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Mark Stoops talks Gator Bowl, roster updates, and more

Stoops expects the majority of the roster to suit up in Kentucky’s bowl game.

Mark Stoops Dylan Ballard - A Sea Of Blue

The Kentucky Wildcats are officially heading to the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl, where they’ll meet the No. 22 Clemson Tigers on December 29th.

On Monday, head coach Mark Stoops met with the media to discuss the game while also giving several important roster updates.

Prior to the news conference, Stoops and the Board of Directors for the annual “Coaches for the Kids” fundraising event presented a check to the University of Kentucky Children’s Hospital for $1.1 million.

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

Opening statement on the $1.1 million donation to the Lexington Children’s Hospital…

“It’s my pleasure just to be a part of this organization [Coaches for the Kids]. I brag on this guy [Dr. Scottie Day of the hospital] all the time because, as I say at the event, all it takes is for one of us to have a child sick, then we’re going to be at the mercy of Dr. Scottie Day and his crew, and he treats everybody like royalty. It doesn’t matter where you’re from. It doesn’t matter if you’re Mark Stoops’ child or if you’re anybody from Eastern Kentucky, Western Kentucky, or anywhere in between. They treat everybody like gold and all you have to do is take a couple passes through Kentucky Children’s Hospital and it will open up your heart and will open up your wallet. It is very easy for myself and my staff to be a part of this event every year.

“You have to go all the way back to Coach (Rich) Brooks, who started this foundation and I kind of rejuvenated it. When I came back in town, they asked me about it and it was my pleasure to be a part of it. The board does all of the work for our event and a lot of our staff—our coaches, Josh Pruitt, Eddie Gran, all of our staff—we love being part of it. It kicks off the football season. It’s a great night to raise money and to celebrate a little bit. Again, I can’t brag on Dr. Scott Day and his crew and what they’ve done.

“I am proud of all of the work and money we have raised over 11 years. You walk through there and you physically see some of the changes just to make it a little bit easier for the people that are going through the trauma that they are going through. I have some very, very close friends of mine that are going through it—that were here that are gone (have moved from Lexington) and some that have gone through it here.

“It’s just an honor to be a part of it. This guy [Dr. Day] is an absolute class act, and I am not just saying that. He is just an incredible human being. Makes me better, being a part of this organization and it is our pleasure, it’s our honor, to do this and to have an endowment that will help kick it forward. We are looking forward to the event again this summer, like we always do.”

On your involvement with the Lexington Children’s Hospital…

“First of all, our involvement with the UK Children’s Hospital runs deep. Our players love going over there. Our staff goes over there. I’ve got to get over there more. And with no fanfare, that’s part of what our players do, they like affecting young people and having an influence. All it takes is for somebody you know to have to spend a day there or need the care from these guys [the doctors], they’re the ones. We’ve had people in my building go through situations this year. Everybody is talking about coaching and everybody’s writing about coaching and players and everything else. All you need to do is have a little episode and we’re begging for a doctor, and certainly, for a child.”

Opening statement on the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl…

“Obviously, very excited about the bowl game. Such a quality opponent, it’s going to be a great game to play Clemson. First, I have to recognize Coach (Dabo) Swinney and the job he’s done for so long. I want to say two national championships, eight ACC championship in the last 10 years, maybe 11. The model of consistency, he’s done a remarkable job. Their team is very balanced this year—over 400 yards a game offensively, defensively giving up less than 300. Once again, a typical Clemson team—very physical, very good, very much built like a lot of SEC schools as far as the strength that they have and the impact players that they have at every level. It will be a great game.

“Proud of our team and the way that they finished. We needed that game. We needed to go play well against Louisville, a top-10 team. There’s been some ups and downs through this season. I’ve mentioned to you and I mentioned it postgame after the Louisville game that I like this football team. I like the way they finish. They’ve stayed with it all year. Things haven’t always been pretty, like most teams there’s some ups and some downs. But, I really love the way they fought and hung tough and found a way to win a big game at the end and bring the Governor’s Cup back to Lexington, which we have a good spot for up there and I would like to keep it there for a while. So, a very good win.

“Right now, it has been a hectic time, as you could imagine. I spent a good portion of last week meeting with just about every player on our team. Certainly, the assistants met with everybody and I met with probably three-fourths of them. I tell you, I came away from those meetings so encouraged because, as you know, the season gets challenging for everybody. It’s demanding and it’s challenging. I came away from those meetings just extremely encouraged with our players. A few of them want to come back and are making these decisions. They can make them; it’s their story to tell whether they are going to the NFL or coming back and playing in the bowl game or not. I can tell you the response has been incredible. Our guys are excited about this bowl game, want to play in this bowl game. I think that we will be pretty darn close to 100 percent in this bowl game.

