UK has reached the point where they have the pieces in place to play competitive football; we no longer have to put ourselves into Alice in Wonderland to imagine a successful season. Coaches, players, facilities have finally reached SEC level. This is not to say we will contend for the SEC title or even make a bowl game, but we have the potential for having a season to remember for the first time in a coon's age.
First, a little history. The yearly Irrational Exuberance has been my prelude to the UK football season since the 2009 season and was always a tongue in cheek piece claiming outlandish seasons to raise the spirits.
Why? The regular season was around the corner, and we all know UK football fans ended up with their hearts ripped out and stomped on by the end of the year.
At the time, Brooks had taken the team to about as high as it could go. A lesser bowl and a 7 - 5 record was just about the pinnacle of what could be expected. The level of player UK could recruit due to facilities, history and administration support was not going to lead to a team capable of competing week in and week out then reach an upper bowl. Getting to any bowl was somewhat evidence of Divine Intervention.
Then in 2010 the Joker Experiment began which called for even more departure from reality to head into the season on a positive note; hallucinogens were almost mandatory to reach that preseason euphoria. The less said and remembered from that meltdown, the better. It was, arguably, the nadir of UK football and that is saying something.
And then came Stoops. UK found a coach (or he found us) that actually wanted the job and had a plan (please don't say process). Once his ID and sanity was checked, Irrational Exuberance was still required as UK still had a MAC roster with an SEC schedule, a really ugly combination and it showed; 2 -10.
Ouch. IE continued on for the next two seasons because we still were a young, inexperienced team with a head coach still finding his footing, staffing and direction. Progress was being made with a newly renovated stadium, a staff not afraid to recruit top players, high caliber players actually coming into the system and flashes of competitive play.
That brings us to the 2016 year. The time for Irrational Exuberance is over. Gone are the days of "Hope we can beat Vanderbilt to get a conference win", "Hope we don't get beat by more than 30"(Bama excluded), "Hope we remember to put our helmets on the right way," etc. Stoops has approached each year with a positive attitude but this year is setting up differently.
Unlike years past, we don't need to be irrational to be exuberant; there are tangible improvements to bolster our optimism. Sure, the stadium improvements and new training facilities are nice and give a boost to the team, but this team has fundamental improvements from versions ‘14 and ‘15.
First off, Head Coach. Everyone knows this is Stoops first head coaching gig, and it is remarkable he has handled it as well as he has. The first year or so he appeared totally overwhelmed by the job as he found himself now in charge of everything - recruiting, game planning, appeasing alums, finding bodies to play, stadium renovation, training center planning, staffing, point man to the press; the list must have seemed endless.
And he certainly had some growing pains both on and off the field. Off the field his staff has had quite a bit of turnover with the revolving door of Offensive Coordinators, the departure of some good position coaches (ie. Peveto, Ansley) and hiring missteps (i.e.,. ass-backwards hat, Dawson).
And on the field there have been times when the team looked absolutely lost on offense, defense and special teams with delay of game penalties, wrong players on the field, bad time outs, head scratching play calling, you name it; at times it looked like a remake of a Keystone Kops episode; just embarrassing.
With three years under his belt, the stadium and practice facilities complete and simply going through the head coaching cycle for three years he is finally acclimated to the job. Even this year at SEC media days he didn't have that deer in the headlights stare. Now if he could be scheduled on a non-Nick Saban day......
An improving Stoops is not the only uptick in coaching. No anticipated improvement of the team can be made without looking at the hiring of Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw from Cincinnati. Complement that with the hiring of Lamar Thomas for our receivers and now there is proven experience guiding the offense, the importance of that cannot be understated.
Between the three they have proven they can can install a successful offense, balance the run and pass, utilize a tight end, improve receivers and develop a quarterback. It's taken three tries but it appears UK finally has offensive direction by a capable, experienced staff. I know, it sounds too good to be true. This group knows where to take the offense and how to get there.
Under Dawson, and to some extent under Brown, there seemed to be a lack of identity of the offense and evidence of player development was murky at best; though Brown didn't have the players afforded Dawson. In addition to the general woes of the offense last year there was the persistent rumor of a rift among the offensive personnel.
Simply put, Gran won't put up with that shit, the team knows it and any player not on board does so at his own peril. To a man, every offensive player is excited about the change and is on board.
