Maturity Equipping Cats to Handle Week 1 Challenge
Seconds into his first regular Monday press conference, Mark Stoops said what everyone was thinking.
“It is finally game week,” Stoops said.
The buildup, at last long last, is near its end. The grind of fall camp is behind the Kentucky Wildcats and their fans will soon have actual game action to break down, rather than relying on their memories of last season and post-practice interviews to forecast what might happen this season.
Stoops, as you’d expect, is demanding a quick start.
“Well, I think it is always important to come out of camp with some juice and being able to play,” Stoops said.
Quick starts haven’t been a problem in either of the last two seasons, but there’s a new variable at play this time around. The Cats have gone harder than ever before in fall camp.
“That is an awfully lot of practices that you put in before your first game, so we have to be smart in how we manage it,” Stoops said. “As I mentioned, we went extremely hard and much longer and many more reps than we have in the past but our players have been able to handle it much easier so I feel good about that.”
With four of his own recruiting classes now on campus, Stoops has the benefit of some experience and depth. Those things are paying big dividends.
“We are mentally much more focused than we have been,” Stoops said. “I think we are a much more disciplined football team and much more focused. That comes from all the things that I have talked about all year of putting them in more stressful situations and pushing them harder so they have more maturity about them. It is nice to play with a football team that has some experience and has some maturity about them. That is the biggest difference between this year and years past.”
Thanks to that maturity, there’s little danger of the Cats not coming out ready to go at the opening kickoff on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in Commonwealth Stadium. And even if there were, facing an opponent the caliber of Southern Miss would likely eliminate it.
“It is great that we play such a quality opponent and make sure that we come out of the blocks strong,” Stoops said. “We are playing a really good Southern Miss team. We are excited and optimistic and ready to get going.”
Though Southern Miss lost head coach Todd Monken to an offensive coordinator position with the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Golden Eagles have plenty of talent back from an outfit that averaged 509.5 yards and nearly 40 points per game in rolling to a 9-5 record. Former Alcorn State head coach Jay Hopson – who had two different stints as a USM assistant in the 2000s – has taken over and will hand the reins of his offense to senior quarterback Nick Mullens.
Mullens, according to some experts, is the best pure pocket passer UK will face this season. His numbers from a season ago – nearly 4,500 yards and 38 touchdowns through the air – certainly back that up. Mullens will be coached by offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson, who held the same position at UK a season ago.
“Just to study their personnel and their quarterback and playing such a quality opponent in the first game, especially with a quarterback that has such great experience and is such a great football player,” Stoops said.
UK’s secondary, touted almost unanimously as the strength of the team, will be subject to an immediate test. Stoops feels like he knows they’ll hold up well, but there are no guarantees.
“You have a good feeling of what you have and with being consistent, and deeper and tougher mentally,” Stoops said. “But you never really know what you have until you get out to that first game. And along those same line with the first game, there’s always some new things on all sides that you just can’t possibly prepare for because we don’t know all the little nuances they’re putting in or trickery or things like that. You apply your rules and you go play.”