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Stoops excited to open up fast-tempo practices

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STOOPS

ELIOT

At this time last year, Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops wasn't ready to open up a full practice to the fans and media.

After hosting an estimated 4,000 fans on Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium for its annual preseason Fan Day, which included the first open practice of fall camp, Stoops elected to also open practice on Monday morning at its regular practice venue at the Nutter Training Facility.

Following the practice, Stoops met with the media, getting a question about the communication and tempo of the session.

"A lot going on out there, huh?" Stoops replied with a smile.

Kentucky's practices are a quick paced, organized operation that rarely includes down time in an effort to maximize efficiency. Stoops was excited to begin to share those practices with the UK fan base.

"Last year, we probably weren't at a point where we could open it up where you could totally see," Stoops said. "That was just a normal practice for us for the most part right there. Last year you probably saw some abbreviated ones, and only parts of it. The communication, the confidence of them talking comes with experience."

UK's practices, as to be expected this early in fall camp, have been a mixture of good and bad. Stoops and the coaching staff understand that dealing with negative plays and failure is a huge part of progressing with a youthful roster.

"The way we respond," Stoops said about the progress his squad is making in accountability. "Maybe the offense is not doing some good things, they come back and make a few plays and bounce back. Defensively the same thing. Just to stay on the grind. Just keep on pushing and never accept being average. Our guys are pushing to be better. We are not there. It is frustrating at times to be so young in certain spots again but it is what it is and it is our job to get them better."

Kentucky's next open practice will be on Tuesday at the Tim Couch Practice Fields, slated from 3:30-5 p.m. ET.

"Hope you guys enjoyed the practice. I was glad to open it up again, it was good to have you out there and open it up to the public," Stoops said. "We will do that a few more times."

Video: Football Fan Day 2014

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Due to renovations at Commonwealth Stadium, UK football held its annual Fan Day -- normally an evening event complete with fireworks -- in the morning on Saturday.

Combine that with rain in the forecast and Mark Stoops wasn't sure what to expect.

For far from the first time since his arrival in Lexington, Stoops was pleasantly surprised by Kentucky fans when he saw a line wrapping around the outside of the Nutter Fieldhouse.

"I was shocked, because I thought in the morning there would be less people," Stoops said. "But we couldn't come in here at night and didn't want to risk with the rain. So with the weather and being a little cooler going inside, I thought there would be less people. But I was amazed, as usual, and greatly appreciate the support and the kind words."

Stoops, his coaching staff and players signed autographs for more than an hour before making the short walk to Commonwealth Stadium for their first of two practices on Saturday. An estimated 4,000 fans were in attendance for the autograph session. UK will hold three more open practices during fall camp.

"That's the thing, ever since Coach Stoops got hired and I came back here the fans have been great," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "Very, very supportive, standing room. Lots of young kids, which I think is important. ... It was really good for our kids, them to understand what they represent. When they put Kentucky across their chest, what they represent, the people."

The crowd saw plenty of big plays on both sides of the ball, including a number by members of a talented freshman class, in what was close to a full practice. Wide receivers Dorian Baker and T.V. Williams and defensive back Kendall Randolph were among the headliners, while Stanley Williams drew some cheers of "Boom" -- his high school nickname -- from the crowd after a run for a long gain.

"You've got to earn 'Boom' around here," Brown said, smiling. "Stanley, he can play at a different speed. He shows signs. He's still learning. I think we've got to be careful. We don't want to anoint him too early. We're pretty talented at that position. He's got a long way to go as far as learning what to do, but he plays at a different gear."

In spite of those big plays, Stoops said UK had been cleaner in its execution earlier in the week, especially in the passing game, but having a crowd in the building added exactly the kind of dynamic Stoops was hoping for.

"I think we need that," Stoops said. "They need to feel that pressure or whatever you want to say to get out here and perform in this stadium and do well."

Sophomore wide receiver Ryan Timmons agrees.

"It gives the team a lot more energy," Timmons said. "The fans are out here watching so everybody wants to make a name for themselves so everybody goes a lot harder. We like the excitement. Can't wait for three weeks."

Those three weeks before UK takes on UT Martin, however, are important.

"Believe me, this team wants to deliver for this fan base," Stoops said. "They've been so loyal, and just can't thank them enough for their support. I promise you, this was not a finished product here today. We're gonna work hard and get better."




A rendering of the southwest corner of UK football's planned training facility. A rendering of the southwest corner of UK football's planned training facility.
Kicking off Kentucky football's annual Media Day, Mitch Barnhart joked he was the warmup act for Mark Stoops, his staff and players.

