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Mark Stoops talks ULM, SEC vaccine threshold, new offense and more

“First opportunity to get going.”

Greg Goins - Sea of Blue

It’s game week for the Kentucky Wildcats, who will host Louisiana Monroe on Saturday to officially usher in the 2021 college football season.

Ahead of the game, head coach Mark Stoops held his first game week press conference Monday to preview the Warhawks, discuss the latest news surrounding his team, and getting past the SEC threshold of 85% vaccination needed among players, coaches, and staff.

Here is a recap of what Stoops had to say via UK Athletics.

Opening statement:

“Okay, excited to be back. Good to see you all in person and good to be back to a normal press conference and really excited about the first week. First opportunity to get going. Home game with the Louisiana Monroe. Look forward to seeing Terry Bowden. As I said in my tweet, my condolences to Terry and the entire Bowden family. Had the pleasure of working at Florida State for three years, walked by Coach Bowden every day. Of course it was bronze statue of him in front of our building but walked passed that statue every day and if you’re a coach and you’ve been around this business you have nothing but respect for Bobby Bowden and the Bowden family and what he’s done. It was an honor for me to coach there for three years and walk past that statue, so looking forward to seeing Terry. He has a great staff. Obviously Rich Rodriguez being his offensive coordinator, and Zac Alley his defensive coordinator, guys that have been around, very good coordinators. Obviously, it’s going to be a much-improved football team and we’re excited about us and just getting back on the field. Really excited to have the stadium at full capacity. Thank you to the fans that already bought tickets and that are going to buy tickets and pack that stadium and were really excited to get going.

“New offensive coordinator for us, will be our first, obviously first true test, we’ve had some scrimmages but to get out there and play a full game under a new system, it’s exciting for all of us. Of course, defensively expectations are high, we pride ourselves on continuing to play great defense and we challenge our players to do that. Like we always say game one, everybody’s anxious. It’s always a long off-season through the winter through spring. Players busting their tail all summer, so everybody’s excited to get back out there so we really can’t wait to get going.

“I know there’s been a few headlines this summer and as you know we pride ourselves on having a disciplined football team. We’ve done things as well as we can for a long time and we’ll continue to do that. We’ll continue to do things right and have discipline on our football team. You know how Mitch Barnhart is and Dr. (Eli) Capilouto. They do things extremely, very disciplined and I appreciate them and I appreciate their support. I appreciate the University and they went through in a thorough investigation and cleared our players and the way they went about it and gave them a fair process, I greatly appreciate them. If I had any evidence, whatsoever, that our players are doing something that needs to be addressed, we have no problem with addressing that and disciplining our players, so we’ll continue to evaluate that process and see how it plays out. We’ve been patient, our players have been patient and you have to trust the system. That gets hard. Our players have been out a long time. They missed probably 13 weeks, 14 weeks of time on the field right now with this situation, so I have to believe in the system. During the summer we brought in a speaker, Denny Butler, who spent time exonerating wrongfully convicted people and Edwin Chandler, who spent time on death row, was in there with us and talked with our team. It was very powerful. Really appreciate Chief Weathers (Lexington Police Chief Lawrence Weathers), Chief Monroe (UK Police Chief Joe Monroe). They were there as well and very supportive and very comforting to our players that no, it’s not always personal. There’s flaws in the system at times and we have to trust that system, and we will, but I also stand by our players until I have the evidence that tells me overwise. So, I hope to have all the players out there but I don’t know, that’s out of my hands. We’ll see what happens but we’ll go from there.”

