage my time with school and soccer, what to expect on and off the field, being a leader, being one of the older guys, and having to teach the young guns how things are done around here."
Celis joined the UK roster after a standout prep career in Houston. He saw time on the US U-17, U-15 and U-14 national teams, while TopDrawerSoccer.com ranked him as the 75th-best player in the class. He also saw time with the Dallas Texans in the US Soccer Development Academy.
"We all come from different backgrounds and different playing styles," Celis said. "Johan (Cedergren) really looks up to players the come from MLS academy teams. Me being one of them, he knows that I know the right things to do on and off the field. He believes that I can be a huge leader in the team and he wants me to teach the other guys how to overcome some of the obstacles that they are going to face and tell them to keep working hard and always being there for them and helping them play at 100 percent."
An obvious strength of the Kentucky squad entering 2014 is its defense, which is led by preseason All-Conference USA goalkeeper Callum Irving. Irving will help anchor the backline, along with talented returning starters Jordan Wilson, Charlie Reymann and Kaelon Fox.
"Having Callum back this year is going to be a great help to us," Celis said. "Cally has been with the Vancouver Whitecaps training all summer. Having Jordan, Fox and Cally back there is going to be a good help this year just because we all played together last year. We are a little bit more familiar with each other and our strengths and weaknesses. And same in the midfield with Kristoffer (Tollefsen), we all know how we play, we all know our strengths and we try to play towards our strengths so we are not exposed and vulnerable against teams."
As Kentucky gets ready for the 2014 season, one dominant storyline is the debut season of the sparkling new Wendell & Vickie Bell Soccer Complex.
"We are really excited," Celis said about opening up the new stadium. "I am sure I am speaking for everybody, we got the help through Mitch Barnhart and others who were kind enough to donate money to the stadium. New team, new training facilities, everything has us excited to get back to the season and start playing again. That is pretty much what we came here to do, is play soccer."
Kentucky opens its 2014 season on Friday at Wright State at 7 p.m. in Dayton, Ohio. UK will then debut the Bell Complex on Sunday at 5 p.m. vs. Belmont.
Leading up to Kentucky's season-opener on August 29, we asked each member of the team what Kentucky Volleyball meant to them. The final feature is head coach Craig Skinner:
"Kentucky volleyball is a culture of great people that are striving to be the best. Our staff and players over the years have created an environment of achievement and success. We collectively work daily to be elite and become better than yesterday. Each year, athletes join us who are willing to embrace that concept."
Head coach Craig Skinner enters his 10th season at the helm. With 202 career victories in Lexington, Skinner sits just eight wins shy of becoming the program's all-time winningest coach. He has led the Wildcats to a school-record nine consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, a feat only 12 other schools in the nation have achieved. He has directed UK to three Sweet Sixteen appearances since 2009 and was named the 2011 AVCA All-South Region Coach of the Year. Kentucky has won 17 or more matches in each of Skinner's nine seasons, including 20 or more victories in six of the last seven campaigns.
Preseason Team Update: August 27, 2014
Today is the first day of class, and the Wildcats have their last day off of the 2014 preseason. The team will be back in the gym tomorrow, preparing for Friday's season-opener vs. Wichita State.
Cat Scratches, the Official Blog of UK Athletics, has a feature on the team. By Guy Ramsey, the article looks back on the team's trip to China earlier in the summer and how that has helped the team during preseason practice.
Yesterday was media day UK volleyball. Head coach Craig Skinner, seniors Jackie Napper and Lauren O'Conner and junior Morgan Bergren met with the media to preview the upcoming season. Video from the event can be viewed here.
For an archive of previous "What Kentucky Volleyball Means to Me" entries and team updates throughout the preseason, follow along with the full Countdown to 2014 UK Volleyball, leading up to the August 29 season-opener. Additional updates throughout preseason practice can be found on Twitter at @KentuckyVBand on Instagram at @KentuckyVolleyball.
Craig Skinner was visiting with his assistants earlier this week about Kentucky's run of practices leading up to the 2014 season.
There have been up and downs, to be sure, but the coaching staff could find little to complain about in the effort department.
"The coaches kind of said that we really haven't had a day where the concentration and intent to perform wasn't there, and that's fairly unusual because you go so hard for so long and a short period of time that you're bound to have some days where it's not really focused and energetic," Skinner said. "But that hasn't been the case."
If you ask Skinner or the Wildcats themselves, that has a lot to do with a cultural exchange trip to China the team took in May. For two weeks, UK toured the Far East on a journey that combined high-level volleyball, education about the nation they visited and plenty of team bonding.
