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By GARY B. GRAVES, AP Sports Writer
Mark Stoops has spent the last eight months fulfilling the off-the-field demands that come with coaching Kentucky. Now all of that has given way to what Stoops was hired to do — lead the Wildcats back to respectability.
The Wildcats opened practice today with the rookie head coach and his new staff trying to rebound from consecutive losing regular seasons including 2-10 last year. Stoops’ challenge is compounded by depth concerns at wide receiver and running back and choosing from three quarterback hopefuls, not to mention surviving a brutal schedule that includes two-time defending national champion Alabama.
The media has picked the Wildcats to finish last in the Southeastern Conference’s East Division, but that hasn’t stopped Stoops from sparking enthusiasm among players, Wildcats fans and recruits.
That zeal will also require some patience.
“I really am excited about what we’re doing offensively and defensively,” Stoops said. “I feel like our players have a decent understanding of the basic concepts of what we’re trying to do. We’re just going to keep on grinding it out day to day. We know we have a long way to go, but we can’t start looking at the end results yet. There’s just too much work to do.”
Judging from the optimism around campus and the community, Stoops has done a lot since being hired last November to replace Joker Phillips, now Florida’s wide receivers coach. While any successor might have inspired a morale boost after last season, the brighter outlook could be credited to the 46-year-old’s impressive defensive credentials.
In three years as Florida State’s coordinator, Stoops lifted the Seminoles from 108th nationally in total defense when he arrived to No. 2 last season. He achieved similar success in six seasons under his brother Mike at Arizona, raising the Wildcats from 109th when he took over in 2004 to 25th in 2009.
No one was shocked when the youngest Stoops brother finally landed his first head coaching gig as a result.
“He’s been in big situations and tough games and has competed at a high level, so he knows what it takes to win at that level,” said oldest brother Bob Stoops, Oklahoma’s head coach. “I always felt for a long time that he’d have that opportunity. He’s very bright and competitive, and you saw the changes he made in what Florida State was doing defensively and the success they had. As those things started happening, more and more people are interested in you.”
Mark Stoops and defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot face a bigger challenge trying to improve Kentucky (0-8 SEC), which allowed 391 yards per game last season and ranked in the bottom half of several league defensive categories. The upside is that this is the Wildcats’ strongest unit with the return of several starters including senior linebacker Avery Williamson and junior end Alvin “Bud” Dupree.
Wildcats fans might pay more attention to the offense and whether coordinator Neal Brown can inject excitement and trickery with his pass-oriented “Air Raid” scheme that had Texas Tech’s air attack ranked in the top 10 the past three years. Kentucky averaged just 315 yards per game overall and 176.2 passing.
Kentucky will need more than production with eight opponents going to bowl games last season, five ranked in top-10 of the preseason coaches’ poll and five of those contests on the road. The long road opens with a neutral-site meeting in Nashville on Aug. 31 against Western Kentucky, which upset the Wildcats 32-31 in overtime last season at Commonwealth Stadium.
Kentucky fans seem optimistic despite the challenges ahead. A record 50,831 saw April’s spring game, more than for five home contests in 2011. Last weekend’s sold-out women’s clinic attracted 523, while Friday’s kickoff luncheon was also a sellout.
Stoops has deftly handled cameo appearances with thoroughbred racing’s connections at Keeneland and the Kentucky Derby, while his speaking engagements around the state have been must-see events.
Athletic director Mitch Barnhart said while the reaction to Stoops has been great, there’s still work to be done.
“That won’t get you any victories,” he said of the fans’ excitement, “but it certainly helps with the enthusiasm in your program and the recruiting you’re trying to put in place, showing interest in Kentucky football.”
Stoops and his staff have hit the recruiting hard, succeeding in keeping in-state products such as Conner High School quarterback Drew Barker home while branching into Ohio State territory for prospects. The payoff so far is a 2014 class rated top-five by several services, and they’re not done.
On the field this season, Brown has three sophomore quarterbacks to choose from in Maxwell Smith — back from a season-ending ankle injury — Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles, both of whom played in his absence. The more pressing issue this month is who their targets will be with a young receiver corps.
Like Stoops, Brown is urging patience.
“We’re going to be different than we were at Texas Tech,” said Brown, a two-year letterman at Kentucky from 1998-2000. “Here, they haven’t been running a similar offense and we have to take the pieces we have and put them together to give us the best opportunity to be productive on Saturday.”