As University of Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops stood at the podium at SEC Media Days Tuesday in Hoover, Alabama, he reflected on the past nine years he’s spent in Lexington.
It’s a “much different age” now than when Stoops took over the Wildcats’ helm in 2012, he said, but as UK continues to fight its way into the upper tier of SEC competitors, his passion for building a program has only gotten stronger.
“I said it when I got to Kentucky that we were going to recruit, we were going to develop, we were going to compete, and I wanted to take this program to national prominence, and people laughed at me,” he recalled. “We’re not there yet, but we’re on our way. I’m going to continue to work. I feel good about where we’re at.
“I think we have a very good team, and we have some things in place, and we’re constantly learning, constantly growing, and we’re getting better.”
Even as the landscape of college football continues to evolve with the transfer portal and name, image and likeness issues, Kentucky coaches are continuing to recruit and develop talent.
“That’s still the foundation,” said Stoops, who enters this season as the second-longest-tenured coach in the SEC behind Alabama’s Nick Saban. “Build, select, develop. We constantly talk about that, build a winning culture, hit our players over the head with a sledgehammer about the positive culture, selecting the right players.
“That’s what we do. We have to. We develop players from the moment they walk on our campus.”
It’s been a successful formula so far, with the Cats looking to reach a program-record sixth consecutive bowl game this season. A fourth straight bowl victory would move Stoops ahead of former UK coaches Rich Brooks and Bear Bryant in postseason wins.
And although Stoops’s behind-the-scenes mentality remains the same, he fully admits that on-field changes this offseason were essential — particularly on offense.
“I feel like, with that, we really did benefit our program this year,” he said. “I felt like we added some players, we added some personnel that can help us, that can help continue to push our program forward.
“I really like the changes I made in the coaching staff. I needed to. Offensive coordinator Liam Coen coming in from the Rams and hopefully continuing to push us forward and give us the balance that I’m searching for.”
Though Stoops knows the advantage of a ground-and-pound running game to wear down defenses, he acknowledged the importance of expanding the offense and capitalizing on explosive plays downfield to keep defenders guessing.
“We ran the football extremely well for years, and we want to continue to do that, but we want to take advantage of that, as well, and be able to be efficient in the play-action pass and getting the ball down the field,” Stoops added. “... I felt like this spring, we got the ball down the field better than we have in years, so I feel very good about that.”
He hinted at some tweaks on defense, as well.
“I do feel like there’s some things we can do to play with some smaller personnel, and this year some of that strength may be to play smaller, to play with five defensive backs, more than we have in the past,” Stoops said, “to give us some more versatility.”
Kentucky’s offseason hasn’t been all positive, though.
Stoops confirmed Tuesday that starting tight end Keaton Upshaw could potentially miss the entire 2021 season with an injury he suffered during strength-and-conditioning training. He was expected to play a vital role in Coen’s offensive system after leading the Cats with three touchdown receptions last year. Kentucky opens the season Sept. 4 when it hosts Louisiana Monroe at 11 a.m. CT at Kroger Field.