(Photo by Todd Van Emst, SEC)
After a whirlwind trip to Birmingham, I’m back from my second SEC Media Days. On the drive back, I finally processed the very busy day and came up with eight takeaways from UK’s session, both on the main stage and with the local media beforehand.
Talk is great, but it’s time for action
Mark Stoops knows it’s time for action. Last year, he had a lot of padding heading into the SEC gauntlet as a first-year coach with little talent in the cupboard in the most difficult conference in college football. This year, some of that padding comes off as both fans and media look to see if Stoops’ rebuilding effort is legit. Will Kentucky finally get its first SEC win since 2011? Are those highly-touted recruits enough to turn the program around? Even more, will the recruits still come if the Cats continue to struggle? These are the questions that followed Mark Stoops as he made his rounds at the Hyatt Wynfrey on Thursday. To give Stoops credit, he knows it’s time to walk the walk:
“I think you’re going to start to see the fruits of our labor. We don’t put in all this work — players don’t put in all this work and the coaches, all we do — to come out here and not win games. We’re in the business of winning games; we understand that, we accept that and embrace that and we’re excited to get out there and get going.”
Although still up in the air, the situation at QB will be better
Not that I expected to hear otherwise, but the quarterback situation is still undecided. With the local media, Stoops admitted that there was some “clarity” about who was leading the race, a “pecking order,” but insisted that the job was not won, and there is plenty of time for things to change. Later on, he told reporters in another room “We’re not close to making a decision yet.” Hmm. While there is plenty of uncertainty about who the starting quarterback will be, Stoops is certain about one thing: “We’re going to be better at quarterback.” From the way he broke down each candidate, it sounded like no matter whom the staff picks–Patrick Towles, Reese Phillips, or Drew Barker–things will be MUCH improved on offense. That’s comforting.
Stoops is doing his best to repair the damage of the Joker Era
Over the course of the past year, we’ve come to realize just broken the program was when Stoops came on board. We’ve heard Stoops say in the past that Za’Darius Smith, a JuCo player, had the best fundamentals on the team at the beginning of last season. Although Stoops says he doesn’t like to dwell on the past regime, he’s admitted that he’s been taken aback by the scope of the rebuilding process at times. Today, Bud Dupree opened up about how Stoops not only had to teach his players not to give up, a habit many of them picked up towards the end of Joker Phillips’ tenure, he had to get rid of some team “cancers”:
“Once you’re losing so many games, people just start to think why they are listening to a certain guy. Coach Joker was a great coach, but I think people just gave up on him too easy. I was never one of those guys who gave up on him. Now, with Coach Stoops, even though we only won two games last year, he made sure people didn’t give up on him and people didn’t think about throwing the towel in and so on. That played a big role on why people came back this offseason so strong and so hard even though they’ve seen us go through the struggle again and see that he’s with us the whole time, side by side.”
“[Stoops] brought a different mindset to people. And it started with people who, if you weren’t all in for the team, you gotta go. So once people started leaving the team who were a cancer, you’ve gotta make sure people are all in for the team and benefit the team in the long run. All the people who were on the sideline just saying ‘oh, I hate being at practice,’ stuff like that, they gotta go. Once everything happened, no dead weight, the team started to rise up.”
Za’Darius Smith is way more important than any of us realized
The one thing I’ll really take away from the interviews today is just how valuable Za’Darius Smith is to this team. Sure, we all love Big Z for his huge smile, infectious personality, and extraordinary talent; however, I’m not sure any of us will truly appreciate just how integral he’s been to Stoops’ rebuilding effort. I made it a point to spend a lot of time around Za’Darius today to get to know him as a “fan favorite,” but I left realizing that his impact on the program goes much, much deeper. To refresh your memory, Za’Darius came to UK from East Mississippi Community College, along with UK’s current defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh. Za’Darius said today that Brumbaugh was the reason he came to Kentucky, and if Brumbaugh hadn’t left East Mississippi CC, he probably would have gone to Mississippi State. I reminded Za’Darius of Stoops’ comment that he had the best fundamentals of anyone on the team when he arrived. Za’Darius didn’t disagree, and said that he’s spent all of his free time helping his teammates learn:
“Coach Brumbaugh taught me in junior college, and I have the ability to help the team and know what I’m doing. Just by coming in when he’s not there, I can go outside with all the other guys and be that leader to help them with technique work.” Za’Darius says it’s already paying off, and he’s seeing several of his teammates, particularly the freshmen, putting in extra technique work in their free time. “I’ve actually seen a lot of guys, a lot of freshmen in their dorm with ladders doing feet work. The older guys, the defensive line, are there doing hand drills just to make room, just because they’re together and they’re trying to get better.”
