Today is Kentucky’s annual media day, as head coach Mark Stoops and select players gathered at Kroger Field to preview the upcoming college football season.
Here is a recap of what they had to say via UK Athletics.
Kentucky Head Coach Mark Stoops
MARK STOOPS: Really good to see everybody. It’s great. I think everybody is excited to get back in person. This is the first time I’ve seen you all — well, many of you, in this type of gathering in well over a year. It feels really good to get back to some form of normal. I hope you all had a great summer. It’s really good to see you. It truly is. We’re excited. I know everybody says that this time of year. I’ve probably said that for nine straight years, as (sports information director Tony Neely) just pointed out, but that’s the truth. I think this time of year you get through the spring, you get through the summer, the players are working exceptionally hard. We have changes, and the anticipation builds up. I’m as excited this year, as excited to get going right now as I was in year one. I feel really good about this team. I love our coaching staff. I feel like we’re in a really good place. Really greatly appreciate the work that the strength and conditioning team has done this summer, and they always do. I think it probably doesn’t get talked about enough, but those guys do a remarkable job. They work with our players all spring, all summer daily and give up quite a bit of their time to individually train our football team, so I greatly appreciate our strength and conditioning team. Our players look really good, really fit, and are very much ready to go. As far as our staff, it’s well-documented that we made changes. I feel good about where we’re at. The coaches have worked extremely hard. I was very pleased coming out of spring, I felt like we progressed probably better than I anticipated. The players have worked exceptionally hard this summer to continue to build on that. Defensively we have a big nucleus of our guys back. We have some guys that have played a lot of football. Coach (Brad) White and Coach (Jon) Sumrall do a remarkable job leading that defense, and we feel like we’re in really good position. As far as the kicking game, having (Matt) Ruffolo back, that’s a big plus for us, a very steady guy, very consistent, and it’s good to have him back. Wilson Berry — we’ll trade one Aussie for the other, and looking forward to seeing what Wilson can do, but very talented and excited about that. I feel like we added a dimension with Wan’Dale (Robinson) in the return game. Josh Ali did a remarkable job on punt returns. He’ll continue to do that with Wan’Dale, but Wan’Dale brings a different element in the return game, along with playing wide receiver. I feel like as far as the roster, we’re in really good position. As you all know and see the landscape of college football, that’s a big part of it, the roster management, with losing some guys and picking some up. I feel really, really good about the players we picked up. I feel like we picked them up in some positions that we needed some depth, needed some help, and hopefully that will help us throughout this season. I’m confident that it will. As always, we’re going to build this program with developing our players and continuing to build them and develop leadership and develop them mentally and physically, and I feel like we have quite a bit of leadership on this football team.
Needless to say, it’s a fun time. It’s an exciting time. As I mentioned, I think just going to a kickoff luncheon and seeing people doing the fundraisers and things of that nature, that’s normal with the preseason, it makes it that much more exciting. Really appreciate what we have and appreciate the position that we’re in, and just grateful to be here for nine years and looking forward to nine more. I’ll open it up for questions at this point.
Q. I’m sure you’re not going to tell us who the quarterback is, but do you have a timeframe of when that decision will be?
MARK STOOPS: You know, through the years you’ve heard me answer this, and I bet I’ve answered it the same way. It’s more important to get it right than to be in a hurry. Is there a benefit? Yes, I believe there is. There’s a benefit to getting reps. That’s part of the negative to having a lot of talented players at any position, but it seems like it’s obviously much easier to rotate guys in throughout practice and preseason at other spots than quarterback. We do feel like there is quality depth maybe for the first time. You go all the way down and have four or five guys that you feel confident that could play football at this level, and getting them reps is a concern, and we will work that as best we can.
Q. Transfers are really changing the game. Looks like we’ve got some good transfers in.
MARK STOOPS: Yes, sir, really did. I feel like we got them in positions that we needed some depth. We needed some depth, obviously, and some impact guys at wide receiver. We did that. You always need tackles; we did that. We got in a position with an early entrance to the NFL and then an injury at middle linebacker, we really solidified ourselves there. And obviously quarterback. So we have some really good players and really hit some needs, so it was very critical for us, and I feel very good about it.