“It’s been a good week, a busy week. After I get done with this press conference, I’m jumping on a plane and going on a home visit this afternoon. I’m going to hit the trail recruiting and have some things to do this week to tidy up. We will have recruits on campus the next two weekends so it’s a busy time, but a very exciting time.”

On how much it would mean to this team to end the season with back-to-back wins…

“It would be very important. Getting the invite to this bowl game and to play Clemson, means a lot, it certainly does. To play a team of the caliber of Clemson, and to try to go get a victory, we will invest a lot into it.”

On Ray Davis entering his name into 2024 NFL Draft

“All along, we assumed [he] was one-and-done all year. We kind of knew that before he came. Then, he did tease us for a minute. He said he started thinking about it for a minute to come back for another year but that did not last for but a day or two (laughter from media). So, we kind of anticipated that all along. We wish the best for Ray. He announced he wasn’t playing but I’m going to talk to him again. He will decide that. I’m not sure that there’s not a possibility that he will come back to play in this game, but again, the majority of everybody else I have talked to is excited about it.”

On what you have learned from your first two years with the immediate eligibility rule and how that will / has helped you in this year’s cycle…

“I think the biggest thing I learned during the year is dealing with it a bit better. I’ve talked about that throughout the year, I think. Setting the tone early, you’ve heard me, the way we’ve built the program and the development process and all of that—well, it’s different now. Your roster turnover is different. You have to adjust to it, adapt to it, and handle it the best you can. I feel like we have gotten some really quality additions through the portal. That doesn’t mean you’re perfect. I feel really good about our team. With the continuity that we’ve had on the defensive side of the ball, you’re going to see a lot of stability there. I think, offensively, with the change that we have had, we have to get some years under our belt. With Liam [Coen], we are going to bring that stability that we need. I think you’ll see it pay off both in recruiting and on the field, but it does take a bit of time. So, I think it is a tale of two sides at this point, with needing to hit the portal on certain positions on the offensive side and defensively being fairly stable. That doesn’t mean we won’t take a couple of additions.”

On offensive linemen Marques Cox and Eli Cox announcing their return to Kentucky for an additional season…

“I think that’s really big, really important, two guys that are high-quality players, they’re leaders. They’re consistently good players for us. That’s a great nucleus for us to start there on the offensive line.”

On if Devin Leary is excited about the upcoming bowl game..

“Yeah, I haven’t seen him much, to be honest with you. We’ve been running but I know he’s excited to play. I think he’s excited for one more opportunity with this team and to go play well. Certainly, finishing the way he did should give him a little momentum and hopefully we’ll keep that going because you’re going to play a very, very good and talented defense in Clemson.”

On the balance involved in building your wide receiver room…

“We have to go and attract some, we have to get some just for numbers. You got to build your depth. It takes four or five, six receivers even throughout the season to really contribute and to help, so we’ll work at that.”

On if playing Clemson in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl game gives the team any extra juice…

“I think our whole team better take that approach. I think that’s the big thing with bowl games, you know, who’s excited about the work that it takes prior to showing up down there at the site and as you’ve heard me tell you every week, everybody wants to win come game time– it’s about what we’re going to do between now and then to put ourselves in position to win.”

On more about Clemson…

“I’ve been on the road. I’m a little bleary-eyed, got home last night, came to this and I’m leaving in a half-hour, so I have had zero time to look at Clemson other than what you know about them, what you see from TV, what you know from the tradition, what you know Dabo’s done, the consistency that he’s had. I know they’ve won four games in a row, I know they’re very balanced offensively, they’re always big and strong and athletic on defense, so, do you need to know much more than that right now?” (laughter)

On approaching the transfer portal…

“We’ll work through it– I think it would be negligent for me to talk about anything right now, just get to work.”

On your excitement in returning to the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl…

“It was exciting. I was on the road, I was in a home visit, I was eating at a Texas Roadhouse, got the text, so I was excited about it.”

On how well you know Dabo Swinney…

“I know Dabo from just crossing path, not very well. [I] have a lot of respect for him and what he’s done. I wouldn’t say personally that well but can’t help but feel like you know him. He’s been on a big stage there for a long time, you know, so he’s done very well.”

On if you need to recruit some running backs ahead of next season…

“We definitely will be able to recruit some running backs. I think we have some good running backs on the roster, some good running backs returning and they’ll get some opportunities.”

On people not understanding how busy coaches are this time of year…

“I have no idea, no disrespect, I don’t read that. I don’t read that stuff. I told you I have no clue – you guys can be saying whatever you want about me, go right ahead, I’m not going to hold a grudge because I’m not reading it (laughing).”

