By now you’ve probably learned that every sports season is prefaced by a talking season. The foundation of talking season lies in appearances at a variety of local functions, from the Rotary Club to the Alumni Association Kickoff.
Even though I’ve followed along for countless years, my only personal experience with one of these events happened a decade ago when my Dad brought home a polaroid and a signed basketball from Tubby Smith. That changed today.
After spending 30 minutes “working” in interviews with Mark Stoops, D.J. Eliot and Eddie Gran, it was time to experience the event. The Galt House ballroom was decked out in Kentucky blue. Fans filled more than 50 tables that were already adorned with a salad and chocolate cake.
Herein lies my only complaint: You can’t sit chocolate cake in front of me and expect me to not be ravenous. I tore through my salad with hardly a breath because LOOK AT THAT CAKE.
I was patient enough to wait for the cake until after the main course, but it took intense concentration to focus on what Tom Leach was saying.
After a few videos and an award presentation, The Voice of the Wildcats admitted, “I’m just bored,” with the dead zone in the sports calendar. Each year, this event gets Leach’s gears grinding, ready to get back to the football field.
After thanking all the former players in attendance, he invited Freddie Maggard and the coaches to join him on stage. The next 15 minutes were fun. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard all three coaches talk so candidly, cutting up with one another, yet still relaying a consistent message while thanking those who got them to this point.
Before I finished my cake, here is some of what was discussed.
Real Recognize Real
As the renovations around campus have catapulted the football program forward, there’s been an increased emphasis on recognizing the past. It’s present in the facilities and in the words of the head football coach.
“We need ya and we want you around,” Stoops said, opening the doors to the new Football Training Center to former players this weekend.
There were plenty of former players in attendance today. Freddie Maggard was joined by his fullback Andy Murray, along with Marty Moore, Dean Wells, Mike Meiners, Jay Dortch and Paul Karem, the man primarily responsible for helping the school honor the four African-Americans who helped integrate the SEC.
Stoops and Leach extended their thanks to Dr. Capilouto and Mitch Barnhart for helping to make everything happen. Stoops’ gratitude was evident to all, extending it to the fans who have stuck by the program through his first three years.
Name-Dropping New Players
The two positions the coaching staff is confident will dramatically improve are two of the most important positions on the field — quarterback and wide receiver. At wide receiver, Tavin Richardson and Jabari Greenwood will provide impactful depth at outside wide receiver after redshirting during their freshmen season. (I’ll get to Drew shortly.)
Defensively, Stoops and Eliot are excited to see the progress of last season’s junior college defensive end transfers, Courtney Miggins and Alvonte Bell. Miggins was able to see the field halfway through the season, but Eliot said Bell physically wasn’t ready, using the year to redshirt. Stoops expects big things from Bell this fall, “We need him to play well.”
No matter how much the players around Drew Barker have improved, Stoops knows a lot lies on his shoulders. “It goes as your quarterback goes.”
So far, Barker’s done everything they’ve asked of him and more. After he was announced the starter, he’s ran the offseason practices/workouts for the offense. He excelled in the classroom, earning a 4.0 in the spring semester. “That’s what your quarterback’s gotta do,” Gran said.
Progress starts off the field. Now it’s time to see it translate onto the field.
Stoops Confident, Cutting Up with his Coordinators
I don’t know if I’ve ever seen Stoops more comfortable. Even during his candid KSR interviews, this session was incomparable. His coordinators coached with him at Florida State. “We were on the ground floor with Jimbo on the rebuild at Florida State. We know the structure, commitment it takes.” Stoops added, “I could not be more proud to have these two men with us.” He’s confident they can help him successfully rebuild Kentucky’s program.
The best moment of the entire event occurred when they were discussing Gran’s high-powered offenses at Cincinnati. As much as he loves yards and touchdowns, when they watch Cincinnati film together Stoops reminds Gran, “You’re not going to get that in this league….Nothing’s going to be given to you.”
They’ll employ the same style, but it requires a focus on creating space, something that doesn’t come easily against elite SEC athletes.
Gran’s Running Back Philosophy
Eddie Gran has a deep, talented backfield to work with this fall. It can be difficult to discern how, when and who to give the ball to. What he preaches to his players is humility. “There’s only one ball,” Gran said. If he can get them to buy into playing as a team, they will collectively improve as a unit.
Stoops has used the term “capacity” often in the preseason. “Increasing the players’ capacity” seems like an ambiguous, loaded phrase, but he believes his players now know what it takes to win. They’ll be able to do more than ever before and he’s excited to see the product. Stoops’ final words before leaving the stage:
“Expect big things from this team. We do.”