Three days before the Wildcats open the season at home against Tennessee-Martin, the UK head coach reiterated that he expects his team to be much improved in his second season, but also noted the challenges that still lie ahead for his program.
”Looking forward to kicking off the season this week,” Stoops said. “Our players and coaches have worked extremely hard this offseason, this camp, to put ourselves in position to win.”
By all accounts, it’s been an excellent offseason and fall camp for the Wildcats. Stoops, who isn’t a big fan of daily briefings with the UK media corps, even voluntarily took the podium on Tuesday to express how much he liked his team’s afternoon practice session at the Nutter Training Center.
Two potential roadblocks, however, exist between that preseason feeling and prolonged giddiness.
First, Kentucky has not won an SEC game in more than two years, and the schedule is once again unforgiving with programs like Florida, South Carolina, LSU and Georgia awaiting the Cats.
And second, despite UK's impressive recruiting since Stoops arrived in Lexington, the roster is still short-handed in comparison to their league rivals.
Asked which positions currently feature SEC-caliber talent and depth, Stoops acknowledged it’s a short list: running back and defensive end.
The Cats feature a stable of talented backs, led by Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard, sophomore JoJo Kemp, senior Josh Clemons and a pair of high-profile freshmen in Stanley "Boom Williams and Mikel Horton.
At defensive end, UK has a pair of potential All-SEC players in Alvin "Bud" Dupree and Za'Darius Smith to go along with sophomore Jason Hatcher, whose talent may force the staff to get creative with lineups in order to get its best 11 players on the field.
“Outside of that, we're not quite there yet,” Stoops warned.
A glance at the Cats’ two-deep depth chart for Saturday’s game underscores that point. Kentucky will be starting two offensive linemen on the right side – redshirt freshman guard Ramsey Meyers and redshirt freshman tackle Kyle Meadows – who have never appeared in a college game. Two backups on the O-Line, guards Cole Mosier and Max Godbey, are walk-ons.
The linebacker corps could feature another newcomer in the starting lineup as juco signee Ryan Flannigan is bracketed No. 1 on the weakside with junior Khalid Henderson.
“It’s not fun to be thin at any position,” Stoops said. “It hurts you in so many ways – in your preparation, the way you practice, how physical you can be, how long you can practice – all those things. It slows the development of your program when you’re not deep enough. And like you’ve heard me say so many times, we’re a work in progress in that area.
“I feel much better about the talent level at a lot of these positions. It’s just the inexperience. That’s tough, and that’s frustrating… But it is what it is, and we’ve got to push those guys and develop them.”