Even compared to his fellow newcomers in UK's record-setting 2014 recruiting class, junior-college transfer Ryan Flannigan is facing lofty expectations.
Playing linebacker -- one of the thinnest positions on the roster -- Flannigan is projected by many as an immediate contributor.
Flannigan isn't shying away from his potential importance -- he came to Kentucky in part because of the prospect of early playing time -- but he also knows he has a long way to go.
"I figured I was pretty important," Flannigan said on the first day of fall camp, "but I'm not important if I don't know what I'm doing."
On that front, Flannigan is playing catchup.
Twenty-six of his 27 fellow newcomers were on campus over the summer, but Flannigan only arrived this past weekend. He missed out on the time his teammates spent in the film room and Mark Stoops confirmed Flannigan is behind.
"I'm just trying to learn each positon at the linebacker position, take it day by day," the former Blinn College standout said. "I felt like today I did pretty good learning the new stuff. So, first day, it was great, I'd say."
Had it not been for all the work Flannigan logged this summer, he might have been singing a different tune. Flannigan, aware of what he was missing in UK's High Performance strength and conditioning program, put himself through a rigorous running routine.
"I didn't want to be out of breath and not conditioned well and stuff like that," Flannigan said. "I just really wanted to stay in shape because I knew there's a lot of running in the SEC and I knew I had to get my running right. So I just ran a lot. A lot a lot. And I lifted weights too."
When he wasn't training at his high school in Missouri City, Texas, you likely would have found Flannigan either eating or studying film defensive coordinator and linebackers coach D.J. Eliot sent him. Based on that independent film study, Eliot would then ask Flannigan questions over the phone.
"He quizzed me," Flannigan said. "I passed a couple of tests. But yeah, he quizzed me. Coach Eliot's been great. I'm happy to have him as a coach. He stuck with me all through the summer. He didn't just leave me out to dry. He made sure I knew everything I needed to know and he just said I need to execute my job."
On day one, Flannigan lined up at weakside linebacker. Early returns were positive.
"Did a good job," Eliot said. "He's very athletic, caught on quick. It's what he needed to do, so I was impressed with him on the first day."
Still, Flannigan has lots of work ahead. To get it done, he plans to call on the help of anyone who will answer.
"I'm asking linebackers, defensive line," Flannigan said. "I mean, (anything) I'm confused with I'm asking everybody I can, everybody I can get my hands on I'm asking questions because I know that's the only way to get better. They know the defense and I don't and I have to stick with somebody that knows it."
Though he'll use every resource available to him, Flannigan knows Eliot is his best bet.
"It's not going to be easy, but we will get it done," Flannigan said. "I will stay in Coach's pocket, I'll stay in his hip and we're going to get it done."
In late July, nine student-athletes - Bria Goss (women's basketball), Jared Phillips (track/cross country), Charlie Reymann (men's soccer), Montana Whittle (gymnastics), Danielle Fitzgerald (women's soccer), Katrina Keirns (swimming and diving), John Sutton (rifle), Kirsten Lewis (women's tennis), Haley Mills (women's golf) - participated in the second of two annual service trips to Ethiopia sponsored by UK Athletics. Over the next week, they will take turns sharing their experiences through a series of blog entries. Please note that these posts are the student-athletes' personal reactions and the views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Kentucky or UK Athletics.
To start off, Bria Goss writes about the group's first day of travel and time in Washington, D.C.
By Bria Goss
This is the day we have all been waiting for. As excitement rises, so does nervousness. There are so many questions running through my mind as I make my final preparations for the trip. I am unsure what to expect when I get to Ethiopia, even though I have a pretty clear image.
The plan was to meet in the K Fund office to get lots of snacks from Coach Rock (Oliver) and double-check our bags to make sure we had everything. Today is Haley Mills' birthday so Katrina very generously gave her homemade brownies. Katrina and Haley had only met once or twice before that and Katrina already showed an act of kindness by giving her brownies. From that point on, I knew I had to make friends with Katrina to get some sweets on my birthday!!!
As 10:30 a.m. rolled around, it was time to load the bus and head to Cincinnati where we will depart for Washington, D.C. I slept the whole ride to catch up on some much-needed rest. We arrived at the airport and check our bags. Everyone was so nice helping us along and pointing us to our next destination. We had a wonderful lunch in the airport and continued on our way. As we boarded the plane was when I first realized I was traveling to Ethiopia.
The plane ride was smooth and I slept the whole hour and a half. When we got to the Washington, D.C. Airport, we quickly grabbed our bags and headed to the hotel. After we dropped everything off in the rooms, we met in the lobby for our tour. Our tour guide, Zuma, was awesome. Not only did he make the tour interesting, he taught me a lot about D.C. Zuma took us everywhere: the Pentagon, Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, the Capitol, the White House and much more. He made the tour special and enjoyable.
After the tour was done, we went to dinner. This is where I really got the chance to talk with the other student-athletes. As the day went on, we became closer. After a great meal, we surprised Haley by telling the waiter it was her birthday. The staff of the restaurant came out singing happy birthday with a lot of energy. Haley was shocked! The look on her face was priceless.
After a night of many laughs, we loaded back up in our bus and headed for the hotel. We had a long day the next day so we wanted to get some rest. I am so excited to see what this trip has to offer. I am still so thankful for this amazing opportunity.