All of this from a player who will only be at Kentucky for two years. Za’Darius has already earned that billboard and so much more.
This was the best moment of the day
While waiting in a lobby full of hyper Alabama fans for Nick Saban to arrive, I stumbled upon Wanda Smith, Za’Darius Smith’s aunt. She was right at the front of all of the Alabama fans, with a prime view of the front doors. She was decked in blue and white and proudly held up her “GO CATS” towel. I introduced myself and said that UK fans love her nephew, and when the UK contingent arrived, she shouted his name, and he came over and gave her a huge hug. Knowing the journey Za’Darius has taken, the pride his family has in him, and the huge stage he’s now on, the grins on their faces as they embraced was by far the best moment of the entire trip for me.
Za’Darius has taken Matt Elam under his wing
Earlier I mentioned how Za’Darius has taken it upon himself to help the younger guys with their techniques. It turns out he’s taken one player in particular under his wing: Matt Elam.
“Matt Elam is a great guy. He’s a guy who wants to learn also. Every chance I get, I take time to help him with technique work because that’s something that every guy needs is technique work. Just from him coming out of high school, I really take my time to help him with it.”
Za’Darius was Elam’s host on his visits and said he gave him one piece of advice: “Just don’t go to a school because of the uniforms or the cleats and all that good stuff. Go to a school where you know you’re going to get coached up. And where you know you’re going to build a relationship with that coach because I was in that same situation.”
The talent and depth are rising
Despite the breadth of the rebuilding process, Stoops’ message was positive. In fact, according to my count, he used the word “better” at least 25 times today in his various appearances. I’ve already mentioned that no matter who gets the starting quarterback job, Stoops believes the position will be better, and he sees that improvement across the board on offense, specifically with playmakers.
“Our wide receivers will be better. Four of our topâ€‘five pass catchers were firstâ€‘year guys in our program a year ago, three true freshmen and one junior college transfer. Our leading rusher was a true freshman. Those guys being a little older, a little stronger, more experienced is going to help the quarterbacks as well.”
In fact, depth is building all across the roster:
“We played eight true freshmen last year, four firstâ€‘year junior college players. We have 15 returning starters and 36 guys in our program that have started at least one game. So we’re starting to build a little bit of depth.”
The chip on UK’s shoulder is getting sharper
Throughout the day, reporters asked Stoops and the players how they felt about being picked last in the SEC. Stoops joked that he thought they’d be at the top of the pack, but insisted that they’re “not worried about all that,” and are only concerned with getting better, day by day. His players, however, couldn’t help but address the topic in a bolder manner. Bud Dupree even trotted out one of the team’s mottos: “We’re definitely trying to change the game, not only for our team but for our whole program. This is my last year, so if we go to a bowl game and win a lot of games, it will only help the program.”
Part of changing the game is finally shedding the losing mentality that built up during all of the program’s struggles. That hasn’t been easy, and Dupree said that it’s not enough to just want to change the game–you have to believe that you can:
“We have enough talent to win games. Now, the big key behind it is, do we believe we have enough talent to win games? The mindset of a player going out on the field can’t be given by the coach. Even though the coach is telling me I can do it, if I don’t believe in my mind I can do it, it’s not going to happen.”
Za’Darius says the coaches are trying to build up the players’ confidence every day: “Our coaches tell us each and every day, ‘We’re not going 2-10 no more,’ so that’s something that will motivate us and in my eyes, I see each and every guy working hard and I can see a big turnaround this year.”
However Dupree knows that talk’s cheap. “So why not pick us to finish last? But it’s just up to us to go out there and show them.”
Have you had enough football yet? Didn’t think so. Ryan Lemond and Jared Lorenzen are hosting tomorrow’s show, so get ready to hear more gridiron talk. The guys will by with their thoughts on the night’s events in the morning, including the story behind that priceless picture of Pitino and Matt.