LEXINGTON — A higher talent level meets up with higher expectations as the Kentucky Wildcats head into their second football season under coach Mark Stoops, starting with Saturday’s season opener vs. the UT-Martin Skyhawks at Commonwealth Stadium.
Kickoff is at noon with the game televised on the SEC Network.
The Wildcats are coming off a 2-10 debut season and may erode Stoops’ honeymoon period in dog years should the Wildcats lose to either UT-Martin Saturday or Ohio University next week.
Stoops, like most of the fan base, can’t wait to see what happens.
“It’s exciting,” Stoops said Monday. “Finally game week. Players are excited. Coaches are excited ... ready to get this season going. As I’ve said throughout this summer, we’ve improved. Be interesting to go out there and see how much. I’m just as anxious to get out there and get playing.”
Stoops is confident Kentucky will be better, with a second straight highly-touted recruiting class joining last year’s critically acclaimed bunch.
Still, the Wildcats remain very young.
“You feel a lot better, you feel a lot more confident, but you’re always anxious to get out there in the first game and see what you have ... where you are,” Stoops said. “I know we’ve improved. We’ll see how much.”
Asked what he can do to get the young guys ready for the bright lights (or sun), Stoops said, in so many words, not much.
“I think they just need to go through it,” he said. “We put them in pressure situations all through camp. We just have to throw them out there and see what they can do. I expect them to go out and play well.”
Though Stoops, in his own words, has a pair of first-round NFL Draft picks in senior defensive ends Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith, he knows the eyes of many Saturday will be on redshirt sophomore quarterback Patrick Towles.
Towles was named the starting quarterback a week ago after a competition that felt like it began back in the Bush administration. The former Ft. Thomas Highlands star beat out junior Maxwell Smith, redshirt freshman Reese Phillips and true freshman Drew Barker.
“I think you’ve got to look at Patrick and be proud for him ... the way he’s responded to the situation,” Stoops said. “A year ago at this time, he was third on the depth chart.
“He has an opportunity. I have a lot of confidence in him. I appreciate the way he’s gone about his business. I think our team has. He has the opportunity now. He needs to make the most of it.”
Stoops and staff have said this past week that they hope to redshirt Barker. And he said Monday that he hopes Phillips will see some time at quarterback in Saturday’s opener.
“Off the top of my head, I’d love to play him,” Stoops said of Phillips. “But you know and I know Patrick needs the reps. He’s not on a short leash. He won the job. He is the starting quarterback.”
GAME WEEK NOTES: UT-Martin’s Skyhawks went 7-5 last season and are a darkhorse pick to win the Ohio Valley Conference this time around. Senior quarterback Dylan Favre, the nephew of former NFL star Brett Favre, is the Skyhawks biggest “name,” but senior linebacker Tony Bell is the team’s best player ... Stoops said that senior Demarco Robinson is running No. 1 as UK’s punt returner, but that he will “mix in” former Franklin County star Ryan Timmons at that spot. Timmons and Robinson both will start at wide receiver spots as well ... senior offensive tackle Darrian Miller and junior wide receiver Rashad Cummingham are both serving a one-game suspension for a “violation of team rules” and will miss Saturday’s game.