Thursday morning Mark Stoops will take the stage of the Grand Ballroom at SEC Media Days for the seventh time.
The longest-tenured coach in the SEC East has always had to answer questions about taking Kentucky to the next level. This year the media will question if he can keep the Cats can stay near the top of the East after a ten-win season. He’ll face some form of the following ten questions throughout his long day in Hoover.
1. How do you replace all of the production from 2018?
“You all didn’t know about the seven, eight guys last year who got us to ten wins. I’m confident we have seven or eight more guys ready to do the same this year.”
That’s a choppy version of the sentiment Stoops will be pitching throughout the week. He’s confident the players that built the program up to new heights left a solid foundation for others to follow in their footsteps.
2. The entire secondary departed after starting for at least two years? Where do you turn to?
First and foremost, Stoops went to the JUCO ranks, recruiting Quandre Mosely and Brandin Echols to play cornerback at Kentucky. The latter will likely start from day one.
Aside from the additions, Stoops’ secondary rebuild is much different than how he’s operated in the past. At the start of his tenure, defensive backs were forced to play right away. Instead of starting true freshmen, Stoops has the luxury of playing upperclassmen who have some experience on the field. Davonte Robinson, Jordan Griffin, Tyrell Ajian and Yusuf Corker had enough talent to play right away, but had to wait their turn behind future NFL Draft picks. They are the players “nobody knows about” that Stoops believes will make an impact this fall. The dynamic is different, but even though they’re older, they still lack experience.
3. Are you confident Terry Wilson will make a leap as a starter in year two?
Stoops will gladly point to to Stephen Johnson’s second year improvements as an example as to how quarterbacks mature after one year as the starter. Many outsiders believe Kentucky did not throw it last year because they did not trust Terry’s arm talent and decision-making. Those closer to the program will say they simply couldn’t get the ball out of Benny Snell’s hands. The truth lies somewhere in-between.
4. Without Benny Snell, will A.J. Rose need to carry a heavy workload or will the touches go elsewhere?
Last year Benny Snell touched the ball on 35% of UK’s offensive plays from scrimmage. Stoops will not lump all of that responsibility on AJ Rose. Chris Rodriguez and Kavosiey Smoke will happily split some carries with Rose. The most significant difference in the offense will be the prominence of Terry Wilson. Stoops will never reveal exactly how they will divvy out the touches, but expect to see Wilson carry a much heavier load on the ground and through the air in 2019.
5. Josh Paschal’s comeback story is amazing, but can he still perform at an elite level after undergoing such a traumatic event?
In the spring Stoops did not hesitate to say that Paschal had a lengthy climb uphill to overcome the setbacks from last fall. After all, Paschal did have a chunk of his foot removed.
“He’s still a little bit frustrated because, if you know anything about him, he wants to come back out and be a dominant player he knows he can be. He’s just not there yet,” Stoops said in April. “There’s still just getting used to that foot and where they reconstructed it and did a lot of surgeries on the poor kid. It’s frustrating for him.”
Stoops preached patience in the spring. With four more months to recover, Paschal should be much closer to returning to form. Even so, Stoops will point out the development of talent around Paschal that should mitigate any potential problems.
6. This year you don’t have to answer a question about Florida, but there’s another streak you have against South Carolina; how do you approach the game in Columbia?
I cannot wait to hear the tongue-in-cheek remark Stoops has prepared for the person who brings up Florida. As for South Carolina, no question fired him up more last year than when the Gamecocks were mentioned.
“I don’t need South Carolina to motivate me. I am not worried about what they’re doing,” he said. Hopefully the question sparks familiar fiery emotions.
7. Last season you had the No. 2 scoring defense in the conference. You lost Matt House to the NFL, but your new defensive coordinator, Brad White, has plenty of NFL experience. How will the defense look with White in charge?
Hopefully it’s an open-ended question, because if not, Stoops will say the defense will largely look the same. “The concepts haven’t changed, but he’s installed his own style.”
The differences in the defense will primarily be from a personnel standpoint. They can’t trust Josh Allen to be a one-man wrecking crew, so White will have to take some chances. The greater question that we will never get an answer to, is how long of a leash will Stoops give White?
Stoops went through the leap from position coach to coordinator 15 years ago. That experience should shrink the learning curve for White.
8. Josh Allen was the best defender in college football football last year. Is there another pass rusher prepared to carry the torch?
Rare to single out players before they’ve taken the practice field, Stoops will take a similar approach to the Benny Snell question. He’ll note Boogie Watson’s exceptional development in his redshirt sophomore season (5 sacks, 5 TFLs) before turning his attention to the rest of the defensive line. Kentucky can’t replace Allen’s production with one single player. The entire defensive line must step up to fill the void left by College Football’s 2018 Defensive Player of the Year.
9. Aside from Lynn Bowden, who can you count on to consistently catch passes?
The first name that will likely come out of his mouth is Josh Ali. Every time this questions has been asked in a summer interview, Ali is mentioned. After that, it’s anyone’s guess. Isaiah Epps has transformed his body, Ahmad Wagner can play a niche role and the tight end room is deep. With all that being said, there are still many unknowns. It may not be at SEC Media Days, but before the season begins Stoops and Eddie Gran will challenge the wide receivers’ room to take their game to new heights, or get left behind.
10. The SEC has lifted the ban on stadium-wide alcohol sales. A few schools have already announced they will not be serving alcoholic beverages this fall. Where do you stand?
This question will put Mark Stoops in a pickle. When asked about big picture topics in the past, he prefers to punt, sometimes clumsily. A big fan of his boss, Mitch Barnhart, he’ll defer to the AD and president without taking one side or the other (even though in his heart of hearts, Stoops is willing to do whatever it takes to fill up Kroger Field every Saturday).