Florida week is always an important one for Kentucky Football, but thankfully, this year’s edition comes without a three-decade losing streak.
Last year, the Cats went into Gainesville and came away with a convincing win over a Gators team that finished in the top 10 of the final top 25 polls. It also ended a 31-game losing streak in the series, a burden that is finally off the shoulders of the players and coaches.
This year’s edition will see Kentucky host a Florida team ranked No. 8 in the Coaches Poll. As if that wasn’t already a difficult test, the Cats will be without quarterback Terry Wilson after he suffered a torn patella tendon.
Now, Kentucky will rely on graduate transfer Sawyer Smith, who had a promising start vs. Eastern Michigan, but Florida is a whole ‘nother animal.
On Monday, head coach Mark Stoops met with the media to discuss all of these topics. Here is a recap of everything he had to say via UK Athletics:
MARK STOOPS: Looking forward to this week’s opponent. Excited about the opportunity to play Florida. We know that’s going to be a very big challenge, big-game team that’s very well coached, very good athletes. So it’s going to be a good environment
Obviously very disappointed for Terry Wilson, and greatly appreciate what Terry has done for us, in the leadership that he’s given this team and the way he’s played the past year and two games. It’s been a long time since somebody has helped us win 12 out of the 15 starts that he had. So that’s quite an accomplishment for Terry. I believe that only Alabama in the SEC has a better record over those 15 games than us. And so Terry is a big piece of that, and to be the starting quarterback to lead us to the 12 victories out of 15 opportunities is saying something about him.
So he’s going to be missed. We appreciate him. I do anticipate a full recovery from that. Should not be an issue. Very similar, really the same injury that Darius West had. And Darius came back with no hiccups from that whatsoever. So anticipate a full recovery from Terry, and we’ll miss him this season, but excited to watch Sawyer (Smith) grow and to give him the opportunity to lead us, and we’re confident in him.
Q. Speaking of Sawyer, this pretty much goes for any position on any team in any sport, that it’s all about the next man up, he has to be prepared and this is what those guys look forward to. I’m sure they look forward to this opportunity. How important is it that guys are ready and willing to step up?
MARK STOOPS: You’re right. We always talk about that and prepare. Those guys work extremely hard, all of our backups and all of our players. Through the course of a game we play many players. I don’t have the exact count, but I know we played a heck of a lot of players this past game. And so, you know, at the quarterback position it’s obviously a little bit different, but the good news is Sawyer’s been through this. Sawyer’s played a lot. He’s had to step in. He stepped in this past week and played very good. So we’re excited about him and we’re confident in him.
Q. How important is it that all backups are ready to step up when called upon?
MARK STOOPS: Yeah, I mean obviously with Nik (Scalzo) being hurt, Nik got hurt as well, and Nik was getting a lot of third-team reps early in the summer and along with Walker (Wood). So we have confidence in Walker and Amani (Gilmore). They just need a lot of -- they need a lot of reps. You know, they need some time.
Q. How important is the fact that I guess in 2016, you guys had to do the same thing, change quarterbacks?
MARK STOOPS: Well, yeah, exactly. We went through it when Drew (Barker) went down and (Stephen Johnson) stepped in and led us and did a very good job. So, you know, it is what it is. Again, I just feel for Terry and appreciate what he did. I will say I’m just proud of the way he’s been playing and progressing. He’s looked very, very good in the first two games and looked good all summer and wasn’t perfect, but he looked much more comfortable; and all the things he worked on through the off season were coming to fruition here this season. He was getting better and better. So I just feel for him because I know the work that he put in. But, again, he’ll bounce back and make a full recovery.
Q. What kind of things do you see different with Sawyer that he can add to the offense as opposed to Terry?
MARK STOOPS: Well, I mean there’s a strength and a weakness with every player, and we feel like Sawyer does certain things better than others, and you know, we’ll build on those and I’m not going to sit here and tell you the game plan. (Laughter). Sawyer’s a good football player. He’s accurate. He throws the ball accurately down the field. And he’s played a lot of football.
Q. What role does the staff play in easing concerns in the locker room?
MARK STOOPS: Well, I think it has to do with all the above; just like you mentioned, the coaches and the players, and everybody just understanding that we all feel terrible for Terry, and as I told the team afterwards, and I could tell just by being in the locker room after the game on Saturday that guys were disappointed, you know, and flat and really felt for Terry. And part of that may have been that maybe just felt like, again, we didn’t play our best, and I think a lot had to do with just Terry and their feelings for him. But I anticipate everybody today will be ready to move on and ready to play.