Big thanks everybody for all the love as we head to Ethiopia today. Proud to be apart of an athletic dept that makes a difference #weareUK
Alarms sounded early for the Kentucky football team - 5 a.m. ET in Bud Dupree's case - as UK opened fall camp with a 6 a.m. practice
While most other teams were still sleeping, the Wildcats were working without pads on the fields at the Nutter Training Facility.
"It was good to get out here," Mark Stoop said. "Good first day. I really liked the energy for an early morning practice. I thought we did a good job defensively, great communication, good competitive plays. Need to continue to clean up offensively like you'd suspect, a little rusty, but overall good first day."
A later end to summer classes is the reason behind the morning practices Monday through Thursday, but the Cats didn't let the early wakeup call affect them. In fact, they hardly remembered practice started well before sunrise by the time it ended.
"We did pretty good for it being so early," Bud Dupree said. "The hardest part was waking up and once we got up it felt like a real day. It feels late right now to me. ... Every guy was excited to be here and that's always great."
Not only were they excited, they were also prepared. With more than a year and a half of instruction from Stoops and his staff under their belts, the Cats have come a long way since last fall in terms of knowing schemes and assignments.
"It's way easier," Dupree said. "I know what they expect. I know what to do. I know the playbook inside and out. So my biggest key is staying healthy on the field and just better at the small things each day. I'm just trying to progress each day and be great for my team."
Two springs and a full season of practices obviously make a difference, but Stoops says the work his team did this summer can't be forgotten either.
"I think obviously year two helps a great amount just because (players) are just familiar with how we practice, and then also the work that we did through the summer, that the players did, and the film study that we did with them," Stoops said. "You could tell that we're further along."
The same is true from a physical perspective. Add the highest-rated recruiting class in school history to a group that has transformed in UK's High Performance program and you have a team beginning to resemble what Stoops envisioned when he took over.
"You know with the addition of the freshmen even -- you know how it is in the spring, you're always a little bit thin in the spring -- so seeing the whole crew here and the depth that we have, we're getting there," Stoops said. "Obviously, it's tough as you know, to count on too many young guys, but definitely they'll be here to give us some depth and help out."
Stoops mentioned defensive tackle Matt Elam as a potential early contributor. Dupree can see why.
"Just by looking at him, he will be a great bulldozer," Dupree said. "Anytime he's in, I think people will have to account for him. He's just gotta keep progressing each day and he'll be pretty good."
Elam was one of 26 newcomers on campus over the summer, using the time to work his way into shape. Junior college linebacker Ryan Flannigan - who arrived over the weekend - didn't have that luxury, but he wasted no time jumping in with his new teammates.
"Fun," Flannigan said, describing his first practice at UK. "I was happy to be back playing football, honestly. It was a great day for me, great day for the team, great practice. We got better today. Even though it was my first day, I feel like we got better today because we ran fast, we went to the ball. Everybody was running. The sideline was hyped when the first(-team) defense was out there."
UK's linebacking corps is thin, meaning Flannigan will be a boost if he's ready to play immediately, but it's still too early for Stoops to say which newcomers will play.
"Certainly after day one it's too hard to make that decision," Stoops said. "They're a good-looking group. They are, for the most part, very mature and handled themselves the right way. They've been doing a good job this summer. We'll see where it goes. It's hard to tell. I think there's certain positions where we need to use them."
Mark Stoops speaks at UK's annual Kickoff Luncheon. (Brent Ingram, UK Athletics)
Mark Stoops knew this offseason was an important one.
Through his debut season at Kentucky, he coached a group that was almost always competitive, but clearly had a long road ahead to become the team he was brought to Lexington to build.
"That first year, there's so much to change in the culture, creating that culture that you want," Stoops said at Friday's annual Kickoff Luncheon. "You learn from that first year and you go back in the offseason and say, 'Where do we need to improve?' There's a lot of areas we needed to improve. We know that."
Stoops had little trouble identifying a priority.
"We started with leadership and we started with accountability," Stoops said. "That's where we've made drastic improvements. This team has a better attitude. They have a tougher mentality. It starts there and then it goes into physical."
Perhaps no two players better exemplify that leadership development than Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith. Standout performers on the field a year ago, the two defensive ends have become much more as they prepare for their senior year.
"Bud and Za'Darius are not only great players but they're great leaders," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "They're veteran players now. Both of them, first year in the system, were learning what to do and developing themselves, and now they've taken that role on where they can develop others."
Dupree and Smith have always been blessed with exceptional physical gifts, but their growth both on and off the field is exactly what Stoops means by the words that have become one of his signature phrases.
"You hear me talk about it all the time: Recruit, recruit, recruit - and develop," Stoops said. "We can't just bring talented players into our program and stop there. We have to develop them in all areas of their life."
Over the eight months since UK's last game, Stoops has only been on the field with his team for 15 spring practices. Nonetheless, the way the Wildcats have "taken care of business off the field" - including in posting one of their best academic semesters in recent years - tells him all he needs to know.
"We're excited to get going," Stoops said. "Players report Sunday, first practice on Monday and just excited to get this season rolling."
With the start of fall camp finally at hand, Stoops will be asking one simple thing of his players.
"The big thing is: submit," Stoops said. "Submit to the process. Come in, leave everything behind. ... The bottom line is when we report, it's about submitting to what's going on. We have a saying in our program, we talk about 'All In' and that can encompass a lot of things, but just turn everything off, all the distractions, let's get in here, let's lock ourselves in this building and let's get some work done."
There will be plenty more to come next week with the first practices of the fall and media day on Friday, but here are a few other stray notes from Friday's Kickoff Luncheon at the Hyatt Regency.
