Former four-star high school All-American quarterback Drew Barker spent most of last season on the sideline with a back injury. He’s still on the sideline, but Stoops likes what he’s seeing.
“(He’s) Getting better. Not full strength. He hasn’t been able to go yet.” Stoops said he expects to see more from Barker in two weeks after spring break. “After spring break, we will see where he’s at. It’s my understanding that the doctors are going to let him do a little bit more after spring break. I don’t think it’ll be at a point where he’s in any 11-on-11, but maybe some seven-on-seven or half line or one-on-ones. He’s done some of that, but they’re limiting how far he can throw the football right now.”
Stoops told The Courier-Journal earlier this week: “He’s really impressed me physically…He’s further along than I anticipated.”
Barker isn’t the only one missing practice. Tight end C.J. Conrad, defensive lineman Alvonte Bell, running back Bryant Koback and quarterback Walker Wood are currently not participating in practice.
There are also some important players who are returning from injury. Wide receiver Kayaune Ross, tight end Justin Rigg and safety Darius West all missed a significant portion of last season because of injury. West’s knee injury might have been the Cats’ biggest loss in the 2016 preseason.
“I’m excited about him because we all know he was going to be a player last year. He would have played a bunch or maybe won the job. He was right in there battling for the starting position when he got hurt,” Stoops said. “He’s got good instincts, he just needs some experience. He needs some reps. You know, he looks really good right now, so hopefully he’ll stay healthy.”
See all of Stoops’ comments below.
If you’re not into watching the presser and would rather read the transcript, you’ll find it all after the jump.
MARK STOOPS: It’s been a good winter, been a quiet winter, so that’s always a good thing. Guys have worked really hard. I feel like we’re stronger mentally, physically, so it’s been a good winter and a good first day. So we’re excited about this spring.
Q. How is Drew Barker?
MARK STOOPS: Getting better. Getting better. Not full strength, but he hasn’t been able to go yet.
Q. Do you expect him to be able to go at some point?
MARK STOOPS: We’ll see. I don’t think he’ll be cleared full go. The plan is after spring break get him going more.
Q. Kids like Ross and West, Justin Rigg, guys like that that didn’t play, are they back full speed?
MARK STOOPS: They are. Those three guys you mentioned, they’re back full speed. Let me see here. There’s a few guys not practicing, CJ, Alvonte, Brian Koback, Walker Wood, and Drew Barker are not full go. Outside of that everybody has been cleared and is practice full steam ahead.
Q. Did CJ have some sort of surgery?
MARK STOOPS: He had surgery, yeah.
Q. I know you guys had practiced a little bit with Darius during the bowl prep, but how has he kind of adjusted?
MARK STOOPS: Yeah, I’m really excited about him. He needs to practice, and I’m excited about him because we all know he was going to be a player last year. He would have played a bunch or maybe won the job. He was right in there battling for the starting position when he got hurt.
He needs the reps. He needs the experience. I also want to keep him healthy. So it’s a double-edged sword. Just yesterday he went up and made a great play on the ball. You always hold your breath a little bit when he comes down because he’s had so many significant injuries, but he needs the reps, so we’ve just got to be smart and he’s got to be smart because you see the talent in him. But I see the inexperience at times, as well. So at that position, you’ve heard me talk about it a bunch, but he’s got good instincts, he just needs some experience. He needs some reps.
You know, he looks really good right now, so hopefully he’ll stay healthy.
Q. What do you expect Stephen Johnson to improve on?
MARK STOOPS: Protecting the football, first and foremost. I think that’s something that we need to emphasize, and we talked about that. We addressed that yesterday day one in the first team meeting before spring practice, number one, is ball security. I think that’s an area that he needs to protect the football when he can. Quarterbacks are — you can’t have them play scared. Sometimes a tipped pass, an interception, some of that is inevitable. You don’t want them playing real tight, but some of it you have to have some football IQ and tuck the ball and put it away when you can, and that goes for him and it goes for all of our players. We have to definitely be more conscientious about protecting the football in the spots where we can.
Q. He said he wanted to come back and maybe get a little stronger, put some weight on to help the ball security. Have you seen that?
