This has turned into arguably the biggest week of the 2019 Kentucky Football season.
A big part of that is more than just a game, however, as this Saturday will be when UK pays tribute to the late Jared Lorenzen with the first-ever ‘Jared Lorenzen Day’ at Kroger Field.
Honoring one of the program’s all-time greats after he tragically passed away this year is the primary focus this week. But UK is also in desperate need of a win following a three-game losing streak that’s put their season on the brink in just the second week of October.
A big part of that losing skid is the quarterback situation going from a strength entering the season to now being a major liability, as injuries to Terry Wilson and Sawyer Smith have effectively crippled the offense.
Wilson is out for the year with a knee injury, while Smith is battling wrist and shoulder injuries that made it a daunting task to simply complete a forward pass. The hope is Smith will be healthy enough to be as effective as the guy we saw against Eastern Michigan and the first three quarters vs. Florida.
But if not, UK seems prepared to give wide receiver Lynn Bowden a chance to run this offense when the Razorbacks come to town this weekend.
On Monday, head coach Mark Stoops met with the media to preview the week ahead. Here is a recap of everything he had to say via UK Athletics:
MARK STOOPS: I’ll get started. It’s good to be back. Good to be back off the bye. As I mentioned a week ago or so, we needed that time, needed that time to heal up, continue to work, work on us first and foremost, try to improve in certain areas, continue to build on the good things we are doing. Definitely needed the rest for quite a few of our players, so that was a good thing.
Also get ahead on Arkansas last week and give our coaches a chance to get out and recruit a little bit.
Excited about this opportunity, really good to be home, it’s been awhile. It will be close to a month by the time we play with the two aways, a bye, and then getting back at home. So I’m excited to get back in Kroger Field, play in front of our home fans. And it’s a special day, it’s a special week to remember Jared Lorenzen, and we’re proud to honor him this week. One of the most beloved and iconic players to ever play at the University of Kentucky and it will be an honor for us to recognize him and recognize his family this week. So, just more incentive for us and for our team.
Our team is going to be hungry to play this game. It’s been a tough stretch, but this gave us an opportunity to hit the reset button, kind of reload, and get ready for this next phase of the season.
Q. re: status of Sawyer Smith
MARK STOOPS: So he took a solid week off, and he needed that. And the word I got from our trainer here this morning was that he feels significantly better. So that will be the plan. We’ll see. I’m not trying to withhold any information on you guys. It just is what it is. He’s banged up, you guys know that. You know the other options that we have been working and but we’ll proceed with Sawyer, and anticipate him being the starting quarterback and being able to play this week. So that’s the plan and we’ll see how the week goes.
Q. re: Smith’s third injury
MARK STOOPS: No, it was lower extremity, but he’s feeling better with that.
Q. re: opportunity to get out and recruit
MARK STOOPS: It’s really, yeah, it’s good. It’s good for us to get on the road, to continue to get in front of the prospects that we have committed, to continue to recruit and put the finishing touches on this class. And it’s important, as you know, this, in my eyes, we have an opportunity to have one of the most significant classes in, certainly in my tenure. I can’t go back into the history of this place, but in my time here this can be a very impressive group.
Q. Arkansas played pretty well against Texas A&M. They were able to move the ball up-and-down the field. Is there a difference with the quarterback playing or what were they doing?
MARK STOOPS: Yeah, I was impressed with that game. We were obviously waiting, that was during the day while we were at South Carolina, because I knew I saw some of it live, and then obviously watching it on film this week.
But it was impressive, just watching it on TV, bouncing around watching a few games for what little time I was able to watch it. Certainly impressive. And watching them on tape, they played really well. They played good on both sides. I think you all know what type of team Texas A&M is. And Arkansas had every opportunity to win that game. So you know they are putting it together. I have great respect for Coach (Chad) Morris, he’s a heck of a coach. There’s no doubt they’re doing the right things on both sides of the ball, They have Coach Morris on the offensive line and philosophy that he has. And Coach (John) Chavis on the other side. They have some very good coaches that are working very hard and they’re very close to putting it all together. That was evident watching the Texas A&M game. And they had a chance to have the week off and regroup and kind of put a plan together as well. So you know it’s going to be a great challenge.
Q. You haven’t played them since you’ve been here. What’s it like, it’s a conference game, but there’s no familiarity there?
