Here is what Kentucky coach Mark Stoops and four of his players had to say today’s TaxSlayer Bowl press conference going into Saturday morning’s game.
THE MODERATOR: Welcome, Coach Stoops and your players. We’re excited about having you playing in the 72nd game. Coach will say a few words as we get started.
COACH STOOPS: Appreciate it. Thank you to the staff. It’s been an unbelievable week. Your group of volunteers have made it extremely easy for us. Our team has had a great week. I think we found a nice balance to really enjoy ourselves and enjoy Jacksonville, but also get a lot of work in. We’re excited it’s time to get locked in and get ready for this game.
I thank everybody that’s been a part of this. Excited and looking forward to tomorrow.
THE MODERATOR: At this point we will open it up to questions.
Q. I’d like the players to address the issue of bowl games and where games like this fit in the overall structure. There’s been criticism there’s too many bowls, the bottom 10 or 12. But the issue, how much it means. Could each of you address to both your team and fan base what you think coming to a bowl game for the first time in six years means.
STEPHEN JOHNSON: I know for this team, it’s been a while since we’ve been to a bowl game. For the seniors, it means a lot to come here and have these 15 extra practices, play in an extra game to finish off the season. For the team and seniors, it really does mean a lot.
COURTNEY MIGGINS: Bowl game is pretty big for me. It’s my last year. Pretty much piggyback off of what Stephen said. Get these last couple practices with the guys. Pretty much been a joy, so.
COURTNEY LOVE: I would say the same thing, as well. The bowl game is a great time to spend with your teammates. It’s always good to get to a post-season, get extra practices for young guys to show coaches what they got. Just to get out here with our coaches and their families, just create a better bond.
JON TOTH: I think what they all said is great (smiling).
Q. Mark, is there anything you’ve learned about this team over the last month that you have more of a look at some more guys down the depth chart?
COACH STOOPS: You’ve heard me talk each and every day after practice. I’m proud of this group in general. I think we’ve come a long way. I’m proud of these gentlemen up here, the leadership they’ve shown, the rest of our seniors. Again, how far we’ve come and the adversity that we faced.
I think in the last month, you heard me talk, but we worked all off-season to finish. It started with our winter conditioning, the weight lifting. It started with our fourth quarter program, doing more, having more physical practices last spring, harder two-a-days.
To see that come to fruition, to see us finish the way we did, to play our best football at the end of the year, against our arch rivals on the road, to put us in a position to be in this game says an awful lot.
I also like the way our team has handled our business here. As I mentioned in the opening comments, I think our team has found a good balance. They know when to work and they know when to have fun. I think we all like to be around each other. We enjoy each other. This team has grown awfully close. The staff is very good.
I think, like Courtney mentioned, just to get to come here and spend time with each other, more time around each other, have some fun, the experiences that this bowl has put together for this team has been wonderful. It’s been a great experience.
I know you get tired of me saying it, but we’ve grown more in this last month.
Q. For the Courtneys, with the game tomorrow, how prepared are you for Georgia Tech’s offense, since it is unique, one you haven’t faced this year?
COURTNEY MIGGINS: I feel like we’re prepared. It’s been three weeks. Scout team has been giving us a good look. Few missed assignments, but pretty much everybody been on the same page. I think we’re ready to tee it up tomorrow.
COURTNEY LOVE: I’d say the same as Courtney. Just be consistent in our approach. I think we have. We’re trusting in our coaches, their plan, the task that they’ve given us to go out here and be able to stop this team.
We’ve just got to be really disciplined and focus on every play and every down.
Q. This is your first year of playing here. Coming here, did you ever envision being in this position when you first decided to come here?
COURTNEY LOVE: Yeah, I did envision it once I transferred in. This is what Coach Stoops told me I was going to do. I trusted that. It’s something that I wanted to do and I think is very special for this program.
We took another step within the history of this program. We really changed it. I think it’s awesome. I love being here.
STEPHEN JOHNSON: Like Courtney said, I envisioned it, as well, being in this position. It wasn’t like that at the beginning of the year, but I’m glad how it all unfolded.
