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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.

Today, Montana Whittle, Danielle Fitzgerald and Charlie Reymann each write about an unforgettable day spent in the poorest area of Addis Ababa.


Montana Whittle

Where to start?

I find myself at a loss of words, because this experience cannot be described. There are no words or pictures that do this place justice. I wish I could let you see my memories and feel what I have felt. I will do my best to help you understand this place and its people, but I would highly encourage you to explore this world yourself and challenge you to keep an open mind.  

Today started with an amazing plate of French toast and a cup of coffee, and finished with me questioning my entire existence.  After breakfast we were given a brief explanation of what the day would bring. At this time I thought I was going to change lives, but the truth is that my life would be changed, forever. We were told that we were going to visit the poorest part of Addis Ababa. It is about one square mile, maybe a little bigger, and is home to over 100,000 people. These people are the poorest of the poor, most of them have been shunned due to disabilities and illnesses, such as leprosy or HIV/AIDS.  

We pull up in our van to Mark's office and children swarm us. From the minute we walked outside to the time we left, those children held our hands. They were so excited to meet us and tell us about themselves. All they wanted was for us to remember them, pray for them, love them. These children had such a huge impact on me. They were the happiest kids I had ever met, and yet they had nothing. Most of them had shoes that were falling apart and clothes that were worn thin. The two boys who held my hand had asked me for things, such as clothes, shoes or food. It broke my heart that we were not allowed to give them anything, because it would be unfair to those who did not get something. All I wanted to do was give these kids everything they needed; I wanted to tell them that everything was going be OK. But, the truth is, I had no idea. The memory of these children chasing after our van when we left will stay with me forever.

Our mission today was to deliver food and supplies (coffee beans, macaroni, salt, matches and soap) to widows and families in need. At the office we met the women and children who were going to be receiving these supplies. These women were inspirational. Faithful. They were so grateful, even though some of them could not even walk. Two women in particular really impacted me because one was in a wheelchair and the other had a daughter who could not walk, so she carried her on her back. When we delivered their food to their homes, the walk was not short. These mothers did not complain. In fact they were overjoyed just to meet us and have us see their homes.

I have never seen such poor living conditions, where their walls were sod, their roofs were tin and their floors were mud. A large house would be the size of our bathrooms in America. Yet, we were invited in without a moment's hesitation. They were so proud and had no shame; they wanted us to see everything in their homes and even offered us coffee. The first thing they did was thank us and tell us that they would be praying for us every day. I could not help but get emotional; I was not the one who needed prayers. I have never seen God work through people so much. They had so much going against them -- missing limbs, leprosy, unable to walk, crooked feet -- and yet they still were so patient with us, still so loving, still so faithful, still so happy.  


My experience today and every day this week was unreal and unforgettable. Now that I am home, all I can think about are those beautiful people that I met and my plan to return in the future. This experience has caused me to question everything that I know and everything that I want. Everything that was so important to me in the past is not important anymore. I know this experience has changed me for the better and I hope I never forget the faces and hearts of the people of Ethiopia.

Danielle Fitzgerald

Today was spent in one of the world's poorest places, which is built around the city dump. We started the morning with our standard "UK breakfast special" consisting of French toast and eggs but nothing we saw after was familiar. We were aware of the immense state of poverty but familiarity stopped there.

As we rolled up to the office that works to provide sponsorships to the people of the area, we were instantly greeted by big grins and precious little hands that wanted to be held. The instant joy the kids felt from simply having somebody touch them was quite overwhelming.

Mark took us into the office where we formed an assembly line to package macaroni, salt, body soap and other items for people who had been put on the sponsorship wait list. The recipients were sitting outside of the office and even though most were suffering from starvation, HIV/AIDS or leprosy, the pure joy they expressed seemed to be most contagious. We each carried a bag full of necessities to different houses, kids still in tow throughout the day. Although their houses' sizes were more comparable to a standard American bathroom than an American house, everyone was so proud to show us their homes and invite us to stay.

Each member of our team had about three kids latched onto them throughout the day and close to 100 followed us both when we were walking from house to house and running closely behind when our van took us to other parts of the town. There are few words to describe the emotions felt when a swarm of kids chases your van for miles and the two or three kids you've grown very close to come find you again, happy as can be to have done so. The simplest things brought them the most joy: thumb wars, hand games and skipping through the streets. Not even a language barrier could hinder that. Many of the kids would push their way through the line of hands to get closer to us but they did not realize they were the real celebrities, their endless love and eagerness to get to know us more admirable than our presence.