On how crazy this time of year is for you and the program…

“This part of it, yeah, it’s pretty much 24/7. It does kill me once in a while, when guys I’ve known for 10 years and good friends of mine that are in town and I love them, they are dear friends – ‘Hey coach, you wanna go do this?’ Like don’t you understand I’m busy 24/7 right now. Like literally, right now it’s 24/7. Everybody thinks it stops right after the season, (but) probably the busiest time of the season is between now and December 20th when we get a little break before Christmas. Between now and December 20th it’s 24/7.”

On your appreciation for the extra practice time…

“It’s good. It’s challenging early while we’re recruiting. While we’re recruiting, it’s a bit challenging because we’re on the road throughout the week. We get back Friday, usually we’ll have a workout Friday and Saturday while recruits are on campus, then wrap-up meetings and exit meetings Sunday, back on the road Sunday afternoon. So, it’s a balancing act the first two weeks and then it goes dead like the 17th or whatever that Sunday is, I think we are on campus after the second week.”

On if tampering in the transfer portal is a problem and how big a problem…

“I say something, and everybody is going to blow it out of proportion. I mean, use your common sense, you know it’s inevitable. It’s inevitable.”

On running backs playing in the bowl game…

“JuTahn (McClain) will play in the bowl game. Oh yeah, JuTahn will play in the bowl game and so will Ramon (Jefferson). So, I’ve gone back and forth on that a couple times, it’s interesting. I talked to quite a few of the other SEC coaches who have met on it before. Here’s the deal with the portal, most of the time it’s mutual. These young men have done an awful lot for the University of Kentucky. JuTahn, you’re talking specifically about him, he is an amazing person. He has done everything we’ve asked on every special team, he is locked in, I would assume he has played in every game, he’s locked in on every protection. He is a great teammate, and he deserves to be able to do that. I think that’s the case and that doesn’t mean everybody will be in that situation, but a lot of the portal is mutual. Like I told you a week ago, if we didn’t have anybody get in the portal than we don’t have enough scholarships. So, we have to rotate some in and some out, there’s just no ifs, ands or buts. And everybody’s like that anymore. And that is where it becomes tricky at hitting it perfectly at 85. This past year we weren’t there. We might’ve played a year at 81 or 82. We have to manage that as precisely as we can.”

On Ramon Jefferson having an opportunity to step up in the bowl game…

“He definitely needs that opportunity. He deserves that opportunity because I believe Ramon has a great opportunity to play in the NFL. And so that will give him an opportunity to go play in this game, along with JuTahn and others.”

On the balance in players transferring deciding to play or not play in the bowl game…

“I think it has to be individually, you have to talk to them, you have to balance it. Some kids want to go on visits, they need to figure out where they’re going and give them the opportunity to go do that. They don’t want to come and be a distraction and I don’t want them to be a distraction, not that any of them are. It’s just their choice, they’re going to have things to do. Others are just saying ‘Hey this has been an awesome career, I’m just looking to go somewhere and play and get on the field.’ I want to give them the opportunity to come to that game and two years ago they came and helped us and other SEC head coaches, we’ve had this discussion. Last year it went the other way. I’ve talked to a couple coaches that went the way I did the year before, they won the game, and I didn’t, and I’m like, ‘Well.’ (laughter) So, you just got to balance it. And you have to make sure they want to go, they want to help this team, they deserve that opportunity, but they can’t be a distraction, they can’t be just a paid holiday, they can go do that somewhere else.”

On guys that haven’t played a lot this season that could step up in the bowl game…

“I don’t know yet. Again, the football piece of it, I got a lot of other things to do, so give me a little time on that, to work into the bowl prep.”

On what you’re looking for in a wide receivers coach…

“There’s a lot of things I want. I don’t care to say them out loud because I don’t want to act like Coach (Scott) Woodward wasn’t that. There’s some things I’m looking for, yes.”

On when the program will get back to practice…

“They’re lifting and running this week. Coaches will be on the road recruiting. I’m looking at the schedule right now, again, Josh (Pruitt) and Eddie (Gran) just walked out of here, but more than likely it will be two days this week, it will be straight through next week. I don’t like to go every day, so this week it will be two days, either Friday, Sunday or Saturday, Sunday or Friday, Saturday. Then they’ll lift again all week and when we get back next week, it will be the same. It’ll lead into Sunday, so more than likely next week it will be Friday, Saturday, Sunday light; I have exit meetings with recruits. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, I think that goes to the 20th if I’m not mistaken.”

On if you had a chance to see any of the Kentucky High School Athletic Association championship games at Kroger Field last week…

“Yeah, just real impressed with Kentucky high school football — how far it’s come, the coaching, the players, the excitement around it. I love having it here. It’s been a great experience.”

