Mark Stoops was a happy coach on Wednesday.
The Kentucky football team closed out the spring with another solid practice, ending a stretch that Stoops called the "most consistent" of any time during his two-plus seasons in Lexington.
"We weren't perfect for all 15 (practices), but the guys were really out there trying to make a conscious effort to improve on the things we point out in the meetings," Stoops said. "We had great energy. Guys were really flying around this morning, having fun, competing, getting better the whole way through. Really pleased with the progress we've made."
Stoops is high on the improving depth of his roster, as well as the young talent he and his staff have brought in. That depth and talent has led Stoops to feel much different about his program than this time two years ago wrapping up spring practice, but there's another important factor in his optimism.
"I think it's hard to put into words exactly," Stoops said. "I just think it starts mentally. They understand what we want from them. They enjoy practice all the way through. Like I said, the 15th day -- all the way through they were enjoying themselves, concentrating on getting better. I think mentally we're much stronger. Definitely feel like we're developing them to be a winning football team."
A winning football team, of course, will reflect the culture Stoops has sought to build since he arrived on campus. That's a work in progress, but Stoops once again likes the Wildcats' direction.
"I feel very good about this team," Stoops said. "Again, we know where we're deficient and where we need to improve, but I like the attitude and I feel like we have good young talent that's still developing that's going to get better with every opportunity."
Stoops mentioned quarterbacks Patrick Towles and Drew Barker as two of the players who have improved the most over the spring, with wide receivers Garrett Johnson and Blake Bone joining them on the offensive side. On defense, linebackers Josh Forrest and Ryan Flannigan have made strides, as has defensive tackle Melvin Lewis.
"He is a good nose guard," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "He's a guy that I am very proud of and feel very confident about at his position, and he's completely earned that. Nothing was given to him, and he didn't walk in here a good player. He's a guy that, like I said, he may be the most improved player on our team from when he came in to where he's at now."
With the growth of players like Forrest, Flannigan and Lewis, Stoops and Eliot are feeling good about UK's defense up the middle. A key to building on UK's three-win improvement from 2013 to 2014 will be development at the cornerback spot.
"For that position, you have to be extremely skilled, but you have to be confident, too, because you're gonna get beat because it's so hard to play that position," Eliot said. "It's so hard to play that position. And you have to have the confidence to come back and be aggressive and execute your techniques the next play. I think that that's something that we've got to continue to build on are those things at corner."
That's one of many things Kentucky will need to do moving into the summer and eventually fall camp. This spring positions the Cats well.
"We need to keep that momentum, keep that consistency going here with the last two-and-a-half, three weeks of school and have a great summer -- physically and mentally getting tougher, getting stronger, getting bigger," Stoops said. "And if we do that, then we'll be excited heading into fall."