Wendell Bell speaks at the dedication ceremony for UK's new soccer complex. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Mitch Barnhart came across more new faces than he could count when he came to Kentucky in 2002.
There were two he just kept noticing.
"We came here about 13 years ago as an administration and this couple kept walking around our program," Barnhart said. "And they kept showing up at events and we got to know them a little bit and spent a little time with us and they'd go on trips with us. Next thing I know, they're traveling with the rifle team, the volleyball team, the women's soccer team, showing up at softball."
The faces belonged to longtime UK supporters and K Fund members Wendell and Vickie Bell, and Barnhart couldn't help but build a relationship with them. It didn't take him long to understand why they were always around.
"What we began to realize is that they've invested in the lives of all these young people," Barnhart said.
On Sunday, UK Athletics recognized that investment with the grand opening of the Wendell & Vickie Bell Soccer Complex before a women's and men's soccer doubleheader.
"It's a really, really cool day," Barnhart said at a ceremony attended by President Eli Capilouto, coaches and players from both teams and fans. "We get to dedicate our soccer complex to Wendell and Vickie. After all the contributions they've made, we tried to find something that would give them the credit they deserve for all the things they've done."
The new $7.7 million complex houses separate facilities for both soccer programs, with team rooms, lounges, locker-room areas, coaching offices and new grandstand.
"You have no idea how much this means for us," women's soccer senior Arin Gilliland said. "Being here for the last four years, I've gotten to see a change from aluminum bleachers to this amazing facility. We have the best field in the SEC. Now we have the best facility."
The women's soccer team is in the midst of the best years in school history under Jon Lipsitz, while Johan Cedergren is building the men's program in his third season. Walking through a typical visit when he hosts a recruit, Cedergren talked about what the new facility means to that process.
"At the end, it's down to me and they're basically, 'Where can I sign?' " Cedergren said. "As a men's soccer program to have the stuff that we have here is absolutely mind-blowing."
The Bells enjoy being a part of it all.
"We've been very involved with the program for so many years and I was talking with Dr. Capilouto and Mary Lynn," Wendell Bell said. "Just the transformation academically and athletically that we have seen and the changes over those years are just amazing. And the vision going forward."
As meaningful as the new soccer facility made possible by the Bells is to that vision, their meaning to UK Athletics goes far deeper. That's why the two teams presented jerseys to the Bells and the ball used to score the first regular-season goal in the Bell Soccer Complex on Friday.
"Obviously something like this doesn't happen without the money," Lipsitz said. "It takes money to do these things and we know they've been incredibly generous. But I literally made a note and I wrote down a dollar sign and I crossed it out and I drew a heart. Because that is my first thought when I think about them."
That makes the tribute to the Bells unveiled on Sunday all the more fitting.
After the speeches were done, Barnhart led the Bells outside, where a new bell and plaque were unveiled next to the field as a surprise. The bell will ring after each UK goal, creating a new tradition that will be part of all game days to come.
Courtney Raetzman scored in UK's 3-0 win over Ohio. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Within 14 minutes in the first game after the stadium's dedication, the bell rang after a Jade Klump goal. The Wildcats would add two more from Courtney Raetzman and Alex Carter in a 3-0 victory, moving to 3-1 on the season in the process.
"We talk about how important it is to leave a legacy," Lipsitz said. "This is the beginning of a new legacy for our players to leave and be able to come back years from now and say, 'Remember when? Remember when we started everything here with the new stadium?'
"It's just so special having Wendell and Vickie here and Mitch and the administration and Dr. Capilouto. You can't really ask more than for the environment we had here today."
In the nightcap, the men's soccer team leveled its record at 1-1 with a 2-0 win over Belmont. After dominating play in a scoreless first half, Kristoffer Tollefsen and Ryan Creel scored UK's first goals of the season and Callum Irving posted a shutout.
"It felt really good, the first home game of the season," Creel said. "Coach said, 'We gotta ring that bell today.' "
"I just think that with all the people here, opening weekend, you want to put on a good show," Cedergren said. "And I thought that the guys were really, really good today."
The Bells were there for all 180 minutes of action on a rainy day, cheering passionately, which is exactly what anyone who knows the Bells and what's important to them would expect.