On the most important message he wants to get across to his players in preparation for this Saturday…

“Well, there’s many things that we need to discuss as far as … the biggest thing is early in the season, players want to do too much. They want every play is a touchdown, every play is a stop or a sack or whatever and you fundamentally sometimes lose sight of things. I was at my son’s first game and I noticed that with the high school it’s the same way. You want the end result right now and it was interesting, it just brought that to my attention right there that It’s truly about fundamentally doing the things necessary to take care of your responsibility. Players always want to do too much too early and that could be a problem so it’s truly one play at a time, work on all the things we’ve worked on fundamentally, trust your teammates, and execute. It takes all 11 on every play and sometimes early on it’s not for a lack of want-to. You just have to be very disciplined to do the things necessary and count and trust the people next to you to do their job, so it’s always you know how I always talk about primary and secondary. I always look at the D-linemen early. It’s like they always want to do to make the big play, but you got to take care of your primary responsibility first and then go make plays.”

On wrongfully convicted people, the examples you brought up, and his confidence of bringing players back...

“I have to be careful in how I say this, I want to. You know, I want to. We’ll see.”

On the judicial process…

“I have to respect the system, and I do. I completely trust our prosecutors, I completely trust our Chief. They’re not responsible for the investigation. This went on March 3, it’s hard; again, I’ve got to bite my tongue. I just know what’s been done to our players. I’m not sure what’s been done to others.”

On team vaccination rates/threshold...

“We’re past the threshold. We’re past 85%.”

Was it easy to get to the threshold...

“They wanted to do it, I wasn’t sitting there selling it. I was giving them information and being factual with information, and having experts talk about it, things of that nature. Guys want to play, they want to play football.”

On unveiling the new offense and scripting plays...

“We have scripted in the past, so I’m all for what Liam Coen (UK offensive coordinator) wants to do. As a defensive playcaller for a lot of years I’ve done things many different ways. I’ll trust what he wants to do. There will definitely be some thoughts, some of it depends on down and distance, things of that nature . There will be some things scripted.”

On last year’s hard schedule, and how it helped the Wildcats prepare for this season...

“I’m not sure. Every year is different. It’s hard to go back to last year, we’ve been well documented and we’re past it. It was tough. It’s a little different opening up on the road at Auburn. Opening up at home is good with a non-SEC school.”

On the players being ready to go for Saturday...

“I like the way they’ve been approaching the entire camp. Really focusing on the day and process, trying to get better each and every day. Again, I know that’s boring, but you can’t have that end result (now). It’s just like a game. Like I said, just like my son’s game, I could just see it in them. Maybe we’re supposed to win but it’s got to be this to this automatically. It’s one play, one possession at a time, everyone wants to get ahead of themselves. We can’t get ahead of ourselves. We’ve got a week of preparation, then it will truly be one play at a time. That’s boring, but that’s the truth. It’s just the truth.”

On opening games and deciding whether to have a conservative game plan or throwing everything out there...

“I don’t think there will be enough plays to run everything that we have, so it’s a little bit of both there. The game is a fundamental game. There’s plays that they know we’re going to run. For us, it’s a bigger challenge, with Rich Rodriguez (ULM offensive coordinator) being around for a while, being out last year. You’re unsure which way to go. His son Rhett is a heck of football player, knows his system. But you know, Rich can go a lot of different ways. We’ve gone all the way back to watch Arizona, we’ve watched Ole Miss, we’ve watched things that have hurt us that we think Rich can easily morph into. So, we’ve had to a lot of preparation for that. Same thing with their defensive coordinator. He comes from Boise, but he has a strong Clemson background and has hired guys from Clemson. So, we have to look at a lot of Clemson (video) as well. There are a few more unknowns for us to look at. We’re really concentrating on ourselves. Obviously, every game is super important, we’re not leaving anything in the bag. We’re going to do whatever we have to do in every game to go out and win the game. Obviously, we have a lot of different change-ups as you take place throughout the year.”

On the emergence of offensive guard Eli Cox...

“Eli kind of personifies what we like to be here in our program. He’s one of those guys that just develops, works and gets better every day. You got to love and respect that. He’s extremely smart, he’s very strong. He will do anything we ask him to do and he works on it. He’s a great teammate and getting better.”

On Dekel Crowdus’ status…

“He’s not out there at all right now. I’ll give you an update week-to-week, but definitely out right now.”