Fortunately for UK's athletics director, he had some pretty good material of his own.

Barnhart brought with him draft renderings of the new training facility that will house the entire UK football operation.

"We think we'll finish up schematic design later on this fall, and we'll be able to begin the process and get into the construction process," Barnhart said. "So real excited about that and be able to move forward with that."

When completed in 2016, the new facility will cover between 95,000 and 100,000 square feet off the back side of the Nutter Fieldhouse. It will feature three practice fields, a weight room, offices, meeting rooms, a locker room and much more.

"That will give us an opportunity to do some really, really cool, unique things, tying this whole facility and one stop shop, our players in an area where they can get everything they need for the University of Kentucky football in one area," Barnhart said.

Work will begin on the training center while renovations on Commonwealth Stadium are still ongoing. The designs will complement the look and feel of the renovated stadium, complete with Kentucky limestone.

Barnhart and Russ Pear, UK's senior associate athletics director for facilities and operations, have worked closely with Stoops and his staff on the project since plans were approved in late January by the Board of Trustees. Friday was the first time any renderings were shown publicly.

It will still be a couple years before the team moves into its new facility, but the unveiling adds to the momentum built in the 20 months since Stoops arrived in Lexington.

"That makes us excited as a coaching staff, as a football team," Stoops said. "Our players, our recruits, everybody feels the excitement that's going on right now. There's been a great buy-in from the whole state and certainly from our administration."
One of the practice fields at UK football's planned training facility. One of the practice fields at UK football's planned training facility.

A rendering of an interior corridor. A rendering of an interior corridor.

Offensive coordinator Neal Brown with quarterbacks Maxwell Smith, Drew Barker, Reese Phillips and Patrick Towles. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Offensive coordinator Neal Brown with quarterbacks Maxwell Smith, Drew Barker, Reese Phillips and Patrick Towles. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Mark Stoops and Neal Brown didn't miss a chance in spring practice to say that UK would be improved at quarterback this season.

Even so, Brown left the four contenders to start at the position with a simple directive during the summer months: improve even more.

"I really wanted to see from the end of April from the spring game until when we started on Monday, was how much (more) they improved fundamentally because I gave them a lot of different things to work on," Brown said.

A week into fall camp, no decision has been made at quarterback. What is clear, however, is that Patrick Towles, Reese Phillips, Drew Barker and Maxwell Smith completed their offseason assignment.

"The guys have really done a nice job," Stoops said at Media Day. "They're better rounded, and I expect them to go out and play well. I think we have good competition there. They're all doing some good things. They're not perfect, but they're much improved."

Towles, to start with, has continued to speed his release, according to Brown. A combination of mental and fundamental work has been the driving force behind that.

"With making decisions, that comes from just understanding the offense," Towles said. "You know the offense better, you know when people are going to come open, you know where people are at. So then it's easier to get the ball out. And then fundamentally, last year my release was too long, so even if I made a quick decision it still might have taken a little bit for the ball to get there. Now my release is quicker and I have a better understanding of the offense to where I'm on time all the time."

Phillips, praised repeatedly as the most consistent quarterback of the bunch, has upped his arm strength. Like Towles, that's due in large part to a team-wide focus on fundamentals.

"My drops have become a lot faster," Phillips said. "With that, I can use my legs more. I don't have to rely on just using my arm."

Along those same lines, Barker has cut down on the mistakes that plagued him in the spring, when he arrived a semester early after graduating high school in December. Even though Barker reported he led the quarterbacks in touchdown passes during spring practice, he also threw the most interceptions.

"In the spring, I was learning something in the meeting room 15, 20 minutes before practice and then I would go out and have to do it against a live SEC defense," Barker said. "Sometimes, to be honest, I wouldn't know what I was doing. This summer, I really sat down and studied the playbook; tried to learn more about defense, coverages, blitzes, stuff like that; and just make better reads and be more confident in my decisions."

Smith, practicing fully every other day, has been more effective throwing the ball over the middle of the field.

"My mindset is just to come out every single day, work as hard as I can, do everything the coaches ask, help the guys around me, not just these quarterbacks, but everybody else, making sure they know what they're doing and make our team as good as we can be," Smith said.

Though Smith -- the veteran of the group -- is committed to helping his team, don't mistake that for a concession. He's out to win this ongoing battle.

"If I didn't have my eyes on the job, I might as well just call it quits now, in my opinion," Smith said. "Of course I've got my eyes on the job. I'm not the kind of person that's just going to lay down and just hand it over, like 'you guys can take it now.' That's not me. That's not who I am."

