The 2017 edition of Kentucky spring football was unlike any I’ve covered in five years for Kentucky Sports Radio. Â It was quiet, almost too quiet.
Spring practice has been quiet in the past, mostly due to apathy. Â Since Mark Stoops arrived four years ago, spring football personified the season. Â 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. Â Just hearing Stoops’ rhetoric brought fans in droves. Â 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. Â A former Mr. Football spent a redshirt year learningÂ from an Air Raid alum. Â A four-star Elite 11 quarterback turned down Steve Spurrier to help bring in the highest-ranked recruiting class in school history. Â Adding to the hype was a $110 million stadium renovation, announced just a few months earlier. Â There was plenty of hope, even though itÂ only produced three more wins.
The third year ofÂ spring ballÂ for Mark Stoops was unlike any other spring in Kentucky. Â A stadium under construction eliminated the game, yet fans prepared for a breakthrough. Â 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,Â “knock down doors.” Â 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. Â More questions were being asked about Stoops’ ability to develop, the theme for every college coach during spring ball. Â 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. Â They “knocked down doors.” Â They won on the road. Â They took the Governor’s Cup from a Heisman Trophy winner. Â They went bowling.
Stoops’ success in his fourth season as head coach took away what normally defined spring practice: expectations. Â There isn’t an ultimatum at Stoops’ feet. Â 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. Â 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. Â On the other side of the ball, the focus wasn’t on, “Who will make all the tackles?” Â The storyline was, “Who will back up the best safety and linebacker in the SEC?” Â The young secondary is no longer young. Â The young pass rushers that surpassed Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith are no longer young. Â The defensive line that struggled a year ago has new, aggressive leadership.
All of it culminated Friday night by showcasing competitiveness at every position. Â The stars — Johnson, Snell, Jordan Jones, Denzil Ware, Juice — did not need to play a ton of reps to prove their worth. Â Instead, Stoops got to show off his young troops. Â Early enrollees Jamin Davis and Clevan Thomas impressed. Â 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. Â This year he simply sang the team’s praise for improving as a whole, the purpose ofÂ spring practice.
“I was very proud of our players,” Stoops said after the game. Â “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. Â It’s how programs quietly develop into major players in the college football landscape. Â The quiet is exactly what Mark Stoops needed before a season that could take Kentucky footballÂ to new heights.