New Chapter for UK Football Starts at Fall Camp
This should come as no surprise to anyone who knows anything about him, but Mark Stoops is always excited for the start of practice in the fall.
This year feels just a little different though.
“I really enjoy spending time with y'all in all these media events,” Stoops said, “but it's really exciting for our team after a year-and-a-half of going through the building, building a team, building a program, it's really exciting to get out on the field today and start with a fresh beginning and a new start.”
That new start would come mere hours after Stoops addressed reporters at Kentucky’s annual Media Day on Friday. At his press conference, Stoops needed only 54 words for his opening statement, eager to get to questions so he could be one step closer to the first practice he’s so eagerly awaited.
Of course the move into the new Kentucky Football Training Facility has been gratifying after all the work that led to its opening and Stoops has dutifully handled all his responsibilities during what he calls “talking season.” He’s enjoyed hearing the positive reports about the way his team has approached offseason workouts and consistently harped on the “Finish” theme the program has embraced.
He’s still ready to move on to doing what he truly loves: coaching football.
“I'm tired of working on the broad strokes,” Stoops said. “Our team has the foundation to handle more, to practice longer, to have good, detailed practices. We're physically and mentally better. That's what I'm most excited about.”
To hear those were there tell it, that excitement wasn’t hard to see (or hear) as Stoops addressed the Wildcats at a team meeting Thursday night.
“Well, if you weren’t excited and you didn’t have goosebumps, then you don’t need to be in this sport,” said Eddie Gran, UK’s first-year head coach of the offense/offensive coordinator.
Defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot, meanwhile, has been with Stoops at Kentucky since the very beginning. He can sense a new mentality on the part of his boss and friend.
“I think Coach Stoops has had a plan in place since we’ve been here and we feel like the pieces are falling into place and I think that he is confident,” Eliot said. “Now I will tell you that there hasn’t been many times that I’ve been around him that he wasn’t confident, so I do sense a confidence in him and I think it’s going to translate into our training camp and into the season.”
On the offensive side, that confidence stems largely from experience. Along the offensive line, UK has four returning starters. At running back, all four Cats who had a carry last season return. Nearly the entire receiving corps is back and Freshman All-Southeastern Conference performer C.J. Conrad will man the tight-end spot.
“I think that's the strength,” Stoops said. “There's a bunch of guys that have played a lot of football. We've taken our lumps, as you know, for three years. Those guys have gained some valuable experience and there's no replacing that.”
Quarterback Drew Barker figures to be the most inexperienced starter, but his development through the spring in laying claim to the starting spot has been well chronicled.
“We’ve got a ton of combined starts by everybody that’s returned on the offense, which really helps me tremendously,” Barker said. “Those guys have been out there, they’ve played in a ton of games and I’m fully confident in every single one of those guys that’s going to be playing.”
UK has more holes to fill on defense, but not in the secondary. Wildcat defensive backs – headlined by sophomore cornerback Chris Westry – project to be not only one of the best units on UK’s team, but in the entire SEC.
“I feel more confident in our secondary,” Eliot said. “I think that they’re very skilled players and I think we have talent at the other positions. I think we have a chance to be good at the other positions too and training camp is going to determine how well we play and how well we develop.”
Stoops’ message in his passionate speech was that the Cats must take full advantage of the opportunity improve in fall camp. It’s a message they’re taking to heart.
“It was exciting to see him up there,” Conrad said. “You can hear it in his voice. It’s just different this year. I don’t know how to explain it, but the energy level of the coaches, their voices, everything, I think this is our year.”