And players understand that, and it’s kind of a harsh reality of our sport that there’s going to be -- there’s going to be injuries and that the team is always bigger than any one individual, and I tell them that all the time, starting with me. I could be replaced in a heartbeat, and so can anybody on this team, anybody in the organization, and you have to step up and move on.
Q. How important was it to the guys who felt so bad about Terry to see Sawyer step in and immediately have success?
MARK STOOPS: They’ve had confidence in Sawyer. So, yeah, I think it’s important that Sawyer goes in there and first pass he throws is a touchdown, that’s pretty good. I told him when he came off, “that’s a pretty good start, one for one.” (Laughter). So, yeah, I think the guys have a lot of confidence in him.
Q. Lynn (Bowden) told us Saturday that he thinks maybe he’s a little too anxious to make big plays when he gets the ball.
MARK STOOPS: Well, I think it’s common, you know, and we talk about that. I talk about it till I’m blue in the face and relying on our preparation and your technique and all those things and doing the little things right and big plays will happen. But that’s easier said than done. When they get out there and they get under the lights and they get playing, and it comes from a good place that guys really want to do well. Lynn is not alone. There’s a lot of guys, and even defensively, and guys that have played good football for us that are not doing the little things, and we gotta keep on coaching and get them to understand to play within the team.
So he’s not alone. But he’s trying to do right, and he’s trying to make a lot of plays; and he’s worked hard, and he’ll get those opportunities. And we went to him quite a bit this past Saturday and targeted him a lot, and we’ll continue to work the ball in his hands, and he’ll continue to make plays for us.
Q. Is that just getting it to where he’s getting more opportunities? Is that part of it or just kind of negotiating through that with him?
MARK STOOPS: Well, I think early on he does a lot for us as well. I mean, he takes a lot of snaps. He’s back to kick return, punt return and played quarterback and fly motions, you know. So getting reverses, and he’s running around out there a lot, and it’s getting in shape, working himself in shape as well.
Q. Coach, are the Ahmad Wagner pass interference calls becoming comical at this point?
MARK STOOPS: No. No. (Laughter). No. I want them to keep on coming.
Q. What about Florida’s ability to pressure the quarterback?
MARK STOOPS: Yeah. They’re just a very disruptive defense. Todd Grantham does a remarkable job, very good coach I have a lot of respect for. And they do just a really good job. They have really good players. They have some game-wreckers up there up front. They have 15 sacks in two games, and they always have great skill. So they’re well coached in all facets of the game.
Dan (Mullen) does a remarkable job. They’re always really tough. They’re a tough football team, very well coached on offense, defense, special teams. So they do a good job with good players.
Q. In the limited times that we’ve been around Sawyer, he seemed like a pretty laid-back kid. Is that the way he is and does that help him in this situation?
MARK STOOPS: He’s -- I wouldn’t say -- he’s not a laid-back guy when he gets on the field. He’s a polite young man that’s very likeable. Our team likes him, and he handles himself the right way. It’s hard sometimes when you step into a program, and you know, he hasn’t been around the guys. He had to finish up summer school. So he got here late and plugged in, and he’s handled himself the right way, and he works hard on the field and picks things up quickly.
Guys have confidence in him. But when he gets out there, he’s a competitor and he’s going to compete and he’s here -- he’s here for this reason. He knew he was coming into a backup role, but this could happen. Again, he’s been through it. He’s had to step in and compete at Troy.
And, honestly, just like anybody, I mean you guys have heard me talk about it in here before. You never want to see the injuries and that to happen to anybody, but when you’re building a program, it’s always -- there’s a bit of excitement to see the next man up and see how they respond and see how they handle himself. And he’ll play well.
Q. Mark, you’ve survived another seven days. What do you have to do to clean up this work in order to survive again?
MARK STOOPS: It’s really the discipline of the little things we’ve gotta continue to really hone in on and execute. It’s the little details that we can do much better.
There’s certain parts of the game that we’re doing very good, and there’s parts where we need to clean up, and a big piece of it comes down to discipline. Obviously the big things that are easy to see are ball security and penalties. Those are some easy things to see. But there’s a lot of discipline.
Q. Although it’s not obviously ideal to have your starting quarterback go down, but how much of an advantage is this with Sawyer already having experience before coming to Kentucky?
