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Kentucky travels to Vanderbilt on Saturday for a 12:21 p.m. ET matchup with the Commodores. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Kentucky travels to Vanderbilt on Saturday for a 12:21 p.m. ET matchup with the Commodores. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Mark Stoops knows Kentucky has improved since day one.

Given the roles he's played in defensive turnarounds at Arizona and Florida State, he knows how to judge a team beyond its win-loss record.

The fact remains, however, that UK sits at 2-7. Nonetheless, he knows what he sees on tape, even after a 48-17 loss to Missouri on Saturday.

"What I take some salvation in is when I turn on that film and see good, sound football, and I see that from 80 percent, and I know that's not good enough to the common fan," Stoops said. "But I see us coaching and putting into position and see the players executing and playing hard. I see some good plays, and I know there is progress being made, even though that's difficult to see on the scoreboard and all that."

As true as all that may be, Stoops wants to win as badly as anyone else, and right now.

"I'll go back and I look at everything we're doing and we all do," Stoops said. "We're very critical of ourselves and we know we can do things better, that's for sure."

More specifically, he wants to hone in on those 20-percent plays that he believes is getting Kentucky beat as UK prepares for a road trip to Vanderbilt on Saturday at 12:21 p.m. ET. That starts with focusing on the positive.

"But I saw a good percentage of plays that were good football plays," Stoops said. "And that we have to build on, that we have to learn to play a hundred percent of those plays as best we can. Then we have an opportunity to beat a top-10 team. Until then, we have no chance to beat a top-10 team."

Vandy may not be a top-10 team like Missouri, but Stoops has seen enough to know the Commodores will take advantage of any mistakes UK should make. They did just that on Saturday, forcing four turnovers to take down Florida on the road in spite of gaining just 183 yards of total offense.

"They're good in all areas," Stoops said. "They're a team that just plays very hard, plays very smart. They capitalize on your mistakes, so it will be another good opportunity for us, a big challenge for us to go down there and win."

For UK's seniors, those opportunities are quickly running out. Though reaching a bowl officially became impossible with the loss to Missouri, Stoops like the mentality of his veterans.

"There's not a guy in that group that's going to lay down," Stoops said. "I think they'll work extremely hard and help turn the page in this program. I think they take pride in that and wanting to help being a part of turning it around and building for the future."

Those seniors will obviously continue to play major roles, but Stoops will also be thinking about that future in the coming weeks. Fourteen newcomers -- including eight true freshmen -- have already played for UK and Stoops anticipates involving the youngsters even more down the stretch.

"We have to continue to build our program and develop our young guys," Stoops said.

Stoops named cornerback Jaleel Hytchye and defensive end Jason Hatcher specifically in that group, but even the players the coaching staff intends to redshirt are included.

"We need to know exactly where they're at and where they're going to be in the spring and just to continue to work with those guys," Stoops said.

It won't ever come at the cost of preparing to win immediately, but Stoops is keeps his overarching vision for Kentucky football in mind at all times. Throughout the course of his first year on the job, that hasn't changed.

"I've never said since day one that I was going to come in here and change it overnight," Stoops said. "I promised to work extremely hard, and the players will work extremely hard to build this program the right way to get better. That's what we're going to continue to do."

UK football depth chart (Vandy week)

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Tight end
Jordan Aumiller
Anthony Kendrick
Steven Borden
Tyler Robinson
Patrick Ligon

