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Mark Stoops previews the 2019 Kentucky Wildcats at Media Day

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Football is almost back in the Bluegrass.

Sea of Blue

College football will be back in our lives very soon, and with it comes the return of Kentucky Wildcats football.

After a breakthrough 10-3 season, Mark Stoops has this program riding sky high heading into the 2019 campaign. But after losing some all-time program greats in Benny Snell and Josh Allen, as well as nearly the entire starting defense of a year ago, keeping UK at that level will prove to be very challenging this year, especially in the grind of the SEC.

On Friday, UK held its annual media day, where Stoops gave an in-depth breakdown of his team, the upcoming season, and the state of his program.

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

Opening statement …

It’s an exciting time, I think each year my appreciation for the team, the whole process and getting ready for the season. It grows and it’s real challenge. But that’s what makes it exciting. Each team is so different, each year is so different. You learn so many things throughout the years. You try to use it to put your team in the best position to be successful. That’s what I think excites me and our staff and our players about this year, this opportunity with this team. We’re really looking forward to it. Ready to get going.

Q. Other than Davonte Robinson, is everybody available going into fall camp?

MARK STOOPS: Yeah, we are. Seems like each year, what was it, Cole Mosier maybe three years ago, Landon Young and now Davonte, we take a big hit. But it is what it is. Our players know that. We have to have the mentality of the next man up. We feel for Davonte most because I know the amount of work that he’s put in to put himself in a position to be one of the guys. Certainly the guy with the most experience in the secondary. He’s so versatile. Just love Davonte and feel for him.

Q. This time last year you were confident because you had seen the guys working out in the off-season. How does this group compare to what you saw last year? How do you feel about it?

MARK STOOPS: Same way. I feel good. I feel confident. We know we have to go put in the work. But I really appreciate what they’ve done to get to this point. I mentioned this a few times throughout the talking season here, but it’s true. When we got back after the bowl win, to see the team immediately after that game, I enjoyed it. Then to start thinking about it before we get back to work there in January, you know, what needs to go into this year. Your mind starts racing, all those things. I was just pleasantly surprised with the approach of this team. I just feel like from the moment they got back on campus, I saw the hunger in their eyes. They want to prove themselves, put themselves in a position to be successful. I really appreciate the way they went about the winter. We’ve had a great spring. This summer we’ve worked harder. I talk about that a lot as well, continuing to push the capacity, the ability to handle more, do more, be a more mature team. They did an awful lot of work this year. That’s what’s exciting because sometimes we all focus on the things that we lose and don’t put enough focus on the things that we’re returning. There are some very mature, good football players on this team. There’s a lot to build around, so that excites us.

Q. The wide receiver unit, tell us a little bit about that.

MARK STOOPS: We need to step up there. You heard me talk about that, as well. We have to get more production out of that position. I think Josh Ali is a guy that we’re excited about. I think Josh has worked really hard. He has the ability to create some big plays. He has very good speed. I’m excited about Josh. Same with Isaiah Epps. He did run the top end we’re looking for. He has to continue to improve. I like the work that he’s done. We’ll see where that goes. Ahmad Wagner is another guy that created some plays for us last year, being the second year now in football after coming back off the basketball court. Ahmad has great size. We need to get him going. Another guy, Bryce Oliver, who redshirted last year that we have high hopes for, as well.

Q. You chastised us many times...

MARK STOOPS: C’mon now, let’s be friendly. It’s the start of the year here (laughter).

Q. ...about the importance of the running game, especially statistically winning that. Yet we have coach telling us Terry Wilson is going to throw 40 times a game. That’s not going to happen under your watch?

MARK STOOPS: Never ‘chastise’. I like ‘educate’ (smiling). It is important. You’ve heard me tell you the statistics. We do all the data. That’s not going to change. When you’re out-rushing your opponent by one yard, it gives you a big advantage. Playing good run defense, being able to run the ball is critically important. That’s a proven fact certainly in our league. But every year, you’ve heard me talk about that this year, every team is different. You have to find the best way you can to help them win. If that is throwing the ball, however many times that is, if we have to do that to give us the best opportunity to win, then we’ll do that. We’ll see how it plays out. I think that’s the point he was trying to make. He’s piggybacking my comments. That’s what I’ve said. Whatever we need to do. Every team is different. We’re a different football team this year than we were last year. We’re going to be improved in certain areas and maybe not as good. We’re never going to give our kids an out. We’re always looking to continue to build and improve in all years.

