As Kentucky opened its spring football practice back on March 6, Mark Stoops said this about 2022:
“There were probably things I could’ve done better, going all the way back to last winter. I’m not going to let that happen again.”
So far, the UK coach is a man of his word.
Last Saturday, Stoops was stewing after his team’s scrimmage. He talked of entitlement, of players not working hard enough, of some players thinking all they had to do was show up, of a lack of leadership.
“Let’s get back to playing with a chip on our shoulder,” he said.
After all, last season did not go well. Yes, Kentucky finished 7-6. It went to its seventh straight bowl game. It was 3-5 in the SEC, however. It lost at home to South Carolina. It lost at home to Vanderbilt. It was blanked 21-0 by Iowa in the Music City Bowl.
All along, Stoops harbored the feeling there was some slippage a season ago. He had spent a good part of the offseason and preseason worrying about and campaigning for NIL funds. His offensive coordinator hire didn’t work out. A four-game suspension of Chris Rodriguez, his best running back, clouded the first third of the season. An injury to his NFL-ready quarterback Will Levis affected the final two-thirds.
More than that, there was the sense that the Cats had strayed from the personality that had served them well, one of being a tough, physical football team. Offensive line play suffered. The rushing attack nose-dived to 107th out of 131 FBS teams in yards per game.
“Playing the game physically,” said offensive coordinator Liam Coen after Tuesday morning’s practice. “That’s what this brand of football that we play here at Kentucky is supposed to be: physical.”
After all, it’s not like their conference competitors are, as Stoops likes to say, interested in taking a step backward.
Georgia is the two-time defending national champion. And though the Bulldogs have lost a ridiculous amount of talent over the last two years, Kirby Smart continues to recruit at a ridiculously high level. “No coach can out-coach recruiting,” the Georgia coach likes to say.
Tennessee went 11-2 last season, with a 44-6 drubbing of Kentucky and a 31-14 victory over Clemson in the Orange Bowl. Coach Josh Heupel has the Big Orange dreaming big again.
South Carolina closed out the regular season with back-to-back wins over Tennessee and Clemson before losing 45-38 to Notre Dame in an exciting Gator Bowl. Florida figures to improve under second-year coach Billy Napier. Eli Drinkwitz is looking for a breakthrough after going 12-14 in his first two seasons at Missouri. Vanderbilt won a pair of SEC games for the first time since 2018.
Never mind the SEC West, where the likes of Alabama, LSU and Ole Miss reside. All three were in ESPN’s way-too-early Top 25 for 2023. Alabama was at No. 5, followed by LSU at No. 8 and Ole Miss at No. 20.
Come 2024, Texas and Oklahoma join the party. Texas is fifth in all-time college football victories. Oklahoma is sixth. Their addition is likely to give the SEC the excuse needed to scrap its divisional format and push ahead to a nine-game league schedule, the latter being a development that Kentucky opposes.
In other words, it’s not going to get any easier.
Right now, all Kentucky football can worry about is Kentucky football. That’s where spring practice plays a role.
“We always talk about spring being about development, whereas training camp is really competition because you’re getting ready to go play a game,” Coen said Tuesday. “Luckily for us right now, we’re not getting ready to go play a game. It allows us time to develop these kids in terms of both obviously on the field but also off the field.”
It also allows time to re-establish the mindset Stoops wants, one that brands Kentucky as a tough, physical football team that plays with a chip on its shoulder.
If the coach can do that, then this spring will have been a success.