MARK STOOPS: Yeah, for sure. He takes everything personal. He works at it, and he’s worked extremely hard to try to gain some weight, to gain some strength, to look at all of his areas that he can improve on, and I have no doubt that he’ll make a strong effort to improve in all those areas.
Q. How big is this spring to find a replacement for Jon Toth?
MARK STOOPS: Yeah, it definitely is very important in — we absolutely love Jon. What did he have, 48 straight starts or whatever? That’s what you’re looking for at center. But I do think that we have some options starting with Bunchy, with the experience that he has. You know, we’ll see. I think we have a lot of confidence in Drake, but he is a redshirt freshman, and with Bunchy, you have the physicality you’re looking for, you have the experience you’re looking for. He’s very athletic. And we feel like we have some really good options at guard.
I think just like we talked about all last year, I think it’s the same way heading into this year with the depth that we have at offensive line. I feel very comfortable, even with some new guys coming into the mix like Luke Fortner, but we — I believe when it’s all said and done, by the time we get to game 1, we’ll have a two deep across the board.
Q. Can Luke play center at all?
MARK STOOPS: He can, but we’re not messing with that right now, no.
Q. You keep talking about every year kind of raising the bar for these guys and holding these guys more accountable. Is there a specific way you’re trying to do that this spring?
MARK STOOPS: It’s more of the same, more of the same what I talked about last year, about capacity, about doing more, and we’ve done that. You know, without — that’s to be expected. As we move forward, as we grow the program, coming after a bowl game. We talked about all those advantages, and it’s true. You know, we came back in much better shape. We came back with more confidence. We picked up right where we left off as far as physically, and we had a great winter. Guys have worked extremely hard in the weight room. Very few issues. It’s been very quiet. When it’s quiet in the winter, that’s a good thing. The guys are putting their head down and going to work in the weight room. Our fourth quarter drills, our runs, our change-of-direction runs, we’ve amped that up quite a bit, so we pushed them very hard with the change of directions, but we also added some runs, some sprints in there, and some ways to give them gut checks early and really push them mentally and push them physically.
Certainly the word I used a lot last year is much the same this year, but capacity. Our guys can handle more, and again, you would expect that. You’re going into this year, I believe we have 17 seniors where last year we had nine. You know, that’s a big difference. 17 seniors and I want to say 15 juniors; that helps. These guys have been around. They can handle more. So I’m very pleased with where we’re at. We know we have a long way to go. It’s the first day of spring practice we had yesterday, but I really liked the winter. I like the guys that are gaining weight are gaining some weight, and guys who are losing weight need to continue to lose some weight, but overall they’re working very hard, and it’s been a quiet winter. They’re been able to handle more.
Q. Are there position battles that you’re excited to see how they shake out this spring?
MARK STOOPS: I think there’s quite a few. Yeah, I really do. You know, right now we’re really just looking for guys that can play at a high level. Really not even interested in that. I know they are, and it’s important to be on the front line, as it should be, to them. But for us right now, we’re looking for guys that can play winning football across the board and really looking for a two deep because this is where it’s hard for a coach because we don’t play an opponent for a long time, so all’s we’re really looking for is good football, and sometimes that gets very messy when you’re playing a whole bunch of guys and you don’t have a full team with the incoming freshmen not being there.
So when you’re playing 1s, 2s, 3s and sometimes 4s, that can get sloppy and that gets aggravating, so we’re trying to limit that as much as possible and look as sharp as we can and build the depth and play winning football. I think, again, we’re much further along. I feel much better about our players just because they’ve seen more.
You know, again, you go into year five, you should be further along, and we’re starting to get to that point.
I think this past season, you know, what did we redshirt? We redshirted I want to say like 14 guys, you know, and that’s really good. You know, in the previous classes, we played seven, eight true freshmen. Last year I want to say we played three true freshmen, and four, one being a punter. So that’s good. So you have some guys with some experience that played, and that will be good for us.
Q. Are you seeing some of the benefits of those extra bowl practices now? Is that still carrying over at this point?
MARK STOOPS: It’s all part of it, but it’s also part of just the progression of your program. As you build a program, as you come out of the depths of you know what that we came out of, it’s a hard build. But we have guys that have been around and that have played some football and played some winning football.