Q. Defensive front, how many guys do you anticipate playing a regular basis there?

MARK STOOPS: I feel good, I really do. I feel good about the defensive front. As I mentioned, with just the interior guys, it starts with Quintin Wilson going into his third year. He was really impressive in the spring. You guys have watched, he’s been a good football player for us, made some good plays, he’s played a lot of ball in the first two years he was here. I noticed a difference in him in the spring. He had another gear. He’s very explosive. That’s a good, good person to build around. So excited about him.

Same with T.J. Also, when you heard me talk about the group, talk about this team, they had a great example of some of the guys that left of what it takes to be successful, what we’re looking for.

T.J. Carter I think is a great example of that. He’s a guy that’s played a lot of football for us. Then you just see a different gear in him. You see his approach just that much more serious. I think he learned that from Josh Allen. T.J. is a guy, he can do big things. Again, he’s played a lot of ball. I just see a different guy. Calvin Taylor is so big. He’s just one of those guys that’s very unselfish. We rarely talk about him, but he does a lot of good things. He’s very, very big and very strong and very solid at the point of attack. Those are good guys. I think Phil Hoskins has a chance to really emerge, looking for him to take it to the next step. Marquan McCall is a guy unbelievably talented, so big, so quick and sudden. It’ll be good to get him going. Kordell Looney showed some flashes right there. Davoan Hawkins, Isaiah Gibson, Houssein Ali Abule, all working for times a well. We feel like we’re pretty deep there.

Q. About Josh Paschal…

MARK STOOPS: We’re moving him back to Jack. Jordan Wright had a little setback. He should be good. He’s cleared to practice today. He’s no contact for a few days, but he had a little setback in the summer. As you know, we’re actually very deep at that position, it’s just inexperience. We have a lot of good, talented guys there that we’re excited about. But with Josh, I think he gives us the ability to move him back there. Now all of a sudden you move Boogie Watson back to Sam, you move Josh to Jack, all of a sudden your front seven is pretty darn big, pretty physical. I like that combination. Josh is very versatile. He was going to play, depending whether we’re in 3-4 or 4-3 schemes, he’d play some of that anyway, just semantics of how we get there. We are going to start him there back at Jack, outside backer, where he started, played quite a bit as a true freshman.

Q. About Sawyer Smith…

MARK STOOPS: Just the fact that he’s played in big games, he has that experience, he’s very poised. He can throw the ball. As you know, we needed somebody to come in and give us an opportunity to groom the young guys until we can get moving. I just was impressed with Sawyer. I like everything about him, love the way he plays, handles himself, the way he’s done everything to get to this point. He’s done a lot of work. He’s here, up there grinding, ready to go.

Q. How has Terry Wilson improved from the Penn State game till now?

MARK STOOPS: I’m excited about Terry. Just offensively in general, we got a lot of good things to build around. Terry is a guy obviously that started every game, won 10 games for us last year.

It starts with him fundamentally. You hear me talk about that a lot, boring sometimes but true. It’s a fundamental game. He had an opportunity to watch every throw he made last year. If you just look at fundamentals, yards we left on the field, he sees that. But it’s hard. Easier said than done. That’s why everybody can be an armchair quarterback, right? He’s got a lot coming at him. He’s really worked hard. Appreciate his effort. Coach Darin Hinshaw has worked hard with him. Had a good, solid spring. I think it starts there. Obviously then it goes to the concepts, him understanding. Second year in the offense. That’s a big deal, where to go, the reads, how quick to get off the reads, go to the next one, so on. Then the speed of the game, confidence for him to play and know that he won 10 games in the SEC, won the bowl game, has to give him a lot of confidence going into this year. You build around that. Lynn Bowden, we’re so excited about him. We have to make sure we find ways to get him the football. He’s a difference maker, changes the digits on the scoreboard. He’s a playmaker and can make things happen. We have to make sure we continue to get him the football. Build around a physical offensive line. Benny Snell, everybody knows what Benny did for us. But he also set the tone for these backs. They had an opportunity to sit there and watch him. What’s most impressive about Benny was his mentality, how tough he was, determined he was to help his team win. These guys had an opportunity to see that. They have a lot of talent. I’m excited. I feel like there’s a lot to build on there.