"We've been blessed," Wendell Bell said, "but truly for us we're just appreciative that we have the opportunity to invest in this program and make an impact on these kids because, at the end of the day, that's what counts."
Charlie Reymann. Photo by Chet White, UK Athletics.
By Brent Ingram.
That first year in college can be a challenging transition for all student-athletes.
For Kentucky defender Charlie Reymann, that transition involved getting acclimated to the stress of playing every day as a true freshman and adjusting to the challenges of academic life.
A native of Worthington, Ohio, Reymann's adjustment in his debut season continued into the summer of his freshman year, when he joined nine UK student-athletes on a service trip to Ethiopia.
Reymann and the UK student-athletes worked with children, helped build homes, provide supplies and enjoy a life-changing experience.
"It is such a blessing to be able to experience a place like that," Reymann said. "As we arrived, the first observations we had were the amount of people on the streets and what they called their homes. In the U.S. a home like we saw would make people look the other way. The houses were made from mud, wood and tin roof. And they were just thankful to have a home, something I think we all take for granted."
Throughout the trip, Reymann was constantly reminded of the challenges of everyday life in Ethiopia and was deeply moved by his experience.
"In Ethiopia, everything is about relationships and I experienced that right when I got off the bus," Reymann said. "A little kid named Honuk, 10 years old, ran right up to me and asked me my name. I was very impressed with his English, and for the rest of the day we were best friends. He asked me questions about everything that had to do with America and told me as much as he could about his life. Listening to him talk about his life just made me want to help him in every way I could. I gave him one of the soccer balls we brought and he was so excited to get a new ball. As he was carrying the ball around all his friends you could tell he felt really special that he had the new Nike soccer ball.
"Throughout the day I kept finding myself thinking how smart this kid is and if there was anything I could do to help his life. He was so joyful and happy to be where he was."
Reymann's trip to Ethiopia came just a few months after his debut as a collegiate soccer standout for the Wildcats. His freshman season on the pitch was highly successful, as the 5-foot-9, 163 -pounder, played in all 20 games, seeing starts in 17 games.
"I learned that I have a lot of work to do before I can get to where I need to go," Reymann said. "I have a lot of things to improve on. Over the season, college soccer caught up to me, played against good players and that really showed and highlighted aspects of my game that I need to work on. Every part of my game needs to step up if I want to be the kind of college soccer player I can be."
Reymann saw time in the midfield but primarily as an attacking outside back as a freshman. He finished with two goals and one assist, serving as the primary corner-kick taker.
"Having (head coach) Johan (Cedergren) and (assistant) Chase (Wileman) give me quality coaching of where they want the ball to go, and when it should be there has helped me a lot because as you grow up you are just trying to get it to the big guy on the team," Reymann said. "But the structure we have here, it is so professional. Johan has made it very clear where he wants the ball to go on set pieces. Most of the time, I can get it there. It helps that those guys really teach us and the attackers know where the ball should be so we are on the same page."
One of the exciting elements of Cedergren's exciting style of offensive play is the ability of the outside backs to support the offensive attack, a role that perfectly fits Reymann's game.
"That was one of the reasons Johan recruited me, because I take pride in that part of my game," Reymann said. "I try to get forward as much as I can. Sometimes Johan and I joke around that maybe I get forward a little too much. The way we can be successful is to have out offensive guys be creative but if we can have our outside backs come up it will really help our offense. Sending in good crosses, that is probably one of the best parts of my game, just being able to pass the ball and distribute. Having that skill set should help our offense."
Reymann will join forces on a dynamic backline with center backs Jordan Wilson and Kaelon Fox. With an injury to his opposite member at outside back, Alex Bumpus, the back four will need to break in a new defender. Even with a new face, UK's defensive unit should be a strength of the team in 2014, including first-team All-Conference USA goalkeeper Callum Irving.
"We can be one of the best defending units in the country," Reymann said. "Jordan and I played a good amount together last year. Then having Kaelon Fox come in this spring to the backline, we all have a really good understanding of each other. In the first preseason game, we felt really comfortable with each other. We are starting to understand what each other likes and doesn't like. And having Cally back there, he is just a great leader, organizer. Everyone respects him and listens to him. Everyone being on the same page is going to help us a lot. Last year, with three freshmen coming in on the backline it is going to be a little different this year."