Left tackle
Darrian Miller
Jordan Swindle

Left guard
Zach West
Max Godby or Teven Eatmon-Nared

Jon Toth
Zach Myers

Right guard
Kevin Mitchell
Jack Gruenschlaeger

Right tackle
Jordan Swindle
Shaquille Love

Wide receiver
Demarco Robinson
Jeff Badet

Wide receiver
Ryan Timmons
Daryl Collins
Ronnie Shields

Wide receiver
Javess Blue
A.J. Legree

Jalen Whitlow
Maxwell Smith

Cody Jones
D.J. Warren

Running back
Raymond Sanders or Jojo Kemp
Jonathan George
Dyshawn Mobley


Defensive end
Alvin Dupree
Jason Hatcher

Defensive tackle
Donte Rumph
Tristian Johnson

Defensive tackle
Mister Cobble
Mike Douglas
Christian Coleman

Defensive end
Za'Darius Smith
Farrington Huguenin
Alvin Davis

Strong-side linebacker
Josh Forrest
Kory Brown
Malcolm McDuffen

Middle linebacker
Avery Williamson
Miles Simpson

Weak-side linebacker
TraVaughn Paschal or Khalid Henderson

Blake McClain
Marcus McWilson

Nate Willis
Jaleel Hytchye

Ashely Lowery
Glenn Faulkner

Eric Dixon
Daron Blaylock

Fred Tiller
Cody Quinn
Eric Simmons

Special teams

Kelly Mason
Matthew Adolph
Tyler Robinson

Jared Leet
Landon Foster

Joe Mansour
Austin MacGinnis

Landon Foster
Joe Mansour

Kickoff returner
Demarco Robinson
Javess Blue
Raymond Sanders

Punt returner
Demarco Robinson
Javess Blue
Daryl Collins

Video: Stoops' pre-Vandy press conference

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Kentucky fell to Missouri on Saturday afternoon, 48-17. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Kentucky fell to Missouri on Saturday afternoon, 48-17. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Mark Stoops' passion was on display during Kentucky's 48-17 loss to Missouri on Saturday.

The first-year head coach prowled the sideline, letting officials and players alike know when something displeased him, and in no uncertain terms. In the halftime locker room, he delivered remarks that were, by all accounts, quite spirited.

Considering his successful background at Florida State and UK's 2-7 record, frustration is understandable on the part of Stoops. But don't even consider interpreting a little fire as a sign that it's all getting to Stoops.

He knew what he signed up for and is undeterred.

"I'm going to go back to work and stick to the things that I feel are necessary to help build this program," Stoops said. "I may get frustrated, but I'm not discouraged."

The frustration doesn't stop with Stoops.

It extends to defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot, who watched as Missouri's big, physical wide receivers took advantage of their matchups with smaller UK defensive backs. Former top-ranked recruit Dorial Green-Beckham was the headliner -- catching four of Maty Mauk's five touchdown passes -- but he wasn't the only factor.

"Sometimes they make the plays and you don't make them," Eliot said. "Whether that's talent or whether that's just not finishing, it's tough."

You can also count offensive coordinator Neal Brown among the ranks of the frustrated.

UK, after a stand by its defense, marched down the field on its first drive for a field goal and a 3-0 lead. Following a fumble on the ensuing kickoff, the Wildcats were positioned to put the ninth-ranked Tigers on their heels when they took over just 45 yards away from the end zone.

Instead, UK gave up a second-down sack and punted.

"Where we are as a program, we've gotta capitalize on those things," Brown said.

The players are feeling it too, including quarterback Jalen Whitlow, but they also echo Stoops' sentiment that they aren't backing down.

"I'm not discouraged, because I know what we did wrong," Whitlow said. "It's always good to know what you didn't do wrong or what you didn't do right. So I'm not discouraged by any means. We've just gotta be better."

As coaches delivered their impassioned halftime calls down 28-3 to show some of that improvement, Whitlow listened. When UK came out of the locker room, he proved that he's not one to yield.

"I was proud of Jalen," Brown said. "I thought he came and answered the bell. We challenged the group at halftime and he came out and showed some leadership."

Still playing through pain due to a banged-up shoulder and ankle, Whitlow led scoring drives on two of UK's three third-quarter possessions. On the game, he carried 24 times for 44 yards -- including the 41 yards lost on seven sacks -- and a touchdown and completed 17-of-27 passes for 225 yards in spite of being in visible discomfort for much of the afternoon.

"I'm just putting it all on the line," Whitlow said. "Whatever, the team needs, I'm going to try to fulfill that role."

At this point, UK needs leadership more than anything else out of the sophomore. His play in cutting Missouri's lead to 35-17 late in the third quarter was a dramatic example of just that.

"This group is hungry," Brown said. "On offense, we are starving for somebody to take the reins. I thought he showed some toughness today and I hope that carries over."

Stoops noticed the same thing.

"You could tell he was hurting, and again, I think he's learning to compete," he said. "I thought he did some good things, and he led our team good."

Early in the season, Whitlow and Maxwell Smith split time, even within individual series. Eventually, the staff decided to move past the two-quarterback system and turn to Whitlow. Injuries briefly undid those efforts, but Whitlow is now trying to make up for lost time and become more than just a leader by example.