Q. On Xavier Peters transfer waiver

MARK STOOPS: I really don’t. I’m unsure. We had to do quite a bit of legwork to get everything updated, all the information we needed for the appeal. I don’t know when that will happen. We’ll just continue to work with him like anybody else. I mean, obviously he can’t take first team reps right now till we figure that out.

Q. Do you know whether it’s this year or next year?

MARK STOOPS: Again, he’s a physical guy. He’s got all the talent. He’s got the ability to be a pass-rusher. He’s good on his feet. He can do a lot of things. He’s really what you’re looking for as your prototypical outside linebacker. Whenever that time comes, we’ll be ready to go. I don’t know when that will happen. To us, he’s just like a freshman. It’s unknown. We know physically he has all the ability. We’re excited to work with him.

Q. Hear you speaking so confidently up there. Any head coach in their right mind would be underselling their team based on the number of people they lost. What is it about you that makes you that confident.

MARK STOOPS: We’re not interested in going back. We’re not here to take steps backwards. We’re not. We’re continuing to grow. We’re continuing to improve the program. That’s not just coach speak when I say those things. The outcome will take care of itself. I know I’m judged ultimately on wins and losses. But internally we’re judged on how we’re building our program, what we’re doing to continue to grow and put ourselves in a position to be successful. That’s what it’s all about. You could go back seven years, hear me basically saying the same message, that we’re going to work hard to do the things necessary that we believe are going to help us be successful. We’re not going a waver from that.

We’re in a learning environment. We try to learn and grow every day. But you also have to stick to your beliefs, the things that you know are helpful to help you be successful and win games.

Q. You mentioned Davonte’s injury off the top. What about that position makes it difficult for inexperienced guys to pick up?

MARK STOOPS: It’s one of those positions, you’ve heard me for many years, it’s true, there’s certain positions... Let’s face it, experience is important at all those positions, right? Everywhere, every sport, experience is important. I think certain positions you have to have experience and instinct. I think that’s one of those positions. You’re talking about Davonte. For us, he was able to play nickel, strong, free, dime, any of the inside positions that really helps us because he understands all the nuances just from playing the other side. For instance, if he had to go to the dime, he knows what the nickel does, opposite. Strong safety, free safety. He was so versatile. He also was a great cover guy. The other thing, he was one of our best tacklers, and is when he comes back. He’s a good tackler. It’s going to be missed. You’ve heard me talk about outside linebacker, safety, nickel, a lot the same. I think you need to have the experience, but you also have to have some good instincts.

Q. A lot of those candidates you’re going to be trying out at those positions were all four-star talents. Do you try to pigeonhole each one into a different spot?

MARK STOOPS: No, we got a lot to do with those guys. We got a lot of work to do. Coach Steve Clinkscale and I, Coach Dean Hood is figuring it out. We’ve got to just get out there and play, get them as much experience as we can, moving them around, just seeing what our best 11 are.

Q. How is Coach Schlarman doing? I’ve been through that.

MARK STOOPS: Glad to see it. Good for you. John is doing very good. You all get an opportunity to talk with him, he can share what he wants. It’s the same as you’ve heard me talk publicly before. John is just an absolute warrior. Still can’t chase him out of the office. He’s there every day. Never misses work unless he’s on a treatment. He’s getting treatment. Things are going good. We’re just still praying for him.

Q. Coach Schlarman on offensive line

MARK STOOPS: Done a great job with them for a lot of years. I’m excited about this group he has this year.