The more of those guys you get and the stronger they get, the better your program is going to be. We’ve got to continue, just like I’ve always talked about, continue to recruit, recruit, recruit, and then continue to develop the guys we have here.
Q. Are you excited are you about the depth in the secondary?
MARK STOOPS: You know, I’m pleased, and I think we added some really key pieces right now with Lonnie and Jordan. Jordan was here last year, but Jordan Griffin being a year older. But we did lose some guys that were good role players, and that experience we have to replace a little bit. As I mentioned, those were guys like Marcus, Nick Wilson. I really wish we could have redshirted him. If I could go back and hit myself in the head, I would, and just bite the bullet and redshirt some of those guys as you try to build the program because he would be a real difference maker one year later, but that’s ifs and buts.
But we did lose some guys in the secondary that were versatile. I feel like there’s some real talent there, and I feel like there’s a two deep across the board at just — you’re talking four corners, four safeties, but when we start getting in nickel, dime, you need nine, ten of those guys. So we still need to add some.
Q. How big is it that you’ve got the offensive coaches for the second year in a row?
MARK STOOPS: Yeah, that’s a big deal. As much as I’ve tried to downplay that as much as I can the past three years (laughter), it does make a difference. It really does. Just with our coaches understanding what our players can and can’t do, I think that was a big piece of it last year. I think our coaches worked so hard and our players worked so hard early last year to understand the offense and everything, but you still don’t — by the time you put it all together and our coaches really understand what our players can do and the players understand what’s expected of them, it — yeah, I’m not complaining about it. I’m certainly happy about that. It’s a nice change compared to the previous winners in previous springs. I really feel like there’s good continuity, even thought there’s a new defensive coordinator and a new special teams coordinator, all the things that we’ve done defensively and in special teams, there’s a ton of carryover. So I think continuity-wise, I feel very good about where we’re at, and I feel very good about the staff, and like I said, the players really have a good attitude right now and have really worked hard, so we’ve got to just continue to do the same thing, put our head down and go to work, and it should be a quiet time of year right now, just get the work done in the weight room and on the practice field.
Q. At the same time, are you looking forward to seeing what Matt House can do?
MARK STOOPS: For sure. I’m excited about that. I’m excited about Matt and the new coaches, with Derrick and with Dean. I feel very good about it. I feel very good about Matt and his leadership, and I know the players are responding very well to him, and so it’s been good.
It’s also been good, I think I mentioned it, but for us to go and — I’ve been involved with the defense, so it’s all of us, but to see what we can do and what we evolved to defensively and kind of strip it all down and start over, and so there’s carryover, but there’s also a very clear identity of what we want to look like as we move forward.
That’s been fun for Matt and I and the new defensive coaches kind of to kind of reboot that.
Q. Have you decided if you’re going to —
MARK STOOPS: That’s Cal’s term, right? Restart that.
Q. Have you decided if you’re going to do play calling still, how that’s going to work?
MARK STOOPS: No, Matt will call the plays. You know, just like it always has been. And again, going back to last year, DJ was always the defensive coordinator. I helped and I’m going to always help where needed, and sometimes it’s just about the person in front of them talking to them and holding their feet to the fire. But no, Matt will call the plays and be the defensive coordinator, and I’ll be there to assist.
Q. Specifically wanted to talk about being more aggressive at their positions at special teams and the defensive line. Is that sort of a buzz word for this spring that you want to see this group get more aggressive?
MARK STOOPS: Well, we as a defensive staff, we always say what we do after recruiting, we go back and watch everything, so we always watch our cut-ups and watch all last year, and you’re always looking at the things you did good, the things you did bad, and areas where you can build on. You know, there were some things that we know we need to do better, and part of that is creating negative-yardage plays. We had too many 3rd and shorts last year, too many 3rd and mediums, too many 3rd and shorts, and too many 1st downs.
Now, it’s easy to address 3rd down defense, but why are they converting 3rd downs, because they’re 3rd and short or 3rd and medium. It’s a little different. We were pretty good at 3rd and long. We need to get them in 3rd and long a little bit more, so that’s part of what we’re talking about, and that’s always — that’s just a normal progression. That’s just — every team in the country looks at areas to improve, and that’s certainly one that we need to improve on.
