Eight games into the season, Kentucky’s defense has officially gelled. That’s the word Coach Mark Stoops used following the Cats’ impressive win over Missouri last Saturday, saying he’s seen the change throughout the last four weeks.
“I’m just proud of them,” Stoops said of his players. “Their preparation has been good. They’re getting more and more confident; they’re playing better in the back end. The pressure has increased. Just across the board, they’re playing much better.”
Senior defensive end Calvin Taylor isn’t surprised by the improvements.
“We always knew we had a lot of talent. Yeah, we lost a lot of talent last year. But now we’re a program that’s just building guys and bringing [new] ones in. It’s just ‘next man up’ – that’s our philosophy,” Taylor said. “It just took some time – a little bit more time than we would have wanted – to just gel. But in the spring, we knew what kind of defense we could be.”
There is is again: gel. There’s the word Coach Stoops and his players continuously use when talking about how the defense has been able to do things like holding opponents to an average of just 288 yards and 16 points per game.
“It starts with playing exceptionally hard,” Stoops said. “You’ve got to play hard and you’ve got to be tough throughout the week with their preparation. The games are won throughout the week.”
When Stoops says throughout the week, it’s easy to assume he’s referencing practice. What you may not know is all of the other team activities going on throughout the week, and the impact those activities have on the team’s ability to get the job done on Saturdays.
In fact, something as simple as “breaking bread” with a teammate may just do the trick.
“Before, our [senior] class just grew up together. Now we have some young guys,” Taylor explained. “We really put an emphasis on team bonding, and I think that’s really helped us. You’re no longer just playing for yourself; you’re playing for your brothers.”
How does a collegiate football team emphasize team bonding? Do they go on extravagant trips? Listen to music? Take a field trip to Malibu Jack’s?
Actually, they just meet for breakfast or lunch.
Throughout the week, players on the team are split into pairs. Each pair is then required to get breakfast or lunch together during the week. The stakes are high, because Coach Stoops does “call-outs” on Thursday, when each person has to answer questions about his teammate surrounding their hometown, their family or their hobbies. It began during Kentucky’s first bye week, and it’s continued through this one.
“First bye week, we had a nice talk with the team and just decided we need to get to know each other,” sophomore linebacker De’Andre Square said. “As the weeks went on, we’ve been learning [about] each other more and more, and it’s been helping us out.”
So far, Square has met with Ahmad Wagner and Calvin Taylor. He learned more about Wagner, listing off four siblings and describing Wagner’s love for video games. The 6-foot-9, 300-pound Taylor apparently likes Anime, which took Square “by surprise.”
“He’s a big guy who likes anime?,” Square laughed. “But he does.”
The anime lover learned Square – a Detroit native, he quickly pointed out – likes making Trillers and Tik Toks. Taylor has also broken bread with Drew Schlegel, a senior tight end who’s from Colorado and dreams of raising Alpacas.
Wide receiver Bryce Oliver found commonalities with Chris Oats (they both name LeBron James as their favorite player), as well as Xavier Peters, who used to play wide receiver in high school.
It’s just a quick meal, but the team’s new weekly requirement came just in time for Kentucky’s season.
“We care for each other,” Square said. “It’s more like an emotional thing; we’re trying to play for each other and not just for stats.”
“In practice, [we’re bringing] a little bit more attention to detail. Being laser focused… Everybody has gotten disciplined,” Taylor added. “We’re just starting to gel at the right time.”