MARK STOOPS: Yeah, it is very different and unique. I go back with Coach Bielema, Bret and I are friends, and we knew each other for a long time. So I remember looking at the schedule and not having them on there, I don’t know what happened. Y’all probably know better than me. Early on when I got here, with the schedule and somehow we ended up playing, I think the only team on the West we have played twice since I’ve been here was Alabama. But we’ve never played Arkansas, so this will be the first time and so there is no familiarity. But it is what it is. We do that all the time. We play teams that we’re not familiar with and maybe haven’t played, whether it’s out of conference or any of that, but it is new. It’s new. We don’t know their personnel as much and don’t know them. Of course, Coach Smith, Michael Smith was there with Bielema and can fill us in a bit on personnel. But obviously the roster’s turned over quite a bit as well.
Q. Every year there are one or two games that are season defining. Do you characterize this upcoming game as make, or more important, break game?
MARK STOOPS: No, I’ll leave that to y’all. I haven’t heard for awhile, because it was kind of comical to me, about how every game was a make or break for me. I was like, what game isn’t? (Laughter) You know what I mean? I think that’s all I heard for six years every week in here. So it’s, actually, I had to chuckle inside because every game’s important to us, and I don’t mean any disrespect by that answer. It’s just we, as coaches, I don’t care who we’re playing, what we’re doing, the way we lead up to a game, the way we prepare, all that is really most important to me. The results are the results. We all want to win, but things happen in games that you can’t predict. That’s why everybody loves watching it.
But the preparation and how we go about it and everything, it’s all important. This game is important. Sure, I think just common sense the way we haven’t played very good and the way we have had some losses, yeah, it’s important to me. It’s the next game, it’s at home, it’s a conference game, so it’s important.
Q. re: getting a look at younger/more inexperienced players last week
MARK STOOPS: We watched a lot of guys. A lot of guys got reps last week. We went back to some of the camp process and just worked everybody in front of us, in front of all the coaches and worked everybody and tried to develop guys and get them ready. So we’ll see. I’m not ready to tell you anything right now as far as who may play or may not.
But, again, we have four opportunities with some of the guys that are redshirting to play. If they can help, we will. Also, it’s a way that if they’re ready, if they’re ready to contribute and get out there and function, then that could help their progress as well. We’ll take a look at that.
Q. How are Jordan Griffin and Phil Hoskins?
MARK STOOPS: Jordan is better. Jordan was out there last week and looks pretty close to a hundred percent. That will help us and get the opportunity to get some depth back in the secondary.
Phil is still not quite there. We’ll see today. Last week he was out, he was running, he was able to go through some more rehab, it’s more intense rehab, but wasn’t out there in team activities.
Q. re: Isaiah Epps recovery
MARK STOOPS: He, we tried with him and wasn’t quite ready.
Q. With Jordan particularly down there, is he somebody that is filling that leadership void a little bit for you?
MARK STOOPS: Yeah, I think with Jordan, and Yusuf (Corker), he’s a guy that’s getting more and more comfortable, getting more and more confident, has been pretty steady. I think he’s a guy in this secondary that’s stepping up and been very reliable. And Quandre (Mosely) is getting more and more comfortable with every opportunity and every rep (repetition) as well.
Q. Is there any difference in the kind of styles that Nick Starkel and Ben Hicks present?
MARK STOOPS: Not really. They’re both good players. I think that, obviously different like any individual, but they’re both good. They both have experience and both good players, not, really nothing changes in their offense. So to me they both looked really good at times and did some really special things, so we’ll see where they go.
Q. Lynn Bowden hasn’t pulled any punches about his desire to want to play quarterback. On one hand, you’ve got to love his passion for wanting to do that, but on the other hand, does he convince you in a way that to put him in?
MARK STOOPS: Well, any great player wants the game to go through him and the ball to go through him, so what better way than quarterback? You touch it every snap. So that doesn’t surprise me. Any playmaker wants the ball and wants the game to go through him. But, no, we constantly rely on our players on what they’re comfortable with, what they’re confident in and things we’re doing well, things of that nature. We always take those type of things into consideration.
Q. Depending upon the way things go, who is your backup at punt returner?
MARK STOOPS: We have a couple guys that can do it. In (freshman) Travis Tisdale, we have some room for him. We have four games that we could play with him that we could put back there as well. So, and then Josh Ali has been very reliable as well. Maybe Tisdale might be more of kick (kickoff) return, if we needed him for a game or two or whatever was out there. But Josh has been good.
Q. Going in the season your offensive line and defensive line would be among your strengths. How do you think they’ve played to this point?
MARK STOOPS: I think it’s been a lot like our team and been inconsistent. At times they have done some really good things. We have higher expectations on both groups and want more consistency out of them.
Q. Throughout the season you described your secondary as being okay, and things along that line, but how do you evaluate them at this point with all the injuries and being banged up?
MARK STOOPS: In the secondary?