Our goal was to get to a bowl game, get this extra 13th game. I’m glad how it all really worked out. Happy to be in this position that I am, so…
Q. Jon, yesterday Chase said something interesting in that the freshmen have been to as many bowl games as the seniors have. He said that puts pressure on the freshmen and sophomores to continue this. As a senior, do you believe the way this team finished, getting to this game, is the way great programs kind of get launched or turn the corner into being what I know everybody wants Kentucky to be? Do you like the idea that the freshmen and sophomores seem to be taking it upon themselves to continue this?
JON TOTH: Yeah, it’s obviously new territory for Kentucky as a program in our recent history. I think it is a good thing that we’re getting these extra 15 practices. That helps develop the younger guys, and also the older guys, because everybody is still trying to be better players.
It helps lay a foundation for the future of the program. I think it is advantageous that we’re in this position. I think it will be beneficial for the program.
Q. For all the players, how important do you think a win would be after the win over Louisville, getting to the bowl, keeping the momentum going for this program?
STEPHEN JOHNSON: I think it would mean a lot to this program for this eighth win. It’s been a while, like I said at the beginning, to be at this point. But it really would mean a lot for the seniors, just to build this program up with recruiting, the new guys that came in. It sets a new point for us to get past, to go past eight games, eventually to get to as many games as we can win within the next four years for they freshmen.
It really does mean a lot. We’re looking forward to this game.
JON TOTH: I think it’s important not just the fact it’s the 13th game, but Coach Stoops harps on it all the time, just because it’s the next game. I think that’s the mentality that he’s done a great job of instilling in the program, is just to keep your head down and work every day.
Like I said, it’s our next game. We’re going to try to win it just ’cause that’s what we’re going to do.
Q. Mark, when you have three weeks to prepare for Georgia Tech’s unique offense, does that give you more confidence? Make it a little bit easier?
COACH STOOPS: I’d like to think so. It’s certainly better than a week, that’s for sure. The last time I had to prepare for this team, it was in one week. We played them in the ACC championship game. Ironically, I was in talks and negotiations to take this job. So I had a lot going on that week. Felt very distracted. I also felt the importance of finishing my job at Florida State for those players.
With us, I think the defensive guys can attest to this, it’s certainly nice to have three weeks. I think it gives you some options, gives you some change ups. I don’t think it makes it much easier.
As Courtney mentioned, it’s a game of discipline. We have to be extremely disciplined. Coach Johnson has been around a long time. They can throw a lot at you. That’s probably very easy to them. Different formations, unbalanced, different motions, they have everything under the sun with the triple option and other plays. They put a lot of stress on you.
It definitely helps. Like I said, I don’t think it makes it much easier. I think we have to be very fundamental, we have to stay on our feet, we can’t get chopped, can’t get cut. We have to be very disciplined.
I am glad we had three weeks. Hopefully things will work out the way we want them to. I think our players are really prepared well.
Q. Stephen, when Drew went down in the third week, you played the rest of the season, in what ways have you seen yourself grow? Are you doing some things that maybe you have even surprised yourself throughout the year?
STEPHEN JOHNSON: I definitely think I’ve grown a lot just with the offense, then just being more football smart. Working with Coach Hinshaw and Coach Gran, they really made me understand the game a little bit more at a college level and towards a pro level as well.
I think we’ve grown as an offense tremendously since those first couple games. Like I said, I’m just happy to see what we do come Saturday.
Q. For the players, after you lost your first two games, the way you lost them, your coach said he just kept telling you guys to keep working, then you win seven of your next ten. When a lot of your fans have given up on you, why do you think you were able to keep it together and be as successful as you were?
COURTNEY LOVE: I think we were able to be successful because coach stayed after us, nobody gave up, everybody rallied around each other. He explained to us it was about the guys within our walls, it was about our team, our program. That was all it was.
I think we did a really good job of blocking out all the outside noise, things like that, just really came together as one team, a coaching staff, a whole program. Everybody had our backs. We just kept on going and fighting and things really changed.
