The schedule calls for Mark Stoops to talk to the media on Mondays and Thursdays during game week, with UK's offensive and defensive coaches available on Tuesday and Wednesday. After his weekly media luncheon on Monday, Stoops was supposed to have a two-day break.
As he came off the field on Tuesday, Stoops was in a jovial mood, even stepping over to the podium for an unscheduled media opportunity.
"It was good," Stoops said of UK's Tuesday practice. "We had a lot of work. We got a lot of work done today. We needed to. Good hot day. Felt good about the energy. Guys are starting to lock in and execute well. So overall, it was a very good practice."
With the Wildcats just five days from its season lidlifter vs. UT Martin at Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday at noon on the SEC Network, Stoops and offensive coordinator Neal Brown are continuing to get the offense working at the desired tempo and excelling on first down.
"We'll be much faster week one this year than we were at any point last year," Stoops said, referencing UK's 2013 season opener against WKU. "Like I said before, we've got to get some production on first down. That's a big key for us to move the football. We're not good enough on any side yet to go fast and not get first downs. So we have to move the ball, and even though you're going fast, you still have to chew up some clock by getting first downs and running plays. But I feel good. I feel like we're improved, and they're ready to go."
Brown echoed Stoops' assertion that a high-tempo offensive unit needs to excel on first down in order to run the desired offense.
"We did not play with very good tempo at Western," Brown said about the tempo of 2014 camp compared to 2013. "We tried to early and we just didn't do a very good job of it at all. We'll pick our spots in this game. I want to make sure that we're not playing so fast that we're hurting ourselves, you know? 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."
With sophomore Patrick Towles earning the starting quarterback job entering the campaign, Stoops and Brown are focused on getting the 6-foot-5, 238-pounder and the offense off to a strong start.
"Yeah, I think it's important to get Patrick and everybody (off to a fast start)," Brown said. "Y'all looked at our depth chart. We've got a bunch of young guys in that two-deep, especially at the skill positions. So we've got to be simple. It's important to get Patrick off to a good start, but it's also important to get Kyle Meadows off to a good start. It's also important to get Stanley (Williams), when he gets in the game, off to a good start, all those freshmen wideouts that are going to play. So you've got to not only take Patrick into (account), but you've got to take everybody."
While Towles and the entire UK squad will be eager to get on the field and face a team not wearing blue and white, Stoops stressed the importance of keeping things as normal as possible.
"(Patrick) doesn't need to put any more undue pressure on himself," Stoops said. "The whole team needs to play well. I expect that he will be a little bit antsy. But he's just got to calm down and stay within himself and operate the offense. And that's where it is important to get off on a fast start and give him some things that he can manage early until he gets settled in."
Leading up to Kentucky's season-opener on August 29, we asked each member of the team what Kentucky Volleyball meant to them. Next up is redshirt freshman Sharay Barnes:
"Kentucky volleyball is all about improving yourself as a person as well as a player. By being in this program, my teammates and coaches have helped me gain confidence in my play."
A redshirt freshman from Swarthmore, Pa., Sharay Barnes did not compete in her first season at Kentucky. A four-year letterwinner for Strath Haven High School, Barnes was a two-time All-State selection and was named Player of the Year as a senior. The middle blocker/outside hitter also competed for Synergy Volleyball Club and was named one of the top seniors by PrepVolleyball.com.
Preseason Team Update: August 26, 2014
Today was media day for several of UK's fall sports, including the volleyball team. 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.
Junior goalkeeper Callum Irving was named first-team All-Conference USA in 2013. (Chet White, of UK Athletics, took this photo)
It is common that good goalkeepers don't hit their peak until their late 20s, early 30s.
It is a position that require vocal leadership, quick thinking and a mature physical presence.
In his third season in between the pipes for the Kentucky men's soccer team, Callum Irving is developing into one of the best goalkeepers in college soccer.
Coming off a first-team All-Conference USA season as a sophomore, Irving enters the 2014 season with high hopes of taking the next step in his development, while helping lead the Wildcats back to the NCAA Tournament after a one-year absence.
With a stated goal of allowing 18 goals or less on the year, Irving and the Wildcats have high hopes for a strong defensive unit. With a back four featuring returning starters Jordan Wilson and Kaelon Fox at center back and Charlie Reymann at outside back, the strength of the UK roster appears to be in its defense.