It seems UK's incoming recruiting class was the highest rated in school history for a reason. It's too early to tell how much the newcomers will play this season, but Stoops has been impressed so far. "They've done extremely well this summer both in the classroom and on the field," Stoops said. "Let me tell you this: They look the part. We're going to make those strength and conditioning coaches look a lot better."
On the subject of those newcomers, Stoops reported that 26 of the 28 signees were on campus all summer. The 27th will arrive Saturday and Stoops said "we're working on the 28th."
Offensive coordinator Neal Brown's priority early in camp will be to figure out which players will play. Of course the quarterback battle will receive the most attention, but he mentioned identifying a third tackle behind Darrian Miller and Jordan Swindle and sorting out the running back rotation as other areas of interest.
Speaking of the quarterbacks, there was no news on the battle. Brown, however, did spell out what he's looking for at the position. "As far as the actual game, we're looking for a guy that's going to make good decisions, quickly, that takes care of the football and is accurate. And what I mean by accuracy is throwing the football where our guys can make plays after the catch."
For those quarterbacks to improve as Brown and Stoops expect them to, they'll need help from their wide receivers. UK's inexperience at the position was plain to see a season ago, especially early, but the group now has a year under its belt. Stoops mentioned Ryan Timmons and Javess Blue as UK's top playmakers outside of running backs Jojo Kemp, Braylon Heard and Josh Clemons and they are expected to lead UK's receiving corps. Depth, however, is essential in Brown's system. Jeff Badet was hampered in the spring by an ankle injury and Alex Montgomery will miss the start of fall camp due to a setback in his rehab from a torn ACL, but UK should be ready to go at wideout.
Friday's Kickoff Luncheon closed with an advanced screening of a "Change the Game" video featuring Josh Hopkins and Sundy Best that players will see when they report on Sunday. It will be posted soon after on the Kentucky Wildcats TV YouTube page.
Construction crews have been at work on Commonwealth Stadium renovations since December. (Photo via Bell Engineering and taken in July 2014)
Russ Pear doesn't have the problem of the 9-to-5 grind, of waking up and realizing he's facing another boring day at the office.
It's quite the opposite, in fact.
When Pear -- UK's senior associate athletics director for facilities and operations -- arrives at work in the morning, he never knows what to expect. There's no such thing as a routine when you're managing the $100 million-plus renovation of Commonwealth Stadium.
"Some days, I think is this going to be different or a typical day, and there haven't been typical days," Pear said.
Pear -- who has moved his office from the Joe Craft Center to the bowels of Commonwealth during construction -- might not know what he'll be doing on any given day, but he knows exactly what his responsibilities are.
"My role in this whole project is making sure that our athletics department interest in what the project is about and how it moves along are kept always at the forefront of what is happening," Pear said.
In essence, Pear's job is to ensure that the vision for The New CWS, unveiled in November 2013, becomes reality. All those pretty pictures fans saw, Pear works closely with contractors to make sure they come to life.
That means there's a lot of information rattling around Pear's head and even more papers stacked in, around and on top of his desk.
"The documents -- there are 1,000 or so pages of the actual plans on all the different parts of this project," Pear said. "Just making sure I know where things are (is important). I obviously don't know every single page and every single in and out, but I know where to look. I am listening in on meetings and listening to contractor meetings and they are talking about this or that and I am like, 'OK, why are we doing that?' and making sure that our interests are being met."
Of course, there's still a long way to go in that process.
Photo by Britney Howard, UK Athletics and taken in May 2014
The transformation of the longtime home of Kentucky football won't be complete until UK's 2015 home opener. That's when fans will enjoy the more intimate and intimidating game day atmosphere of the new CWS and its new concourses, concessions, restrooms and premium seating areas. That's when players will begin to benefit from new home-team facilities. That's when future Wildcats will be hosted in a new state-of-the-art recruiting room.
To get to that point, construction crews broke ground immediately after the end of the 2013 season. Wasting no time getting to work, they began the first of three phases of the project.
From December 2013 to August 29, 2014 -- the day before UK's 2014 season opener against UT Martin -- it's all about laying foundations, both literally and figuratively, for the rest of the renovation.
Through the winter and spring, crews excavated large portions of concourses throughout the stadium to begin utility work and demolished the President's Room on the South side of the stadium to make way for the Field Level Club that will be located in its place when the new stadium opens in 2015. In its place, crews have drilled through 11 feet of dirt and 13 feet of rock to create the foundation for new premium seating areas. Also gone are the concession stands under the East end zone and light poles on both the North and South sides of the stadium.
In the summer months, steel work was the priority. In mid-June, the steel that will eventually support the new suites, press box and two elevator towers was set on the South side of the stadium. On the North side, steel supporting the new upper-level concourse also was set.
All this work, however, had to be undertaken with an awareness that UK still has to play seven home games in an under-construction facility in 2014. Fortunately, Pear has some experience on that front.
During the last two years, UK has put the finishing touches on adjoining new softball and soccer stadiums. In both cases, the teams had to play regular-season games before the projects were completed, including when women's soccer hosted an NCAA Tournament game in November.
"The first thing is all about safety and getting people in and out," Pear said. "I've told our contractors all along, if there is a ceiling or some siding that you need to take out or you need to do something up temporary to make this process continue along, do it."
What that means is Commonwealth won't always look its best in 2014. Customer service, however, won't suffer.
