LEXINGTON, Ky. – With much of the Commonwealth’s eyes focused on tonight’s NCAA Tournament matchup between Kentucky and MIchigan, second-year Kentucky football head coach Mark Stoops
and Co. felt right at home back on the practice fields as the Wildcats held the first of 15 spring practices on Friday morning at the Nutter Field House.
Stoops, who said it was hard to compare this first spring practice to last season’s, did admit that Friday’s two-hour session felt “a lot better” because he believes his team has done what they needed to do in winter conditioning to make Kentucky better.
“Good to be back and good to get out there today and be practicing,” Stoops said. “It has felt like it has been a long winter and we needed that to get bigger and get stronger. It was good to get back out onto the field. Very excited about where we are at. We have improved as a football team, obviously the first things and common mistakes and being sloppy at times (today), but overall we have improved and look a lot better. Good to get out there and see that. I am excited about where we go the rest of the spring.”
As Stoops started talking to local reporters after practice about the increased confidence and camaraderie of his team leading into this spring session, the UK players passed by the interview room on their way in from practice with tons and energy and excitement.
“You can hear them coming into the building right now, their attitude is a lot more lively and I like the tough attitude we have around here,” Stoops laughed.
And although he admits the team is still a work in progress, he was pleased with the team’s energy, confidence and toughness Friday morning.
“I feel that the guys had a good strong attitude out there today, making plays, some good and some bad,” Stoops said. “But we got up and moved on to the next play. I have felt good about the culture and we’ve worked very hard on developing some leadership and some camaraderie.”
One emphasis for Stoops and the coaching staff this offseason was for the players to get bigger, stronger and mentally tougher – three things Stoops said he could already tell were improved after day one. However, Stoops said the Wildcats now have to work on turning the strength and conditioning they gained this winter in the weight room into actually football conditioning.
“I like where we are at physically, we have improved,” Stoops said. “We know we need to continue to work on getting bigger and getting stronger. It was important to me for us to get bigger and stronger. I think today is a day that it takes some time to work into football shape as well. We were a little sluggish out there. Again, I like what I saw, but I also see some things with practice (that need to be corrected). And that is expected with the first day of spring. We need to get in better football shape right now and all that. But overall, we are bigger and stronger and mentally tougher and hopefully we are faster.”
Friday’s practice was the first for Stoops without former UK linebacker Avery Williamson, who was the unquestioned leader of the team last season. The UK head coach said it didn’t hit him that he no longer had the star in the middle of his defense until Friday morning when he started to look at past game film and special team film and realized everything that he was a part of.
“It is hard to replace Avery. Just in there this morning and we were watching (film) and starting with our meetings and special teams meetings and just seeing him up there that is when it probably hit me today. Just how many things he did well and he was such a good football player and such a good leader. He is hard to replace and we need to move on. We will move around and look at some different options in there. I can’t say one person is going to take over that role right now, it is by committee right now.”
One storyline entering spring practices is the addition of seven early enrollees of UK’s 2014 signing class. Stoops said the team has done a great job of accepting the new players and he feels good about the early enrollees helping the team. Stoops said having the players enroll early not only helps the competition in practice, but will help the players’ chances of playing time this fall.
“It helps a great deal and I think with early playing time it certainly helps,” Stoops said. “Just getting here and going through things and winter conditioning and then the 15 spring practices helps give them a head start heading into the summer. If they are going to have a chance to play it benefits them getting here early, especially the junior college players that really helps having them here mid-year.”
Stoops, who will watch practice film the rest of the day before flying up to Indianapolis to watch the Kentucky men’s basketball NCAA Tournament game, ended his news conference Friday by wishing Coach John Calipari and Coach Matthew Mitchell good luck this weekend.