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By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky senior linebacker Avery Williamson wiped away tears as he left the Commonwealth Stadium field. He was upset UK lost 27-14 to Tennessee Saturday night, but he was crying because it was his final time to play for the Wildcats — and he not only loved playing at UK but also knows better times are ahead.
“I have no regrets about anything. I loved it here,” said Williamson, who finished his career with 296 tackles. “But I also know I was part of something to help build this program for the future despite our record (2-10). This coaching staff is going to get it done. There are good young players here. Fans should not worry. This program is going forward.”
That’s the same way first-year Kentucky coach Mark Stoops feels despite going 0-8 in SEC play and losing to in-state rivals Louisville and Western Kentucky. He was obviously frustrated that UK made way too many mistakes to even beat a mediocre Tennessee — but that was the story far too often this year.
“It was a tough way to wrap up the season,” Stoops admitted. “It was a frustrating loss, but give Tennessee credit. They played better than us. They made plays when they needed to. They coaches better than us. It seems it was that way most of the year for us. We all need to do things better, starting with me.”
Stoops praised his seniors, who went through back-to-back 2-10 seasons — the first one costing then coach Joker Phillips his job and the second one frustrating Stoops and UK fans who wanted more. However, Stoops noted it was not easy for seniors to deal with coaching and scheme changes.
“I thought those guys handles it well and tried to handle things well through the end of the year,” Stoops said. “We know we are laying a foundation in our program.”
That’s how Wiliamson felt, and why he almost wishes he could come back rather than now chase his dream in the NFL.
“People told me I couldn’t play here, but I think I proved I could be one of the best players in the SEC,” Williamson said. “I know I can prove myself at the next level, too. But I’ll miss here. It’s been great. And it will get better. Count on that. Just wait and see. Fans just need to keep believing.”
Stoops didn’t feel his players gave up on the season against Tennessee. He felt practice preparation was good and that players were “motivated and excited” to play and “wanted to go out with a good win” to end the season.
Of course, practice preparation was hampered by having not one, but two, quarterbacks hurting and unable to go through a full week of practice. Maxwell Smith started at quarterback and was 25-for-38 passing for 254 yards and two scores. However, Stoops revealed that he didn’t throw in practice Tuesday because of his sore shoulder and was even limited on Wednesday and that backup Jalen Whitlow, the former starter, played sparingly after spending last week seeing specialists and having tests to make sure his neck injury would allow him to play.
“He (Whitlow) did what he could to get in there and help us get out of the game. But he was not feeling good and he definitely couldn’t, I don’t think, take a whole game of getting hit and things like that,” Stoops said. “I mean, he was cleared, but just his mental framework in not being able to practice all week and all those things.
“And Max, again, he really gave it everything he had. His arm was bothering him. He took a shot last week and his arm was bothering him a little bit this week. Again, those guys tried to do what they could.”
But Kentucky seldom could do enough on offense or defense this year. Not enough depth, not enough overall talent. Stoops never made excuses. Instead, he often used the phrase “it is what it is” about his team — and those who understood football realized the obstacles he faced trying to fix problems that have plagued UK football for years in one season.
However, he feels no relief that the season is over. He’s a competitor. He wanted to win and expects to win.
“I’m disappointed. Right after this last game here, we really put a lot into this game. I thought, again, we were excited to play and really wanted to go out and play better than that. I’m disappointed right now,” Stoops said.
“But I know there’s a lot of work to be done and again, starting tomorrow, we’re hitting the road, and, we’ve got recruits on campus and meeting with our players that are here and go get in some homes and get busy recruiting.”
He insisted there’s “no doubt” in his mind the program is progressing. Wiliamson agreed.
“You may not see it on the scoreboard, but we got better,” the senior linebacker said. “These coaches know what they are doing. This program is going to be fine. The young guys will work hard and get better and they will keep bringing in players. Coach Stoops is a great coach and person. I’m glad I got to be around him this and glad down the road I will be able to say I was part of helping him turn this program in the direction he wanted.”