Depth. Yes, DEPTH! UK actually enters a season with a depth of talent at multiple positions. Certainly, the defensive line and linebackers are frightfully thin but for the first time since the ice age the words "depth of" and "UK Football" can be mentioned together without the word "despair."
On offense, the left tackle is still being settled with several good options but the rest of the line is set with at least two deep at every position that's not the UK football we've come to know. Receiver depth? Holy Moly we're stacked. After returning all but one receiver plus the addition of last year's redshirts and some freshmen the Wildcats have 19 wide receivers on the roster (not including tight ends that can give defenses nightmares)!
If someone gets a case of the dropsies, the cure will be sitting on the bench eager to come in. It's going to be a story in itself to see what heroes rise out of a deep, hungry receiving corps. Running backs is another area that Stoops has done well to stock deeply.
The SEC is brutal to backs, and you need a stable to get through the season. With Boom, Jojo, Mikel, Sihiem and, according to practice reports, Bennie Snell, we go into the season sitting pretty. On offense, perhaps the only position of concern would be at quarterback.
If Barker goes down, can Johnson or other backups step in to run the offense? That's an unknown, but again Coach Gran has that experience and knew when he accepted the position he needed depth at QB hence the signing of Stephen Johnson. Again, perhaps my faith is misplaced, but Gran/Hinshaw have the experience to scale and fit an offensive plan to complement whoever is taking the snaps and put the team in a position to succeed.
Speaking of quarterback, this is another area where the ‘16 team one-ups the previous years. For the first time under Stoops, UK named a starter coming out of the spring game rather than vacillating up until a week before the season to make such a crucial decision. With a starter in place the offense had an off season leader and someone ready to take the reins immediately when fall practice began.
Coach Gran leaves no room for dissent in his decision, it's the law and players either get on board with Barker or watch the season from the sideline. By taking the lion's share of reps with the ones Barker now has more opportunity to get on the same page with his teammates and vice versa well before the season begins. Not evenly splitting reps among 2 or 3 possible starters gives Barker much more opportunity to lead the offense.
When we look at the other side of the ball, we might need a bit of the irrational thinking to believe great things will happen on defense. Obviously, this doesn't include the secondary as we saw last year the emergence of young stars and more have jumped in to provide the necessary depth. The loss of Darius West would have been cataclysmic for previous UK teams but can be taken in stride due to depth.
Can you imagine the loss of A.J. Stamps in Stoops first year? So the secondary is in good shape but let's face it, the trenches are a mess, and the linebacking corps is not much better. On paper UK has 17 linebackers on its roster; but, (there's always a but) of the 17 five are true freshman, three are redshirt freshman, there're a redshirt sophomore, six sophomores, and two juniors.
Collectively, they represent a whopping 15 tackles from last year's 284 tackles by linebackers. Young, young and more young. Transfer Courtney Love needs to make an immediate impact. And it's much the same story for defensive ends and the big uglies down front.
Outside of Ware (DE), Elam (DT), Miggins (DT) and Middleton (DT), no one else has made a tackle in a UK uniform. Stoops/Eliot are looking to transfer Alvonte Bell for help but with only of 4 DEs, 2 DLs(freshmen) and 9 DTs on the roster, depth doesn't exist from the start nor does experience.
Early in the season could be a nightmare at run stopping. Matt Elam better be ready for a busy season because he is key to anchoring any semblance of stopping the run. As time goes by I'm guessing Stoops may decide fewer wide receivers and linebackers would enable a larger presence of DTs and DEs; but quality players at those positions are hard to find for any coach.
In the meantime, if ever there was a year for Stoops' defensive genius to shine, this is it. From his practice presser on 8/15: "...So we're getting creative and doing some different things. We'll be fine." Okay, the ball is in your court, coach.
Bottom line? Kentucky heads into the season looking more like an SEC team than any time in the recent past. Finally, we have come to a season where UK has the depth and talent to be competitive with anyone they meet. The parts are in place - coaches, players, depth(mostly), attitude, schemes, size, speed, and facilities.
A continuing question above any other is how will the team react to adversity to play four quarters, 12 games and not wilt under the pressure of turnovers, bad calls, and broken plays? At the end of the season, I want to look back with satisfaction that the team took a giant stride forward.
Not reaching a bowl would be gut-wrenching for fans, players, and coaches but in the bigger scheme of things UK is posed to move forward which should create a high level of exuberance in any fan - rationally.
C.J. Conrad - "It's just different this year."