LEXINGTON, Ky. – Outside the picture window of Mark Stoops’ corner office are lush green practice fields and observation towers where just a few months ago there was nothing but piles of dirt.
After Kentucky officials took the time to visit the best football facilities in the country, it is clear that UK’s new $45 million complex has all of the bells and whistles that current and future players will enjoy: a dining hall, a team meeting room with plush leather seats that probably is the best theater in town and a barber shop. The state-of-the-art weight room is glass-encased, with multiple flat-screen TVs on every wall. Each player’s locker has its own ventilation system and is equipped with every kind of cell phone charger known to man.
This facility, which opened in July, literally is a one-stop support system for Kentucky's players. They eat here. They are tutored here. They practice here. They work out here. In their free time, there is a game room with a lot of flat-screen TVs. There is no reason to leave except to go to class or go to sleep. There are these kinds of palatial facilities all across the landscape of college football. Now Kentucky has theirs. And that's important.
"It's great," said Stoops, set to begin his fourth season as coach. "We have everything we need here. Until now, we could only talk about our commitment to football and show people some renderings. Now they can see it. The players we have now take a lot of pride in it. They are happy to be a part of this."
When Stoops arrived at Kentucky after a three-season stint as Florida State's defensive coordinator, athletic director Mitch Barnhart made a commitment that the school would give him facilities that were comparable to its competitors in the SEC. In addition to this new facility, which now is a must in 21st century recruiting, Kentucky last year completed a $120 million facelift to Commonwealth Stadium. What was the Old Gray Lady of SEC football stadiums now sparkles.
So from a brick and mortar standpoint, Stoops and Kentucky have what they need. Now it is time for this $165 million investment to start paying dividends. The goal for Kentucky in 2016 is simply stated: After going 5-7 the past two seasons Kentucky must – must – get to a bowl.
Kentucky needs to show it knows how to win
Stoops is not backing away from it.
"We've put in the work," said Stoops, the younger brother of Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops. "We've recruited well. We've done everything you're supposed to do to be successful. It's time."
It would take too long to outline how ever-so-close Kentucky has been to a bowl the past two seasons. The Wildcats started 5-1 in 2014 and that one loss was in triple overtime to Florida. Then the Wildcats lost six straight.
Last season, UK started 4-1 and let several chances slip away. They lost SEC games by three points (Auburn 30-27), four points (Vanderbilt 21-17) and five points Florida (14-9). In the season finale, with a bowl bid on the line, Kentucky lost a 21-0 lead and fell 38-24 at home to Louisville.
Stoops makes no excuses.
"Our issue was in all of our close losses, there were opportunities to make a play and win the game," Stoops said. "There were plays to be made and we didn't make them. We have to learn how to make those plays."
To that end, Stoops made a significant change. He said goodbye to offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson, hired away from West Virginia following the 2014 season, and brought in veteran assistant Eddie Gran from Cincinnati; Gran has spent 15 seasons in the SEC (10 at Ole Miss, four at Auburn, one at Tennessee).
Stoops turned the offense completely over to Gran, who brought Cincinnati quarterback coach Darin Hinshaw with him to share the job. What Stoops was looking for was a more traditional look that would take advantage of Kentucky's strength at running back. Stanley "Boom" Williams (924 yards), JoJo Kemp (573 yards) and Mikel Horton (336 yards) are proven SEC running backs.
"He (Stoops) wanted somebody to come in and be the head coach of the offense," Gran said. "I've been in this league. I know the recipe."
Gran's system basically is an NFL offense run out of the pistol formation. Think Green Bay and New England. And it is operated with a lot of discipline.
"My players know that I'm not here to be their buddy," said Gran. "I'm going to love them, but I'm going to coach them hard. I don't know any other way to do it."
One of the first calls Gran made when he took the job was to Williams, who almost reached the 1,000-yard mark last season despite missing two games with an injury.
"As soon as we talked I knew things were going to be different," said Williams, a Georgia native who at one point in the recruiting process was committed to the Bulldogs. "All the running backs are excited about what this offense should be able to do."
There also is no question at quarterback. Sophomore Drew Barker took over for Patrick Towles late last season. Towles transferred to Boston College and Barker was named the starter right after the spring game.
"He's our guy," Gran said of Barker.
Helping out the defense
In addition to scoring points, Gran's offense has another role: moving the chains to protect a unit that finished 12th in the league in total defense, scoring defense and rushing defense last season.
At Cincinnati last season, Gran's offense was No. 2 nationally in first downs (370); Kentucky was 101st (222). Kentucky's defense was on the field for 71 plays per game last season; in contrast, eight SEC defenses were on the field for fewer than 70 plays per game. A notable exception was Ole Miss, whose defense was on the field for 79.2 plays per game. But that's because the Rebels use an up-tempo offense and led the SEC at 517.8 yards and 40.8 points per game.
"There are two different ways to win," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "One way is to outscore people. Another way is to limit the number of possessions your defense is on the field by the way you run the offense. I like what Eddie is doing. I think this gives us a better chance."
Kentucky's defense took a big hit during fall camp when projected starting defensive tackle Regie Meant left the team for personal reasons. That's a position where the Wildcats already were thin and yet another reason Gran's offense needs to control the game.
"It's been very good for me not to have to worry about the offense," Stoops said. "There are going to be some bumps in the road, but I have absolute trust in his (Gran's) leadership."
(You can follow Tony Barnhart on Twitter @MrCFB)
© 2016, Tony Barnhart. All rights reserved.
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