An important aspect of having a good back line in college soccer is constant communication amongst the back four and the goalkeeper.
"There are a lot of things going on at once," Reymann said "Especially against some of the teams we will play against this year, some really dynamic players. Just being able to communicate at a high level and knowing what each other generally likes to do. If Jordan wants to step here, or Kaelon is going to step up, we just have a good understanding of when we are going to do that. Against these good teams, we just have to react and know that your teammates are going to be there. Communication is just a huge part of us having success. Halfway through the year, we really started to communicate better. Now coming in with experience on the backline will definitely help."
With Kentucky coming off its season opener on Friday night at Wright State, the Wildcats now turn their attention to preparing for the home lidlifter on Sunday vs. Belmont at 5 p.m. at the Wendell & Vickie Bell Soccer Complex, the grand opening of UK's sparkling new facility.
"Oh my gosh. There are no words," Reymann said about the excitement for the new facility. "Last year, we were watching it get built. We just hear rumors about how nice the locker room would be, or the lounge. The field is already the best I have every played on, that by itself is amazing but know that they got it all built it is just amazing. We are just so excited to just get out there and play in front of a huge stadium. Now we have to win at home and build up that fan base."
Patrick Towles had one of the best starting debuts for a quarterback in UK history on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Two years ago, a second-quarter 71-yard touchdown drive led by then-true freshman Patrick Towles impressed a fan base desperate for excitement in the midst of a disappointing season.
On Saturday he showed his talent in broader strokes as he turned in one of the best statistical debuts by a UK starter of the last 20 years.
Towles' 377 yards on 20-of-29 passing with one passing and one rushing touchdown gave him a 189.5 passer rating.
The line was on par with fellow Air Raid signal-callers Dusty Bonner (34-62, 446 yards, 3 TD, 2 INT) and Jared Lorenzen (22-34, 322 yards, 3 TD, 3 INT) in terms of yardage. His performance was certainly better in terms of efficiency.
"I was very pleased with Patrick," Mark Stoops said. "Very happy for him. The big thing was, to me, he was very poised and he made very good decisions. You know, we know he has the talent to get the ball down the field. I think it was important for him to be efficient in the intermediate area and I thought he did that."
And yet Towles' first start will also be compared with his previous Commonwealth Stadium outing.
"Two years ago was kind of a flash in a pan in terms of having a good first series against Mississippi State before getting injured," Towles said. "It was important to come out today and play clean to build a solid foundation for the rest of the season. Two years ago certainly gave me confidence in terms of playing in front of the Commonwealth Stadium crowd."
The drive in 2012 brought an injury-plagued Kentucky team within a touchdown of then-No. 20 Mississippi State, but more importantly showed the Big Blue Nation the hype around a former Gatorade Kentucky High School Player of the Year was justified.
This UK Athletics Department staff member won't forget tending to the CWS press box phone that day and taking calls from every major sports network on such basic questions as, "How do you pronounce Towles?"
But the excitement was quickly tempered.
Towles suffered an ankle injury on the ensuing drive and played sparingly the rest of a 2-10 season.
And then Towles did not play during Mark Stoops' first season at UK. Going into new staff's second season, the redshirt sophomore had to win a quarterback competition over formidable teammates Reese Phillips, Drew Barker and the experienced Maxwell Smith.
After winning the starting job, Towles entered UK's season opener looking to live up to a world of expectations given his performance in camp and his high school pedigree, not to mention the brief moment of brilliance he showed two autumns ago.
Saturday, facing an opponent admittedly not up to the level UK will face in Southeastern Conference play, Towles delivered on what his 2012 cameo appearance promised.
"Y'all know Patrick ... he doesn't lack for confidence, which is a good thing," UK offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "That's a good thing. He thinks he can make every throw and he thinks he can make every run. That's exactly what you're looking for. I knew he was going to be ready to play."
Towles quarterbacked the UK offense to the fourth-best performance in terms of total offense (656 yards) in school history.
His game featured a 79-yard completion to Demarco Robinson on a first down from his own 13-yard line and a 22-yard touchdown run as highlights.
Towles' offensive coordinator and position coach was confident the player he placed faith in during the preseason would deliver, especially given the way recent practices had gone.
