The Wildcats didn’t waste any time when fall camp opened Wednesday.
Though some small questions remain as the Kentucky football team prepares for the 2022 season — unproven wide receivers, Chris Rodriguez Jr.’s playing status and an inexperienced secondary, among them — Cats players and coaches met with media members at Kroger Field and didn’t shy away from the high expectations that have become the norm around the program.
In fact, head coach Mark Stoops called it “by far the best Day 1 practice” in his 10-year tenure at UK.
It starts with the leadership around the team, beginning with quarterback Will Levis.
“Our foundation’s set in stone,” Stoops said. “We have a returning quarterback, and we were able to work with our guys more in the summer than we ever have before, so we should be further along. I really feel good about this team’s leadership, but also their work ethic and dedication to what they’re doing.
“We’re off to a really good start, but we have an awful lot of work to do.”
In coachspeak — and especially with the way Stoops typically remains even-keeled about his team — it means the first day of camp went even better than UK coaches imagined.
And, really, why shouldn’t it?
For the first time in a while, there aren’t any major, lingering issues that Stoops & Co. have to deal with.
They have an established signal-caller in Levis. They do have a new offensive coordinator in Rich Scangarello, but the Cats’ pro-style offense was already in place before Liam Coen left. Rodriguez’s playing future is uncertain, but Kentucky has a deep, talented stable of rushers that can easily pick up the slack.
According to Levis, who’s had a whirlwind of a summer, he and his teammates were ready from the start.
“We were ready to get rolling as soon as we stepped on the field,” he said. “There was no learning curve for any of us. All of us knew exactly what was going to be asked of us. We had the scripts. We knew what type of plays, what installs, would be going in for the first few days of practice.
“I feel like we’ve been ready to go for a while now, and the guys put it all together and did a good job on the first day.”
Defensive coordinator Brad White pointed to similar strides on his side of the ball, noting that three key pieces — defensive back Tyrell Ajian, inside linebacker DeAndre Square and outside linebacker Jordan Wright — all played significant minutes in 2018, when UK fielded one of its best all-time defensive units. They’re among five “super seniors” who will lead the Cats’ defensive effort.
“I think this defensive unit has the chance to do something special,” White said. “We have a mix of young guys and old guys. The old guys are checking their egos at the door and helping those younger guys along. There’s going to be a lot of competition. I don’t know what that starting 11’s going to look like come Sept. 3, but we have 31 days to figure it out.”
In many ways, fall camp often feels like the first day of school. There’s a level of excitement but also considerable nervousness in the air.
For UK, the start of fall practice was more like a return to business — due, in large part, to the team’s strong leaders.
“Our culture is not going to change,” Stoops said. “You’ve heard it before, but there’s climate and then there’s culture. You can change a climate rather quickly. A culture takes a long time to engrave. If we do that and we do it correctly, you can sustain the highs and the lows and the turnover, whether it’s players or coaches or anybody.
“There is growth within the program. There is strong leadership, and they worked hard this summer.”
And, now that the Cats hit the ground running, it’s full steam ahead to the start of the regular season.