On Chauncey Magwood and DeMarcus Harris…

“We are still high on Chauncey and DeMarcus has been a steady player for us as well. They are both very good players and they’re going to play. So we will see.”

On Wan’Dale Robinson earning his spot on the team…

“He does that every day. As far as... doesn’t say ‘boo.’ He works, he works hard, he puts his head down, he works at his craft every day. You’ve heard me talk about that over the years with different players, everybody finds their voice at different times, I’m sure he will use his voice when he needs to at times and has. But he leads heavily by example as well, being a new guy coming in here, and he works very hard every day and really gets better, he improves. It’s amazing to see him, the way he sharpened his skill at wide receiver. We all know he is a talented guy with the ball in his hand but he’s really developing into a great wide receiver. He’s very talented but I love his work ethic.”

On comparing how he handles players’ mental health from when he first started to now …

“No, I wouldn’t say much has changed in that regard. I think it’s in vogue now to be relatable to players. I have never shied away from that, I’ve always been that way. You could go back, however many years I’ve been doing it, long time, 20-something years, it’s who I am, I believe in relationships, believe in being close to your players. But when you make those deposits you can take it out when you need to be forceful because they trust you and they know you believe in them and when I’m hard on them they know it is for a reason. It’s just always been the way I’ve been so I don’t feel like I’ve changed much other than the fact that you do naturally change year-in and year-out just with trying to improve, trying to work on blindspots, trying to be better in any way you can. Other than that I don’t feel like my total approach has changed, no.”

On how pleased he is with the freshmen and who has impressed the most…

“I think the freshman class in general, what I like about them is we just feel like they are all going to be good players. When you recruit that many players, when you bring them in you maybe have one or two that you feel like are far behind and that’s not really the case. This group is solid top to bottom, going to be really good players. Some guys are going to help us sooner than others but very good, very talented, and Jager (Burton) had an opportunity to run some with the ones and I was happy to see that because sometimes when you are communicating and you are with older guys, it brings you along faster, especially when you play inside and like I have told you before, the closer you get to that ball, the faster things happen. You play center and you play guard, things happen quick, there’s a lot of things going on very, very quickly and that sometimes can take some time. (At) Tackle, the further you get away from the football it’s still very hard in skill, you got to be very skilled to do it, but sometimes mentally it’s a little easier approach. And so Jager’s a guy that has really come along and all the other guys we have been talking about have done well.”

On special teams…

“Wilson (Berry) has been a little bit dinged up with his back, but he’ll be back out there today and hopefully he’ll be hitting the ball well; but Matt (Ruffolo) has been around for a while. Chance (Poore) will continue to do the kickoffs, Zach (Johnson) will still be the kickoff return guy and punt return, we’ll rotate. Both of those guys are very good, with Wan’Dale (Robinson) and Josh (Ali), are both really good return guys.”

On what he’s learned about working with Liam (Coen) that he wasn’t aware of when he hired him…

“Well, I don’t know what I’ve learned, good question. Let me be a little more direct. I think one thing would be that I appreciate his relationships, the way he communicates with the players, I really like that. I really like his energy; he’s very believable, he’s very positive. Players relate to him. That breeds confidence within the offensive room.”

On what he’s expecting the running game to look like compared to last year, how it will look different …

“You want to just forward this to (ULM)? (Laughter) It’ll look a little different. I think anybody knows, they know what his system is, they know what it’s going to be. Obviously, we’ll run the ball a little differently. If you look conceptually, we were a very tight football team, very tight inside zones, split zone, power, counter. We’ll be in the outside zones for the first time, so that’ll be different and some other ways; but that’s basic, they should know that.”

