LEXINGTON — Mark Stoops has moved past the learning curve when it comes to running his own program. The Kentucky coach is entering his seventh season as coach of the Wildcats and remains committed to keep the momentum going this year.
The passion and drive he experienced in his first year is the same now with a few exceptions. He has raised the bar with three straight bowl appearances and a 10-win campaign a year ago but isn’t looking back as the Wildcats move forward in what will be somewhat of a transition season.
“Each team is so different, each year is so different,” he said during the team’s annual Media Day Friday. “You learn so many things throughout the years. You try to use it to put your team in the best position to be successful. That's what I think excites me and our staff and our players about this year, this opportunity with this team."
Stoops doesn’t have Josh Allen on defense and for the first time in three years, Benny Snell won’t be in the backfield. Kentucky offensive coordinator Eddie Gran admitted you can’t replace Snell and said the Wildcats could rely on a committee of running backs to pick up the slack.
It could be a similar scheme Gran employed in his first season with the Wildcats three years ago when he utilized Snell and Boom Williams in the same backfield.
“That worked pretty well with Benny and Boom,” he recalled. “We had some guys that could run the ball. If one gets on a roll, you let him go. It's just that confidence in terms of protection. Everything that we need them to do in the pass game, if they can do that, they'll probably play. I haven't seen the stamina out of these three yet because they haven't had that opportunity.
Stoops added Snell’s leadership by example “set the tone for these backs.”
“I feel like there's a lot to build on there,” Stoops said.
The absence of Snell doesn’t mean the Wildcats will pass more often. Gran said the perfect scenario would be 40 runs and 40 passes per game, but added that running the ball is a priority, especially in the Southeastern Conference.
“Everything starts up front in this league,” Gran said. “It's about the physicality. Big men lead the way. If you cannot run the ball, you're going to have a hard time winning in this league. We want to be balanced. We want to be a little bit more balanced this year.”
In addition to making up for the loss of Allen and Snell, the secondary is a big question mark, but that doesn’t mean the Wildcats are lacking in other areas. Starting quarterback Terry Wilson is back, a bulk of the team’s offensive line returns from last season and the defensive line is solid. The team’s wide receivers are experienced, and Gran is counting on those upperclassmen to take leap this season.
“I do believe we have some playmakers beside Lynn (Bowden Jr.) that can make some plays for our quarterback when that needs to happen,” he said. “That hasn't been consistent for us. I think this is the time that it needs to happen."
Defensively, first-year defensive coordinator Brad White knows there are some holes to fill but intends to make sure he has his bases covered from the trenches to the backfield and isn’t afraid to try new things.
“You may see throughout the season some things get shuffled around,” he said. “We'll find the best 11. It may not be the same 11 in every personnel group. We're going to find in the right situation. We've talked to our guys all the time, find a spot, find a role on this team. Carve it out, find your niche, then become a master at that role. If you become a master at that role, you gain confidence in your teammates and coaching staff, you'll see your role expand."
Although there are a few question marks, Stoops said the Wildcats are ready to build on last year’s success.
“From the moment they got back on campus, I saw the hunger in their eyes. They want to prove themselves, put themselves in a position to be successful,” Stoops said. “… They did an awful lot of work this year. That's what's exciting because sometimes we all focus on the things that we lose and don't put enough focus on the things that we're returning. There are some very mature, good football players on this team. There's a lot to build around, so that excites us.”