While Mark Stoops typically speaks to the media a few times per week during the season – once on Monday afternoon for a weekly press conference and another post-practice session on Thursday evening – the Kentucky head coach usually uses his weekly call-in radio show on Monday evenings to kick back and relax a bit.
During the hour-long show, Stoops usually opens up about his team’s performance from the previous week, previews Kentucky’s upcoming opponent, and answers questions via phone and social media from the Big Blue Nation.
This week, the Kentucky head coach discussed his team’s much-needed bye week, offensive woes, defensive success, and injury updates, among other topics.
Here are ten things we learned during the Mark Stoops Show this evening:
The bye week was appreciated
Following back-to-back losses at Missouri and against Georgia, Stoops was thrilled to have a week off to reset and regroup leading up to the Vanderbilt game.
“The players needed to get mentally and physically healed up a little bit, but we also got better, worked on ourselves,” Stoops said. “Had some really good what we call “good-against-good practices” where we’re just trying to get better. Also got ahead for Vandy, had Saturday off, the staff also had Saturday off, which was really good for everybody.
“We were able to decompress for at least one day, get away from it before getting after it again Sunday. Had another good practice today, beautiful weather, really felt good about walking off the practice field today.”
“Really good” young talent, improving in practice
With the offensive starters struggling to get much going, the idea of utilizing some of the team’s younger standouts is one the staff continues to consider.
“Definitely, the guys are really getting better. It’s a good group,” Stoops said. “We will see the next four weeks whether we can get more guys in there or not, we’ll see how it goes.”
The question at hand is whether their raw talent outweighs the inexperience.
“The first thing you look for is just their playmaking ability,” he said. “Are they good enough to go out there and compete, make competitive plays for you? You realize the inexperience, you’re going to give a little bit on that if they have the athletic ability to step in and help you. Certainly we’re looking at that, this many weeks into it, we have a pretty good idea of what they can and can’t do. If they’re better than the guys in front of him, they’ll get an opportunity. If not, we’ll continue to stick with the guys we have.”
Whether they play immediately or not, it’s a young group that has Stoops and his staff excited for the future.
“It’s always fun to have those guys develop, that’s the future. We feel good about those guys,” Stoops said. “There’s quite a bit of guys in that true freshman class we feel are going to be really good players, but the guys in front of them are competing and playing well. We’re looking for offensive playmakers and guys to get the ball down the field, but some of that is on us, getting them good plays and putting them in position to be successful. There are plays that are there.”
“We’re going to play the guy that gives us the best opportunity to win” at quarterback
When asked about the quarterback position, the UK head coach said all three quarterbacks – Terry Wilson, Joey Gatewood and Beau Allen – are healthy and looking solid in practice.
As for the team’s starter against Vanderbilt, that remains to be seen, with Stoops adding that the quarterback that “gives us the best opportunity to win” will play.
“There are no updates. The quarterbacks are back, Terry is back healthy,” Stoops said. “The three quarterbacks are out there competing, and they all have their moments. It would be good to see some other guys play, but we’re going to play the guy that gives us the best opportunity to win. We invest too much in it, the wins and losses are too valuable. They mean too much to the program. The guy that gives us the best chance to win on Saturday is going to play.”
He did single out and praise Wilson for his ability to bounce back following injury.
“I’m impressed with Terry and how he’s bounced back. I appreciate his attitude and his work, the way he’s worked, he’s come back strong. I appreciate that with him.”
Improvement is necessary in the passing game
Speaking of the passing game, Stoops was quick to admit that things need to change across the board on that front.
“The guys are working hard. If you’ve ever listened to me, nobody’s harder on the program than me, believe me,” Stoops said. “The coaches feel it in staff meetings every day. I expect us to perform at a high level. We continue to work hard, the wideouts are getting better. Part of that, us getting better, it is a fair criticism and we do need to put them in a better position to be successful. That I accept, that’s on me. Certain plays, certain things we can do to help them create some space. Part of it is on them, part of it is on the quarterback, there are many reasons.”
While the team thrives in the run game and Stoops is pleased with the effort there, they can’t continue to be a one-dimensional unit.
