April 29, 2013

Spring Rewind: Kentucky

LEXINGTON, Ky. - Mark Stoops did more than win the press conference when he arrived at Kentucky. He won the first four months of his time as the Wildcats' head coach.

He won't be undefeated for long this fall, but he spent his first spring in Lexington laying the groundwork for rebuilding at UK.

"Oh, we've got an awful lot of work to do," Stoops said after Kentucky's spring game. "There's a lot of things we need to do, and we will. We will change significantly."

Some would say there already has been significant change.

He landed native son Neal Brown as his offensive coordinator in December. The university announced plans for a $110 million renovation to Commonwealth Stadium in January. Then he signed the highest-ranked recruiting class in school history in February.

All that momentum came to a head when a school-record 50,831 fans watched the Wildcats' Blue/White scrimmage on April 13. That was more fans than were at many UK home games in 2012.

"Guys around the facility were asking how many they thought (would show up)," quarterback Maxwell Smith said. "I'd hear 25 (thousand), 20, 30. I kept saying I'm expecting 40-plus. They came up big. Fifty. That's awesome."

There are plenty of other questions surrounding the Wildcats, though. Smith, along with sophomores Patrick Towles and Jalen Whitlow competed for the starting quarterback job all spring. Though Whitlow had the strongest performance in the final scrimmage, Kentucky still isn't set at quarterback.

That's not the end of their problems. They need help at linebacker, wide receiver, and in the secondary. Even though the Wildcats' 2013 recruiting class ranked 29th nationally, it was still just 13th in the SEC. Many of those freshmen will be pushed into crucial roles early.

Even the returning players have to adjust to a culture change. UK went 2-10 last year and was winless in the SEC for the first time since 2000. Joker Phillips and his entire coaching staff was let go after the season, clearing the way for Stoops' sweeping changes.

"It's a lot of pressure on us to go out here and prove to ourselves, as well as the fans, that we've improved," middle linebacker Avery Williamson said. "I know we're going to work harder. I'm going to push these guys as well as all the other defensive and offensive guys. We're going to push each other and we're going to grind it out this summer."

There's still plenty of work to be done. Rather than refining techniques, Stoops and his staff had to spend much of spring practice installing their new systems and making adjustments all over the program.

Stoops understands what's ahead of him now, but he's also felt a massive swell of support behind him. It's a steep order, but he'll be able to keep that momentum rolling if he can find as much success this fall as he found this offseason.

"We're a team that's just getting a foundation of who we are," Stoops said. "So we know we have got a long way to go. But they have got the right attitudes and we have a coaching staff that has a great plan and has coached and been around a lot of successful people. We have got a long way to go."

Five questions bout the Wildcats

Biggest thing you learned about Kentucky this spring?

Things are changing in the Bluegrass. If that wasn't evident from the day Stoops was hired, it was evident when 50,831 fans showed up for the spring game. That was a school record, and more than the attendance at several home games in 2012. The football program hasn't seen this kind of interest or momentum since Tim Couch was throwing passes around Commonwealth Stadium.

But there are still plenty of issues to be solved, and they won't all be fixed in Stoops' first year. Kentucky is transitioning to a spread offense and moving from a hybrid 3-4 defense to a 4-3, and both of those changes will take time. The Wildcats won't be contending for the SEC East in 2013, but Stoops can lay the groundwork to help guide the program in the years to come.

Questions Kentucky received answers to this spring?

The offensive line, despite losing a pair of three-year starters inside, might not be in bad shape. Center Matt Smith and guard Larry Warford had been mainstays of the program, and UK is still finding their replacements. Redshirt freshman Zach Myers spent all of spring working with the first team offense at center, and right tackle Kevin Mitchell might move inside to replace Warford. That would allow Jordan Swindle, a rangy 6-7 tackle, to move into the starting lineup.

It also looks like the Wildcats' defensive line adapted well to the shift from a 3-4 to a 4-3. Defensive tackles Mister Cobble and Donte Rumph both return, and while Rumph sustained a shoulder injury in spring, he should be fine for the start of camp. If they fit better in this system - they were initially recruited to a 4-3 - they could be an important anchor to the defense.

Questions still lingering for Kentucky after spring?

Whitlow's performance in the Blue/White game may have helped his case significantly, but there's still no decision at quarterback. Brown said he'd like to name a starter no later than two weeks before the season opener against Western Kentucky on Aug. 31, so the battle could play well into fall camp.

There are also depth issues on both sides of the ball. With only six scholarship wide receivers this spring, the staff will have to find help from the recruiting class to run an up-tempo spread effectively. Linebacker is also thin, and there's no help from the recruiting class on the way. It's going to take time to rebuild a program that fell to 2-10 last year; it's a matter of how long Stoops takes to retool things in Lexington.

Players who stepped up during spring?

Defensive end has never been a position of strength for Kentucky, but they may have found a pair of pass rushers who can produce in the SEC. Stoops and defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot tutored the ACC's top two pass rushers in 2012 in defensive ends Bjoern Werner and Cornellius Carradine, and they like what they see in Za'Darius Smith and Bud Dupree. Smith, a junior college transfer with offers from FSU, Texas and Texas A&M, landed at UK without even seeing the campus when his defensive line coach was hired in Lexington. Dupree is making the move from outside linebacker in the 3-4 to full-time defensive end. Both abused the offensive line in the spring game. With a young secondary behind them, it would help the defense tremendously if Smith and Dupree can generate consistent pressure on quarterbacks.

Players who need to step up heading into the summer?

One of the Wildcats' three quarterbacks could help push himself to the forefront of the race by establishing himself as the locker room leader this summer. Smith has done it before, and he could make himself the favorite in the race again with another strong summer. UK will need playmakers elsewhere on offense, though, and the emergence of a go-to wide receiver could transform the offense. Demarco Robinson has shown explosive ability, and Daryl Collins has played at a high level in spurts. Summer will also be the time for players to adapt to the strength and conditioning program to prepare themselves not just for new roles on the field, but a faster tempo as well.

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