Q. That will change the whole complexion of college athletics, too, won’t it?
MARK STOOPS: It really will. I think right now it’s fair to say there’s a lot of change going on. The (transfer) portal is one thing. I think we’ve been gearing up for that and kind of — we can manage that. I think with the name image and likeness (rules), it’s changing. It’s going to definitely change the landscape of our game, and we all have to adapt and do the very best we can. That’s very new, and we’re trying to — we worked very hard this summer at educating our players and helping our players as best we could, and we’ll continue to do that and put them in the best position to be successful.
Q. Chris Rodriguez (Jr.) made some comments earlier this week about getting the vaccine. Do you feel like that is going to pick up in the next few weeks?
MARK STOOPS: We are in a good strong position. I feel like we’ll reach the goal. But that’s a touchy subject. I addressed it with the team. We’re very open and honest and communicate often about a lot of things, and that is an individual choice. We’ll continue to educate them, and everybody will do what’s best for them or what they feel most comfortable. But I do feel like we’ll reach the goal that the league has set.
Q. Conference realignment has been the big talk since we last spoke with you. Oklahoma and Texas are pretty big programs. Is there more pressure to perform now knowing that the league is only going to get better?
MARK STOOPS: I don’t know if you could ever say is there more pressure. I mean, come on. How much can you handle? No, it is what it is. It’s always brutal. It’s hard. You know, the pressure comes from within, and when we say that as coaches, that’s not lip service, it’s truthful. Within our program, we have goals and aspirations, and that — anybody on the outside really can’t affect that. As I mentioned, anytime you bring a program like Oklahoma and Texas into your conference, it’s only going to help with exposure, and obviously it’s going to be more challenging, if that’s even possible, to make the (Southeastern Conference) more challenging. They picked the two right schools. It’ll be a fun challenge. It’ll be a great challenge. But it always is anyway.
Q. You have a lot of experience back on the offensive line, but you also have a lot of guys playing different positions. Does that make a difference when you have them in different spots?
MARK STOOPS: Not so much. Not so much. I think the experience helps. We did that quite a bit even if it was in practice. We moved guys around a lot. John (Schlarman) always did a great job with that. As you know, when we had the players that we felt like could play winning football, we played them in games. There’s one year in particular where we rotated nine guys quite a bit. I feel like this year we’ll definitely be in a position where we feel like we could almost go 10 deep. I like that because it builds your program for the future, and I do feel like we’re in a position where we could rotate quite a few guys and be interchangeable. Certainly there’s going to be a lot of work to do between right now and getting ready for that first game.
Q. More specific on depth on the offensive line, Coach (Eric) Wolford said Jeremy Flax had a good spring at right tackle. Having Dare Rosenthal come in, what happens to Flax?
MARK STOOPS: No. I mean, Dare has to go — there’s competition, yeah. We’re very pleased with Jeremy, and he gives us a big, strong, physical presence that we always like. Dare will come in and compete like the rest of our guys. If he can play at that level and it feels like he is one of our top five, then you can move guys. But I’m not sure what that’ll be or who it’ll be or what position. We always have an obligation. It’s no different than any position, it’s just like in the secondary if your five best guys — you want to get your five best guys on the field, and offensive line is no different, you want to get your five best. But we do feel like there’s some depth.
Q. How confident are you in getting to the quarterback better this year?
MARK STOOPS: I mean, I’m confident. We’ve been there before. It’s not like we haven’t done it. You know, we want to continue to play good team defense, and there’s a lot of elements to that. We certainly want to improve in all areas, even if you look at statistically over the years, we’ve been pretty solid, in the top half of just about every statistical category, but that doesn’t mean we’re not trying to get better in all areas, and pressure is one of them.
Q. What are your thoughts on moving Izayah Cummings to the tight end position and do you have an update on Keaton Upshaw?
