Mark Stoops' third spring practice program concluded yesterday on the Tim Couch practice fields. This iteration felt as if it flew under the wider BBN radar - probably due to the cumulative effects of no spring game in CWS, the basketball team's historic run, and no media updates for 7-9 days as UK went on spring break. The following list contains nine things I think about UK football at the moment. Please keep in mind while reading that I wasn't able to make it down for any of the open practices in order to get my eyes on the team, so everything below is based on media reports. If I were able to see the team in action for myself I may have drawn different conclusions.
The resulting thoughts, nonetheless, are largely optimistic about the upcoming season. I'm not usually that way when it comes to UK football (a tradition - and mantle I gladly assume - around these parts), and that makes me nervous. In any case, the following is my best attempt to shoot straight with you.
1More competition. This had to happen for UK to even have a chance at being more successful. It required a combination of better recruiting and player development. It appears to be happening. The team appear to exist at an ideal environment for those individuals who largely comprise UK's roster - roughly average players, with have ample room to hit their ceiling, provided either equal or near equal competition. They should make each other better, in short. On offense, one sees it at the quarterback, at least three of five linemen, and at every skill position. Defensively, it's all over the secondary, inside linebacker (if Courtney Love is ruled eligible), and along the defensive line. It's not at every position, like the teams competing for SEC titles and major bowls, but UK was missing several starters on Saturday and still put out a better product than last year by most eyewitness accounts.
2Player Development. The coaches develop talent, but especially defensive line coach Jimmy brumbaugh and inside linebacker/defensive coordinator DJ Elliot. Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith improved from 2013 to 2014, as did defensive tackle Mike Douglas and nose tackle Melvin Lewis came out of the gate looking better than nearly all laymen expected. People forget that Josh Forrest is a converted wide receiver who DJ Elliot molded into the team's leading tackler. The latest to draw praise for their improvement include: inside linebacker Ryan Flannigan (started in my view the last two games of 2014), and defensive end Farrington Huguenin. New assistant Andy Buh will have to continue the trend along the defense's front seven for the upcoming season, because he inherited a lot of young guys who will have to player early.
3Opposing Fan Bases Won't Like This Team. I've had the growing sense that Mark Stoops is willing to cross lines of decorum to instill confidence in his players. UK's players don't know the successful years of Rich Brooks - the second 8-5 season culminating in the 2008 Music City Bowl victory over Florida State was a long time ago for any of today's college students - and any attempt to instill the virtues of a program's historical successes in young players is typically bound to go in one ear and out the other. The substitute, which prestigious programs seemingly began employing over a decade ago, is to fill the players with confidence to the point of arrogance. UK dancing on the UofL logo was symptomatic of this approach, in my opinion (Charlie Strong did something similar in his first two seasons at UofL to this outside observer). Stoops is willing to let the players slightly cross the line of respect if it results in them being confident -- the ends justifying the means and all. This won't change and may become even more dramatic this season.
And by the way, if the day comes that a visiting team dances on UK's logo let's all do the right thing and just shrug it off. It raises the stakes which ultimately makes the whole event feel even more worth it in a way that cost us fans very little. If you're an adult who feels challenged by a student-athlete doing some trash-talking then you're doing sports wrong.
4Towles Wins Starting Job. I'll go ahead and predict it. You won't remember this anyway, right? If Towles and Drew Barker had the same level of experience then I could see Barker getting the starting nod if they finished fall camp even since he has more seasons of eligibility; however, Towles has a complete season under his belt at this point, and the draw typically goes to the one with the most experience. I don't see Barker separating himself enough at the early point in his career. Towles' season did not finish strong, but he showed enough promise over the first six or seven games to make usurping him difficult. Barker starting over Towles at this point, also taking into consideration spring practice reports, would be a Jared Lorenzen over Dusty Bonner-esque move, and neither Stoops or Shannon Dawson strike me as that cavalier.
5NFL Draft Presence in 2016. UK will very likely see former players Bud Dupree and Za'darius Smith drafted at the end of this month, but next season I expect that number to double. Melvin Lewis, AJ Stamps, and Josh Forrest are the likeliest candidates at this time. At least one of Jordan Swindle, Corey Johnson, Fred Tiller, Ryan Flannigan, and Patrick Towles will end up in that group as well.
6Offense Will Further Improve. The offense will get even better this season. It previously went from 21 points per game in 2013 to 29 points per game in 2014. This year the offense will probably average between 33-35 points per game, and last season that would have been enough for top five in the SEC. UK probably won't have a top five SEC offense next season due to what other SEC teams are returning, but given the returning starters, and back-ups who saw ample playing time last year, UK will very likely score more points.
7Going Bowling. I don't know what kind of bowl game it will be, but UK very likely makes it to a bowl game next year given returning personnel, positional improvement, and strength of schedule. I don't know if it'll be a prestigious bowl or the Lee's Famous Chicken Bowl in Beaufort, SC but this team seems poised to get six regular season victories. Although the offensive improvement will be drastic to the statistical eye, it'll actually be because of the defense finally taking a moderate leap forward after two seasons of mediocrity that postseason play is achieved.
8Impact of Freshmen. None of the true freshmen will contribute this season outside of tight end CJ Conrad. UK finally has an appropriate roster, and there services won't be needed immediately. That's a good thing and an overall sign of programmatic health.
9Stoops In Lexington. Mark Stoops won't leave after this season even though he'll have a "hot name" and his name will get floated a lot. More than ever, probably. Mitch Barnhardt has made a lot of right moves for UK football lately starting with hiring Stoops, but his best work has come afterwards. He increased assistant salaries to nearly $3 million cumulative (and it's since increased more), and around $45 million has been spent on football specific infrastructure. He also doubled-down on Stoops once after the first season, and again in the second season. Those moves brought the inevitable snark from many corners, but those new deals are a fact of life for a program like UK football, and Barnhardt realizes that.
Having said that, Stoops is extremely unlikely to spend the rest of his career in Lexington despite a being loyal man by nature. One can neither defy gravity nor ignore the laws of college sports. Sooner or later an historically prestigious university will need a head coach, and Stoops will know better than to refuse (let's all hope that Urban Meyer doesn't become "mentally broke" for at least five more years in Columbus).