MARK STOOPS: Again, as I mentioned, I do think they’re getting better and that doesn’t surprise me, with experience, and all these, the game reps and the practice reps and seeing the good things they have done and the mistakes, and you always learn from them. So nothing I haven’t been prepared for. Nothing that’s been a great surprise. You know that mistakes are going to happen, you know that inexperience is going to pop up at times, you just have to have the ability to overcome that.
Q. You mentioned the tribute to Jared Lorenzen. Players, they obviously aren’t real, real familiar with his legacy. Have you, as a coaching staff, have you all made a point to kind of let them know the significance of it?
MARK STOOPS: Yeah, that’s a great point. I was just talking with Susan and Tony about that. And everybody, they’re working on some things to put together for me to show them some highlights and to talk about Jared. And they even mentioned to them and trying to find the right opportunity this weekend when they’re in town -- I know they have some activities planned on Friday -- but I would sure like to bring them and introduce them to the team and talk to his son and daughter and his mom and dad and just let them know that we’re thinking about them and recognize them and really want to play well for him. So, yes, they (the players) will be shown some film and they will be, it will be discussed throughout the week.
Q. What does it say about Kentucky football when a player like Jared, he didn’t win a lot, he put up some good numbers and people really liked him and he had a personality connection with people, that he left such an impact without the necessarily the success on the field. What does it say about a guy like that and kind of what he meant to the program?
MARK STOOPS: Well, as I mentioned, I think it’s, first of all, it’s hard not to like Jared as a football player and as a person. What little I knew of him, you really liked him personally. And again, I don’t pretend to have a best friend relationship with him. But what I did know of him I really liked. He’s a beloved player here and rightfully so. I think because any player, you’re going to have respect for if they go out there and lay it on the line for your team week-in and week-out. And I think any time you go back and watch any of his films and see the things that he’s done, and trying to put the weight of the team on his shoulders and running it, passing, spinning around, tossing it, any which way to make plays for his team, it’s hard not to admire that. I think that’s what everybody remembers. Again, I think our team, we really try to exemplify that a little bit by playing the game the right way, respecting the game, playing it hard, laying it on the line, doing the best you can. There’s a great example of the results are the results. But it still doesn’t diminish anything by the way he played and the way he represented the university and I think we all try to do that the right way.
Q. Knowing what you said about the history with Jared and not having quite the history and what you know about him. What has impressed you the most about him, something that you’ll never forget, an anecdote story, what have you, something along that line?
MARK STOOPS: Well, I don’t know if I would be the right person to discuss that. I just think that you look at him, you admire him, you watch some of these highlights that are popping up and that will pop up throughout this week, and some of the highlights I’ll show the team. And you can’t help but put a smile on your face and a little chuckle because it’s like, how did he just do that? I guess that would be some things that come to mind with me.
Q. Is there a guy on your team that reminds you, maybe not even just personality-wise, but --
MARK STOOPS: Yeah, I don’t think that’s fair. (laughter) I don’t think that’s fair. I don’t think that’s a fair assessment. He’s one-of-a-kind.
Q. I think we all appreciate the mental and physical toughness of Sawyer Smith. Is there going to be a point if he does start the game, he does get in the game, are you going to trust his judgment to say, I’m okay, I’m okay, or is it going to be a judgment call by the coaching staff to pull him if you see that he’s hurt?
MARK STOOPS: Yeah, I think we all have to be very conscious of that. Yes, you have to be very in tune to that, we have to see how he’s playing, how he feels physically. That will be determined through this week, and what kind of shots or what happens in game. So, yes, I think we’ll be very aware of that, try to manage it as best we can.
Q. How does he feel, just in terms of his psyche? It hasn’t gone very well and he’s taken a real beating. How is he holding up?
MARK STOOPS: He’s holding up just fine. He’s a resilient young man. Really important for him to do the best he can and to help his team. Obviously, as I just mentioned, we will obviously monitor him very, very closely to make sure we don’t put him in harm’s way. And it’s a long season and we need him back, and we need him back healthy and playing like he did early on, like he did in the Florida game. And he was very impressive and we got to just make sure he’s able to physically do that.
Q. re: Jamin Davis
MARK STOOPS: We wanted to give him some opportunities. We have been working him. Jamin is a guy that is versatile, plays inside and he can play outside. So in certain packages, in the nickel package he gives us the ability to rush outside. He’s got good length and good athleticism. But we also need him, and he’s starting to play back kind of like we expected him to. You heard me brag a lot about him in the spring and through this camp. I think he’s starting to play at a high level where we need him to and we’re excited about him because he is just, he brings us some length and some athleticism, he brings us depth inside, and he gives us another guy with the ability to rush some on the edge.
