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Mark Stoops talks Tennessee, Florida State speculation & more

Stoops is zeroed in on the Vols amid speculation he’ll be a candidate for the FSU opening.

Jason Marcum - Sea of Blue

The Kentucky Wildcats begin their final four-game stretch of the regular season when the Tennessee Volunteers come to Kroger Field this Saturday.

On Monday, head coach Mark Stoops met with the media to discuss the game and the latest news around his team. Stoops also commented on speculation that he’ll be a candidate for the Florida State opening, saying he’s “100” focused on the Vols right now.

Here is a recap of everything he had to say via UK Athletics.

Opening Statement …

“Looking forward to getting back out there this week, after the bye week. We need to have a solid week of preparation for Tennessee, a team that is playing really good, winning three out of their last four. So, we need to have a good solid week of preparation. I like the way our team is going about their business. We had a good week last week, had an opportunity to get healed up a bit, get ahead on Tennessee. So, it was a good solid week and anxious to get back out there, get back out for the home crowd this week.”

On speculation he is a candidate for the Florida State job …

“It is something that you don’t really want to address in-season. It’s better than the alternative. For us and myself, it is 100 percent concentration on Tennessee. That is all I want and want our team to focus on. That’s all you can do. With success, you are going to have some of that. For me, sitting around here this is six and a half years and you listen to Coach Cal (John Calipari) and every year he is going to the NBA, right? (laughter) So, you just dismiss it and concentrate on the things that you can control. I am not going to get into speculation. I am going to talk about the University of Kentucky and Tennessee.”

On which of the players benefited most by the bye …

“I think all of our guys did. I think Lynn (Bowden) is a guy that handles things so well physically, but playing quarterback mentally, it’s very taxing on him. He’s done a lot, he’s taken a lot of hits. So I think it was good for Lynn, but (also for) all of our players. It is always good to continue to work with our young guys in the class that’s getting redshirted, so had a good solid week with those guys. Continue to build on the good things that we are doing, maybe areas where we are falling short look to improve, develop these guys, get ahead on Tennessee and do some recruiting. So it was a good solid week.”

On the difference of this bye week compared to the previous one …

“No, we didn’t see much different. To us, once we got back to work last week, we gave them Monday off which was good for them. We had a couple tough games, obviously, through that stretch and they had a day off on Monday and then we got back and had some good solid practices the rest of the week.”

On going up against Jauan Jennings

“Jauan, impressive player, just a dynamic playmaker. He and the other receivers on their team, they are big and they are strong and make plays. He is a real difference-maker, you have to know where he is at all the time.”

On Tennessee’s defense coached by former Stoops assistant Derrick Ansley …

“Derrick is a really great coach, doesn’t surprise me that his unit is getting better and better as the year is going on. You can see them playing extremely hard, competitive, very sound in what they are doing. Derrick is doing a good job and playing better and better as the season has gone on there.”

On the team looking at bowl eligibility …

“We really don’t look at it like that. For us, the way the season was segmented with the byes in there, we did talk about the break, just getting freshened up and get away from it for a minute, healing up mentally, decompressing for a moment, but when we come back today, ready to go. We look at it as the last stretch here with the four games and we’re worried about going 1-0, that is the big message for us. Let’s put everything into it and go 1-0 this week. The six games or anything, we don’t even really acknowledge that. We want to win a lot more than six.”

On maintaining momentum after the bye week …

“It is what it is. As I mentioned, we have no control over it once you get into the season where the byes are, and after the first one, we weren’t playing very good going into the first one, and we needed that bye and needed to get healed up. That’s for sure. We were kind of banged up and trying to create the identity of this team and where we were going at quarterback and those things. Then after this last one, we probably played as good of football as we’ve played all year. Played extremely well against Missouri in all phases. You have to continue to build on the good things that we did in that game and others, so it is what it is. We approached it very similar to we did the first one because coming off the bye, I thought we came back and played pretty good. We came back after the bye and had the win and thought our team played well, so I thought we managed the bye week appropriately, so kind of went about it the same way.”

