There’s no denying there’s something different in the air these days when it comes to Kentucky football. Eight months in to his first year, Mark Stoops has injected life into the UK football fan base, weary from years of bubble screens, blowouts, and botched opportunities. The slogan for this season couldn’t be more apt (albeit, a little grammatically awkward): “A Nation Awakes.”
I’ve experienced the excitement from behind a computer three hours from Lexington, but nothing could prepare me for what I saw on Saturday at the Women’s Clinic. Five hundred twenty-three women turned out for the event, up 400 from last year. That number is even more impressive when you consider that the athletics department didn’t even publicize the event. This was the first time the women’s clinic has ever sold out, a notion that seemed impossible to previous attendees. As one lady put it, “I was stunned to show up at registration and have to stand in a line. That’s never happened before.” That line was no joke, either; it wrapped Commonwealth with excitement.
I’ve got a fever, and the only prescription is more Stoops.
It’s been fun to watch Mark Stoops adjust to the head coaching spotlight. He’s come leaps and bounds from his nerves at SEC Media Days, improving with each public function and speaking engagement. From what I can tell, he’s not exactly humble (DJ Eliot joked that he was the cockiest guy in the room when they met eleven years ago), but at times, you can see how blown away he is by the BBN’s support thus far. I think the clip above illustrates that pretty well.
Stoops is the first to admit he’s been surprised by just how much the fan base has embraced him and his staff. Over the past month, he’s thanked fans over and over again for their support, calling their energy contagious. The crowd at the women’s clinic was no exception:
“I feel really good, it’s really nice,” Stoops told reporters. “It inspires us to come out here and see a packed house, whether it be a luncheon yesterday in Louisville, or the women’s clinic today, it’s great to see the energy and support.”
That infectious energy was most obvious in the players, who radiated positivity. Don’t get me wrong–in years past, players have enjoyed participating in the women’s clinic, especially the chance to strut their stuff in the fashion show. But this year, they were so excited they practically bounced around the concourse. Stoops said that confidence stems from the hard work they’ve put in this summer:
“You can be more confident when you put in the work. You can’t just go around talking about it. Just because the crowds are here and everybody’s excited, that alone is not going to prepare us and make us more confident. I think the players have worked extremely hard, and they should feel better about themselves.”
If you look good, you feel good
Another confidence boost? The results the players have gotten from “Dr.” Erik Korem’s high performance program. Korem brought his sophisticated sports science program with him from Florida State, which is the only one of its kind in American football. I’ll be honest: science is not my thing. I’d much rather watch “Golden Girls” than “Mythbusters.” But, Korem’s program is so revolutionary that it captured my attention. Instead of training each player the same, Korem focuses on strength training for each position and each individual, which is what sets his program apart from the rest. For example, a wide receiver and a defensive lineman have very different functions. Why train them in the same manner? Korem and his staff tailor each regimen to each player based on their bodies. Even better, they monitor their results via heart rate and brainwave frequencies to see if it’s working. So far, the team as a whole has lost 560 pounds of fat and added 260 pounds of muscle.
The results, as you can see below, are pretty obvious.
On the left is running back JoJo Kemp, who savored the opportunity to show off his new body during the clinic’s fashion show. The confidence was particularly notable in the freshmen, who come into Kentucky without the stain of the former staff’s struggles. Right, Stoops?
“That’s the great thing about the freshmen. They have no preconceived notions of what happened here in the past. They’re confident and ready to come in and play.”
To use a phrase we treated like a rare gem during the past staff’s tenure, freshmen Jason Hatcher and JoJo Kemp looked “SEC ready.” In addition, Patrick Towles looked much leaner and stronger, and Za’Darius Smith…well, Za’Darius Smith is just a freaking manchild. He is so impressive in person that I left convinced he’s one of Thor’s distant relatives on Asgard.
And then there was Avery Williamson, who practically co-hosted the event with Jennifer Palumbo. I knew that the senior linebacker was a pro with the media from my time at Media Days, but he was in his element at the Women’s Clinic. I found his confidence especially encouraging since he’s an established leader on the team. It hasn’t been easy for the veteran players to immediately become “Stoops’ guys,” but Williamson has bought into the system and more. After a summer’s worth of hard work in the weight room, the veterans believe the staff will put them in the position they need to be in to succeed.
Neal Brown is the Kentucky boy you’ve been waiting for
As a Danville native, I was anxious to meet offensive coordinator Neal Brown. Brown went to high school at Boyle County, a fact we good-naturedly bickered over, since I went to crosstown rival Danville (Go Ads!). Kentucky fans always love a Kentucky boy, and Neal Brown might as well be the poster child. He started his session with a Bluegrass stump speech, telling fans how he was able to recite the UK basketball starting lineup as a kid, bleeds blue and white, likes bourbon over whiskey (“And I know the difference”), and puts his hand over his heart during the playing of “My Old Kentucky Home.” State pride swelled over the room and brought the women to their feet for an ovation. If he had mentioned Ale-8-One or Rebecca Ruth candies, we might have passed out from the Kentucky-ness of it all.