Q. With Davonte gone, do things shift?

MARK STOOPS: It does. We could talk more about this as we progress through practice. There’s a lot of unknowns. I do the same thing with our staff. We’re sitting there talking about guys. Shoot, we don’t know yet. Just get to get out there and work with them. I’m not breaking any rules. I’m not out there working with them in the summer. I’m not allowed to. I just have to wait and see. But I am excited about those guys. I think there’s a lot of ability there. We need them to be players.

Q. With this group of running backs, where do you see Benny’s influence paying off? Physically, the mentality they have?

MARK STOOPS: I think in many ways. I think most important would be his mentality, how competitive Benny was, and intelligent. There’s times when a runningback needs to rely on his God-given ability and his instincts, make cuts, do things that are between he and God. There’s other times where he has to understand exactly what’s going on, what the situation of the game is, how to get those tough yards, where the holes are going to be, understand that a two- or a three-yard run in certain cases are every bit as big as ripping a long one off. I think that intelligence helped us win a lot of games in four-minute offense. You guys have seen it through the years. It’s so important when everybody in the stadium knows he’s getting the ball and he still gets first downs. Those are big. Again, that credit goes to the offensive line, Coach Schlarman, getting a hat on a hat, backing everybody up. It’s critically important depending on the situation of the game. That’s where football IQ is so important on both sides, understanding four-minute defense, two-minute defense, four-minute offense, two-minute, so on. You know what I’m saying. That intelligence and football IQ is critically important to winning games. We’re in a lot of close games, you all know that. We all have to be intelligent and clued into that.

Q. How much of that confidence stems from you bringing back a really good, experienced offensive line, that’s the base of what you can do?

MARK STOOPS: Without a doubt. Again, day one press conference. I don’t know what I said, but I’m sure it was built around being good at the line of scrimmage. It’s a line of scrimmage game. You better be good in the offensive line, better be going in the defensive line. Sure, we all know you want to be good at all positions. You have to be to win at the highest level. But if you’re not physical, you don’t have much of a chance. All in all, you know what I mean, throw it all in a bucket, come out the end. I don’t like our chances if you’re not physical.

Q. On Nick Lewis and Quintin Wilson

MARK STOOPS: And Nassir Watkins. Those guys are all good players. Really fired up about those guys. Nick has to continue to work hard. He’s an awfully big man. To get in great shape... Nick made some strides, we’re excited about him. Nassir we look at really as a starter. Naasir, a very good player, can play left or right tackle. Quintin Wilson, we’re very excited about him. Very intelligent, very athletic for a center. We’re in a great position there. He has an opportunity to learn from Drake Jackson. Drake does such a good job for us. Quintin is going to be a heck of a player. They had their hands full in the spring.

Q. Question about tight ends…

MARK STOOPS: I feel good, really good. Justin Rigg is a guy that’s big, physical. He’s got soft hands. Excited about him getting the opportunity. C.J. Conrad has been such a mainstay for us for so long. To see Justin get that opportunity will be exciting. Brenden Bates, another good player, get an opportunity to see him. Keaton Upshaw. We’re all kind of mesmerized by him. He’s what you’re hunting. He’s first off the bus (smiling).

Q. On Kash Daniel

MARK STOOPS: If you guys study and understand me, I try to play things pretty straight up. I don’t give you a lot of talking points. But I also like them to be them. I am who I am. That’s just who I am. I try not to go out there and make outlandish statements, things of that nature. But with our players, as long as they’re coming from the right spot, I’m good with it. One thing I can’t stand is false confidence, guys that run around, beat their chest when they haven’t done the work. That I can’t tolerate. But guys that have proven themselves, done the work, know what it takes, are coming from the right place, I’m good with them being them.

Q. On Jordan Griffin…

MARK STOOPS: This is going to be a big opportunity for him. We know him to be a great player. Jordan has a lot of experience. He’s played everything for us. He’s really played both corner spots, he’s playing everything inside. He’s played it all, has good experience, is versatile. We need Jordan to have a really big year. I’m excited for him and that opportunity for him.