“We’re good at running the ball, we have to continue being good running the ball,” he said. “We have to be good at what we’re good at, and we’re good and physical in those areas. Now, we need to improve in other areas, and we expect to do that. We’re going to do that. That’s my job to get it fixed, we’ll continue to do that.”
The offensive staff needs to set passes up better
As for UK’s offensive identity, Stoops wants the rushing attack to remain as is, but set up the passing attack better as a result.
“We want to continue to do the good things we’re doing, set some play-action up off of it,” Stoops said. “Drop-back pass is a hard world to live in for a lot of teams, especially if you’re not a dynamic passing team. If you look at most teams we play, when we get them in predictable pass, they’re not going to be overly successful. You’re going to start playing the Alabamas of the world here down the stretch, and they’re absolutely elite. That’s a whole ‘nother level, they’ve got three or four eventual All-Pros on their roster, it’s an NFL team.
“But a lot of teams we play in this league, predictable pass is not a world you want to live in. For us, we’ve got to do better at setting some things up and throwing off of our play-action and off of our run game, that’s what we do good.”
The scheduling grind in the SEC is hurting everybody
While he won’t make excuses and says the team will “man up and play the best we can,” Stoops did acknowledge that the SEC-only schedule is wearing on everyone involved.
“Look around. There are 14 of us that are sitting there saying, “What did we do to ourselves?” Really,” Stoops said. “Ask Georgia how they feel about playing us, and then going to play Florida. They were already down guys [from playing us], then they had to go play Florida. You’re going to look around at the end of the year and I think some of the people that put together this schedule are going to say, “What did we do?”
“There are going to be some elite teams at the top with winning records, but you’re going to see everyone else fighting for four or five wins, over half our league. It’s tough on all of us, but it is what it is. We’re going to man up and play the best we can this week.”
When asked about injury updates, Stoops said the offensive line as a whole is a little “banged up” right now.
“They’re still a little banged up, to be honest with you,” he said. “We have some guys we believe in that will step in, but we’re definitely a bit banged up there, as well.”
As for running back Kavosiey Smoke, Stoops said he’s close to 100% and will be out there against Vanderbilt.
“He’s getting better. He should be getting back to full strength”
Vanderbilt’s running backs are impressive
What impresses Stoops about Derek Mason and the Vanderbilt Commodores?
“They’re getting better and better each and every week, very balanced,” he said. “I’m really impressed with their two running backs, they have a nice one-two punch there. They’re going to continue to pound the ball and set it up. They’re getting better, try to be balanced. Derek [Mason] will have them fired up and ready to go, it’s always a good game. I have a lot of respect for Derek Mason and the job that he does, he’s a very good defensive coach, as well.”
As for the defense specifically, Stoops says it’s a fundamental group that plays “exceptionally hard.”
“Gonna get guys that play exceptionally hard, that’s what you’re going to see,” he said. “You can see some exotics at times, which means you can see some different pressures, different looks. You’re going to get a fundamental group that’s going to play very hard.”
What is he looking for out of the offense against Vanderbilt?
As for his own team, Stoops just needs to see the ball moved and points on the board.
“Offensively in general, I want to see us moving the football. I want to see us balanced, I want to see us scoring some points,” he said. “We’ve done some really good things at times, even in the last game against a heck of a defense. You’ve got to be able to create some explosives, got to make some competitive catches, get the ball in the end zone.
“We’re at our best when we’re efficient in physical and running the ball, and then throwing. … We’ve got to be more effective in our pass game, keep that balance. The most important thing is getting back to scoring points.”
Back to a normal schedule
The Wildcats returned to normalcy today following the bye week, though they were one step ahead without having to review game film.
Next step for the team: get back in the win column on Saturday.
“We had a normal Monday today. Fortunately we were ahead, we didn’t have to watch game tape,” Stoops said. “That gave us an opportunity to spend more time in the film room and get ready for Vandy. Kept the time on the field the same, didn’t want to over-do their legs, [wear them out] by the end of the week. Normal Tuesday, normal Wednesday. We’re back at it, looking to improve, want to get back into the win column.
“The time was much needed, the rest was much needed.”