"When we get to the press box, we may not have ceiling tiles in there," Pear said. "It may not look like we would normally want the presentation in those kinds of spaces. Now the concourses need to be clean. Amenities and seating and all the things that we normally do -- everything needs to be just like they always are."
Fans will need to be aware of a few changes that will affect them though.
Rows 22-39 in sections 219-232 will be unavailable for the 2014 season, but fans with season tickets in those areas have already chosen news seats. Beyond that, Gates 10 and 11 will be closed throughout the season. All fans coming into the South side will have to enter through Gates 9 and 12. Gates 2, 3, 4, 6, 7 and 9 are all accessible, but guests are encouraged to follow the direction of traffic control/safety staff to ensure safe entry and exit through construction fencing.
Once inside, fans will be able to access all concourses, though some will be narrower.
"The east side -- most of those gates (14 & 15) will all be still in place, but we will be building underneath the East end zone with the recruiting room and team space that is located under the lower East seating sections," Pear said. "You will be able to walk all the way around the stadium inside, using the lower concourse. There won't be any closed off portions of the lower concourse like we experienced during the spring game. However, in some areas concourses will be narrower."
During the 2014 season, the second phase of construction will begin. Working mostly in the upper level, crews will be preparing for the cold winter months.
"Then the reality is when the second phase of things are happening ... we will be continuing to work and continuing to do things especially up in that upper tower," Pear said. "At that point we are starting to get a lot of drywall up and a lot of things that have to happen to get enclosed so when we get to the winter months we are working inside."
If it isn't clear from Pear's words, there isn't a moment to spare. That's why Pear was so happy when he saw UK's 2014 schedule. The Cats will play their final home game on Nov. 8, a full three weeks earlier than if they were hosting a home game on the regular season's last week.
"That was a big help and that gives us another whole month of what we consider to be some good weather that should help the schedule," Pear said. "Now, I tried to convince Mitch (Barnhart) to see if we could get next season to start sometime in October, but I knew that wasn't going to happen."
Once the season ends and weather permitting, it's full steam ahead on the final phase of the project.
In case that wasn't enough for Pear to think about, $45 million in funding for a new football practice facility was approved in January by the UK Board of Trustees. Barnhart, when funding was secured, talked about the importance of creating a "one-stop shop" for the football program with the entire operation moving adjacent to Commonwealth at the existing Nutter Field House. Pear reinforced that point.
"You are lifting in the weight room and instead of having to go across the road to get over here you are going right in there," Pear said. "To have this whole football operation in one place will be a huge advantage for our overall program in time-saving and perception."
Pear has spent a good chunk of time meeting to make sure he has a handle on the needs that must be satisfied through the project. Now comes the time when decisions are made about how that gets done.
"We have had the input of the coaches and staff into the spaces we need," Pear said. "We don't know exactly where the spaces are going to be."
Pear estimated that initial renderings for the practice facility will be complete in the "next few months." In the meantime, he has plenty to work on and plenty to be excited about at Commonwealth.
"As we have talked about it and what Mitch has as the goal of this whole project is that we are touching our whole clientele, which for us is our fan base," Pear said. "All of our fans will have the amenities that will be better than what we had before.
"Then (we will address) what we are doing as far as the student-athlete. What is it that will make student-athletes and especially recruits, come in here and take a look at this and look at the recruiting room and look at the space we are creating underneath and look at the improvements we have made to this stadium? Hopefully they say this is a great place to be and a great place to play college football."
This story appears in the Official University of Kentucky Football Yearbook. The yearbook features stories on UK's recruiting success and High Performance program, as well as a season preview, game-by-game matchups and Q&As with players. You can buy it at Kroger locations throughout Kentucky, Fan Outfitters, Kennedy's Bookstore and online beginning this weekend at www.imgproducts.net.
Mark Stoops at SEC Media Days. (Todd Van Emst, SEC)
HOOVER, Ala. -- Back in January, when UK received approval to build a $45 million practice facility, Mitch Barnhart asked the question for the first time.
"We'll have to make the decision: Do we go to turf in the stadium, in the game-day stadium, in Commonwealth or do we stay at grass?" Barnhart said.
In search of every possible means to best prepare their team, Mark Stoops and his staff were considering moving away from the bermuda grass surface at Commonwealth Stadium in favor of synthetic turf.
At Southeastern Conference Media Days on Thursday, Stoops answered the question.
"It looks like we will go to turf after this season," Stoops said.
After the 2014 season, construction crews will tear up the field at UK's longtime home to finish a $120 million renovation. When that happens, Stoops confirmed a new synthetic surface will be installed.
By doing so, UK will maximize the time the team can spend practicing in Commonwealth. Kentucky's temperate climate makes keeping grass in good condition a challenge, particularly during colder months late in the season and during spring practice. That undercuts the Cats' ability to get in work on their home field as much as Stoops would like.
"Our grounds crew does a phenomenal job," Stoops said. "They work their tails off and do an incredible job, but the fact of the matter is, we can't get on that field much."
UK wouldn't be the first SEC school to make the move. Four teams already play their home games on synthetic field: Missouri and Ole Miss play on FieldTurf and Arkansas and Vanderbilt on Shaw Sports Turf. Ole Miss, Arkansas and Vandy have all switched to turf within the last five years.
For schools facing climates more comparable to Kentucky, it's an even more popular choice. Ten of the 14 schools in the Big 10 play on turf surfaces. Even Notre Dame, long famous for its grass field, opted to move to turf this offseason.
This decision, however, is all about Kentucky.
