Kentucky fans used the Monday after the Wildcats’ first win in Knoxville in 36 years to joyfully gloat over the Volunteers’ demise. Mark Stoops used his Monday press conference to send a message to his younger players.
The 2020 Kentucky football team is filled with upperclassmen who lead the way and take a bulk of the snaps. In the fourth quarter of Saturday’s game plenty of new guys saw their first significant reps as Wildcats. Some even recorded stats in the box score. Kentucky’s head coach was quick to humble the talented group.
“We saw some talent, but we saw some guys that need some work to be totally honest with you. I believe these guys can help us win SEC football games, but they’ve gotta put in the work. They’ve gotta get some things corrected,” Stoops said.
“We have some talented young guys but they need to really have great weeks of preparation. There’s been too many missed assignments and fundamentally not doing the right things for us to win at a high level. Again, I’m very pleased with them. I love this group. I love their attitude. I love their willingness to take the coaching and to get better. If you do that good things are going to happen. I love these young guys, the mentally they have, but fundamentally we’ve gotta get better.”
He did not single out individuals, except to point out upperclassmen who have set the standard as examples to follow.
Over the last two weeks Jamin Davis has recorded 23 tackles and two interceptions, returning one for a touchdown. Now in the top ten in the SEC in tackles, it took the redshirt junior middle linebacker time to perform at a high level.
“There’s some guys on our team right now that I believe will be very good players. When that is, I’m not sure, but you just gotta continue to work and to develop to worry about yourself,” Stoops said. “In this day and age people worry so much about what people are saying about them on Twitter, how they’re perceived when maybe they didn’t play a good game at all, but maybe the ball fell in their lap or something good happened and everybody’s patting them on the back; when behind the scenes, it’s not happening.
“I think Jamin is a great example of a guy that did not play very many quality snaps in his first two years here but continued to work hard, have a positive attitude, do the best he could, whether he was on scout team getting better with the reps that he got and banking those reps. It’s a great example because I have some guys on the team that still get frustrated and I understand that. Guys want their plays, they want their own but it’s not what’s best for the team. I like all of these guys, but I guarantee them an opportunity. That’s what they have. Some players get frustrated because they feel like they have to get their snaps when they’re not earned. I think he’s a great example to just work and do things right and when you get that opportunity, make the most of it.”
Two others play positions in the trenches that rarely receive glory. The day Quinton Bohanna and Josh Paschal stuff the stat sheet will be an exception to the norm. They sacrifice individual glory for the the greater good of the defense. When each player went down with knee injuries over the last two weeks, instead of worrying about their future, they focused on lifting up their teammates.
“Josh got hurt and all’s he was doing was worrying about his team, coaching his team, motivating his team, not sitting in the training room with a towel over his head, icing his knee, pouting about himself. The same with Quinton. He had no idea the severity of his knee injury. It hurt like heck. He definitely hurt some ligaments in his knee, could’ve been blown out, he didn’t know at the time, and all’s he was worried about was icing that thing, getting on the sidelines and coaching his team and motivating his team and worrying about the win. That is the championship mentality that we’re looking for. I love that,” said Stoops.
Stoops is imploring his players to prioritize the team’s success over individual success. Instead of using the classic cliche about playing for the name on the front of the jersey, he used this: “That pull from the top has to be much, much greater than the drag from below.”
Locker room problems do not develop overnight. They fester before eventually blowing up and transforming into a disaster. Instead of patting everyone on the back, Stoops is publicly criticizing some immature players in an attempt to galvanize the team. Saturday’s win in Knoxville may have changed the trajectory of the season in more ways than we currently know.