One of the hardest parts of the day was leaving the kids we had established relationships with. Eyes teared up when our new friends asked for pens to write their names on our arms in hopes that we would remember them forever and keep them in our prayers. Nothing can prepare you for the moment that two little girls ask you to take them home with you because life would be better that way.

It is so easy for us to get caught up in how busy our own lives are and forget about what is really important. These people don't have money to spend, cars to drive or cell phones to obsess over. They do have each other. And without worldly relationships, they still have a strong faith in God. I have never been so overwhelmed by such a concentrated sentiment of love. Relationships were valued so much more when there was not an emphasis on material possessions. Every person we came in contact with was significantly happier with their lives than I have ever seen before and I believe there is something to be said for that. Material poverty and spiritual wealth may not look glamorous from the outside looking in, but a completely different story was told once we were able to see from these beautiful people's perspective, even if only for a small fraction of time.

Charlie Reymann


Today was our second day in Ethiopia and it was full of eye-opening experiences. We started off with breakfast and then traveled to an area considered one of the poorest places in Ethiopia. The city began when all the people with leprosy were sent away and as time went on more and more outcasts were sent here. It surrounds a trash dump, and sometimes the people will search in the dump for food or supplies for their houses. We knew going into this day that this will be something we will never forget.

It is such a blessing to be able to experience a place like this. 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.

Once we arrived, we teamed up with a community center to provide some of the people in the community with a month's worth of supplies. The community center we worked with sponsors women and men from the city. The people that we helped today were men and women in line for the next sponsor. Some of the supplies we gave to them were macaroni, coffee beans, sugar and soap. We split up into little teams to make the process go as smoothly as possible. Since we are all athletes we all know how to work in a team, so we got to work.

Once we were done we all got the privilege to hand these men and women their supplies, which was a wonderful sight. Seeing their faces as we gave them the supplies was remarkable. They all said "God bless you" in English when we gave them their bag. After we gave them their supplies, some of us followed them to their houses to help carry them. These women came a long way to get their supplies, if I had to guess the farthest was two miles. And the lady who traveled the two miles was in a wheel chair!

As we walked with these women, questions came into my head. How does a place get like this? How does any human live in this city? Is there any solution to this problem? We may never know the answers to those questions but seeing the children filled us all with joy. Children came from everywhere to walk with us like we were rock stars. Each of us had at least three children holding our hands. Their smiles and joy were contagious to all of us. A place where it is hard to find anything to be happy about, these children could not stop smiling.

As I walked with these kids, I realized they were just happy to be alive. Video games and computers did not matter to them unlike kids in America. Materialistic goods are what most Americans really care about: their phones, their cars and their jewelry. These people have nothing and they all act like they have everything they need and more. It made us realize that we do not need all the "things" we own to be happy. They just enjoyed being with their friends and walking around with Americans for the day. And making new friends! We were their idols. They were thankful for a new friend, and that someone will be thinking about them. We get so caught up in our little world that we are not thankful for small things in life because we take them for granted.

We all went back to the community center to regroup and get ready for lunch. We went to a restaurant and almost everybody ordered a pizza. My pizza was delicious! We travel with three Ethiopian kids our age to help us learn the culture, translate, and most of all become our friends. Their names are Wario, Girma, and Khalib. They all made us try this green hot sauce that was like fire in your mouth. According to them everyone is used to hot spices in Ethiopia so when Americans come, they are not used to how hot the food is. Besides the green sauce that we tried everything was great and we headed back to explore the city a little more.

After lunch, we walked right up to the dump. We went inside a small village that was right next to it and the craziest thing happened. The little kids who were with us all morning found us and walked with us again!

I could not understand how some of these families can live this close to the dump and be so happy with their lives. No one would ever live as close to a trash dump as these homes were in the United States. We all went into the village and Mark called us around this small boy. He then told us that the kid he was holding up had a tumor above his eye not too long ago. One of the families who sponsored his family paid for this child to have his tumor removed. The kid could not have been more than four years old. This story touched all of our hearts. God used the sponsor to save that little boy's life. A remarkable story that we will never forget.

In Ethiopia everything is about relationships, and I experienced that right when I got off the bus. 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.

All the kids were so happy! They were happy because they know that they mean something to someone who lives outside their village. That means so much to them. Honuk and some of the other kids wanted us to remember their names so bad that they wrote them on our arms. He borrowed a pen from a street vendor and pressed as hard as he could to spell out his name. The moment that will never leave my mind is when we were all getting on the bus to leave my new friend Honuk ran up to the bus and waved for me to open the window. With a smiling face and love in his eyes he said, "Charlie, I will miss you. I will pray for you." Those were the types of moments we all experienced today and I think we all agreed that we will never forget this day.