MARK STOOPS: As I mentioned, I think that’s a big deal that Sawyer has been through this. So it’s nothing new to him. He has a lot of confidence. This game or any game won’t be too big to him. He’ll be very comfortable out there and stay within himself and rely on his players around him to make plays.
Q. What might you gain from Sawyer being in that position as opposed to Terry who played last year and got to see him last year and what Sawyer can bring to the table as far as the offense against Florida?
MARK STOOPS: I’m sorry. Rephrase.
Q. Is there any advantage to having somebody fresh there?
MARK STOOPS: You know, it’s not like we gain much. Florida knows what we’re going to -- obviously there’s tweaks and wrinkles and changeups to formation. There’s things we do every week and we have a pretty large menu of plays and ideas and schemes, but you’re never going to wholesale change that.
You’re going to build and tailor to the plays that Sawyer does well and that we’re comfortable with him, but that’s a large variety of plays that we’ll kind of zero in on this week, but Florida knows the basic offense, and the schemes and the basic schemes and all that’s not going to change dramatically. So I can’t see that there’s a big advantage.
You know, it’s just like you guys hear me say all the time about that, whether who’s in at quarterback, unless it’s a drastic difference, we’re going to do what we do, Florida’s going to do what they do. They’re not going to change drastically.
Q. (Question about Todd Grantham pass rush.)
MARK STOOPS: First of all, it comes down to getting you in third down, and they do a nice job because they’re so physical, they’re big and they’re strong up front, and they can play press man. And then he gets into the exotics, the pressures, he can get exotic on third down. So big key is, and one of the big keys for us a year ago, was first-down efficiency. You know, you get five, six, seven yards on first down, then you’re in much better shape, and you try not to get behind the chains.
You hear me talk about that a lot, but it’s very, very important against a team like them. You get in third and long and you do have a new quarterback, then they are going to be exotic. And the big term that we all seem to use in the defensive coaching is affecting the quarterback. It’s not just pressure. It’s not just sacks. It’s affecting him whatever way, whether it’s condensing the pocket, keeping him in there with a guy that can run, and different pressures, different looks, different change-ups and coverage. So there’s a lot of things they can do and you can do to affect the quarterback.
Q. (Learning Sawyer Smith’s style)?
MARK STOOPS: I think that’s part of it is knowing what he can do and what he’s comfortable with. And that’s a balance, you know, with all the time. You know, even with Terry, it’s building on the things that he likes and he can do and not so much continue -- you know, you obviously want to build and work at things so they expand. But part of it is to build on the things they do well.
Q. (Regarding the offensive line taking on the Florida defensive line)
MARK STOOPS: It’s always -- you know, it’s every week. You hear me say that. It starts up front, and in our league it’s a big boy league, and so you always have to handle it up front. And they are very, very talented and disruptive on their defensive line, and so our O Line will have their hands full. It always is. It’s a challenge getting -- like I said, getting positive yards on first, second down and being in manageable third downs, but also mixing it up. You can’t be predictable, because they’re pretty stout up there and they can be exotic when you get in predictable situations.
Q. You talk about being exotic. The quarterback can be fooled?
MARK STOOPS: Yeah.
Q. Even the O Line, they could be fooled?
MARK STOOPS: Well, yeah, and where they set the protection and so on. So there’s a lot going on up there.
Q. Phil Hoskins is back in the rotation on Saturday?
MARK STOOPS: Yeah. I think Phil will be helpful. We need Phil in there. What I like about Phil is he brings us a little different dynamic, brings us some quickness in that defensive line. And again, we’re fairly big and strong, but, you know, it’s good to have Phil in there. He’s just a different guy. He’s a little bit looser. He plays a little bit faster, a little twitchier, so he’s a good change up.
Q. And I’m sure he’s been chomping at the bit to get on the field with the guys?
MARK STOOPS: Yeah, he’s definitely ready to go. He’s been working hard. He’s had a really good off season, and these two weeks he’s been anxious.
Q. Expanding rotation in the secondary, is that just the score of the game --
MARK STOOPS: It’s part of it. You know, we wanted to get them in there, when we rotated them the game was still relatively close and wanted to get them some quality snaps and see how they responded.
Q. (How did they play)?
MARK STOOPS: They played okay. There’s things we need to do better in general in the secondary. Again, we gotta continue to work on some things, and be more disciplined in some of the fundamentals and eye discipline, and a lot of things we gotta get corrected as far as our position on the ball.