When the three fields in the new practice facility when it opens in 2016 and turf in Commonwealth, UK will be spoiled for choice.
"I think it might be in our best interest to be turf in the stadium, indoor turf and two grass practice fields," Barnhart said in January. "It gives us lots of options in terms of practice."
Bud Dupree speaks to reporters at SEC Media Days on Thursday. (Todd Van Emst, SEC)
HOOVER, Ala. -- Mark Stoops will admit it. He's not an easy coach to please.
"I don't just throw out a bunch of compliments all the time to our players," Stoops said. "They have to earn that."
Bud Dupree certainly has.
"He's a great player," Stoops said. "He's so versatile. He's improved in so many ways. But he's everything you want. He's a great young man, he's a great leader. He's really taken on that leadership role, to help elevate his teammates. And that's what true leaders do."
Dupree, representing Kentucky at Southeastern Conference Media Days on Thursday, has drawn plenty of attention of late for his eye-popping numbers in athletic testing drills. The 6-foot-4, 267 pounder has a 40.5-inch vertical jump and has been clocked running 21.6 miles per hour in full pads, Erik Korem told the Louisville Courier-Journal, which surely has something to do with the fact he was a preseason Second Team All-SEC choice.
Though he's improved in UK's High Performance program, Dupree has always been physically gifted. The real transformation has come in the senior's leadership. Learning from UK's Impact Leadership Program, headed by Jason Cummins, Dupree has established himself as a key vocal presence entering the 2014 season.
"(Cummins) gave me the key role to get outside of my shell and not only benefit myself but benefit the team," Dupree said. "Sometimes I may be a little too involved in my team than I should be because I will go out the way to do everything I need for my team to be successful."
With six weeks to go before the Wildcats' Aug. 30 season opener, Dupree can see his work paying off as he looks to help fill the void left by Avery Williamson.
"I used to tell all the younger guys, like (Ryan Timmons) and Jeff (Badet) and Blake McClain, I would walk up to them every day and tell them, 'You ain't trying to be great,' " Dupree said. "Now they look at me before I even say something to them, like, 'Are you working today? Are you doing extra? I'm finna do extra.' ... And they're bringing along people with them.
"It makes me feel like I'm doing what I'm supposed to do and touching others."
For one of Dupree's companions on the trip through the media gauntlet in Hoover, Ala., leadership has come more naturally.
"Personally, I feel like I have the leadership role on the offense and I try and get the guys going on our side of the ball and try and get the young guys coming along. I try to do what I can do," junior offensive tackle Jordan Swindle said. "I feel like it's definitely an innate ability of mine because I've just grown up with a great father figure and family that's just instilled in me character values."
Stoops called Swindle the "unquestioned" leader of the offense, but that didn't happen overnight. Swindle, now a junior, needed a time to establish himself as a player and figure out exactly what UK's coaching staff, now in its second season, was looking for.
"I'm just extremely impressed at the way he goes about his business," Stoops said. "He worked extremely hard in the offseason. And you know, that first year, a lot of it is setting the tone and putting the staples in your program in place, and your core values. Then seeing where you're at, then going into the off-season and improving on them. Jordan was the first one, when we put him in a leadership role and did that, to take charge and do an excellent job of developing team chemistry and leadership."
Jordan Swindle (Todd Van Emst, SEC)
Put in those terms, his task is a tall one. Swindle, however, sees his charge much more clearly.
"It's kind of my goal to make our team better every single day," Swindle said. "If I catch a guy that's not working as hard as he could be or he's not practicing as hard as he could be or he's slipping up in class, I need to go get that guy and confront and tell him he shouldn't be doing that, he needs to get back on track."
It's no coincidence that both Swindle and Dupree view leadership so simply. It all starts with their coach.
"I think he brought that mentality (of improving every day) with him," Swindle said. "It was there before, but it almost became something of a standard. Before, it was kind of like if you did that it was above and beyond. Now it's become something that is if it's not that, it's not right."
On the strength of that approach and the infusion of more incoming talent, Stoops believes he has a different team than a year ago, though the Wildcats were picked to finish last in the SEC East on Thursday by league media.
"We're not worried about that," Stoops said. "You know that. You've heard me say it over and over again: We're worried about getting better. We're worried about putting our head down and going to work. I'm excited. I'm excited about this team and the work they've put in. We're just ready to go to work and get better."
You needn't look any further than UK's Media Days representatives to tell that will start in the trenches.
Dupree and Za'Darius Smith are UK's bookends on the defensive line, poised to wreak even more havoc than a season ago when they combined for 13 sacks and 16 tackles for loss.
"I think that they're an awesome combination," said Swindle, who lines up opposite Dupree in practice. "I feel like Bud is a really, really good pass rusher. He's overall amazing and then Z is overall amazing as well. He's a better run stopper. So when you have those two to balance each other out, it's almost unstoppable."
Swindle, meanwhile, will look to anchor an offensive line that doesn't yet know which quarterback it will be blocking for. Stoops said the battle between Patrick Towles, Reese Phillips, Drew Barker and Maxwell Smith.
"You would love somebody just to take the job and run with it and play great," Stoops said. "But I've also told you that I'm not going to be forced into that decision. I don't want to be sitting here and saying, 'He can't make a decision.' I need somebody to take charge and win that job. We'll see. We feel good about the way spring wrapped up. There is some clarity there. But there's also a lot of competition to go."
When that competition resolves itself -- likely early in fall camp -- the Cats believe questions at other positions will be answered as well.