Q. Talk about your defensive line; is there any particular group of players that you’re looking at?
MARK STOOPS: You know that across the board we need to improve. I think with our outside backers, you know, we have some youth behind Josh and Denzel. Those guys need to develop. Josh and Denzel need to take it to another level, and there’s a lot of things that, again, just like you would expect, Josh was just a true sophomore last year, and again, another guy I wish we could have redshirted, but it is what it is. But he needs to gain some weight, and body position, there’s a lot of things we could do better.
And then interior defensive line, we need to play better. It was not a strength of ours last year at all. It was an area that we need to address, and we are addressing, and we expect to play better.
Q. How has Benny adapted to being the main guy at running back?
MARK STOOPS: Well, Benny, again, is going into his first off-season in a true — he’s a freshman going into his sophomore year, so we’re going to continue to lean on him, and you know Eddie will continue to put pressure on him to be the best player he can be, but Benny has been the same as he always is, relatively quiet, doing his job and going about his business, and I like that.
Q. Is it nice for you to have a guy like Dean on staff who has so much head coaching experience that you can kind of bounce ideas off of?
MARK STOOPS: Without a doubt. I think you’re always looking for experience. Quite a few of the guys that have hired, even going back to Matt House, he had had great experience as a defensive coordinator and NFL experience and all that. You’re always looking for as much experience as you can get, and Dean is a great addition. I think I talked about it, but first and foremost just the type of person he is and the quality man that he is and the leadership that he brings and the experience. You’ve got to like it.
Q. Have you DJ’s improvement or development continue since the bowl game?
MARK STOOPS: Yeah, and he’s a guy that — him and Looney are guys that really need a great off-season, amongst many guys. But those are guys, I think, that have the ability and they’re young players that we need to have a great spring and great summer and be impact players for us next year.
Q. In regard to special teams, Dean talked about how much time was being devoted to that in spring practice. Can you talk a little bit about what you anticipate the emphasis will be with him in charge?
MARK STOOPS: Well, you know, Dean is a guy, first and foremost, when you’re looking for guys at that position, they have to have a great command of the team, and he has that. He has a great presence. He’ll be able to get the attention of the entire team, and he has great experience. I like Dean — the game of football is about fundamentals, but there’s also some nuances as we know, whether it’s offense, defense, special teams, that could present some pressure on opponents, and I think what Dean does in particular with a couple phases, it’ll be a little bit different, and I don’t want to get into a bunch of details on that right now, but let the other teams figure it out. But he brings some things that’ll put some pressure on opponents, and I like that. He’s aggressive, but it’s still about fundamentals and doing things the right way.
We’ll continue to build on the good things we did special teams wise and hopefully we’ll improve in certain areas, as well.
Q. What are you looking for from Jones this spring? How do you want him to keep developing?
MARK STOOPS: Yeah, just be consistent. Be consistent. He’s a guy that we have to lean on because he’ll feel real good about himself real quick, so we’ve got to make sure we continue to put pressure on him. He’s another guy that’s just going to be a true junior. He does not have it all figured out yet. He may tell you he does, but he’s far from it, so we’ve got to continue to lean on him. But just be really consistent and be a better leader.
He’s a special player on the field, and he’s got to continue to grow in all areas of his life. But I’m happy with him. I’m happy with the progress that he’s made. But there’s still a lot of room for improvement, that’s for sure.
Q. How good could he be if he figured it out?
MARK STOOPS: He could be very good, but that’s a big if. We’re going to continue to lean on him. But no, he’s been recognized and talked about as an impact player returning. One of the guys in the SEC that’s returning that can be an impact player and be a difference maker, and that’s what we’re looking for.
Q. The team accomplished last year, I think your words were they kicked down some doors, how do you balance that added confidence with the necessary humility that is necessary?
MARK STOOPS: Yeah, I don’t think that’ll be an issue with our staff and the way we approach things. That’s just the way we go about our business. You know, we’ve got a lot to do, and I think our players recognize that and want to accomplish a lot more, and so we are a hungry football team, and we’ll stay that very, very humbled and very hungry.
Q. What do you hope to see from (indiscernible) this spring?
MARK STOOPS: Improvement. He needs to improve. We’ll look at helping him and continuing to help with his progress, and we’ll also look at bringing in some guys to help push him along that way, have some other options.
