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Game Time: Stoops, Wildcats eager for first chance to prove preseason work has paid off

By Guy Ramsey
Special to KyForward

Those two-a-days weren’t for fun. Neither were early-morning workouts, grueling weight-lifting sessions or late-night film sessions.

All that work the Kentucky football team logged this winter, spring, summer and fall was for Saturday and the 11 Saturdays to follow.

“We are excited to get going,” UK head coach Mark Stoops said. “It is finally game week. We have had a really good camp and our players have worked extremely hard. We are relatively good shape and are really anxious to get going and get in this game week.”

The feeling around the Kentucky Football Training Facility this week has been unanimous leading up to a showdown with Southern Miss (Saturday, 7:30 p.m., ESPNU).

UK opens the 2016 season Saturday, facing Southern Miss at 7:30 p.m. at Commonwealth Stadium (Chet White Photo)

UK opens the 2016 season Saturday, facing Southern Miss at 7:30 p.m. at Commonwealth Stadium (Chet White Photo)

“We’ve worked really hard all offseason, this summer, everything just preparing for the season and now it’s here,” Drew Barker said. “So it’s a really exciting time. Everybody’s pumped up. We can’t wait to get out there on Saturday and we just want to display all the hard work.”

Barker, the redshirt sophomore quarterback making his first season-opening start, is probably as excited as anyone. He’s had this moment in mind since the moment he committed to UK as part of a highly regarded recruiting class and admitted some Saturday jitters will come as he whiles away the time leading up to the 7:30 p.m. kickoff.

His offensive coordinator, Eddie Gran, is three decades Barker’s senior, and he can attest those don’t go away.

“The nerves and all that, yeah, they come,” Gran said. “I don’t want to coach anymore if I don’t get up on Saturday and I got some issues.”

Gran will be making his debut after coming to UK from Cincinnati, bringing experience and a fire in practice that’s only matched by his even keel on game day.

“Like I said, I try to hammer ‘em during the week and then on game day, we know what to do,” Gran said. “Now let’s go have fun. This is where you get to – and that’s the best thing about college football – you get to have so much fun on Saturday. I think this atmosphere – I can’t wait for that. First game here at the University of Kentucky, I’m really excited.”

UK’s new offense under Gran will be subjected to an immediate test against the Golden Eagles, a team that went 9-5 a season ago behind standout safety D’Nerius Antoine. Southern Miss has a new head coach – Jay Hopson, former Alcorn State head coach and Southern Miss defensive coordinator – so UK has prepared accordingly.

“Well, they’re very multiple in what they’re doing,” Gran said. “They’re in an odd front, jumped into an even front. So, I think we’re going to get multiple stuff. We’re going to get stuff we haven’t seen. That’s when you hope your rules hold up and that you’ve prepared them. What you don’t want to do is chase ghosts.”

The same will be true on the other side of the ball, as Southern Miss will be coached on offense by Shannon Dawson, the offensive coordinator at UK a season ago.

“Well, we had to watch quite a bit of film because we had to go back and watch our offense and then had to watch quite a bit of theirs as well,” Stoops said. “Just to study their personnel and their quarterback and playing such a quality opponent in the first game, especially with a quarterback that has such great experience and is such a great football player.”

Stoops was referencing senior Nick Mullens, the prolific passer who set school records for passing yards (4,476) and passing touchdowns (38) last season. Suffice it to say, Mullens has the Cats’ undivided attention.

“I think they’re very aware of the type of talent he has,” defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale said. “They’re very aware of his accuracy, what he did last year, how that program has turned around. I think they take that as a challenge. They’ll do it every week. Every quarterback that we’re going to face is going to be pretty good. This one happens to be the first week and he’s a pretty special kid. We think he’ll be one of the best we see all year and we’re going to get ready for the challenge.”

Clinkscale was talking only about his defensive-backs group, regarded as the strength of UK’s team, but the same is true across the board. There are no guarantees on game day, but the Cats have done everything in their power to be ready for Saturday.

“We are mentally much more focused than we have been,” Stoops said. “I think we are a much more disciplined football team and much more focused. That comes from all the things that I have talked about all year of putting them in more stressful situations and pushing them harder so they have more maturity about them. It is nice to play with a football team that has some experience and has some maturity about them.”

Talbott Todd to lead first new Cat Walk Saturday

Talbott Todd, a Kentucky football letterman from 1963-65 and supporter of the program diagnosed with ALS last year, will lead the Cat Walk presented by Chevy before Kentucky’s season opener against Southern Miss on Saturday.

“We’re looking forward to our first Cat Walk on Talbott Todd Way,” head coach Mark Stoops said. “Talbott has meant so much to me and to UK Athletics. We’re excited to have him join the team for the Cat Walk.”

The site of the new Cat Walk, Talbott Todd Way, was named in Todd’s honor in August and is located between Commonwealth Stadium and Nutter Field House. Led by Todd, players and coaches will proceed from outside Gate 1 down Talbott Todd Way to the new Kentucky Football Training Facility beginning at approximately 5:15 p.m. on Saturday.

Todd – nicknamed the Richmond Rocket during his high-school days – came to UK from Richmond, Ky., a highly sought-after quarterback/defensive back. He played both positions for Charlie Bradshaw, but spent most of his time in the secondary. He led the team in interceptions with four as a sophomore and memorably secured the game-clinching fumble recovery as UK ended top-ranked Ole Miss’s 22-game regular-season winning streak on the road in 1964.

After his playing career, Todd went on to an ongoing 49-year career with Northwestern Mutual and built a family with his wife of 51 years, Marilyn. The couple has two children, Jeff and Jim.

When he isn’t working or spending time with family, Todd is likely to be found cheering on or at least talking about UK sports, especially the football team. He has been steadfast in his support of the program, building relationships with countless coaches and players over the last five decades. In spite of being diagnosed with ALS, a debilitating neurodegenerative disease, Todd has remained a fixture at UK games and practices.

Guy Ramsey writes the Cat Scratches blog for the UK athletics department

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