Q. Mark, a lot has been said about their offense, how they’ll defend you, their offense. What about their defense? How do you think they’ll defend your run game?
COACH STOOPS: With our wildcat, you never really know exactly how somebody will defend us with all the different formations that we do. I’m unsure there.
As far as their base defense, Stephen can tell you and Jon, I think we have a very clear understanding of who they are. They have a very clear identity. They’re fundamentally sound. They base out of a 4-3. They’re very disciplined. They really don’t try to trick you. They have some change-ups obviously, like everybody does, but they play very smart, very sound. I would imagine they’ll continue to do what they’ve done.
Q. Stephen and Jon, how much does it help to have such a strong rush attack?
STEPHEN JOHNSON: For me, I know it takes a lot of pressure off me having Benny Boom and Joe back there be able to get hit at the line of scrimmage and get a first down still, really helps out our offense. It allows us to do so many things. It opens up the pass. Once we get the passing established, it opens up the run again.
It’s really hard for defenses to stop. Like I said before, I’m really, really glad to see how we do it on Saturday.
JON TOTH: Yeah, just like Stephen said, it’s important to have both run game and pass game. They kind of feed off each other. Once you get the run going, it helps the pass. If you happen to start off with a pass, get that going, it will help the run game.
But it’s always important to have those two working in conjunction. It’s been good to have an effective run game.
Q. Stephen, it hasn’t been a great start for the SEC so far. What do you think about the idea of playing for conference pride representing the SEC?
STEPHEN JOHNSON: I think it means a lot to be in the SEC. I was watching TV earlier this morning. I think we were 1-4 in bowls or something like that.
I know for this conference it means a lot to get this extra win, but even more for this team. Like I said in the beginning, the seniors deserve this one more than anybody. It just really means a lot to them.
COURTNEY LOVE: I would say the same as well. It’s definitely good for us to win and it’s good for our conference also. I think it’s huge either way.
Q. Mark, how have you seen Jon grow since you first got to Kentucky and what has he meant for your program?
COACH STOOPS: Jon is really a special guy. He really is. He’s grown a great deal physically and mentally. He was always a great student. Goes about his business the right way. He’s really the closest thing you could get in a college player to being a professional. We always joke, you’ve heard it before, but Jon is in the building all the time. I walk in the door, he’s there. He’s in engineering. He’s a graduate. He has a phenomenal GPA. He makes it look easy. Knock on wood, he’s never hurt. He’s just a special guy.
He’s been the staple up front, as Stephen mentioned, to unload a lot of pressure off of any quarterback. You have to have a solid line, be physical. Jon anchors that. We’re going to be sad to see him go. We have to send him out the right way, try to get this victory. He’s solid as a rock, has grown in many ways, we’re really proud of him.
Q. What does it mean for all of you walking around the city to really see the fans from Big Blue Nation turn out in force?
STEPHEN JOHNSON: Like I said, it really means a lot, not only for this team to get this extra win or game we have, but for these fans as well. They’ve been yearning for it and waiting for it for a long time.
They’re out here in full force to see the football team in an extra game. Really happy to have such great fans behind our backs.
COURTNEY MIGGINS: It’s always surprising to me when I see so many fans show up to the out-of-state games. Glad we have a strong fan base to support us through our ups and downs. They never really tear away.
COURTNEY LOVE: I would say the same thing as well. It’s awesome to see them here. It’s just good even to see them and make a connection with them around the hotel, around the city also. It’s awesome.
JON TOTH: The same (smiling).
THE MODERATOR: Coach.
COACH STOOPS: Once again, thanks to Rick, David, all the staff. Appreciate the media. You guys have been with us, covering us for a long time. Many of the local guys, some of the other folks we got to spend the week with, thank you for your support of this game.
I’d like to acknowledge these players up here and thank them. They are tremendous leaders. They’re great ambassadors to the University of Kentucky. We’re very proud of them.
I promise to our fans, like the players just mentioned, we’re happy to have them here. It’s a very passionate fan base. These players have worked extremely hard to make them proud, to try to go and finish this the right way. So we’re excited about the opportunity for tomorrow’s game. Thank you very much.