Part of a strong defensive unit involves a vocal leader in goal, a role that Irving is embracing as a third-year standout.
"It is massive to be a vocal goalkeeper," Irving said. "As a keeper I have to be loud and commanding because I can see everything on the field. I need to be able to help guys out whenever I can. They also need to be able to let me know when I am doing things wrong or when I need to help them in certain areas. The communication with me, and not just the backline but with the entire team, is really important to keep things cohesive."
A 6-foot-1, 190-pounder, Irving has been tabbed a team captain for the 2014 season, with UK third-year head coach Johan Cedergren employing a leadership council.
"It's a real honor," Irving said about being a team captain. "It is something I've wanted to do for a while. I am just happy that I have been able to be put in a position to be one of the leaders on this team. It is a big challenge with such a young squad but the guys have a lot of respect for each other and I think they respect me as a player and a person. I look forward to being able to share some of the tougher situations I've been through as a junior player and help the freshmen get past that learning curve so they can all have a good impact on our season."
In 2013, Irving entered the season as the backup to senior co-captain Jack Van Arsdale. Van Arsdale shined in 2012 after earning the job midway through the season. Irving moved into the starting role for the final 13 games of 2013, totaling 16 starts on the year and allowing 18 goals in 1484 minutes. He finished with a 1.09 goals-against average, the 11th-best total in program history, with his six shutouts ranking ninth.
Irving was voted by the league coaches to the C-USA first-team in 2013, marking the second first-team all-conference goalkeeper in UK history and the first since Andy Gruenebaum in 2005.
Irving enters 2014 having transformed his body and benefiting greatly from two years of experience for the Wildcats.
"Naturally I have physically matured quite a bit, putting on 30 pounds since my freshman year," Irving said. "Other than the physicality, it is just about being through different game scenarios. Being down, letting in own goals, making saves, there are a bunch of different scenarios that you go through and you learn from. For a keeper every game is a learning experience. Having a bunch of reps and having some game time has really helped me understand a lot of different scenarios, especially when it comes to college soccer, because it is a real different game from youth soccer. Being able to start leading the team has helped me mature and made me more calm at the back and have an expectation of what's going to come."
One of the keys to Irving's development has been the individual instruction from third-year goalkeeping coach David Casper.
"It has helped a ton," Irving said about his relationship with Casper. "It is great that we have a goalie coach that works with us every day. He puts in a ton of work on and off the field. He is one guy that is never satisfied, which is the best thing. Even if I had a good game, he will congratulate me, but we are still focused on the things that I did wrong in the game. He helps to keep me humble and keep me focused on always getting better and not being satisfied. No matter what he has always had my back. He is pretty big in getting me where I am."
As a freshman, Irving came in as a highly touted recruit out of Vancouver, British Columbia. In a preseason battle with Van Arsdale, Irving won the starting job for the season lidlifter at Dayton. He allowed four goals in a 4-3 loss but made six saves on 15 shots, making several jaw-dropping saves that left glimpses of his raw abilities.
Van Arsdale started the next two games before Irving returned to the starting lineup in Cedergren's first career win, posting a clean sheet vs. St. Joe's. After starting vs. No. 4 Charlotte and allowing a first-half tally, Irving gave way in the second half to Van Arsdale. The next game sparked a season turn around for the Wildcats, as Van Arsdale turned in a heroic effort in leading UK to a win at No. 18 Louisville, securing the starting job for the remainder of 2012, with UK earning an NCAA Tournament hosting berth.
"I learned how to bounce back from failure and realize that not everything is going to be handed to you," Irving said about what he learned as a freshman. "And you have to work to earn the respect from the people around you. It was a really good learning experience and I think it benefited me more than if I had played."
After resting the two-game exhibition schedule to open the year, Irving returned to the training pitch on Monday and is eager to get on the field for the season opener. Kentucky will open its 2014 season on Friday at Wright State at 7 p.m. ET. The Wildcats will then open up the sparkling new Wendell & Vickie Bell Soccer Complex with Belmont on Sunday at 5 p.m. ET.
At long last, UK's season opener is on the horizon.