MARK STOOPS: Yeah, Keaton is doing very good. He’s recovering and getting better. It’s unfortunate, as I mentioned Keaton has worked so hard, and we were really looking forward to having him, certainly with this offense and having tight ends and needing tight ends. Just the way we practice, it’s hard on that position. You need to be very deep. We’re physical, we want to be physical, and we want to be balanced, but those guys take a lot of — it’s hard on them. They’re sitting in there trying to block big dudes and getting hit in the pass game, as well, and all that. So they take a pretty good beating at times during practice, and the wear and tear gets pretty heavy, so you really feel like you want some depth there. But moving Izayah to tight end, he came to us with that. Obviously he was always a tweener. He’s a very big, athletic guy, and we have a need in — really if you look at it and you watch football at the next level, they love the athletic tight ends. There’s always the in-line guys, the physical guys, the guys that can do everything, but the super athletic tight ends that can get open and are tough mismatches are getting more and more valuable, so we have to find the right way to use him.
Q. How is J.J. Weaver doing in his rehab, and do you think he’s going to be able to go week one?
MARK STOOPS: Yeah, J.J. is ahead of schedule. He’s working extremely hard. I stayed on J.J. from day one just to make sure he stayed up with that, starting with his range of motion, and then his strength and all those things. He’s putting it together. I don’t know. I don’t want to force that. He’s doing a very good job. But you also have to make sure you give that ligament time to heal. He has a bright future, and I have a tendency to try to be more cautious with those type of guys than force them back into it.
Q. You guys were waiting on Devonte Ross. Was he able to make it?
MARK STOOPS: He’s not here at this point. We’re still waiting on him and hope that he can get here, but he’s not here right now.
Q. You did a great job with Kentucky kids. What’s the status of Kentucky high school football right now?
MARK STOOPS: The best I’ve seen it. I’ve really — just to see the growth over the nine years that I’ve been here, and Kentucky high school football, it’s been just awesome to watch, just — I can see — you see the players coming out each and every year. There’s more and more of them and more impact guys. But there’s just — it’s just better high school football. That’s a credit to the coaches. I know they work extremely hard. We build strong, close relationships with many of them, and our door is open 24/7 to high school coaches, and they can come in, and a lot of them do, watch meetings, watch practice, and we’re here to help anyway we can. But it’s been really fun to see the growth and the improvement of Kentucky high school football.
Q. You did a great job this year getting kids in state this year.
MARK STOOPS: Yeah, we’re proud of what we’ve done. We work hard — that’s our priority. We want to keep the local kids home. We want to keep the state of Kentucky players home. I know it’s important for you all to see them, it’s important for our fan base to see them, and it helps in all ways. This is our home, and we’re trying like heck to lock it down each and every year.
Q. What is a reasonable expectation for your freshmen linebackers (Martez) Thrower and (Trevin) Wallace?
MARK STOOPS: Man, they’re both good players. I haven’t been able to — we’re not allowed to see certain things in the summer. Obviously I can watch their movement and their body and watch them on tape, and some impressive players. I have high expectations. I’m not afraid to play true freshmen if they can come in and have an impact. We’ve done it before. I anticipate those guys playing, but they have to go prove it and play. But I believe they will.
Q. Are you concerned about some of the road games the team will face this year?
MARK STOOPS: Am I concerned about what?
Q. Some of the road opponents the team will face this year?
MARK STOOPS: I mean, am I concerned? I haven’t even thought about it. I mean, it is what it is. Bring it on.
Q. Do you think (Name, Image, Likeness rules) can get in the way of player performance, and if it does, how would you handle it?
MARK STOOPS: NIL is a major concern of how it affects our game, how it affects your locker room. For me personally, yes, I’m concerned about the way it affects our team. We’ve talked about it a lot. We’ve educated them as best we can. It does not seem to be a problem to this point. Many of our players feel like they just want to concentrate on football. The great ones will do that because they know they have an ability to do something special, have an opportunity to play at the next level, and that’s really where they want their concentration to be. This is new. It’s interesting because I can talk about it and educate them, but then there are rules and regulations as far as how far these tentacles can go and how much we help them, and that’s always hard. So you’re floating a young person, a young adult out there doing things and signing things that were not properly educated on.