"It went really well. We played professional teams over there which was even more experience," senior outside hitter Lauren O'Conner said. "It's great that we were able to get experience with the team that we had without the seniors (from the 2013 season) to get even more practice with us and to build the chemistry on the court playing together with a new lineup. So I think it helped out a lot both physically and mentally."
That's especially true on defense.
Given the experience and talent of the opponents they faced in China, the Wildcats learned quickly no points would be given to them. That resulted in some losses, including a 3-0 defeat in their final match with each set being decided after a deuce point, but also a new mentality in practice this August.
"We've talked about how this could be the best defensive team we've had here at Kentucky," Skinner said. "I think part of it is talent, but I think also that it is because all but three of the girls (true freshmen Kaz Brown, Ashley Dusek and Darian Mack) saw firsthand how hard it was to win a rally over there and that you have to work for it."
The Cats won't go up against any teams as veteran as the ones they saw in China, but UK won't get much of a reprieve to start the season or really at any point during the 2014 season. In hosting two tournaments in Memorial Coliseum to start the season, the Cats will go up against three teams that reached last year's NCAA Tournament, including Wichita State in Friday's 6:30 p.m. ET season opener and Elite Eight participant USC next week.
UK will have to do it without Whitney Billings and Alexandra Morgan, two players honored as All-Americans last season who have since graduated.
"We've had to adapt a little bit, to change our style a little bit and I think our players understand and appreciate that challenge and are certainly embracing it and we're finding new ways," Skinner said. "Now it's just putting all of it to the test when we finally play against outside competition to see if those things have worked."
Even without Billings and Morgan, it's not as if UK is devoid of experience.
The Cats return five of seven starters from last year's team, which reached the tournament for a record ninth season in a row. Leading the way will be O'Conner, senior libero Jackie Napper and setter Morgan Bergren.
"We have a core group of people on the court that are working together," Napper said. "Morgan's a junior, but she's really stepped up to be a leader, as well as other underclassmen and upperclassmen. So together, we all try to figure out what works best with this team, ways to lead others, and ways to bring others on board."
UK's roster features a mix of veterans and players who will look to contribute for the first time, with seven seniors or juniors and five freshmen. Skinner doesn't downplay the importance of experience, but he also doesn't believe it's the most important thing once the ball is served.
"I think in our case, probably the most important thing in all of our athletes is that they're talented and motivated," Skinner said. "So whether they've been here for four years or just beginning, we feel very good about the group of people that we have and now it's about getting on the court Friday and seeing what it's all about for us this year."
Newest Kentucky baseball assistant coach Rick Eckstein joined Dick Gabriel's Big Blue Insider on Tuesday night. Eckstein talked about his time as a big-league hitting coach with the Washington Nationals from 2009-13 and his last year with the Los Angeles Angels and UK baseball great Collin Cowgill.
On why he would leave the big leagues to come to the SEC ... "That's an easy question. To reconnect with Gary Henderson and be in the SEC. Raise my family here in Lexington. There are just so many positives; I can go on and on."
On his previous relationship with Gary Henderson at Florida ... "He recruited me as a preferred walk-on. Made the team and earned my way. We ended up finishing third in the country that year. When the year was over, I was offered the opportunity as a volunteer assistant coach and that is where I really got to work side by side with Gary and see how he went about his day. And right away I recognized why we were so good. Gary is meticulous, just so knowledgeable. Gary was our recruiting coordinator and we were just getting so many great players. As my career unfolded we stayed in touch and this opportunity came up and my wife and I looked at each other and said this is the right opportunity for us. I couldn't be happier. We are here in Lexington and looking forward to raising our family here and settling down in Lexington. Jumping in head first the last few days has been great, getting to meet the staff and the players, I just couldn't be more excited."
On following along with UK when it soared to its first No. 1 national ranking in 2012 ... "It doesn't surprise me. I know Gary. I know what Gary stands for and I know what he is going to build. When I had the opportunity to be a part of that I didn't even hesitate. I knew it was where I needed to be. On a side note, being with the Angels and Collin Cowgill being on the major league roster, I got to talk extensively with him about his time at Kentucky. And Collin is just a wonderful human being and just an outstanding player on top of it. It is no wonder the Angels are right there in first place because he is a part of that. He brings that type of attitude with him. And that is what Kentucky baseball represents and he is representing UK in the big leagues with that same attitude."