"On Wednesday he had his best practice that's he's probably ever--I know that he's had since I've been coaching, he had his best practice," Brown said. "Decision-making, throwing the ball. I sent him a text that next morning after I watched it and told him that same thing."
But Towles didn't enter the game completely assured of success.
"I was very nervous," Towles said. "I didn't get much sleep last night. I got some sleep, but not as much I would have liked to. I was just ready to go, I wanted to get out there and start playing.
If anything Brown was most impressed by his quarterback's response to adversity. After a turnover on downs to open the game, and some bad decisions early in the second half, Towles showed resilience.
The plays he made in response showed Brown he can depend on his quarterback when the competition gets tougher in coming weeks.
"The most important thing is he came out, first drive of the second half, and made two poor decisions," Brown said. "Made two poor decisions, then he came back the very next series and made two big plays. That's the thing: Bounce back.
"We've had this next-play attitude. That's what we talked about leading up to this game and I told you I preach it to myself more than those guys. But he did. He came out, had a bad series, bounced back, had a real positive series, had a nice run for a touchdown."
Looking back on his first start in a UK jersey, Towles' report card was good. But tougher tests remain.
"I felt like I did well as a whole," the UK starter said. "There were a couple bad decisions that were made by me but as you saw, I did what coach has been wanting me to and that was coming out in the next series and making two good decisions that canceled out my bad ones."
Towles certainly built off his previous CWS appearance on Saturday. The feat is not to be taken lightly given the excitement generated by his previous cameo.
And yet next week's test against a more competitive opponent in Ohio could go a longer way in showing UK's long-term outlook, if not just for the 2014 season.
Braylon Heard carried twice for 116 yards and two touchdowns in UK's 59-14 win on Saturday. (Elliott Hess, UK Athletics)
Throughout fall camp, Mark Stoops and his staff have preached the importance of making the simple play and executing assignments.
Braylon Heard's first two carries in a Kentucky uniform looked anything but simple.
The Nebraska transfer took the first 73 yards for a touchdown, sprinting through a big hole and slowing down only to make sure no UT Martin defenders were on his heels. They weren't.
On the next, less than four minutes of game time later, he found another seam and went 43 yards for another score.
The plays will surely end up on UK's highlight reel at the end of the season. And of course, they speak to the talent of the player who made them.
That doesn't mean they weren't perfect illustrations of what the staff has been saying.
"The two runs he had that he broke were extremely disciplined runs," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "... The thing that's going to be encouraging to me is we turn on the video tomorrow and here's Braylon doing the thing exactly the way we coach it. Exactly, to a T, the way we coach it. Boom, big play."
Heard was far from the only Wildcat to make big plays on Saturday. All told, UK had nine offensive plays of 20 yards or more in a dominant season-opening 59-14 victory, not to mention the defense's two interceptions and three fumble recoveries, one of which Khalid Henderson returned 89 yards for a touchdown.
In reflecting on the win, though, Stoops didn't marvel at his team's newfound game-breaking potential. Asked what single thing stood out to him about UK's performance, he gave an answer that was characteristically simple.
"Really just clean," Stoops said. "I think they were just--it was relatively clean."
The fans at Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday left singing a slightly different tune.
After all, they had just seen the influx of talent that Stoops has brought to Lexington back up the hype bestowed on it by recruiting services more than at any point since the second-year head coach's arrival.
They watched Heard -- limited to two carries by an ankle injury that knocked him out of the game for precautionary reasons -- led a ground game that rolled up 243 yards and six touchdowns on 28 carries. They cheered a young receiving corps that caught deep balls and turned short passes into long gains in equal measure, just as true freshman Blake Bone did on a screen pass that became a 29-yard touchdown.
"Definitely impressed," quarterback Patrick Towles said of the receiving corps. "The ball I threw to Blake that he scored on was behind. That should have been farther in front, but he made a really good play. The receivers all around played awesome."
Towles, starting for the first time at Kentucky, deftly ran the show. He completed 20-of-29 passes for 377 yards and a touchdown, adding 30 yards and another score on the ground.
"The big thing was, to me, he was very poised and he made very good decisions," Stoops said. "You know, we know he has the talent to get the ball down the field. I think it was important for him to be efficient in the intermediate area and I thought he did that. He missed a couple, but overall, just very pleased with his poise."