Q. How do you handle it?
MARK STOOPS: Well, we handle it the best we can. Again, we educate them. We do have people that can help them within our athletic department and compliance and things of that nature, and they are allowed third-party people to help them with that. But to think that all of these student-athletes across the country aren’t going to run into some problems, then we have our head in the sand.
Q. Players used to sign autographs for fans as they leave the field. Do you see that going away now or do you think that’ll continue?
MARK STOOPS: Whether players sign or not on the way out and things? I think — will it change? Absolutely it’ll change. I anticipate that a lot of our players will, and I anticipate that a lot of our players may not. I think that’ll be across the country. I know that’ll irritate certain people, but again, our players are really — I don’t just say this. I speak the truth. I think you all know that. We have really good kids, very good players that are very conscientious, that do so many things to help the community. They’re so unselfish, and they really want to do right. They really do. You know, so I just appreciate our players. What that looks like, where they can make a few dollars, I think we all can understand that, too. I don’t see any of our players overly consumed with going out and trying to do this NIL thing. I see them concentrating on football, and I hope it stays that way.
Q. There’s been a lot of changes, but the one that probably affects you the most is practice time. Do you have to change the way you do things to make sure you accomplish your kind of weekly goals?
MARK STOOPS: No, I don’t think anything, the structure of our practice or anything of that nature will affect us, no.
Q. Has (Matt) Ruffolo increased his kicking range at all?
MARK STOOPS: We’ll see. I hope so. But I hope he stays consistent like he has been. You know, I know he’s worked hard, and I feel confident with him, so we’ll see where that range goes.
Q. I know you can’t comment about a commit, but you had one recently that is a track superstar. With track athletes front and center at the Olympics, do you look at recruiting more athletes?
MARK STOOPS: You know, I think there’s no secret that we’ve been a big, strong, physical football team, and I like the fact that we’re getting faster. I think we all can appreciate that. We’re a faster football team this year than we were last year. I always feel like when you say that, we are — again, with our strength and conditioning team, we’re an explosive, fast football team short-range, but you need some guys to take the top off. It’s not like we have a slow defense or we have a lot of twitchy guys and are very sudden and very strong, but top-end speed is a different deal. And yes, I want to continue to get top-end speed.
You just add a guy like Dekel (Crowdus), and of course Wan’Dale (Robinson), but then you’ve got Wan’Dale and Dekel, those are top-end speed that you’re looking for along with others that we’re looking at.
#70 Darrien Kinnard, OL
On his technique …
“I’ve always been a focused-on technique type of player, improving all of the small things and details. That’s what the spring and summer is for, to focus on the details and see if it works for your game or not.”
On using his size to win battles up front …
“I’ve always been the heaviest, not the tallest. I’ve just always been that guy that focuses on my technique to help win my battles. Usually, you just sit down and really focus on kind of getting yourself out to the guy.”
#6 Josh Ali, WR
On UK’s offense …
“This year is better than last year. I can tell that we’re not going to be as tired at practices anymore. We’re ready to be fresh and play fast.”
On being asked to be a leader and help the young guys …
“It feels good to be a better leader than I was last year. It’s nice to get the chance to prove myself more than I did last year. I’m just ready to show the guys how we do things around here. Get them ready for the games.”
On quarterback Will Levis …
“He’s my neighbor right now, we’ve been hanging out. He’s cool, he is a great quarterback. I can tell that he’s ready to come in and compete right now.”
#1 Wan’dale Robinson, WR
On how excited he is about the season …
“I mean I’m super excited. I’m just glad to be home. You know, just to be able to play in front of these fans and actually have a packed house now.”
On what the summer was like preparing for the season …
“I mean it’s pretty normal for a college football season, that’s what you usually do. We are just with our strength staff a lot. We work really hard during the offseason to be able to be ready to go now so we are really excited to get going.”
On leaving Nebraska and coming home …
“It was a little bit of both. Obviously, when I left I wanted to keep my eyes open a little bit but I knew I was really eyeing coming back here. I just wanted to see what we were going to do with offense and things like that. But it was a really easy choice to come back home.”