After months of work in spring practice, summer conditioning and fall camp, the Wildcats are about to line up across from opponents in different color jerseys. Finally, Mark Stoops' offseason refrain about the progress of his team will be put to the test.
"As I said before throughout this summer, we've improved," Stoops said. "Be interesting to go out there and see how much."
For the first time since 2007, a home crowd will be able to see UK's offseason improvement firsthand in the season opener. The Wildcats will face UT Martin at noon ET on Saturday in Commonwealth Stadium.
"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."
Opening at home for the first time in seven years and following that with another game in Commonwealth in week two, the Cats have a chance to build some early-season momentum. It's an opportunity Stoops says they can't squander.
"I think it's real important, I do," Stoops said. "I think we need to start fast. We need to go out and play well."
In evaluating that, Stoops will be looking for an accumulation of routine plays, not highlights readymade for SportsCenter.
"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."
That's a challenge given how much UK will rely on a number of players who have never been on the field at this level. Seventeen players listed on Kentucky's two-deep depth chart are first-year junior-college transfers or freshmen, including eight true freshmen.
All of them, to this point, have prepared as much as possible in practice and through UK's High Performance program, but there's only so much that can be done.
"Certainly with young guys, some guys are going to go out there for the first time and they're going to exceed our expectations, then some guys will probably have some rough spots here and there, have some mental mistakes, physical mistakes, things like that," Stoops said. "That's why you have to get out there and play. There's no substitution for experience."
As young as this Kentucky team may be, the Wildcats are still in a better spot than they were a year ago. That's why UK won't rely on newcomers quite as much as in 2013.
"We're getting better," Stoops said. "As we get better, it gets harder to beat out some guys for playing time. That's what you want in our program."
Dupree, Smith still drawing raves from Stoops
Stoops isn't normally one to think too far into the future, but he made an exception on Monday.
Asked where he expects senior defensive end/linebacker Bud Dupree to go in next spring's NFL Draft, the second-year UK coach didn't hesitate.
"I'd be very shocked if Bud was not a first-round draft pick," Stoops said.
Stoops went on to say that he can envision Dupree going early in the first round if he has the kind of season expected of him. Given Stoops' experience coaching NFL-level talent at Florida State, his opinion has some weight.
"Bud is special," Stoops said. "He has that ability to play standing up. Put his hand in the dirt. He's a pass rusher. He's got instincts. With everybody going to a lot of the 3-4 things, outside backers, versatility, he's a very good player."
Dupree is listed as a strong-side linebacker on the depth chart, but the versatility Stoops appreciates so much will allow him to play plenty at end as well. When he does, he'll line up opposite Za'Darius Smith, who has a professional future of his own.
He and Dupree bypassed the NFL Draft to return for their senior season. Stoops believes they'll improve their draft stock with their decisions, but he knows UK has already benefited from their presence.
"As I said a lot through the offseason, leadership is the first thing that jumps out at you," Stoops said. "But also confidence. Our players see those guys out there, they make plays, are consistent, they're always there. They're great to have."
UT Martin linebacker Bell has UK's attention
With an offseason for UT Martin head coach Jason Simpson to make changes, Stoops knows to expect the unexpected on Saturday.
"They might get out there and try to pressure the heck out of us, or drop," Stoops said. "They've shown both, where they've been conservative and drop eight guys into coverage a bunch, or they can blitz the house and come after you. I imagine we'll see a bit of everything. It will be good for us to see how we prepare and respond to that."
Whatever looks the Skyhawks show, Stoops knows to be on the lookout for Tony Bell. The senior linebacker returns to anchor the UT Martin defense after an All-American season in 2013 in which he tallied 10.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss.
"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." Miller, Cunningham suspended for opener
UK announced on Monday that left tackle Darrian Miller and wide receiver Rashad Cunningham have been suspended for Saturday's season opener for an undisclosed violation of team rules. Both will return for week two.
In Miller's absence, regular right tackle Jordan Swindle will move to the left side and redshirt freshman Kyle Meadows will fill Swindle's spot.
Returning to the lineup after a two-game suspension to close 2013 will be Demarco Robinson. He is listed as a starter at one of four wide receiver spots along with Ryan Timmons, Javess Blue and Joey Herrick. Robinson will also share punt-returning duties with Timmons.