Mark Stoops knew this offseason was an important one.
Through his debut season at Kentucky, he coached a group that was almost always competitive, but clearly had a long road ahead to become the team he was brought to Lexington to build.
“That first year, there’s so much to change in the culture, creating that culture that you want,” Stoops said at Friday’s annual Kickoff Luncheon. “You learn from that first year and you go back in the offseason and say, ‘Where do we need to improve?’ There’s a lot of areas we needed to improve. We know that.”
Stoops had little trouble identifying a priority.
“We started with leadership and we started with accountability,” Stoops said. “That’s where we’ve made drastic improvements. This team has a better attitude. They have a tougher mentality. It starts there and then it goes into physical.”
Perhaps no two players better exemplify that leadership development than Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith. Standout performers on the field a year ago, the two defensive ends have become much more as they prepare for their senior year.
“Bud and Za’Darius are not only great players but they’re great leaders,” defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. “They’re veteran players now. Both of them, first year in the system, were learning what to do and developing themselves, and now they’ve taken that role on where they can develop others.”
Dupree and Smith have always been blessed with exceptional physical gifts, but their growth both on and off the field is exactly what Stoops means by the words that have become one of his signature phrases.
“You hear me talk about it all the time: Recruit, recruit, recruit – and develop,” Stoops said. “We can’t just bring talented players into our program and stop there. We have to develop them in all areas of their life.”
Over the eight months since UK’s last game, Stoops has only been on the field with his team for 15 spring practices. Nonetheless, the way the Wildcats have “taken care of business off the field” – including in posting one of their best academic semesters in recent years – tells him all he needs to know.
“We’re excited to get going,” Stoops said. “Players report Sunday, first practice on Monday and just excited to get this season rolling.”
With the start of fall camp finally at hand, Stoops will be asking one simple thing of his players.
“The big thing is: submit,” Stoops said. “Submit to the process. Come in, leave everything behind. … The bottom line is when we report, it’s about submitting to what’s going on. We have a saying in our program, we talk about ‘All In’ and that can encompass a lot of things, but just turn everything off, all the distractions, let’s get in here, let’s lock ourselves in this building and let’s get some work done.”
There will be plenty more to come next week with the first practices of the fall and media day on Friday, but here are a few other stray notes from Friday’s Kickoff Luncheon at the Hyatt Regency.
·It seems UK’s incoming recruiting class was the highest rated in school history for a reason. It’s too early to tell how much the newcomers will play this season, but Stoops has been impressed so far. “They’ve done extremely well this summer both in the classroom and on the field,” Stoops said. “Let me tell you this: They look the part. We’re going to make those strength and conditioning coaches look a lot better.”
·On the subject of those newcomers, Stoops reported that 26 of the 28 signees were on campus all summer. The 27th will arrive Saturday and Stoops said “we’re working on the 28th.”
·Offensive coordinator Neal Brown’s priority early in camp will be to figure out which players will play. Of course the quarterback battle will receive the most attention, but he mentioned identifying a third tackle behind Darrian Miller and Jordan Swindle and sorting out the running back rotation as other areas of interest.
·Speaking of the quarterbacks, there was no news on the battle. Brown, however, did spell out what he’s looking for at the position. “As far as the actual game, we’re looking for a guy that’s going to make good decisions, quickly, that takes care of the football and is accurate. And what I mean by accuracy is throwing the football where our guys can make plays after the catch.”
·For those quarterbacks to improve as Brown and Stoops expect them to, they’ll need help from their wide receivers. UK’s inexperience at the position was plain to see a season ago, especially early, but the group now has a year under its belt. Stoops mentioned Ryan Timmons and Javess Blue as UK’s top playmakers outside of running backs Jojo Kemp, Braylon Heard and Josh Clemons and they are expected to lead UK’s receiving corps. Depth, however, is essential in Brown’s system. Jeff Badet was hampered in the spring by an ankle injury and Alex Montgomery will miss the start of fall camp due to a setback in his rehab from a torn ACL, but UK should be ready to go at wideout.