On what he’s seen from Will Levis in regards to him working on his leadership qualities and building relationships with his coaches…

“I’ve just seen a strong leader, a strong presence. Again, he’s very authentic, which you really like about him, and he works at it. He’s in there a lot. He’s in there watching film. A few times this summer when we’ve had recruits on campus, or he happened to pop in my office, just watching him interact with other people, watching him interact with recruits, parents, anybody—he handles himself like a grown man. You need that out of your quarterback, so he’s very strong.”

On whether he still gets “nerves, excited, jitters,” before the season opener…

“Definitely. I think the opener is always a bit different. You’ve probably heard me say that for nine years, but it’s true. I think the opener is different because there’s a lot of anticipation, there’s a long time (off-season). Again, you have a good feeling what your team is, you work with them every day and you know them, but until you get out there and do it, then it settles you down and you have a better idea of where do we need to work on, what are we doing good, let’s build on the good things and let’s improve on the other things. You get caught in the moment of getting better, once you start. Early on, we’ve been going at this for a long camp, you’re kind of anxious and you just kind of want to see what your team really is. So, those are the nerves—I’d say anticipation more than nerves—are always there. I’m very excited, I’ve said this before, to me, it feels new, it feels like year one. I don’t know, I guess it’s maybe with a lot of the changes that I’ve had. A lot of changes in the offense, or in the office in general, and I think, for me, it’s just an exciting time.”

On if, like players, coaches have to be careful about doing “too much” during the first game…

“Oh yeah, no question. There’s always a fine line with coaches of too much or too little. You know what I mean? Again, you heard me say this — it’s not about what we know, it’s about what they know and what they can do. We can stay up there all night, and work all night, and come up with all kinds of creative things, but can they do it? Can they execute it? And there’s always a concern of too much/too little, and what can they handle, what can they do, and let’s execute. You If I had been boring (laughter), there’s one thing, ‘you can’t beat anybody, until you stop beating yourself.’ And so, the bottom line is winning. Things that look pretty and fancy are good for writing about; winning football games is another thing.”

On if Stoops has a feel on how much the team can currently handle…

“Yeah, we do.”

On if Stoops is concerned about new quarterback Will Levis, trying to do too much, too soon and being too “amped”…

“Absolutely, but I have confidence in him. Again, he’s mature and he’ll be coached well. I have confidence in him. I’ve said this before, the first time in the stadium, he threw a bomb for a touchdown. But that doesn’t mean that’s going to be play one. I am a defensive coach. I know when I’m playing people like that, I’m telling my whole defense that it’s coming. There’s going to be shots; 1, 2 or 3. For us, we are going to be who we are. But we’ve done that in the past, too. Doesn’t mean that we’ve always hit them. But, we definitely want to be balanced but we want to attack as well.”

On if he needs to tell himself “whoa” before the season opener...

“No, I do not need to tell myself that. I am very boring (laughter). I really don’t worry about that about myself. I have many issues that you all know about but being boring isn’t one of them. It’s easy for me. I just try to stay disciplined and not beat ourselves and win the football game. I am adamant about getting better and pushing this program forward. So, if it’s going to go through some peaks and valleys, it’s going to go through some peaks and valleys. But we are going to get better.”

On being asked if he feels a sense of normalcy with the non-conference schedule unlike last year opening at Auburn…

“Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. Why don’t you try being the head coach and pick up that schedule? (laughter) Tell me how you feel. It’sery different, our league —and I don’t need to say any more— other power five leagues, take a look at it top-to-bottom and look at ours. There’s a difference.”

On if Naasir Watkins is back to 100 percent…

“He is back to 100 percent, he is getting there, he is suspended for the first four games.”

On how much is Terry Bowden like his dad…

“I don’t really know Terry that well, personally. But when I have been around him, he seems a lot like his dad. Very charismatic and fun to be around. Just a guy that has really done things right for a long time.”

On J.J. Weaver’s status…

“He’s getting better. He’s been out there. I think he is getting close. He has practiced without a red jersey on. That tells you that to us, he’s full go. But that does not mean he is at 100%. He has to continue to get confidence in himself and get some plays under his belt so we will see and bring him along.”