By Keith Taylor
Special to NKyTribune
Kentucky has entered a “new phase” of the Mark Stoops era.
Going into his fifth season as coach of the Wildcats, Stoops has a better idea of what to expect from his team when Kentucky opens fall camp. Stoops and his staff had fewer question marks following spring workouts, giving the coach even more optimism for next season.
“You’re constantly striving to get better across the board,” Stoops said. “We’re going to put the foot on the gas. After these guys get a little bit of rest, then we’ve got to have a great summer. They’ve got to finish strong academically and then it’s full steam ahead across the board. We have a lot of room for improvement.”
Stoops said the Wildcats have made great strides up front, especially on the defensive line, an area of concern during Stoops’ first four seasons at the helm. Stoops, a long-time defensive coordinator before taking on a rebuilding task at Kentucky, likes the way the Wildcats progressed under new offensive coordinator Matt House this spring.
“We need to get better and fundamentally play better up front on the defensive line and we have improved a great deal there,” Stoops said. “Fundamentally we had more live plays this spring than we ever had. We needed that and we stayed healthy. They were able to handle a lot and we needed that. We need to play the game and we needed to play it physically to get better. (The) defense needs live reps, because when you put it all together with the run game and the pay action, the boots and so on, they just need to see it full speed. I was pleased that we got a lot of live reps this spring.”
Like Stoops, linebackers coach Matt House isn’t satisfied and wants the defense to keep improving and making strides, especially during the off-season.
“I think we just have to keep going,” House said. “Our depth needs to improve. We need to continue to develop more depth in the secondary, more depth up front and I think it’s a process. We have a solid nucleus and have guys in the right spots.”
House and Stoops were pleased with the progress of linebackers Jamar “Boogie” Watson and true freshman Jamin Davis, a mid-year enrollee, during the past six weeks.
“We feel very good with Boogie and I feel like Jamar really made some strides,” Stoops said. “You could see that he has the ability (to make plays) and a good understanding (of the game). I like where he’s at. I think he’s going to be a good player. Same thing with Jamin. You saw that on film when we recruited him and you saw him here (in spring workouts). He’s a guy that takes the game very serious. He works at it, he’s gaining weight and he’s getting stronger. He’s got the instincts to play linebacker.”
Stoops said players like Watson and Davis, along with Clevan Thomas, are the type of student-athletes the coaching staff seek on the recruiting trail.
“That’s what we’re hunting,” Stoops said. “That’s what we’re looking for on the recruiting trail, the guys that can come in, compete and are serious about their approach to the game and those guys are.”
Overall, Stoops feels good about the Wildcats, coming off a 7-6 season and the first postseason appearance in six years.
“We got an awful lot (out of spring drills),” Stoops said. “I don’t know if we’re ever completely satisfied, but I feel good that we had long, physical practices, because we stretched it out for so long.”
That’s more than the team has been able to handle in the past and a good sign going into the future.
Keith Taylor is a senior sports writer for KyForward, where he primarily covers University of Kentucky sports. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @keithtaylor21 on Twitter