On Tennessee’s success stopping the run as of late and if Sawyer (Smith) will play more because of that …

“I’m not sure. We’ll see where it goes. We’ll see where the preparation goes this week. I think getting Sawyer back another week to prepare, I think he’s getting closer and closer, knocking off all that rust. His arm looked stronger toward the end of last week, so hopefully, he’ll come out there this week and look really fresh and look good, so we’ll see where it goes.”

On the team realizing the importance of the Tennessee game for fans …

“I think they do. They do. They feel the energy of our fan base, and it’ll be nice to be at home and have a great crowd and play well at home. That’s our focus, but we will touch on that a bit. We won’t overdo it, but I will talk to them about that.”

On last year’s loss playing an impact on preparation this year …

“I think it always does. We don’t go back much with streaks and things of that nature like y’all like to do, but we do go back to a year ago just because it’s recent film against a common opponent.”

On learning from last year’s loss against Tennessee …

“I don’t really want to go back there. I beat myself up long enough about that a year ago, so we’re on to this year, but definitely, you need to learn each and every time you get an opportunity to learn and grow, you have to use that as well.”

On the possibility of Phil Hoskins returning this year …

“Well, I’m not sure with Phil. He really had some setbacks with that knee and with the surgery, and he hasn’t been 100 percent, so we will see. We may explore the possibility of trying to get his sixth year, so I’m not positive on that. I don’t think there’s any guarantee on that, so we’re trying to manage that right now and get as much information as we can and see how his knee responds the last four games here, but he hasn’t been cleared to this point. We’ll see where that goes, and if that happened, that would be pretty good for us, as we spend some time in the last week just with time and with recruiting and looking at our roster, does excite me. I mentioned that a while ago, next year’s senior class will have about 19 guys depending on maybe a little attrition if some guys leave early or maybe one in there or two. We’ll see. Really strong group, and again, much like a year ago where there’s a bunch of them and they all play. Then you look at the sophomore class which we’ll be juniors, you have 19 that will be in the senior class, you have 18 that will be in the junior class, and they’re all players. They all help, whether its special teams or in the two-deep and so that kind of excites me, especially if you have the opportunity to get a guy like Phil back.”

On how missing the first two games would affect Phil’s chances to get a sixth year …

“I don’t know. He was injured, he’s injured now, so I’m not sure.”

On if Isaiah Epps’ situation is similar to Phil’s …

“We’ll look at it. Isaiah has another year, so we’ll see.”

On Kash Daniel’s availability this week …

“Yes, he’s expected to return.”

On Ahmad Wagner …

“Ahmad’s doing okay as well.”

On Chris Oats’ play against Missouri and extending his playing time …

“We need to rotate the three of them (inside linebackers Oats, Daniel and DeAndre Square) anyway, there’s equal. Playing that position and swinging them back between Mike and Will, we can play the three of them and get equal reps with all three guys. That position is pretty physical, so you need them as well, we really need a fourth, and we’ll continue to bring that along too. Jamin (Davis) has done some good things. We’ve got to get Jamin going as well.”

On the play of the secondary and if there success has come as a surprise …

“Pleased with their progress. I really am. I think Coach Clink (Steve Clinkscale), Brad White, the defensive coaches have done a really nice job. The players have worked hard, and they’ve been coachable, they’ve shown great improvement, so I’m pleased with where they’re at. Four big games left here in the regular season, and I would like to see them continue to grow and respond. Much like we talked about the last game, this week will be a great challenge with the receivers that they have on their team. They have some big, strong guys and some playmaking ability.”

On Brandin Echols’ success after moving from junior college to SEC …

“I think he’s done a really good job of working extremely hard, taking the coaching, and he’s extremely competitive. He’s making competitive plays. When you’re out there on the island, it’s one-on-one. You’ve heard me talk about it over the years. You have one-on-one situations we can protect, we can do things, you can roll coverages, you can scheme things up at times. And there’s times when you just have to flat out win one-on-ones, and I’ve been pleased with his competitive nature.”