Smith is wise not to give in because Stoops says the competition remains "wide open," though that figures to change quickly.

Over the first days of practice, coaches avoided turning the intensity in practice up to the highest level due to a study by High Performance coach Erik Korem that revealed more injuries occurring during finals week. With summer classes now over, that will change with a practice on Friday afternoon and two more on Saturday.

"Now we're going to pick up starting this afternoon and do a lot of good on goods, throw our quarterbacks in a lot of different situations," Brown said. "I hope within the next five or seven days, one of those guys (is) going to stand out."

Each of the four quarterbacks hopes to be the one, but they know getting caught up in that will do them no good.

"Every week is a big week," Towles said. "The spring was the biggest spring of my life. Each practice, the next practice is the most important practice. Each play, the next play is the most important play. So I really can't think about two days from now. I gotta think about today. We've got practice at 3. I'm just worried about that."

Brown has done everything in his power to give the quarterbacks plenty to worry about in practice.

"In the spring, I took this approach," Brown said. "We're going to have fun. We're going to enjoy this. Focus on getting better, you individually getting better. ... Now I'm telling them, hey, we're looking for a guy to win the job. Go win the job. Everything that you do during the course of a practice is getting judged. Yeah, you'd better have fun with it, but understand we are keeping score."

With more third-down work, lots of talk and harder coaching, Brown is trying to simulate the pressure whoever wins the job will face on game day.

"I think it's just the intensity from Coach Brown is a lot higher now than it has ever been," Phillips said. "He's an intense person, but at the same time he kind of knows how to keep us relaxed. Now he's not doing that. He's trying to get in our heads. When we do blitz or team, he tries to put in situations to where it's going to be hard and we have to overcome stuff."

Clearly, Brown has no intention of making it to the season opener on Aug. 30 with no quarterback taking hold of the starting position like last season. Stoops, however, won't make a decision until it's appropriate, regardless what happened a year ago.

"Right now it's just too even," Stoops said. "I've said it before, it would be too reckless just to make a decision because I want to make a decision and not answer those questions. I'm not going to do that. It's not fair to the players. It's not fair to our team. It's not fair to the future of our program."

Video: Brown, Eliot preview season at media day

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Offensive coordinator Neal Brown


Defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot


Video: Stoops' media day press conference

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Video: Barnhart's media day press conference

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Video: UK football media day press conference

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Before head coach Mark Stoops even stepped up to the podium to recap Wednesday's practice, one could conclude the early-morning session wasn't up to the second-year head coach's standards.

"Average practice today. Not good enough. Just didn't feel like we had the mentality that we needed. I don't know. Too early in camp for guys to be feeling sorry about themselves getting up early," Stoops said.

The Wildcats practiced for the third - and final - time this fall in the early-morning sunlight due to an overlap between fall camp and summer classes. Stoops, however, wasn't willing to point to that as an excuse.

"You know I'm not giving them any place to hide," Stoops said. "Not good enough. Just not tough enough, not enough energy, weren't clean enough in our execution on either side of the ball. So, just wasn't good enough."

Defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot echoed Stoops' words, adding with the team putting on shoulder pads for the first time he was expecting an energetic session.

"First day of pads and we didn't play physical, that is disappointing," Eliot said. "I was (surprised) because they haven't put pads on in a long time. So I thought they would be excited and flying around and that we would have to slow them down not speed them up."

But out of the haze of a disappointing practice, Stoops and Eliot hope leaders emerge. Both coaches said they will lean on the team's leaders to get the team to regroup for meetings and walk-throughs Wednesday afternoon and Thursday with no full practice scheduled for Thursday.

"Leaders have to do what is right, not what is popular," Eliot said. "We need guys to stand up and point out what guys are doing wrong and not care what other people think, those will be your leaders."

When asked if Stoops and Eliot feel they have those type of leaders on the team this season, both said yes without hesitation. 

"They know it wasn't good enough," Stoops said. "I told them it wasn't good enough. We'll correct them in meetings. We'll get out here and have walk-throughs. We'll push them and we'll do what we need to do, but we absolutely need leadership in our program to take charge."

On the injury front, Stoops announced after practice that true freshman safety Darius West will miss the rest of the season due to injury. West, from Central Catholic High School in Lima, Ohio, was a four-star recruit by nearly every recruiting database.

"He got hurt yesterday," Stoops said. "So, it's a real shame. He's a good player. He's everything we thought he was going to be. He's a really talented football player. He came in with an injury and we thought it was healed up. But it didn't work out, so he'll be out for the year."

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