"It's always good for the quarterback to be a leader," Whitlow said. "Working on becoming more vocal. Guys see that I lead and try to do everything right, but I'm just day by day trying to get better at being more vocal."

No matter how vocal Whitlow becomes as he settles in at quarterback, he won't replace Stoops as the primary voice of Kentucky football. Over the coming days, that voice will be singing a familiar tune, but one that remains powerful.

"It's hard, but you've just got to go back to work, and you've got to stick to what I preach all the time, and that's getting better," Stoops said. "I've got to get these guys up. We've got to get them mentally prepared to practice on Monday and to prepare, and to go out there and compete and try to win a game. That's what I'm going to do."

Video: Coordinators Brown, Eliot on Missouri loss

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Offensive coordinator Neal Brown

Defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot

Live blog: Football vs. Missouri

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Balance makes facing Tigers a tall task

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Jalen Whitlow accounted for four touchdowns in UK's 48-14 win over Alabama State last weekend. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics) Jalen Whitlow accounted for four touchdowns in UK's 48-14 win over Alabama State last weekend. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
After a day of watching film, Mark Stoops publicly kicks off game week at his Monday press conference.

There, he begins his question-answer-session with the media with some comments reflecting on Kentucky's last game before talking in general about his team's upcoming opponent.

He always has good things to say, but he was uniquely effusive in his praise of Missouri.

"Missouri is a very good football team, as we all know," Stoops said. "Very balanced, do a good job of running it, throwing it, keeping you off balance. Their defense has been the biggest improvement for them."

As Stoops' words suggest, what differentiates eighth-ranked Missouri (8-1, 4-1 Southeastern Conference) is its strength in all facets of the game. The Tigers control of their own destiny in the SEC East and are an overtime loss away from an unbeaten record not because of smoke and mirrors, but because they are sound across the board.

On offense, Missouri's receiving corps is what stands out, and quite literally. The Tigers top three receivers are Marcus Lucas, L'Damian Washington and Dorial Green-Beckham and the trio has combined for 1,681 yards receiving. They also look they should be in town to play in Rupp Arena instead of Commonwealth Stadium, standing 6-foot-5, 6-4 and 6-6, respectively.

"I can't remember playing a group bigger than this," said Stoops, whose career began as a secondary coach.

Safeties coach Bradley Dale Peveto took it a step further, calling the Tigers "as good a group of receivers as I've ever coached again." None of the five Wildcats listed on UK's depth chart at cornerback is taller than 6-0, but the group will have to find a way to match the physicality of the Tigers both in the passing game and in shedding blocks.

"You gotta eat your Wheaties and bring your A game," Peveto said.

The rest of the UK defense should load up before Saturday's noon ET kickoff (ESPNU) too, because Stoops sees an offense that's just as physical in the trenches.

"They run the ball on everybody," Stoops said. "And you see them really throwing guys around in the run game and creating big seams."

Missouri is averaging 237.2 yards per game and 5.6 yards per carry on the ground, numbers that have hardly suffered with athletic quarterback James Franklin sidelined with a shoulder injury the last three games. Franklin is slated for a possible return on Saturday, but the Cats won't alter their approach much whether they're facing him or backup Maty Mauk.

"They're both very good quarterbacks," Stoops said. "Their offense basically stays the same."

That cannot be said of the UK offense.

With Jalen Whitlow returning to a starting role after battling ankle and shoulder injuries, the Wildcat attack found another gear against Alabama State. With an added dimension in the running game and Whitlow's progression as a passer, the Cats look to sustain that offensive momentum.

"I thought Jalen did a nice job making some plays with his feet," Stoops said. "I thought he did a nice job throwing it at times. There were a few throws that stuck out to me during the game that we know he missed. But after watching the tape, really thought he did a good job of hitting some guys as well. Got to continue to work our passing game and improve in that area. But to score 48 points was good to see."

Duplicating that feat against Missouri won't be easy.

The Tigers are fourth in the league in scoring defense, third in rushing defense and first in turnovers forced by a wide margin. That all starts up front.

"The first thing that jumps off the film when you're watching Missouri is their defensive line," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "They go two or three deep at each position. They can really run. They have the fastest D-line that we've played and they play super hard and they chase the ball probably better than anybody we've played."