Brown’s intro was just a warmup for his presentation on the Air Raid offense, which had these three simple tenets:
1) Play Fast
2) Throw First
3) Get the ball to playmakers in space
That may seem laughably obvious to some of you, but it’s the core foundation of Neal Brown’s offense, and Hal Mumme’s offense before him. The difference between the two? Brown says his offense will also focus on the rush attack and of course, be complimented by DJ Eliot’s 4-3 defense. However, it will be fast. Like 110 snaps per game fast. So fast it will hopefully catch defenses off guard to give the Cats the edge they so desperately need. As Coach “Pev-e-to” (inside joke for you fellow attendees) put it, “You give Neal Brown the ball inside the 50, it’s POINTS.”
What better way to cap the presentation off than the sweet sweet, Air Raid siren?
Something to Prove
One thing that’s become very clear about this staff thus far is that they don’t do things in half measures. From bulk mailing recruits, to “Yahtzee,” to 50,000 fans at the spring game, this young staff is living up to their motto of “Attack Every Day.” The ball has yet to be snapped on Stoops’ first game, but the biggest difference I’ve seen between his staff and the previous staff is how aggressive they are. Instead of going through the motions and waiting for things to happen, they look for opportunities to make things happen. They’re active instead of passive. My favorite recent example of this is how they sent ESPN Radio host Colin Cowherd 50 recruiting letters after he mocked their bulk mailing method. This group has a chip on its shoulder, and plenty of things to prove. I asked Stoops about changing the national perception of Kentucky football:
“We’re just doing what we do. If that changes perception, then that’s great. We’re not setting out to do that, we’re setting out to do the best job we can each and every day and get our program on the map throughout this state and throughout the country.”
A pretty safe answer, but the first part sums it up: this group doesn’t do anything quietly. Part of that enthusiasm comes with youth. The average age on the coaching staff is 37, with Bradley Dale Peveto being the senior member at 50. (However, if you heard him speak, you’d swear he’s thirty years younger.)
The man who stole Ohio
I was also eager to meet Vince Marrow, who strode into the clinic fresh off the road from–where else–Ohio. Physically, Marrow is huge, but his presence is enormous. The minute he stepped into the clinic, heads turned. It was pretty windy in Lexington yesterday, which caused the backdrop of curtains to teeter perilously in the background while Stoops was talking. After one particularly big sway, Stoops joked that “Big Vince must have walked into the room,” looking over at Marrow, who flexed a giant arm in response.
Although he may be physically intimidating, Marrow is nothing but charming once you start talking to him. It’s easy to see why he’s so good at his job. He could sell a ketchup popsicle to a woman in white gloves. I chatted with him for a bit and then we got our picture taken, after which I asked if he ever smiled in pictures. He laughed and said “Never.” He apparently doesn’t always look at the photographer either…
By the way, Marrow teased fans at the clinic that another Yahtzee was on the way. Turns out he was right–Garrett Johnson committed last night, and Brady Taylor and Nick Richardson are expected to roll the dice this week.
The Hardest Job
One new feature of the women’s clinic this year was the Wives Panel. Various wives from the coaching staff, including Chantel Stoops, spoke to the audience and answered questions. Two things became obvious: they are all young, and have young children. All together, the coaching staff has 35 children (paging Kristen Geil!). Mrs. Stoops joked that they call the staff “The Romper Room Administration” because of the number of young kids, and because of that, there’s a huge emphasis on family in the program thus far.
As Tami Taylor taught us, being a coach’s wife is not easy. Chantel said that the time demands of being a head coach are extreme, but joked that the three weeks in the summer they do have his undivided attention is blissful. However, each wife said they are used to the lifestyle, and lean on each other for support. How do they deal with the criticism their husbands often receive when things get rough? Melissa Peveto joked that if you want to bash the coaches, do NOT sit in the coaches’ wives section.
We’re gonna need a bigger box…of buttons
I showed up to the clinic with a box of “Ladies of KSR” buttons to hand out to fans of the radio show and blog. Those things might as well have been made of gold. I know everyone loves free stuff, but 250 buttons ran out in 15 minutes, which meant I had some seriously disappointed KSR fans afterwards. One lady even tried to buy a button off another fan, who refused to sell it. To those of you who didn’t get a button but wanted one: have no fear! We are making more. Find me before the Western game in Nashville and I’ll hook you up.
A breeding ground of enthusiasm
This was the first football women’s clinic in which Mark Stoops had every participated, and after five minutes, he promised it wouldn’t be the last. Stoops, the rest of the staff, and the players repeatedly thanked the fans for coming and sharing in the excitement of a new era of Kentucky football. More so, the athletic department (Lisa Ellis in particular) went out of their way to accommodate the huge crowd. The ladies that came were more than ready for some football, a feeling that flowed between all parties throughout the day. By the end, it was a breeding ground of enthusiasm, the only downside being we’ve still got over a month ’til kickoff. I’m counting down the seconds.