Q. re: possibility of Xavier Peters getting more playing time
MARK STOOPS: Well, I think Xavier, with the time, with the time practicing last week, with the time getting in, getting more and more reps, it just naturally gets comfortable, you get better. And again, we don’t need to force any of that. We need as many good players as we can to help us win games when they can. Obviously we all have a great sense of urgency to push players as best they can when they’re ready. And I think he’s progressing. No player needs any extra pressure on them on when and where and how they can help. When they can help, they will. And he’s working hard and getting better.
Q. Your years as a defensive coordinator and a head coach, who is the best big quarterback you’ve ever faced?
MARK STOOPS: Big quarterback?
Q. Yeah, somebody who maybe people thought was too big to play quarterback.
MARK STOOPS: Oh, yeah. Hmm, that’s a good question. I could go back to very, there’s quite a few that were very aggravating (laughter). I can think back to Russell Wilson and, you know, how difficult he was. He did some things that just shook my head at times and that was tough.
But there’s been a lot of good ones. I would have to think about that. Some big guys that were hard to get down. Jacoby Brissett, who played last night (for Indianapolis), is a guy that is bigger and stronger than people think. Kind of one of those guys, he’s hard to get down. He’s a big dude. And he was a pretty good player too.
Q. You went against Jameis (Winston) when he was on the scout team, right?
MARK STOOPS: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, well, I had some pretty good animals chasing him around. (Laughter.) Yeah. So those guys kind of, they tracked him down pretty good. Yeah, but I could just blow the whistle then (laughter).
Q. During basketball media days John Calipari said that the 10 years that he’s been coaching at Kentucky he had never once has looked at a single post on social media. I noticed you’re a little bit more sensitive and keyed in to fan chatter.
MARK STOOPS: Oh, I am? Give me an example of that (laughter).
Q. First of all, do you believe --
MARK STOOPS: Wait, wait, wait, give me an example of that. You may say that in fairness to questions, maybe. Maybe get my hair on my neck and you may feel that in here. Never in social media.
Q. So seriously --
MARK STOOPS: How do you even know I have it? How do you even know I have it? I mean, my people run that. (laughter)
Q. How much do you pay attention to that?
MARK STOOPS: Zero. Zero. Zero. Zero. Now y’all piss me off. (laughter) I’m kidding. I’m teasing. I’m teasing.
Q. re: how much it helps to have four inside linebackers who can contribute
MARK STOOPS: It helps. It helps. There’s times -- so the four inside backers, it’s really important, those guys, they get beat up, it’s a physical game. There are times in games when those inside guys may go through it and feel really good and they will want to, they want to continue to play because the way it’s going and they’re feeling things, reading things, and even the experience within game is experience, is important.
But then there’s times when it’s, you know, the physicality of a game, it’s taking its toll and it’s counterproductive. So that’s where it is important with the experience of players to know when they need a break and when they do not. We want to do that. But it also helps develop your football team for the future and as the season goes on. So a good rotation is healthy and it’s important.
Q. To go back to the offensive line for a minute, I know you struggled some on third and ones, kind of plays. Is there anything that’s particularly key to those struggles -- converting short yardage situations.
MARK STOOPS: Well, again, it’s hard to go back. We moved on. You have to learn from every opportunity. And there’s been a combination of things. I think you know I mentioned there was an assignment here or there that kind of is glaring to all of us and it doesn’t go away easy.
And then there’s times when I think early on even, even in the first two games when we mentioned where runs can be a little more patient and you learn from the experience of that. And there’s times when the offensive line needs to just get better movement. There’s times where scheme, we can do better as coaches putting them in better position. So it’s all the above. We all need to accept that criticism and need to make sure we’re doing the best that we can to put them in a position to be successful. So everybody has to take their part in that. I think it’s a combination of things. I can’t think of any one thing. There’s been a couple where we come up three inches short and things of that nature.
Q. re: Chris Oats
MARK STOOPS: Chris is doing some really good things and we still love his ceiling. He’s going to be a really good football player and needs to continue to get better. There’s things he needs to work on. Again, you asked me specifically about him and so I’ll answer you. But it goes across the board. There’s a lot of things that a lot of players need to get better at, and we all need to get better, and it starts with me on down. Everybody accepts it and looks at it. But there’s things where his footwork and his leverage, where he’s got to play lower. He’s big, he’s long. And reading things and having proper footwork, playing with leverage, playing things tighter, there’s things he can be cleaner. Again, so can a lot of our players. There’s other things he does extremely well, where he runs and get him in open grass and he can run and cover some ground, he’s so long and he’s athletic. So he’s a second-year player, he’s five games into his true sophomore year. He’s going to be a very, very good football player. Needs to fundamentally and consciously think about things about getting better every day. And if he does that and he’s always got a great attitude and he’s going to have a great career.