Michael Sam headlines the group, leading the SEC with 10 sacks.

To combat that pass rush and avoid the interceptions that have so frequently befallen Missouri opponents (the Tigers have 17 picks on the season), UK will rely on a combination of Whitlow's athleticism, quick throws and a variety of protection schemes.

"We've got to get the ball out of our hands fast," Brown said. "I think he understands. I mean, we've got to do some things in our protection: We've got to get some backs, we've got to get some tight ends, do some things like that to help our guys out."

Once Whitlow gets rid of the ball, he'll be relying on his receivers to make plays. Unfortunately for the Cats, Whitlow will almost certainly be without two of his top targets -- Ryan Timmons and Alex Montgomery -- due to injury. That means UK's "next-man-up" mentality will be put to the test.

"I think Demarco Robinson is a guy that's finally healthy, and we need him to step up and make some plays," Brown said. "We need A.J. Legree to step up. Some of the guys that have been here, they've got to step up and produce."

Against Alabama State, Robinson showed some the play-making ability that excited his coaches throughout the spring and summer with four catches for 44 yards. As Brown mentioned, an ankle injury has limited his explosiveness but Robinson is now finally at full speed.

"I have to play a bigger role this week," Robinson said. "I have to make more plays than I've been making in the past. I feel like it's a bigger responsibility."

Responsibility, however, isn't the first thing Stoops wants his team feeling heading into the weekend. Facing a team as good as Missouri affords the Cats a chance to measure their continued improvement against elite competition, and he wants them to embrace that.

"It's definitely a great opportunity for us," Stoops said. "We've got a great team coming in here, playing at home, at noon on a Saturday. It should be a beautiful afternoon and we're excited about it definitely."

Head coach Mark Stoops

Offensive coordinator Neal Brown

Rain came to Lexington on Wednesday afternoon, but the Kentucky football team stayed outside for its third practice of the week.

Though the forecast is clear for UK's game on Saturday against Missouri, Mark Stoops is always happy to see how his team responds in less-than-ideal conditions.

"Sloppy day out there," Stoops said. "Messy day. So it was good to get some sloppy ball out there, so it was good to get some wet ball, some work in the rain. Got our work done and feel good about where we're at and our preparations and just moving forward."

It was a test for the passing game as Jalen Whitlow works with a receiving corps significantly hampered by injury. After productive work on the first days of the week, the Wildcats once again took step forward on Wednesday.

"I think we're getting better," Stoops said. "I thought Jalen had a very good day yesterday and seemed to have a good day today. Javess (Blue) is fresh. He looked good. Demarco (Robinson), (Jeff) Badet -- all those guys are getting better. We need to use our tight ends a little bit more and get them some balls."

Missouri, however, will present an even stiffer challenge than any weather. The Tigers lead the Southeastern Conference in turnover margin and feature what offensive coordinator Neal Brown calls the fastest defensive line UK will have faced all season.

"The first thing that jumps off the film when you're watching Missouri is their defensive line," Brown said. "They go two or three deep at each position. They can really run."

Considering Missouri's talent on both sides of the ball, it stands to reason that the UK coaches would once again look to special teams for an edge. In Stoops and special teams coordinator Bradley Dale Peveto's first season, Wildcat specialists have created a number of big plays -- including a punt block last week and a memorable fake field goal for a touchdown against Florida -- while also being solid overall.

"It tells me a lot about a team," Stoops said. "That's kind of the heart of your team. There's a lot of guys on there that are really doing a good job and being very unselfish, and I think Coach Peveto's done a great job of coaching them up."

Considering the plays UK has already called -- Stoops and Peveto work together to make such decisions -- on special teams, opponents are becoming aware of the Cats' reputation for special-teams trickery and adjusting.

"It's just like I said in some other games, we had some things called and they jump out into a safe look and took it away," Stoops said. "That can help you in some areas, but certainly they could catch you. If you try to run some sort of fake or a trick play, they could catch you and it could hurt you."

Don't expect UK to stop trying though. A former defensive coordinator, Stoops may seem buttoned-down and conservative, but he's not afraid to gamble -- as long as the odds are right.

"Some of that stuff isn't as low-percentage as you might think," Stoops said. "So if we feel that something's there and there's a different percentage of converting it, then I'm all for it."

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