Q. Going into the game against Florida with a win last year, does it feel any different this year?
MARK STOOPS: No, it really doesn’t. Hopefully it’ll have a positive effect on our team. I think just winning in general is important. And changing that culture is hard, and it took a long time. But, again, our players know that it’s a challenge each and every week, and it’s about our preparation being these next five days that’ll determine the outcome.
Everybody wants to win on Saturday, but it’s the discipline to do things throughout this week. But just winning in general, as I said, it’s pretty strong statistic when you sit there and look at the fact that there’s only one SEC team in the last 15 games that have won more games than us. So our players and coaches are used to winning. That’s a good thing. That took a long time to change that culture and that mindset. But there’s no guarantees. It’s how you go about your business each and every day.
Q. (Defensive performance in the past two weeks)?
MARK STOOPS: We’ve done a decent job. The other things, there’s a lot of things we could do better. We started much faster this past week on both sides of the ball. Offensively, had some longer drives, scored some points. Defensively, we’re in really good shape, I’d say for the first five drives or so we’re handling things pretty well. Didn’t finish as strong. It was kind of flipped from week one to week two. So we need to put a full game together.
And the quarterback, both quarterbacks we’ve faced did a nice job of getting right -- when we’re getting pressure with four guys, they’re pulling it right down and finding a little lane and buying a little time. But they are getting some good pressure, and they’re doing a nice job of condensing that pocket at times as well.
Q. Mark, Coach Mullen also lost a significant playmaker. How does it work in the coaching fraternity? Do you guys call each other up and commiserate?
MARK STOOPS: No. Nobody’s going to feel sorry for each other. You know that. So it is what it is. And we all just have enough to do. We’re all pretty much creatures of habit. There’s things that you have to get done each day. And believe me, it’s not a long week. Weeks go fast. There’s really not enough hours in the day for the things that we have to get done. So you really don’t have much time for that.
Q. When an opposing player of that caliber goes down like (Kadarius) Toney, does that almost make it more difficult to game plan?
MARK STOOPS: No. No, because they don’t change. They got a bunch of good players, you know, and he’s one heck of a player, and I’m sure they’ll miss him, that’s for sure. But they have a lot of talented guys.
Q. Even though he got here late in June, Sawyer told us the other night he knows the playbook inside-out. Is that unusual or does that just speak to him?
MARK STOOPS: No. I think he picks things up. He’s been around a lot of football. And as you know, Neal (Brown) was coaching him. And so he’s comfortable. He’s a smart young man, obviously graduated college in three years; and so he’s smart, and he picks things up. And he’s instinctual. He just needs some reps with the ones. And some of those plays, even Saturday, we have a fairly large menu, and so against different looks, what throws you’re making against the looks, he may not have even had yet. So to get more opportunities, with the ones and to get all those reps, he’ll get better and better.
Q. Talk about what you’re getting out of your running game, out of the running backs.
MARK STOOPS: Yeah. We were productive in the run game this past week. I think Coach (John) Schlarman and the offensive line did a great job this past week and kind of took it a bit personal. Maybe a couple of years ago (when UK played Eastern Michigan in 2017), we didn’t have the mentality and the physical nature that we generally play with, and they did a nice job this week and really moved some people, created some holes.
Running backs were running good, and we were very efficient, and I said it after the game and I could say it again, you know, we probably could have run much more, but we were working on the pass game and throwing the ball much more.
I want to say maybe the first time I’ve been here, we actually attempted more passes than -- we had three sacks and the scrambles, between scrambles and sacks and attempts, we had more passing attempts than rushing attempts.
Q. Talk about Feleipe Franks. What do you see out of him and can you see Mullen’s influence on him?
MARK STOOPS: Yeah, definitely. Dan always does a great job of his quarterbacks, and you know, coaching quarterbacks because it’s a friendly system. It’s a good system. Even though they’re spread out and can definitely get the ball down the field, they like taking their shots and getting the ball down the field. But it comes from a physical presence. They always want to have a physicality about them, and that opens things down the field, and Feleipe looks very, very good. He looks very comfortable. Second year, starting with Dan being there, and he has a big arm, that’s for sure.
