The 2017 edition of Kentucky spring football was unlike any I’ve covered in five years for Kentucky Sports Radio. It was quiet, almost too quiet.
Spring practice has been quiet in the past, mostly due to apathy. Since Mark Stoops arrived four years ago, spring football personified the season. Optimism filled the air like pollen, creating unsubstantiated expectations that created plenty of noise, but would slowly turn into a nuisance.
In his first year, more than 50,000 fans showed Stoops they cared about the football program. Just hearing Stoops’ rhetoric brought fans in droves. They knew there wasn’t much to see, but it was enlightening to hear hope from the head football coach.
The following year, fans received their favorite spring football storyline: two Kentucky kids battling to be the starting quarterback. A former Mr. Football spent a redshirt year learning from an Air Raid alum. A four-star Elite 11 quarterback turned down Steve Spurrier to help bring in the highest-ranked recruiting class in school history. Adding to the hype was a $110 million stadium renovation, announced just a few months earlier. There was plenty of hope, even though it only produced three more wins.
The third year of spring ball for Mark Stoops was unlike any other spring in Kentucky. A stadium under construction eliminated the game, yet fans prepared for a breakthrough. It was the second year for a lot of things: the starting quarterback, the explosive freshmen playmakers and more star-studded recruits.
The season started with a Boom in a new stadium, but the Cats could not break through, or as Stoops would later describe it, “knock down doors.” They were close many times, but fell flat when it mattered most to fans, at home, under the spotlight.
The close calls filled the spring air with tension last year. More questions were being asked about Stoops’ ability to develop, the theme for every college coach during spring ball. His greatest achievements at Kentucky were all in the realm of recruiting, and even that was under a microscope after a rash of decommitments leading into 2016’s spring practice.
The 2016 team contrasted heavily with the one we heard about in the spring. They “knocked down doors.” They won on the road. They took the Governor’s Cup from a Heisman Trophy winner. They went bowling.
Stoops’ success in his fourth season as head coach took away what normally defined spring practice: expectations. There isn’t an ultimatum at Stoops’ feet. There isn’t even a marquee position battle for people to point to.
On offense, a 1,000 yard-rusher and Freshman All-American gets to run behind one of the nation’s best offensive lines that lost just one player. A quarterback that outplayed the Heisman Trophy winner got to spend six weeks creating better chemistry with wide receivers that have collectively played more snaps than any group in recent memory. On the other side of the ball, the focus wasn’t on, “Who will make all the tackles?” The storyline was, “Who will back up the best safety and linebacker in the SEC?” The young secondary is no longer young. The young pass rushers that surpassed Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith are no longer young. The defensive line that struggled a year ago has new, aggressive leadership.
All of it culminated Friday night by showcasing competitiveness at every position. The stars — Johnson, Snell, Jordan Jones, Denzil Ware, Juice — did not need to play a ton of reps to prove their worth. Instead, Stoops got to show off his young troops. Early enrollees Jamin Davis and Clevan Thomas impressed. Redshirts that spent the season on the scout team — Gunnar Hoak, Boogie Watson, A.J. Rose and Zy’Aire Hughes — provided even more optimism for the future.
Stoops spent his first four years finishing spring ball by discussing important position battles. This year he simply sang the team’s praise for improving as a whole, the purpose of spring practice.
“I was very proud of our players,” Stoops said after the game. “We talked last summer about their capacity to handle more. Well they took a lot of coaching for a long time.”
That quote bores the casual observer and does not create headlines for journalists. It’s how programs quietly develop into major players in the college football landscape. The quiet is exactly what Mark Stoops needed before a season that could take Kentucky football to new heights.