On seeing anything different with JJ (Weaver), Jared (Casey) and K.D. (McDaniel) last week …

“I think so. As I mentioned in here a few press conferences ago, players, they have to hold on to the hope. You can never take the player’s hope. You take their hope away, you take everything away, so I think that’s where this rule is important in giving them the opportunity to play in four games, and we took advantage of that in one, so we’ll manage that down the stretch here, but it’s good to see them continuing to have great weeks and develop themselves because players aren’t going to stay the same. They’re going to get better or they’re going to get worse. It’s been encouraging to see them have really good practice habits, and a lot of our freshmen have been that way.”

On freshmen you see getting more playing time down the stretch …

“There’s quite a few of them, yeah, a lot of those guys. We talked about it last week, and MJ (Devonshire) was set to go in, and we ended up holding him. We have some opportunities. You don’t know what’s going to happen with injuries, and so we didn’t feel the need to get him in there. There’s two ways to look at it, as you’ve heard me talk about it. You can throw him in there when you’re ahead like that and get him some experience or you can hold and wait and see what happens with some injuries and things of that nature down the stretch when maybe you need him to be a bigger role, so we’ll see.”

On MJ (Devonshire) being behind guys that are playing at a high level …

“It is. He had a little injury to his wrist, so that just set him back a little bit. I mean, he could go out there and play, but that set him back a touch in the middle of the season there.”

On what Tennessee has improved on over the course of the season …

“I just think across the board. If you look at them, like a lot of us, you have to play good as a team, and sometimes it’s just a matter of play here or a play there, and you look at their early games, and that was certainly the case, a play here or a play there and the outcome is different. They’re well coached, they’re playing hard, they’re getting better. They have some very talented players on that field. I’m not there, I can’t pinpoint exactly what it is, but again, a play here or a play there with many of us in this conference, the margin of error is very small, and you have to capitalize on it when you get the opportunity.”

On preparing differently vs. Tennessee’s quarterbacks …

“You don’t have to prepare any differently. They call plays very similar and both, very good. I think like most people, like most offenses when they’re in rhythm and the quarterback is in rhythm and playing well then the offense is going. You’ve seen spurts of that, particularly the last three or four games, where they’ve been very much in rhythm and comfortable in moving the ball.”

On if he was disappointed with the offensive line early in the season and the improvement of that group …

“I’m pleased with where they’re at and how they’ve played. I’m not going to use that word, you can, but like all of the team, with myself and everybody in the organization, there’s always times when you can do better. We’re always going to embrace that, look at ourselves, start with yourself and your play, my job coaching them, and everybody in the organization do as good as they can. If there are areas where they’re falling short, I can promise you those guys are very conscientious, they’re very well coached, and it’s important to them. I’m pleased with the way they’ve been playing.”

On offensive line’s performance in 29-7 win over Missouri on Oct. 26 …

“I think it’s just a byproduct of the things I’ve just mentioned. It’s important to them. I think Coach (John) Schlarman does a phenomenal job. Those are very conscientious young men that care about winning. They’re trying their very best.”

On areas needing improvement …

“Definitely. There’s a lot of areas that I don’t want to go into detail here and give our opponents a heads-up (laughter), but there’s specific areas that again, I think you know that, and listening to me through the years, that constantly in a learning environment, constantly trying to get better, build and continue to grow on the good things that you’re doing. If you’re falling short in certain areas, you better look at it and try to address it and get better, whether it’s schematically, whether it’s personnel, any issue you can to try to get better. We know our opponents are looking at us and studying us pretty hard and looking at our flaws. So, they need to be addressed each week and each day.”