"The skill players will come," Dupree said. "Once the quarterback situation gets settled in, the skill players will come."
The feedback we have received through BBN First has ranged from big picture all the way to the minutest of details.
As Mitch Barnhart has written before, nearly all of those suggestions have been constructive. Already, you've helped us shape a new loyalty rewards program and establish priorities as we move forward with our Fan Experience Committee.
Among the topics we'll be addressing in the coming weeks are music selections and parking, but first we want to hear more from you about something that has come up frequently in your emails and comments.
You want game day at Commonwealth Stadium to be special. You want it to feel like Kentucky. You want traditions that reflect that.
One fan, Tom, said it best.
"You don't create a tradition... it is something that builds over time. That said, it wouldn't hurt for this group to identify a few of the traditions we do have and then experiment with things... those that catch on, keep 'em and those that don't, drop 'em."
With your help, we're going to start experimenting.
First off, we're going after the break before the fourth quarter. Recognizing how memorable this point in the game can be, we want to create a signature moment for it.
As we began to toy with ideas, another fan email caught our attention. This one came from Ross.
"I think we need something unburied from our past and make it relevant to students and the fan base as a whole. We need more things to make the game day experience uniquely Kentucky."
Inspired by this, we started thinking about "My Old Kentucky Home," the most uniquely Kentucky song there is.
The song has always been an important part of game day. It's been played by the band pregame in recent years, but we believe it could have an even bigger impact if everyone comes to their feet to sing "My Old Kentucky Home" right before the start of the fourth quarter.
Moving "My Old Kentucky Home," however, is just one option. We're not taking anything off the table, whether we're talking about the third quarter/fourth quarter break or any other point in the game.
Before we talk about some of the other ideas you've given us, let's take a look at the traditions we already have:
Air Raid siren
"It's football time in the Bluegrass!" pregame
Call to the Post pregame
"First Down Kentucky!"
Wildcat mascot pushups after UK scores
Here are some ideas we're considering based on feedback you have already sent:
Slowing down the "C-A-T-S" cheer with the band's involvement
Roving pep band pregame to different tailgating lots and in game to different sections
Using "Go Big Blue!" cheer after kickoff instead of "C-A-T-S"
As you can see, we've had a lot to talk about. That's why we need your feedback.
What do you think about moving "My Old Kentucky Home?" Do you have any other ideas for a pre-fourth quarter tradition? Do you have input on how to improve the traditions we already have or the ones we are talking about creating? What are we missing?
We want to hear from you. Like you, we want Commonwealth Stadium to be a special place on fall Saturdays. Submit a comment using the form on UKathletics.com/BBNfirst or by emailing BBNfirst@uky.edu to help us make that happen.
With the announcement of several games over the last few months, everyone has known for some time now that Kentucky's 2014-15 nonconference schedule was going to be special.
Just how special became clear on Wednesday with the release of UK's full nonconference slate.
Kentucky will play 10 opponents who made the postseason in 2014, seven NCAA Tournament teams and a handful of programs who have legitimate hopes of making a run at the Final Four during this upcoming season.
UK will play bluebloods like Kansas and North Carolina, continue arguably the greatest rivalry in college basketball with Louisville, and make neutral-site trips to the United Center in Chicago and Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, home to two of the Cats' exhilarating games during their magical 2014 NCAA Tournament run and the site of the 2015 Final Four.
Like last year, Kentucky will kick off the season with back-to-back home games at Rupp Arena, this time against Grand Canyon University (Nov. 14) and Buffalo (Nov. 16).
John Calipari is hoping the home games will prepare his team for an early-season showdown with Kansas on Nov. 18 in Indianapolis. The matchup with the Jayhawks, who trail only UK for the NCAA's most all-time wins, is a part of the State Farm Champions Classic. It's the fourth straight year Kentucky has participated in the event.
The Cats' stay on the road will be brief as they will return for an extended home stand. Over the course of nearly a month, UK will play eight games within the friendly confines of Rupp Arena. First up will be Boston (Nov. 21), followed by Montana State (Nov. 23), UT Arlington (Nov. 25) and Providence (Nov. 30). Kentucky played and beat the latter two last season.
The schedule then heats up at the start of December.
The Cats, who return eight scholarship players from last season's national runner-up team, will face off with an equally experienced Texas team on Dec. 3 before taking on Eastern Kentucky (Dec. 7), an NCAA Tournament team a year ago, and Columbia (Dec. 10).
The final three games of the nonconference schedule are as good as it gets. North Carolina concludes UK's mega home stand on Dec. 13 before the Cats head to Chicago to face UCLA for the inaugural CBS Sports Classic on Dec. 20.
Finally, Kentucky will close out the nonconference schedule with its annual rivalry game with Louisville on Dec. 27 at the KFC Yum! Center. This year's game is being dubbed as the Basketball Hall of Fame Shootout. A portion of the proceeds will benefit the nonprofit Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.
UK's 2014 Southeastern Conference schedule will feature nine home games and nine away games, which will be announced at a later date. It's the second third straight year the SEC will feature an 18-game schedule.
Prior to the regular season, the Cats will host a pair of exhibition games at Rupp Arena. The first will be Nov. 2 against Pikeville followed by Georgetown College on Nov. 7. Both are in-state schools. Big Blue Madness is set for Oct. 17 and the annual Blue-White Scrimmage will be on Oct. 27.
Complete games times and TV information will be released at a later date.
A by-the-numbers breakdown of the schedule is available below, but first a look at the full nonconference schedule.