Q. How big of a learning curve is it for the freshmen that are here with you now, kind of getting settled in, and what have you seen?
MARK STOOPS: Yeah, I’ve been very pleased with those guys. The first thing you look for is their maturity level and all the issues off the field because when they get here, we’re still wrapping up recruiting, and so they’ve had a great adjustment. They’ve done very well in school. They’ve done very good in the weight room, and then on the practice field, they’ve done a good job.
So it’s a very good group, mature group. I think what stands out with that group I’d say is leadership. There’s some really special guys, some special leaders in that group.
Q. Will you have the special teams competition that you did last year?
MARK STOOPS: Yeah, we haven’t progressed into that yet. We’ve been just in helmets there day one and we won’t do that tomorrow, but we’ll get some competitions as we go along, and fundamentally, the bottom line is that the techniques are carried over.
Q. What do you want to see from the wide receiver position?
MARK STOOPS: More consistency. I think we can’t have the drops, you know, even late in the year we had some critical drops. They did some very good things, and we know they made some improvement, but we continue or we expect them to continue to improve.
I think we have some guys that have been around, played a lot of football for us. We have a good mixture of some young guys I think that can push and help. So it’s a good blend, and I think it could be a real strength of the team if they’ll get more consistent and make the big plays when the game is on the line.
Q. Is it obvious that just making a bowl game isn’t good enough?
MARK STOOPS: Yeah, I think we’re always — just like I said, our team expects more. You’ve asked me every year that I’ve been here about that landmark six, and I’ve always said, and that’ll never change, is that we expect to win every game. You don’t want me sitting up here talking about losing, do you?
We’re going to prepare to win games, to win every game, and put ourselves in a position to win every game and strive for perfection. We know we’ll probably never achieve that, but we want to become a great football team and a great program, and I think we’re making steps to improve in that area.
Q. (Indiscernible) all-SEC freshman last year. Is he continuing to develop as you want him to?
MARK STOOPS: Yeah, he is. He’s going to be very good. We’ve got a — you’ve got to slow him down a little bit. I’d rather say whoa than giddy-up. I had to slow him down a little bit yesterday. Started getting a little feisty, we’ve got no pads on. But he does have the attitude you’re looking for, he really does. He’s a nasty guy, and he’s big and strong and has some experience and some confidence now. Mm-hmm.
Q. You talked a lot about a recruiting bump after the bowl game. How big is it to get the guys to the next level with Jon Toth and Boom Williams in recruiting?
MARK STOOPS: I think it’s important. I think we want that to be the norm where we have a pro day where there’s a bunch of people coming in here and watching. We did a few years ago with Bud and Z and some of those guys, and we want that to be the norm, and we’re proud of those guys and we hope they have a great showing here Wednesday. I think it’s important to show the development of what we’re doing here.
Q. Even without Drew at full strength right now, how is that quarterback group developing behind Stephen?
MARK STOOPS: Yeah, it’s been very good. I think the nice thing about Stephen is he’s played an awful lot of football. I think — you’ll probably do the research more than I do, but that’s the first time that’s happened in a while. I know Patrick had some experience, but to have a guy start the last 10, right — is it 10 or 11, whatever it was. But we haven’t had that continuity for a while, and I think the players feel some comfort in that, and I think you see the confidence with Stephen.
I know for yesterday’s practices day one, we were a lot more efficient throwing the football than I thought we would be, and we were basic on both sides of the ball, day one install. But I still thought we were very decisive with the ball.
We made some mistakes to the defensive credit, but we did have some interceptions. I want to say we had four picks yesterday. But I did think overall we threw the ball better, which we all know that’s an area where we need to improve.
I thought we were more efficient throwing the football, and I think Stephen and his stability definitely helps in that area.
We’ll be very anxious to see Drew out there. Like I said, after spring break, we will see where he’s at. It’s my understanding that the doctors are going to let him do a little bit more after spring break. I don’t think it’ll be at a point where he’s in any 11-on-11, but maybe some seven-on-seven or half line or one-on-ones. He’s done some of that, but they’re limiting how far he can throw the football right now.