South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier on the field at Commonwealth Stadium after beating Kentucky 38-17 on Sept. 29, 2012. | Photo by Jon Hale
As incessantly positive as Mark Stoops has been since taking over as Kentucky’s football coach, he knew coming in to the gig every day wouldn’t be easy. Some days would be harder than others; many of them would be SEC Saturdays, like the one this weekend on the road against South Carolina.
But for the most part, Stoops has mostly avoided such setbacks during practices. There was one notably poor practice during the spring, and there was one during preseason training camp. And then there was Wednesday.
Stoops may as well have been shaking mad after walking straight from the practice field to a post-practice interview session, but the stakes were a little bit different that day. In the spring and in the summer, a road game against a top-15 opponent wasn’t imminent. Lining up against the best defensive end in the country, and probably the best defensive player at any position anywhere in college football, wasn’t three days away.
But oh, Jadeveon Clowney lines up against the Wildcats on Wednesday, and the No. 13 Gamecocks are the opponent for the first true road game of Stoops’ tenure. Stoops is usually pleasant in interviews, but each answer Wednesday was bilious and short.
“We’ll coach ‘em hard and see if we can get more out of them tomorrow and see if we can get this turned around,” Stoops said after practice Wednesday, his last media availability of the week. “Because whatever it was—a 21-point spread ain’t enough. Because we ain’t even close to that right now.”
As positive as the tone has been around the football program since Stoops was hired in December and lit the recruiting trail ablaze immediately thereafter, Stoops has been up front in saying it wouldn’t be easy, and setbacks would happen. That’s part of what has endeared him to his players: honesty that the process is long but should eventually net satisfactory results, and that bad days are going to happen and should be evaluated as such.
“That’s why we love him, though,” senior running back Raymond Sanders said. He’s going to shoot us straight when we’re doing good. And when he doesn’t like something, he’s not going to beat around the bush and be nice about it. He got after us pretty good.”
With regard to the matchup at hand this weekend: It’s difficult to understate two points:
- Kentucky’s quarterback situation is best described as “unresolved,” and neither Maxwell Smith nor Jalen Whitlow seems to have taken reigns of the job. Either way, offensive coordinator Neal Brown said he’ll largely stick with one quarterback Saturday to give him a chance to prove his worth; and
- If your quarterback, whoever he is, is struggling and you are giving him a chance to prove his worth, playing against Clowney that week is best described as “very poor timing.”
Clowney is as good as advertised, and maybe even better. South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier recently suggested the best plan of attack against him is to put seven defenders on him.
“If they’d let us play with 15, we’d do that for sure,” Brown said. “You have to account for him. There’s no question. He’s a dynamic player. Any adjective you want to use, it’s accurate.”
Clowney hasn’t had a huge season statistically as a junior, which some could use as an easy cop-out based on all of the preseason hype coming out of Columbia, S.C. He has two sacks in four games. But such numbers are difficult to rack up considering the amount of mind paid to him each week, Brown said. He’s 6-6 and 274 pounds, and men that size usually have some kind of internal governor, something chemical or biological that rightfully doesn’t allow a body that size to move with really any speed at all. But somehow, Clowney does. He moves with significant speed, actually.
Kentucky’s offensive line was not at its best Saturday against Florida. Smith was sacked four times, and Brown said a few other mistakes were evident. Brown was confident those would be corrected, and just about anyone else on the field will have to pitch in to defend Clowney.
“He adjusts whether you put two on him, you help with the tight end, a fullback, you chip with your running back,” Brown said. “I think you’ve got to mix it up, and we will.”
In this situation in which Stoops currently finds himself—making do while he coaches up the players on his current team and waits for the higher-profile recruits to find their way to Lexington—some weeks in the SEC will have a lot of give and take. It’s important to take the positives, Brown said, even if the end-game result isn’t as desired; in that case, Brown said he learned a lot and took a lot of good things away from a 24-7 loss to Florida in which the only Kentucky touchdown was on a fake field goal.
But the negatives are going to persist, and they will show up in particularly ugly fashion as they did Wednesday, Stoops said. No matter what happens in any given practice or, in turn, on the field Saturday against South Carolina, Stoops said he’ll take away positives from it as long as it differs from Wednesday’s practice-field mess in one key way.
“There’s no easy way around it. This is a brutal game, brutal schedule,” Stoops said. “We’re right in the middle of it. Can’t run from it. If we go give it everything we got, prepare every day to win and prepare to play, then I can live with the results.”