By the numbers
The schedule this season, as we mentioned above, is grueling.
Filled with some of the bluebloods of college basketball, opponents that made the NCAA Tournament last season and are only supposed to get better this year, and mid-majors who are expected to finish at or near the top of their league, it's hard to find a more challenging nonconference schedule than the one the Wildcats appear to have this year.
And that's not by coincidence.
Coach Cal, with the recent help of UK Deputy Director of Athletics DeWayne Peevy, has always tried to form a slate that will prepare his players for the NCAA Tournament and put them in a position to compete for a national championship. The end goal is to bolster his team's RPI, give his players the best chance to succeed and help his program obtain a favorable NCAA Tournament seed, but he must do all that while making sure he doesn't break down his players before the SEC schedule rolls around.
Doing that isn't always easy.
How many big-time games against the likes of a team like Kansas is enough? How many is too many? How many neutral-site games do you play? When do you play marquee games with such a young team? What "mid-major" opponents are going to help your RPI and not hurt it? All those things go into consideration when Calipari and his staff build the schedule.
The 2014-15 schedule uses the same formula of the last couple of years in that it mixes neutral-site games that reflect an NCAA Tournament setting with marquee matchups at home and on the road.
But this one, on paper, looks to be the best of the Calipari era.
Taking the final rankings from last year, the average RPI of UK's nonconference opponent in 2014-15 is 97.4. Six opponents on the slate finished last season in the all-important RPI top 50, including five of the final seven nonconference opponents.
Furthermore, the Cats' 13 opponents in the upcoming year posted a winning percentage of .655 last season, considerably better than the .570 winning percentage UK's 13 opponents in 2012-13 ended with and still better than last year's admirable mark of .634. Remember, Kentucky's strength of schedule last season was No. 2 in the country and this one appears to be even tougher.
But perhaps the most telling proof of the difficulty of the schedule lies in the opponents' postseason play last year. Ten of the 13 nonconference opponents were in some sort of postseason tournament last season (that does not include conference tournaments) and seven of them were in the NCAA Tournament. Five of the teams made it to the third round of the 2014 NCAA Tournament or farther.
Obviously there is no way to predict how those opponents will do next season, but the majority of UK's opponents look primed to build on their 2013-14 success.
For one, Kentucky's most high-profile opponents next season -- Kansas, Louisville, North Carolina, Texas and UCLA -- return a bulk of their major producers from a year ago. All five are expected to be in the preseason top 25 and several could be in the top 10.
But the depth of the schedule comes with teams like Providence, Eastern Kentucky and Boston. The Friars play an exciting style of basketball that brought out the best in Willie Cauley-Stein last season, EKU nearly knocked Kansas out of the 2014 NCAA Tournament, and Boston is expected to return four of its six leading scorers from its regular-season Patriot League championship squad.
It's impossible -- and unwise -- for Kentucky to avoid scheduling "mid-major" opponents, but UK can ill-afford to take those opponents lightly in 2014-15. Of UK's seven opponents from outside the so-called "major" conferences, five finished tied for third or better in 2013-14 regular-season play and one (Boston) finished atop the conference. That fits right in line with Calipari's philosophy to play teams that will content for their leagues' automatic bids.
Also of note, 13 of Kentucky's nonconference opponents will hail from 11 different conferences. UK will also play three opponents for the first time.
For those numbers and more, check out the breakdown chart below:
Coaches from throughout the league joined the Southeastern Conference coaches' teleconference this morning to talk about their teams as the offseason wears on. Perhaps realizing he hadn't spoken publicly in some time, John Calipari was in fine form addressing topics ranging from UK's upcoming Bahamas trip, the Rupp Arena renovation and the NBA's early-entry rules.
Here's everything he had to say, plus a bonus quote about the strength of the SEC from one of Coach Cal's peers.
On his team heading into next season ... "Well, for the first time I've had players return that had a chance to put their names in the draft, so we're in a unique situation where we have veterans. Now, granted those veterans are sophomores, two of them are juniors, but the other (six) are sophomores, it's kind of unusual for us. But I'm excited about it. The returning players and the freshmen are getting along so it's all good."
On how he hopes the trip to the Bahamas will contribute to the success he has next season ... "Well, we're doing it a little different than most teams. Most teams don't care about what the games are and, a matter of fact, will play teams that - and we did four years ago (when) I didn't care who we played in Canada - it's just practicing. But this is going to be different in that we will be traveling with 12. Ten will play. And we are having teams come with us: the Dominican Republic national team, the professional team from France, Division I, and then the older guys from Puerto Rico. They're not the national team -- they're playing in another event -- but it's that next wave of guys that almost made the team. They call it their second team. But I'm fine with that because those guys are older. It will be hard games for us to win. But we're doing it as much for the games, which is kind of unusual."
On his thoughts of the Rupp Arena renovation being suspended ... "I haven't really--I wasn't in town with all the stuff and really haven't read anything. I kind of got a little overview from DeWayne (Peevy), but like I said (before), I just hope everybody gets together and does what's right for the city and the university."
On how it would impact his job if he had guys for another year ... "Let me first say this one to you: Just if you know how I am and what I'm about, if you've really followed, I would rather them say that, after my entire group gets drafted - 'Yeah, I'm not really sure he develops players and he can coach' and all that stuff; 'they were pros' - but they all get drafted. OK, I'm good with that. That doesn't bother me. Say it as long as they keep continuing to get drafted. And then when they go to the league, they're on the all-rookie teams, they're rookie of the year, they're on Olympic teams, one is the MVP of the NBA. They're prepared in that sense, and that's what we're trying to do.
