LEXINGTON, Ky. (KT) — Mark Stoops plans to pay more attention to detail when Kentucky makes its second consecutive postseason appearance in the Music City Bowl later this month in Nashville.
The Kentucky football coach said last year’s performance in the TaxSlayer Bowl — a 33- 18 setback to Georgia Tech — proved to be a learning experience, from preparation to the final buzzer. Stoops plans to seek input from the team’s unity council to formulate a plan for the upcoming bowl encounter.
“You always learn and try to get as much information as I can from the simple things about even when you arrive, and what you do, how many practices you have before,” Stoops said Tuesday. “I think there’s a fine line there with the players as well of using it like we needed to a year ago to really just push the program and use it as basically another spring practice and develop guys.
“There’s such benefit to that, but there’s also the balance of the morale of the football team and what you’re doing with them. So, how hard you practice, how long, how many practices, when to get there — all those things. It’s always a learning experience.”
In addition to planning for the postseason, Kentucky’s coaching staff is preparing for college football’s first early signing period, set for Dec. 20-22. Stoops said the first of two signing periods “won’t change the bowl prep much.”
“I think it’ll make for very busy weekends,” he said. “With the coaches being on the road, we didn’t have a recruiting weekend this past weekend. We will have one the next two, and then trying to balance practices with that because our players are in school getting ready for finals. And then the following week they will be in finals. So you really can’t have practices that week. We’ll have to pick some practices up over the weekend for the next couple weekends, and then we will go straight through when they’re done with their finals for a few days and then cut them loose for Christmas — It’ll be busy.”
In preparing for his team’s matchup against Big 10 member Northwestern, which is 9-3 and riding a seven-game winning streak into the postseason, Stoops said the Wildcats (7-5) will need a marked improvement from the last two regular-season games to have a chance to break a three-game bowl losing streak. Kentucky was outscored 86-30 in losses to Southeastern Conference champion Georgia and Louisville, respectively.
“We have to continue to develop as a program,” Stoops said. “I think there’s some areas we need to improve that we didn’t do as well down the stretch, certainly in the last two games. We’ve got a lot of work to do fundamentally and I think it’s been real important to give our players a little bit of time to step away and decompress a bit. Hopefully, heal up and they’ve been in there working hard in the weight room. And we’ll be anxious to get back with them.”
Starting next season, all college programs can add a 10th assistant coach and Stoops plans to hire a defensive-minded assistant to complement his current coaching staff.
“I do want a defensive coach,” he said. “I think we already have five on offense. We have four and a half on defense, and my time gets split with head coaching duties. I think in this day and age with the difficulties of defending such multiple offenses and the challenge of all that it just makes sense for me to hire a defensive guy. I think just like always, I think in this hire that person will be obviously responsible for managing his players and will contribute schematically and obviously handling his position.”
Although Stoops has had three offensive coordinators in five years, he likes the current state of stability within the program.
“It’s been a crazy year (and) I appreciate where I’m at and the stability that I have here in this program,” he said. “I just look at a guy like, we’re talking about Pat (Fitzgerald) and Northwestern, he’s been there for 12 years already. It’s remarkable. It’s good for him and it’s nice to see that kind of stability. In our league, just in general as you know, there’s a lot of turnovers.”
Despite all the challenges facing the league, with three programs set to have new coaches next season, Stoops wants to Wildcats to finish the season strong and make a solid appearance in the postseason.
“It’ll be a real challenge, but we’re excited and honored to be a part of it,” he said. “Looking forward to getting back on campus and working our players and getting ahead, getting going on this bowl preparation. It’s an exciting time and a busy time right now.”
Love, Snell honored: Kentucky senior linebacker Courtney Love was awarded the Wueffel Trophy, given to college football’s top community servant.
Love, a native of Youngstown, Ohio, leads the team in community service hours and has a passion for mentoring children especially those living in a one-parent household or children who have parents who are incarcerated. Because of his passion, he currently volunteers at Amachi Central Kentucky, a mentoring program that seeks to pair caring, positive adults with children and youth in the Bluegrass who have one or both parents in state or federal prison or are affected by incarceration in some way.
“I’ve been around Courtney for a long time and knew very, very clearly what I was getting with Courtney,” Stoops said. “I really can’t emphasize enough what he’s meant to myself and to our program and how proud I am of him. I know him and I know his father, Cory. We go back a long way. And just he’s a special, special individual. Obviously winning an award like the Wuerffel Trophy, which is basically like the Heisman Trophy of that particular area, and what he’s done says a lot about him and I’m so proud of him. I know our fan base is and you guys are as well. Everything about him is authentic. He is genuinely a great person, a good teammate, a great citizen. He’s just fun to be around.”
In addition, Kentucky sophomore running back Benny Snell was named an All-SEC, second team performer.
“I think it’s a credit to our offensive players, our offensive coaches to put him in a position to be successful,” Stoops said. “And for him individually I touched on it after the game I think the last time we were in here, but he just has a great desire to play well. You really just can’t say enough about him and the desire and the passion he plays with. He’s a tough guy to tackle.”
Music City Bowl: Kentucky vs. Northwestern at Nissan Field, 4:30 p.m., Dec. 29. TV/Radio: ESPN, 98.1 FM WBUL, Lexington.
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. He can be reached at email@example.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.