Walking through the city we saw more little kids laughing, playing, and loving each other than anywhere in the U.S. We saw mothers more proud of their homes than most mothers in America. They might not have as much money or opportunity but they have more joy and spirit. This day was an incredible day that we will always cherish in our hearts.  


After UK's first practice of fall camp on Monday, Mark Stoops pointed out there were some areas to "clean up" on offense on an otherwise encouraging day.

In another early-morning practice on Tuesday, the Wildcats took a step in the right direction.

Settling in on the second day of fall camp, UK executed much more cleanly, particularly in the passing game, while sustaining the energy displayed the day before.

"I thought we were nervous day one, especially the new guys, the freshmen, and it showed," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "We dropped some passes. But we caught the ball really well today. I don't anticipate that being an issue at all, like it was at times last year. During team period, we may have had one drop. I don't anticipate that being a problem going forward."

Five members of UK's highly touted incoming class are wide receivers, giving UK much-needed depth at a position that severely lacked it a season ago. So far, Brown has been encouraged by the group.

"Really, really excited about some of the young freshmen wideouts," Brown said. "They're catching on quicker. The new rules in the summer obviously helped us."

Asked for detail on which of the five impressed him, Brown named Dorian Baker and Blake Bone, "the two big kids."

"We need those guys," Brown said. "We need length. I talked about it in detail last year: we need some guys with some size. I've been impressed with those guys. Dorian probably had a better day one than day two, but excited about both those."

Big receivers like Baker and Bone, 6-foot-3 and 6-5, respectively, can be safety blankets for a quarterback. Considering UK will play with a first-time full-time starter at quarterback whether Patrick Towles, Reese Phillips, Drew Barker or Maxwell Smith wins the job, that's a plus.

Speaking of those signal callers, there's still no word of any separation in the battle between them. Brown, however, did give some insight into how he's applying the added pressure on the quarterbacks he said he would.

"The defenses kind of installs how they're going to install, so we're seeing the pressure packages at kind of a normal rate, but really I'm keeping track of every throw they make," Brown said. "I'm talking about it, talking about situational football a lot, probably coaching them harder and being more intense with them early in camp than I normally am."

Those quarterbacks are working in a slightly simplified system this fall, with most calls featuring one word and one syllable. That, along with a full year of experience in Brown's offense and a summer of film study, is helping ramp up the pace in practice.

"When you're trying to play fast -- and we weren't capable of playing as fast as we would like last year, because guys were thinking," Brown said. "They'd have to think about alignments and assignments. Now it's more natural. They're used to getting signals. They're used to getting lined up fast, used to operating fast."

Even playing at that pace, Brown has liked what he's seen from the offensive linemen who redshirted a season ago as well as freshman running backs Mikel Horton and Stanley "Boom" Williams. But on Wednesday, they'll be subjected to another kind of test. That's when the pads go on.

"So overall, two productive days, but we are playing flag football," Brown said. "Tomorrow the truth will be shown."

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.

Today, Jared Philips writes about the group's arrival in Ethiopia.


By Jared Phillips

Today's the day. We are traveling to Ethiopia! Our team got up early and headed to the airport where waiting in lines, flight delays and confiscation of necessary items at security awaited us. However, we were all incredibly excited for this trip, so these events were merely slight bumps in the road.

We boarded our nearly 13-hour flight to Addis Ababa shortly after noon in Washington, D.C., and finally touched down on a cloudy, cool morning at Bole International Airport at roughly 9:30 a.m. local time.  Our team's exhaustion quickly turned into exhilaration after landing in what was a novel experience for all of us but Jason (Schlafer, the senior associate athletic director accompanying student-athletes): Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.


Surprisingly quickly, we made it through customs, picked up our baggage, and walked out of the terminal. I got a taste of how kind the Ethiopian people are when a lady stopped me as our team was leaving the terminal and personally welcomed me to Addis Ababa; it was rather touching to see someone as welcoming as she was. As soon as we were outside, we were in awe what was before us: a mixture of nature and urban life stretching for miles and miles. The weather was nice and cool compared to Lexington, and the mass of cars in the airport parking lot awaited us. We met up with Mark, who would be leading us around to the various places on the trip, and Nikki, our photographer for the week and departed for our guesthouse.

