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Ashley Scoby: Following final spring practice, Stoops sees signs Cats are on the right track


Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said he was generally pleased with the progress his team made during spring practice, but he declined to name a starting quarterback (UK Athletics Photo / Chet White)

Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said he was generally pleased with the progress his team made during spring practice, but he declined to name a starting quarterback (UK Athletics Photo / Chet White)

 

In a sport that’s built off bone-crushing tackles and brute strength, going “through the motions” as a football player is perhaps even more unacceptable than in any other sport. So consistency, although often used as a buzzword in other sports, is the lifeblood of building a football program, which takes much more time than any other college sport.
 

That’s the mindset heading into Mark Stoops’ third year as head football coach at Kentucky. Year three will be the season that really defines how much improvement has been made, and what exactly has been built.
 

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UK completed its final session of spring practice on Wednesday, and that constant, uphill grind – at least throughout these last few weeks – has been the cornerstone. For a program that has only been consistent in its inconsistency, it’s a positive change of course to actually see a stretch of practice without major pitfalls.
 

“It’s definitely the most consistent we’ve been for 15 practices,” Stoops said. “We weren’t perfect for all 15, but I felt like the guys were out there making a conscious effort to improve, to improve on the things we point out in the meetings.”
 

To keep taking those steps upward in the Southeastern Conference, consistency in spring practice is virtually useless if it doesn’t continue into the slow summer months and, eventually, fall camp. Stoops mentioned that he expects his two quarterbacks, Drew Barker and Patrick Towles (neither of whom has been named a starter yet), to take the initiative to get guys together in the summer and improve, even without coaches’ guidance.
 

That will have to carry over once a new semester starts in the fall, too, when the rigors of an SEC schedule begin to loom ahead.
 

“I’d just like to see our team continue to improve mentally, be a consistent team, to every time we walk in this meeting room, walk out on the field, to improve and get better,” Stoops said. “You can’t do that by just going through the motions. … I feel like certainly (these) 15 practices this spring has been the most consistent we’ve had.”
 

Part of what breeds that steadiness in approach has been the sense of fun surrounding the program. Stoops said that he sees guys out on the practice field who are actually enjoying themselves, in addition to pushing for improvement.
 

“Ultimately they started playing this game because they wanted to have fun,” said defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot. “If they ever lose that, they lose their passion. So I think it’s important that no matter how hard we push them, no matter how hard they want to succeed, that they have to find the fun in the game, too.”
 

Enjoying the game develops organically from knowing what the heck you’re doing. And with many of the players having finally learned either Eliot’s or offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson’s schemes, everything on the field comes much easier.
 

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“We have more people that kind of already know the plays and that are able to help the younger guys know the plays,” said linebacker Josh Forrest. “Last year we had a lot of guys still trying to learn what was going on.”
 

Schematically learning what’s going on is one thing. But learning an entirely new culture of a program is different, and that’s what Stoops has been striving to instill since day one.
 

Heading into year three, with the entire roster now having been recruited or at least developed by Stoops and his staff, this Kentucky program will show exactly what has been built, even without bowl appearances, during the last two seasons.
 

“Last day of spring, year three, and last day of spring, year one, significantly better,” Stoops said. “I just think it starts mentally. They understand what we want from them. … Mentally we’re much stronger, and definitely feel like we’re developing them to be a winning football team.”
 

Ashley Scoby is a senior journalism major at the University of Kentucky and a sports writer for KyForward.com. She has reported on the Wildcats for wildcathoops.com, vaughtsviews.com and kysportsreport.com as well as for newspapers in Danville and Glasgow. She will join Sports Illustrated magazine as a summer intern in June.


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