Q. What’s making Kavosiey so -- is it his vision there?
MARK STOOPS: Yeah. Kavosiey (Smoke) has had a couple nice runs, bouncing it, and he had it walled off in week one, and then this past week he made somebody miss and then found an opening and got it to the end zone. But he’s done a nice job, you know. He made some people miss early in this past run, and then had some openings. But he’s explosive, got good vision, strong.
Q. Talk about losing Terry offensively. The locker room you mentioned earlier how Sawyer has been able to do since he got here and earned that trust.
MARK STOOPS: You have to earn that leadership. You know, it doesn’t come with the position. It just comes from the way you handle yourself in earning the respect from his teammates and finding his voice, whatever way it is.
I think Sawyer did a nice job, again, in respect of his team by having his voice the way he was. He had great command of the offense when he was in there, didn’t try to force anything. He is who he is, and he handles himself very good. And with that the way he goes out and plays, he’ll get more and more of those opportunities to earn that trust and to be in a leadership position. So I don’t anticipate that being any issue at all with him.
Q. Mark, the right side of the offensive line is new this year, at least the starters? How did they play?
MARK STOOPS: They did a nice job. Darian (Kinnard) played much better, did a nice job in this past game. And then Mason (Wolfe) did a nice job with rotating in there with Luke (Fortner). So that’s been a nice rotation, and those guys did a good job.
Landon (Young) really played a good football game. Landon is doing some really good things, and in Game 2, this second game Landon did some -- he played very well.
Q. He was the SEC offensive lineman of the week. How nice is it to see him healthy and back out there?
MARK STOOPS: It’s really good. He’s getting more and more comfortable, getting more confident, and he looks good.
Q. When we interviewed the players after the game, it seemed like they all said the right thing. They were all very, very supportive of Sawyer while lamenting how bad they felt for Terry. I mean, it’s almost like too good to be true. Do you tell them to say that kind of thing or is this part of the coaching change?
MARK STOOPS: No. Not at all. The only thing, I was a bit concerned because I just tried to pick them up a little bit after the game. And they will; they’ll respond. They’ll walk through the building and be confident and ready to go.
We just all feel for Terry. And again, I can’t understate what he’s done for us. He’s a remarkable young man, and you know that position takes some thick skin, and you gotta be very confident and be tough-minded, and he’s been that. And he’s worked really hard. And hasn’t been perfect, but he’s led us to a lot of winning in the past 15 games he’s been here. So, you know, we’re definitely going to miss him. But you have to bounce back. You have to be resilient, and we have to move on. And I’m confident our team will do that.
Q. Mark, how was Terry when you went to see him Saturday night?
MARK STOOPS: He was disappointed, like you would expect. He’s worked very, very hard, and he was down, but he won’t be defeated. He’ll be back. There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s a resilient guy. And this injury is very clean. I know there’s been speculation out there. It’s a clean injury. It’s better than some of the alternatives, you know. His ligament is totally fine. His cartilages are all fine. So we need to repair this, and he’ll be out for the season, but he’ll be back with no side effects.
Q. How much better do you feel like your secondary has gotten up to this point in the season?
MARK STOOPS: Secondary has had some good and some bad, like a lot of our team. There’s things we can build on. There are some good parts, and there’s some things we need to get corrected. The good thing is some of the things we need to get corrected we can. It’s not about ability; it’s about some discipline with eye control.
Q. (No targeting call against Yusuf Corker)?
MARK STOOPS: Well, it was good. You know, it’s tough. As I mentioned in week one, I’m confident in that they have enough eyes on this now. They have enough people reviewing this to make as accurate of a call as they can. And so I was relieved.
Q. Medical redshirt for Terry, is that something that’s being considered?
MARK STOOPS: No. Terry was three for three. So it won’t matter. Next year will be his last year.
Q. Is there a day scheduled for his surgery?
MARK STOOPS: Not yet. They gotta wait till some swelling goes down.
Q. Beyond his rehab, what will be his role?
MARK STOOPS: Well, of course, he’ll be there and just be a positive force for Sawyer, and you know, he’s been through it, and for all the quarterbacks and try to help in that room, I’m sure.
Q. How much will we see Lynn Bowden as a Wildcat moving forward?
MARK STOOPS: I don’t know. (Laughter). You want me to tell you what plays he’s going to be in next week? (Laughter). I don’t know. It’s only Monday. I’ll get back to you on Thursday. Okay?
Q. Think we might see him at QB2 maybe?
MARK STOOPS: May be. You did last week, two snaps.