Immediately, our group got to witness the poverty and crowdedness that characterize the cities of third-world countries. People were everywhere: walking in the streets, begging and trying to sell numerous goods, and crammed into blue and white vans that served as taxis for the city. Upscale buildings stood next to tiny tin shacks, and rudimentary slabs of concrete under construction littered the landscape before us. The traffic was organized chaos, as cars, trucks, and vans would come and go with not a stop sign or traffic light in sight. We arrived at the Addis Guesthouse, across from a field where tents of cloth, towels, and mud sprung up from the ground. We met two of the local guys that would be assisting us this week, Girma and Wario, who dropped our luggage off in our rooms, and we soon departed for our first visit.

As our driver navigated through the Addis traffic, Mark explained to us that the neighborhood we would visit is mainly occupied by widows and their children, and that we would be giving them bags of coffee and sugar and mattresses, complete with sheets and a blanket. We arrived outside a community center and made our way in through a metal gate with barbed wire, a common scene in Addis. What happened next absolutely floored me.  As soon as the widows and children saw us, they welcomed us with such warmth and love, peppering us with hugs and kisses. The joy evident on their faces was contagious. After a few hugs, I could not help but beam with joy simply being in their presence.

We hastily made our way into the community center where everyone sat in a circle and each member of our team was introduced to much applause. The women sang worship songs with clapping and rejoicing, and even though none of our group could understand what was being sung, it was a pretty neat experience. Several women then proceeded to share their testimony of how their sponsorship through the program that Mark is in charge of has completely changed their lives by giving them food to eat and providing for their children's healthcare and education. In everything these women thanked God for what they had, and it struck a chord with me: I complain about my phone being slow sometimes, yet these women are so thankful for the very little they have. Such incredible conviction.

Afterward, we handed out bags of coffee and sugar to these women, who thanked us profusely for them. We also managed to give out mattresses and sheets to the women who needed replacements.  We then got to spend time with one another, meeting each other and playing with the kids. One woman, Tonga, pulled me aside and continued to thank the group and me for coming to visit them and eagerly introduced me to her daughter. She kept telling me how we were such a blessing to them and how grateful she was for the things we handed out. Although it felt good to provide for these people's physical needs, I was humbled by her gratitude and thankful to her for how loving and gracious the hearts of the widows are. I got the joy of hanging out with some of these kids and seeing their faces light up when Montana handed out some chocolate.  

Two of these children I will remember forever: Biniyam, a 13-year-old boy, and Doriba, his 10-year-old sister. We bonded immediately and Haley and I got to carry their mattress back to their house. It was fantastic seeing these children who had nearly nothing, yet were so joyful and free of burdens. Walking through the neighborhood, we saw some houses that were pretty decent for their standards, but as we got closer we saw things for what they were. In the garages and backyards of these people, we saw widows and children in makeshift homes. Once we reached Biniyam's home, he invited us inside and showed us around. The house was no bigger than my bedroom at the guesthouse, yet they kept saying how big it was and were so proud of their belongings. These people are so thankful for the very little they have, and I was yet again floored at their attitude; we may have comfort in America, but the joy that these people have is a treasure very much worth looking for and guarding with your life.

We returned to the community center from Biniyam's house for a lunch of fried egg sandwiches and sodas, then left to go deliver laptops to some of Mark's friends and pick up supplies for his children. The area we were in, as Wario noted, is one of the nicest neighborhoods in Addis, yet it was not exactly middle-class America. Even something as subtle as being in a nice area of Addis rocked me. It was continued evidence that comfort and possessions do not equal joy, and possibly the absence of comfort and possessions (or the absence of finding your value in these things) contributes to the joy that people have.

Once we dropped off the laptops, we left to go exchange our American dollars for Ethiopian birr and we stopped by the "Starbucks of Ethiopia:" Kaldi's Coffee. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy my coffee and I'm a big fan of the local coffee shops we have in Lexington, but nothing has come close to what I had today. The coffee is so rich that it doesn't need any creamer, sugar or anything fancy. These Ethiopians know their coffee! After the coffee shop, we returned to the guesthouse to eat dinner and retire for the night, exhausted after a long yet rewarding day in Addis Ababa.


New arrival Flannigan learning on the fly

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Ryan Flannigan. (Photo via Blinn College) Ryan Flannigan. (Photo via Blinn College)
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.



UK gets head start on first day of fall camp

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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."

Stoops on quarterbacks


Defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot



Mark Stoops speaks at UK's annual Kickoff Luncheon. (Brent Ingram, UK Athletics) 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) 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 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) 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) 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) 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."

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