"The two-year rule, the reason I say that, this cycle that we're on - and there were coaches last year that had freshmen and their primary guys were freshmen and they couldn't advance in the NCAA Tournament and said after it's so difficult. Yeah, it is. Well, let's start five freshmen and try to do it. So to do this every year is, in this environment at Kentucky, is, I don't want to say impossible because for five years we've done it, but we did have a year when Nerlens (Noel) got hurt. If he doesn't get hurt, we're probably a Sweet 16 team. But he does get hurt and now we're an NIT team. Not only are we an NIT team, we lose in the first round. It's just a dangerous thing for the coach. Now, for our players, I'm happy as heck. If it goes to two years, I think they'll be better prepared, but you cannot do that unless the NCAA is going to do things along with the NBA if kids are asked to stay another year. I mean, are you going to do the cost of living? Are you going to cover their insurance? What about loss-of-value insurance that's really expensive? What about flying them back and forth once or twice a year? Why would we not do that? What about their families being flown to the NCAA events, the championship events, with the team? Why would we not do all those things? So we finally, after five years of absolute arm-wrangling, got the food right so that we can feed these kids without feeling we're going to go to jail, that we're criminals for feeding them. So those are the kind of things that have to be done. It's not just, make this about kids. We need to do stuff with combines so kids get the right information. You don't want a kid to leave and not get drafted. And if a kid should leave, he should leave. If he's a first-round pick, if he's a lottery pick, he should leave. Don't have him stay so you win more games, then the next year he's in a worse position. But if he's a second-round pick and not getting drafted and he's in a combine where the NBA can tell him that, they come back to school now. So there's a lot of things that we need to do and we're moving in that direction. Now, it's taken 40 years but we're moving in that direction now."
On whether more kids would go to Europe if the age limit went to 20 ... "No. I don't, but here's the thing: You have to understand, that's between the NBA and the Players Association. We have to be on the side of the players, on the side of the students. We have to be on their side, which is, how do we get them the information so they make the right choices? How do we do things that we treat them with more dignity, that we treat them more fairly? OK, again, those are the things that we need to do. We have no control - none - on what the NBA and the Players Association agree to. I said to the NBA: Instead of a four-year contract, make it a three-year contract so by staying in school it doesn't hurt them. They still get to the money the same time, the big contracts the same time as they would have if they'd stayed in school two year. But, are we willing to do things? Are we willing to maybe have those parents request loans directly from the NBA that they have to pay back when they go to the NBA? What about that as a solution to some of the stuff? So there's all kind of things out there. And let me say this: It's not at the expense of academics. We're here, we've had four years. This past semester were a 3.11 (grade-point average). Our APR going into next year, which means every kid we've had has finished here in good academic standing. Obviously, we've had a 3.0 for the last four years. We've graduated 10 players. We've brought three players back. Our kids sign four-year deals if they leave after one or two years, the scholarship is still waiting on them. We're doing things outside of that to make sure we're taking care of what we can within the rules and going above and beyond to do that. But there's still other things that need to be done." On what he tells players about what will happen if they enter the NBA Draft early ... "Well, I don't do it that way. What I do is I give them the information. I have them get information directly from the NBA office. I give them information (from) GMs who are friends of mine in the NBA and say, 'This is where it appears. Check with the NBA and I'm with you with whatever you do. If you're a late first-rounder, can you deal with (it)?' I give them the downside. 'Are you going to be able to deal with being a second-round pick because that could happen. If you can't deal with that, then you come back.' If you say, 'I'm OK if that happens,' then you can think strongly about leaving. 'If you want to be a top-10 pick, you're not right now and you're going to have to come back to be a top-10 pick. But if that's OK to be the 18th or the 20th or 17th, I'm good with it.' I literally spend five minutes with them. There are no four-hour brainwashing, all the staff beating them down. Five minutes. And you can talk to all the kids. Matter of fact I thought Willie (Cauley-Stein) was leaving. The conversation we had the next morning after the national championship game was congratulating. I'm proud of you. You were a football player two years ago. No one knew who you were. You weren't a McDonald's All-American. You weren't, 'He was one-and-done before he got there.' That's not what he was and he was a top-15 pick. And he came in my office the following day and said, 'I want to come back.' I go, 'What?' He said, 'One, I'm having a ball. Two, I'm not ready for that league to do what I want to do. Three, I want to win a 'ship before I leave.' I said, 'That's good reasons to come back.' So the conversations I had with guys are kind of like that."
South Carolina head coach Frank Martin
On the strength of the SEC ... "I'm tired of this (fallacy) and myth that our league is no good. I'm tired of it. I think it's disrespectful to the coaches in this league. I think anytime you try to convince Billy (Donovan) or Cal or Mike Anderson, guys that have had tremendous success everywhere they've been, Bruce Pearl now that he's back in the league, Billy Kennedy, the successes he's had - just keep going on down the line - the successes that they've had in their careers and trying to say that their success right now is not very good because our league is not very good, I think that's a little disrespectful and untrue. Our league is extremely hard. I've said it for a couple years: We were in transition and I think our league is now starting to take shape. I think coaches are establishing their programs for those of us that, we weren't where it needed to be. Kevin Stallings, Billy, guys that have been in the league forever, they're always going to have programs that are going to line up and go. And I think you're going to start seeing our league move forward as we continue to stabilize programs such as ours."