Q. You were part of the resurgence at Ohio State. Were there any lessons you learned coming in, looking back at what happened there, that’s helping you now? You talk about nobody wants to move back. Anything from there you can move up here?

MARK STOOPS: I think there’s many things that I do now that I learned there from Jimbo Fisher, working there, other coaches I’ve been with. I can’t think of anything that I could just pull right now right now. Constantly trying to learn, grow, grab things that I like from certain people. With Jimbo, when I was there, I just appreciated the mentality that we had. There was a fun group to coach defensively. The mentality they had to be dominant, to be great. The consistency that we had, that’s what we’re looking for.

Q. Did you have an opinion on the alcohol sales? Did Mitch Barnhart seek out your opinion?

MARK STOOPS: As I mentioned before, the only thing I’ll say is I have great confidence in the leadership, Dr. Capilouto, Mitch Barnhart, their decisions. It’s above my pay grade. I don’t put a lot of thought into that because it’s just not my job. But I trust them. I believe in their leadership. Those are hard decisions. I think there’s strong opinions on both sides. They obviously put a lot of thought into it. There’s a lot for them to consider. I’ll just say it’s just hard. I know going to that funeral a year ago was very difficult for me and our team as well. Anything that revolved around the game, drinking, having an accident like that happen, was very heartfelt for me personally, and the team. But Mitch and Dr. Capilouto I have a lot of confidence in. I’m sure they thought things through, are doing the very best they can, I know that. I can promise you that I don’t want any reason or any excuse for there not to be a fantastic atmosphere right out here in the stadium, Kroger Field this year. We have a very good football team that’s worked very hard. Proud of the work we’ve done to this point. We’re very excited about the future. Greatly appreciate the fan support. We truly have the best fans in the country. There’s nothing better than when we walk out there and see that full stadium. We need it that way every week. My plea to the fans is we need that. It takes all of us all the time. We need that support, need that place rocking. It makes a difference with recruiting, makes a difference with our team. We’re all a part of that.

Q. On Logan Stenberg

MARK STOOPS: We knew the characteristics he had. We knew he was a tough guy, physical guy. That’s what he is. When you work as hard as he works, put the time in, are dedicated like he is, you have that type of mentality, you’re going to have some success. We knew that part of it. I don’t know. We have a lot of those guys, as you know. We have to. That’s our job. We have to find the right guys with the right mentality that can come in here and do the things that we’re looking for.

Q. Talk about younger players we should expect to see more from this season …

MARK STOOPS: I mentioned Josh Ali. Somebody pointed out, Logan Stenberg, Kavosiey Smoke. Today I didn’t, but at SEC Media Days I did. Allen is another guy you heard me talk about a year ago as a freshman that was really kind of peaking, hit a little bit of a freshman wall there. It gets hard. You put so much in throughout the year. But we’re still very excited about Allen. I think he’s going to have a great career.

Q. Nik Scalzo, is he coming along all right?

MARK STOOPS: Coming along all right. I haven’t seen him practice yet. That will be today. His knee is doing good. He’s worked really hard.

Q. He’s a player, isn’t he?

MARK STOOPS: He definitely is. That was evident with his tape, with his winning. Same with Amani Gilmore. Those guys are winners. We’re excited to see him throw the ball.

Q. Mason Wolfe on the offensive line…

MARK STOOPS: Mason is another one. I’m glad you brought him up. Mason is a guy that will be in the rotation this year. He’ll be out there playing, contributing. He’s a guy that’s constantly doing his work, getting better, taking his medicine that you hear me talk about so much, connecting the dots. He will contribute, play. He’s a good football player. I appreciate the work he’s done to get him in that position.

Q. You talked about Kash Daniel coming in, what role you needed him to step into. Into his senior year without Josh Allen, how has that role progressed? What do you think Kash needs to do?

MARK STOOPS: Kash just needs to be Kash. He’s authentic. We don’t need to create anything there. I just need him to continue to be him. That starts with being accountable on the field, on and off the field, but just being a team player like he is. He’s very passionate. He cares about winning first and foremost. That’s obvious to our team. He’s a great leader, he’s authentic. We’ll continue to rely on him.