On if you have had any traction on the recruiting trail because of Texas A&M’s interest in you…

“None whatsoever. We moved past that in five minutes.”

On if you staying at Kentucky has helped or reassured any of your current players…

“I don’t do that. I don’t use that. I mean, I was getting calls by some of those guys Saturday night and I assured them from the first phone call, one very big, large human in particular (laughter). I said I am coming back, and he said, ‘Coach,’ and I said, ‘I am coming back.’ So, early on Saturday when that first started floating, I made sure to hold down the big man and tell him that I was definitely coming back and that he needed to come back.”

On if you and Liam Coen have talked any about no or less pre-snap huddles…

“Yeah, we talked about it all year. For us, right now, the way we function with the portal, with the turnover on offense, you want to make sure the operation is clean. Unless somebody has done that, you can’t guarantee how clean that can be, and that slows things down. Not even any one person, could be other positions, it’s not just the quarterback. We’ve talked about it all year, we want to go faster. I don’t like standing right next to the official on every play, I don’t, I don’t like that, getting down to whether it’s getting to a timeout or not. I don’t like that and we need to expedite it. The last time he was here it was faster than that, so we will look at all areas to improve and getting more plays is important to us, so there is different variations, that doesn’t mean it’s going to go at warp speed like at some schools. But, you can call from the line, and you can go faster. You can have the ability to go faster so we are looking at a lot of that.”

On if you think it will help Liam Coen develop as an offensive coordinator to have two consecutive years at Kentucky…

“Definitely. This will be the first time here that he has two years in a row where he could work on that and to get the operation cleaner. You know, to make sure we can function, because some of those things we do, it’s for a rhyme and a reason. It’s very good, but it also takes some work with the shifting and motioning — giving the eye candy that we talk about all the time, the different variation of things that can be complex and put some pressure on defense. You just have to be able make sure that we’re able to do it and execute it, as well. I think some continuity and some consistency will help us.”

On if Jamarion Wilcox will get any minutes in the bowl game…

“I hope so. I want to see it. I really do. Yes, but also a guy like Ramon [Jefferson] and JuTahn [McClain] and some of them need some chances because Ramon has the chance to play at the next level. He’s been running really good. But yes, I would love to see Jamarion, because I think he has some super upside. I’ve been meeting with him often, and I like the young man a lot. I’m challenging him a lot, because I want to see some major growth, because he has some real ability.”

On if Andru Phillips will play in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl game…

“Dru — and I have to get everything clear because I don’t want to speak for Dru - but I’m 90 percent sure that Dru’s playing in the game, too. So, even though he declared [for the NFL Draft] doesn’t mean he’s not playing in the game.”

On your thoughts on the College Football Playoff selections…

“I was told when I landed (yesterday). I didn’t put much thought into it. I think, like most people will tell you, there were some good teams that were deserving. I think the way it fell this year — you have to feel for a team like that [FSU]. It’s a tough situation, you know, just the way it fell. Those are some good teams, and I’m not sure there’s a real clean answer for that. I certainly don’t have it because I haven’t had time to look into it like that. I know those are some good teams. You look at the top 5, top 6, top 7 — I mean, heck, who would argue if Georgia got in? They haven’t lost in three years, they’re a pretty darn good team. I know this — I don’t think there a whole lot of teams in the country that would like to play them. Pretty damn good.”

On increasing the CFP field size…

“Yeah, I think that’s a good idea. I think if you start arguing over 12 or 13 — too bad. When you’re (arguing) over four and five, I think those are some legit arguments, and it’s very hard to determine that.”

On how much it would mean for your program to beat Clemson, given everything they’ve done over the past decade…

“I think it would be very important. Honestly, before I knew who we were playing, I think it would be important to win any of it. You know, you just feel a little better about the team and things in the offseason — just winning that last game. Bowl games are fun. I told our team prior to this last game — two games all year, that I know of, that we’re going to get handed a trophy, or you’re not. The Governor’s Cup, at the end of that game, you’re either going to be presented a trophy, or you’re going to walk into the locker room. Bowl game — same thing. Not such a good feeling walking right into that locker room. It’s a much better feeling to be presented with that trophy. No matter who we’re playing, but certainly with the reputation and the prestige of Clemson would mean something.”

Closing statement…

“I’d like to wrap up, again, by thanking Dr. Scottie Day, the board, everybody at UK Children’s Hospital. It’s been an honor just being a part of it. You guys do all the work for our big event every year that is so well supported. Our community — we can’t even open it up because it’s invitation only, and it feels up immediately. We get over 650 people there that are there for a great cause, and it’s my pleasure to be a part of it and serve throughout the year. So, thank you once again.”