Stoops Seeing Improvement, Expecting More

Don’t get Mark Stoops wrong; winning is the goal.

But when you’re building a program from the ground up as he is, assessing his team’s play isn’t a black-and-white exercise.

Take Kentucky’s two road games this season as examples. A few weeks ago, the Wildcats collapsed under the weight of adversity in a loss at Florida. Then last weekend UK fell at top-ranked Alabama, but the way it happened could not have been more different. 

“It’s all about wins and losses, but you look at yourself and you look at what we did on all sides and the good things that we did and you have to build on that,” Stoops said.

The scoreboard might not have looked all that different in the two games (45-7 vs. 34-6), but anyone who watched both games can tell you that doesn’t tell full the story. And to take things a step further, two people who coached and played in the game on the Alabama side would agree.

“Kentucky has got a much better team than what everybody gives them credit for, especially in the last couple weeks when they’ve sort of been trying to run the ball and do what they can do very well,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “Their defense has played a lot better, and I think that was certainly the case today. You’ve got to give Mark credit for bringing his team back that way so that they’re playing hard and actually playing a lot better.”

“That's probably one of the most physical games I've played since I was in college,” Alabama defensive lineman Jonathan Allen said after the game according to the Tuscaloosa News. “I have to give Kentucky a lot of credit.”

Allen is a senior and an All-Southeastern Conference performer, so his words carry some weight.

“I heard that from a couple of their guys, actually, that they said it was the most physical game that they have played,” Stoops said. “And that is a compliment, to me, because you know this game is about being physical. That's where I think – when you asked me earlier – I thought our approach was right, played the game the right way.”

UK, though a couple early fumbles cost the Cats dearly, didn’t flinch in the face of adversity similar to the kind faced at Florida. 

“I thought overall we had guys in the right position, guys were straining to make plays,” Stoops said. “We weren't just blowing assignments because bad things were happening. They got lined up and made them beat us. We didn't beat ourselves and I thought that was an improvement.”

That’s not to say, however, that the Cats can’t make further improvements heading into a big Saturday matchup with Vanderbilt at Commonwealth Stadium.

On defense, where Stoops will continue to make the calls and collaborate with coordinator D.J. Eliot, he used the phrase “night and day” to compare how the Cats have played over the last 10 quarters vs. how they played the first 10 quarters, halftime of the New Mexico State game being the line of demarcation between the two.

“We’re growing and we’re getting better,” Stoops said. “It comes like that. Like I just said, you’d like to have five fifth-year seniors and five fourth-year guys playing, but we do have some inexperience that you’ve got to figure out what they can do and how they can execute. That’s all of us. That’s coaching and players. It’s not on them. But together, we’re figuring it out and making some improvement and you’ll continue to see that.”

Stoops sees a similar trajectory on offense.

“I thought we had some tough yards at times,” Stoops said. “I thought our guys competed extremely hard offensive line wise and the running backs ran hard. I thought we had some things schemed up very well that we were fractions off on even some critical third downs where we had some rubs, rub routes, pick routes where we had things very close and just didn’t execute. Had some things that were there that we’ll get better at.”

Included in that is taking care of the ball at the quarterback position. Drew Barker and now Stephen Johnson have been the primary offenders as UK has posted a minus-seven turnover margin through five games, most recently in the form of those two crucial lost fumbles in the first half. Stoops sees Johnson getting better in that area with yet another week of heavy emphasis.

“He’s a very conscientious young man,” Stoops said. “That’s a tough group to play against. And you need help, you need protection there too. There were some guys open. I thought our wideouts competed at a much higher level than they had. You know, then it’s about protection and getting them the ball.”

Stoops’ belief in his players’ prospects of improvement is universal. 

“I believe our players will because, again, just talking about the physicality that they mentioned and that’s what we have to be to play in the SEC, to play at a high level,” Stoops said. “There’s a lot of things that we need to do better but it really starts with a mentality and a physical nature about you. You just got to keep on getting players.”