Towles was in Lexington before Stoops' arrival, but he's in the minority among UK's top offensive contributors. Players recruited to Kentucky by the current staff accounted for 529 of the Cats' 656 yards from scrimmage.
"I was very pleased with the young guys in general," Stoops said. "You can see the ability of some of the guys that we've been talking about, all the freshmen running backs, the freshmen wide receivers looked very poised out there and made some good plays."
That poise has everything to do with preparation, says running back Mikel Horton.
"I don't even think our coaches look it like freshmen being played because how prepared we are," said Horton, who carried seven times for 45 yards and two touchdowns. "Each freshmen, each senior, sophomore , junior are very prepared and each can rotate in and know the plays. I don't even look at it as freshman anymore. I look at us as players. When you're well prepared and you don't have a class on you, you can go in and handle your business."
UK's defense didn't rely quite as heavily on newcomers, but its biggest star on Saturday suited up in blue for the first time.
Safety A.J. Stamps has drawn raves all offseason from Stoops and defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot. The first-year junior-college transfer didn't wait long to back up the talk.
After Heard scored his first touchdown late in the first quarter to give UK a 14-0 lead, Stamps came flying into the backfield on the first play of the ensuing UT Martin drive. Before Ladevin Fair could hardly see him, Stamps flipped him into the air with a big hit for a three-yard loss.
"A.J.'s a very talented player and I've said all along he's been a great addition to our defense," Eliot said. "He's a very athlete, a very good football player, but he's also a good leader and he's got a lot of good instincts."
Those instincts showed up again on the Skyhawks' next drive. Reading a deep ball by UT Martin's Dylan Favre, Stamps sped over and snared the pass with his right hand, making a play sure to be seen again on the SportsCenter Top 10.
"Everybody said I could have made it with two," Stamps said. "But hey, one hand looked better."
Stamps -- who finished with a team high-tying eight tackles -- clearly had some fun on Saturday. He wasn't alone.
"This is the most fun I've had in a football game since (November) of 2012, probably," Brown said, recalling a text message he sent after the game. "And here's the thing: It's been fun all camp. It really has. I've had a good time. I appreciate the way our guys have worked, how they've prepared."
During camp, Brown joked about the gray hairs he's spouting coaching so many youngsters. In a good mood on Saturday following a big win, he talked about the flip side of coaching an up-and-coming group.
"These guys really want to be good," Brown said. "Our talent's getting better. We haven't arrived by any means, but our talent's getting better. They're eager, really eager to do well and they've been a fun group to coach. Not just myself, our whole offensive staff. We really enjoy coaching this group and I really think you're going to see continued growth as we go along."
Anni Thomasson had 13 kills and 12 digs in UK's season-opening win on Friday night. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
In practice leading up to the 2014 volleyball season, kills were hard to come by.
What Craig Skinner wondered was whether that had more to do with the strength of Kentucky's defense or the offense's need to improve.
After a season-opening win over Wichita State, the former seems more likely.
Facing a team that reached the NCAA Tournament a season ago, the Wildcats were dominant on the attack in a decisive sweep of the Shockers.
"I'm very happy with the way we played in our first match," Skinner said. "Who knows what to expect. You know how you've been playing against your own team. Wichita State, even though they're a young team, they're always well coached and always very athletic."
It was a balanced effort that carried UK, with four Wildcats putting down at least six kills on the opening night of the Bluegrass Battle. Senior setter Morgan Bergren guided an offense that hit at a .372 clip with 31 assists as No. 19 Kentucky moved to 1-0 entering a Saturday doubleheader against Butler and Virginia Tech.
"I thought Morgan did a really nice job of finding the right people at the right time," Skinner said. "Everybody got involved in the offense. Wichita State had a hard time knowing who she was going to set."
Anni Thomasson was the most likely candidate to finish off points. The sophomore had 13 kills and just two errors in hitting .440.
"Anni's just a great volleyball player," Skinner said. "She figures out ways to score. When she can't pound it straight down, she's going to find a seam or a hole in the defense."