On working with Collin Cowgill as he impacted the Los Angeles Angels ... "Having worked under Mike Scioscia and knowing his philosophy. It's everything that I believe in, and Gary too. It's the character of the player. It's the work ethic. It's the attention to detail. It's the commitment to excellence. Its giving it everything you have for your teammates. That is what Mike Scioscia values for his system. And when Collin came over in spring training and was earning a spot on the team, it was visible from day one that this guy was going to help us win. Whether it was coming off the bench to steal a base, or coming off the bench to get a bunt down. Or whether he was going to hit the game-winning home run like he did against Oakland earlier in the season. He had every trick in his bag and that is because of the development Gary and his staff had in the program. It is just a wonderful process that you can see in Collin."
On his relationship with Albert Pujols ... "Well Albert and I were able to work together through the years. My brother was a part of the St. Louis Cardinals and I was around them for a lot of time and then in 2007 I was hired by St. Louis and got to see Albert 1-on-1 for a good portion of the season. He has a work ethic that is second to none; his attention to detail. He would not let anything go. He wants to know everything and he will work until he figures it out. Our relationship blossomed because of one at-bat. It was against Carlos Zambrano and needless to say he did a few things to get himself in position and the rest is history from our relationship standpoint. We reconnected again with Anaheim and from day one it was the same type of approach, the same mentality, the same work ethic. He showed up every day with the same commitment on day one that he has on day 162 and more. It is phenomenal."
On how much he can talk with UK's hitters about his big-league experience ... "No you are absolutely right. This is about JaVon Shelby. This is about Zach Arnold. This isn't about Albert and Collin. It is my job to understand our guys as a person and a player. Get inside their head and understand their mindset. I believe in coaching as a two-way street. We are both going to understand each other so we have a great line of communication and dialog. The buy in is going to be easy, they are going to understand where I am coming from and I am going to understand where they are coming from. That respect is where you gain miles and miles of knowledge and acceptance and everything that comes with achieving the goals that come with that. I am sure players are going to want to know about Mike Trout and Bryce Harper and Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton and Barry Bonds and all the guys that I have had the great fortune to work with. But at the same time, I am going to focus on our players and I am going to use the knowledge I have working with those guys to talk about adjustments. To talk about mindset, the mentality, about the character it takes and the understanding that failure is a part of how to be successful and how do you handle the tough moments and how do you rise to the top. That is all a part of the message."
On if UK's offense has some big pieces to replace in former stars AJ Reed and Austin Cousino ... "Absolutely. You are going to lose some of those good guys in AJ and Austin Cousino. But we are going to get to replace them with some great guys that Brad Bohannon and Keith Vorhoff have helped bring in and recruited. They are getting talent into the system and that is exciting. I am glad to be a part of that. I am proud to be a part of that. We might miss out on a little power but we have team speed, we have the ability to get on base. We have the mentality, I know has been preached and that is right up my alley. The make-up of our team is going to be a huge strength. We had a team meeting last night. Gary Henderson led the meeting and I just sat back and watched the room. I watched the players. They were into it. They were there. You felt like one big family. I tell you what, I left that room and I told my wife after I got home late, 'I am fired up. I am ready to go. These guys are ready to go.' I am not a big guy. My brother is not a big guy. We were raised on the mentality that the size of the player doesn't matter. It's what you give every day. It's how much you pour into the program. What stamp are you leaving on the program? That is indicative, whether you are the giant monster of Kyle Cody or the little big guy of Rick Eckstein."
On what hitting philosophy he subscribes to ... "I would say that I know Charley Lau's theories. I know Ted Williams' theories. I know Davey Johnson's theories. I've worked for Frank Robinson. I know Mike Scioscia's theory. I've had the great fortune to work with some of the best hitters that have ever played the game, and talk with them. I had a chance to work 1-on-1 with Barry Bonds for three weeks in Japan for the Major League All-Star Series and literally was fascinated with how his mind worked and we talked and hit it off. I have taken pieces of everyone I have been around and you file those in your head. Everyone is unique. Everybody is different. Everybody is going to stand in the box different. Everybody is going to see the baseball coming at them differently. It is my job to get into the mindset and understand how they see and how they digest that information to make it efficient. To say that I am a Charley Lau guy or a Ted Williams guy, no, I am a guy that is going to work to help each guy individually to see who they are supposed to be with the parameters of that I believe that there are table setters and I believe that there are run producers. When you have a table setter like David Eckstein trying to hit home runs, then that isn't going to work. And when you have a run producer, like Barry Bonds, we don't want him hitting singles the other way. There is a common sense in that philosophy, where we are looking at you like what is your potential? What are you supposed to do in our system? Where are you supposed to be? And that is how the philosophy shapes the guys while they are here under my watch and by the time that we get everything settled and the lineup, top to bottom, everybody will be pulling their weight."