On building outside linebacker depth with freshmen who played vs. Missouri and Josh Paschal’s ability to play as a linebacker and down lineman …

“It definitely does, will and can in the future. So we’ll see where it goes. That’s the beauty of it with Josh (Paschal). He’s very unselfish, he’ll play where needed. He’s got strengths and weaknesses at different positions. But he’s very versatile. It gives you the ability to move him around. He can always stay on his feet. He’s so sturdy, so strong. You need that in certain positions, certain times, certain teams, certain personnel groupings. You can move him inside, as well, now you get an athletic guy inside. We’ll continue to explore and try to put him in the best position to be successful.”

On special teams coordinator Dean Hood and his experience as a head coach …

“It’s very important. The experience matters. Coach Hood is a guy who has been around a long time. He’s been a head coach and very well respected within our building and nationally. It’s important for myself to constantly make sure I’m utilizing all the things I can and leaning on our coaching staff to make sure they can help. I think our staff has done a remarkable job at building those relationships and continuing to build those relationships. Trust is the most important thing. Our staff has worked hard and our players have worked hard. Our identity has changed throughout this year and that happens all the time. Each and every team will be different and needs to create their own identity. I’m proud of our staff and our team and our program for fighting through adversity. Adversity will reveal a man to himself. I think that’s been good and it’s been helping us where we’re at right now. We’re not perfect, but I like going to work every day with these guys and I love the staff and this team and these players. There’s been a shift in the last three-four weeks. We need to continue to build on that.”

On whether he will address the Florida State speculation with the team …

“There is no need to address that. Our players know where my heart is at and my focus is. I can promise you, they’ll know that we’ll be ready to play this week and be ready to go. There’s no denying that. There’s no need, we’ll just continue to do what we’re doing.”

On the challenge of keeping a recruiting class together…

“It’s a never-ending process to continue to cultivate those relationships and to keep that class together. It’s important with the leadership within that group in itself. That sometimes creates its own identity and the way that they are very close amongst their group. I think that always helps but that’s a never-ending process in our business. I think at the end of the day I truly believe who ends up here is meant to be here and to act like recruiting or this job or anything in it, is not personal would be a lie, because it is. It’s part of our life and so a lot of times things are personal, it’s just the way we go about our business and recruiting is really not much different but that’s what’s helped us have great success and we’ll continue to have that as the relationships that we have with people and being authentic. I’m proud of that and I feel good about the way we’re going to finish.”

On what players have helped in recruiting the 2020 class…

“I think at the end of the day, the (current) players are going to recruit your program. All of them. You can’t hide from that. When they [the recruits] come in and spend time with our team, if the culture’s right, if they enjoy being there, then that will recruit itself. I’m always transparent in that area and tell the recruits, ‘You spend time around our team and you let them tell you what the pulse of this place is and what it’s like to come to work every day,’ and we never pretend to be perfect because we’re far from it but we work hard for our players and I think they know that.”

On how Florida State rumors effect recruiting…

“It probably affects that a little bit more in that just what goes on in this world and this media with social media and all of that, I don’t mean to be so old that I can’t understand that but it’s just a little bit absurd how fast things go and people like to get out in front of their skis really far in that world. That just needs to be addressed but nothing we can’t handle. So, I think that’s a fair assessment, maybe with recruiting more so than anybody else, because I promise you the guys in our building, they’re not going to worry about anything except getting ready for Tennessee so all the folks that think it will be a distraction, I can promise you it won’t.”

On how UK athletes in the NFL impact the recruiting now…

“It is very important. I think you know by the way we do things, we try to be very intentional. I think a lot of people talk about a lot of things. We try to really show what we do and how we do things and the way we go about our business. When guys are going on and having success, I think it does nothing but help you.”

On what is important to Stoops on a being a head coach…

“That’s a pretty deep question there (laughter) … There is a lot of things that factor into that. We don’t have enough time for me to dive into all of that right now, but certainly support, quality of life. You know, what you’re doing. There’s things that are important to me, that what people perceive is an easier or better job and things that we always as coaches end up having great perspective with my family of looking at things and doing what’s right for you and your family.”