Not only does she find holes in the opposing defense, she also fills them in UK's. Thomasson added 12 digs in what figures to be the first of many double-doubles for her this season. Thomasson was one of UK's best players a season ago in receiving All-Southeastern Conference Freshman Team honors, but she appears poised to be even better in 2014.
"No one outworks her," Skinner said. "She just is a grinder and wants to be really good and never takes a day off. When you're like that, it's hard not to improve."
The Newark, Ohio, native is an outside hitter, a position sometimes occupied by offensive specialists, but Thomasson is as much of a contributor on defense. That's a big reason why Skinner says this could be the best defensive team he's coached.
"There's not a position that's weak defensively," Skinner said. "Typically you'll have one, maybe two people that struggle defensively. I think we're going to make it tough for people to score, but we gotta do it every day."
That means practice too, where more intense offense-defense battles are surely in store.
As the Kentucky men's soccer team enters the 2014 season, one of its biggest unanswered questions is who will replace some of the team's departed scoring.
With the graduation of leading scorers Tyler Riggs and Brad Doliner, Kentucky must replace 64-percent of its goals from a year ago. One of the players tasked with picking up the scoring load is senior forward Justin Laird.
A native of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Laird is UK's leading returning scorer after pacing the team with six assists in his first season in Lexington.
The Wright State transfer played in 17 games and made seven starts, finishing with one goal on 22 shots, with his golden goal in overtime vs. Old Dominion in the C-USA Tournament Quarterfinals lifting UK to the semis.
Now entering his final season with the Wildcats, Laird will be counted on as a forward in UK head coach Johan Cedergren's attacking system, a role that requires a physical presence up top as a primary distributor.
"It has been difficult for me, especially since I am the type of player that just likes to run and not really body up guys," Laird said about adapting to the system. "I like to be facing goal, not getting the ball with my back to it, but it has been a change for me. At the same time, with the changes of the coaching staff, I have a lot more clarity of what needs to be done and I feel like I have been adapting to that role real well. I think they get more pleased with me in that role, day-by-day."
A star at Hartford Union High School in Hartford, Wisconsin, Laird began his collegiate career at Wright State.
During his debut season at Wright State, Laird totaled team-highs in points (15) and goals (seven), earning a spot on the Horizon League Newcomer Team.
"I learned that D1 soccer is going to be a lot of work," Laird said about lessons learned at Wright State. "It is going to be a complete grind. Coming to Lexington it really just shows me how blessed we are to have the things that we have and have the coaching staff that we have. It just helped my momentum going forward and helped me learn about what soccer can do for a campus, and we have big things in store here."
After earning a starting spot at forward in UK's first exhibition tune-up of the year at Northern Kentucky, Laird came off the bench to play the final 45 minutes in UK's final exhibition against Georgia State. Upon entering vs. GSU, Laird's impact was immediately felt, as UK picked up the offensive intensity and attacking mindset.
"I feel way more comfortable around campus," Laird said. "I need to be more of a leader out there. I hope that I am a guy that players can look to with questions, on and off the field. I feel like I have a good relationship with this campus right now."
One benefit to Laird and UK's offensive attack in the preseason has been the daily battles with UK's stout defensive unit. With junior Callum Irving, "one of the top three goalkeepers in the country," according to Cedergren, and three starters returning on the back four, UK's defense will be a strength in 2014.
"It is hard," Laird said about facing the UK defense in training. "It is the best four that I have ever played against. In practice it is really hard to get goals on them. Their formation is set and skill wise they are almost unbeatable. It is definitely a struggle when you have to face them up in practice."
Laird has learned a lot over his time at Kentucky and has been struck by the commitment from the UK support staff in building a first-class operation.
"It all starts with the department," Laird said. "UK facilities and everything we have, we are super spoiled and super blessed. I learned that this is a place with big goals and we have the facilities to reflect and reach those goals. We can go big places with this team."
The Wildcats will open their 2014 season against Laird's former squad, Wright State, on Friday at 7:30 p.m. in Dayton, Ohio. UK will then return home for its first game at the sparkling new Wendell & Vickie Bell Soccer Complex on Sunday, hosting Belmont at 5 p.m.
"Goals for the team are to get to a final four this year. We are going to have to have a lot of leadership and a lot of people step up. But at the same time, it is possible. Individually, my goal is to have 10 or more goals."
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."