Until he gets to see his team flip the switch and play an actual opponent, however, Stoops admits to having the same concerns almost every head coach has at this time of year.
“I think anytime, any opener, you’re not totally sure what you have until you see your team play,” Stoops said Monday during his first weekly press luncheon of the season. “I’ve only been a head coach -- this is going into my third opener as a head coach -- but even as a coordinator and position coach, you have a pretty good feel for what you have, but until you get out there and play you never truly know.
“I think it’s exciting, you know, that anticipation and getting ready to watch this team play and feel good about them. I feel like we’re a better football team, and I’m anxious to watch them play.”
Kentucky opens the season on Saturday at 7 p.m. ET against UL Lafayette at the newly-renovated Commonwealth Stadium. The Ragin’ Cajuns are coming off their fourth-consecutive 9-win season under head coach Mark Hudpseth, an offensive guru whose name had popped up briefly during UK’s last coaching search prior to hiring the defensive-oriented Stoops.
“We’ll have our hands full,” Stoops noted.
Season openers almost always feature fresh-start optimism, but the Cats have even more reason to be excited entering Stoops’ third year as head of the program. Not only will UK be playing in a stadium that received a $120-million facelift, but the Cats will also unveil an exciting new offensive scheme led by new coordinator Shannon Dawson.
“I think the stadium certainly adds to it,” Stoops said. “We are very excited. I think if you look back to the time that I arrived and you look at the three years of building this program and building this stadium, with the anticipation of this day, it’s really an exciting time to be opening this stadium. We get one opportunity for a first impression.”
Kentucky was 2-10 in Stoops’ first year and finished 5-7 last season. A steady flow of highly-regarded recruits and impressive development in the off-season has elevated the outlook in Year Three.
“We are a much different football team than we were when we took the field my first year,” Stoops said.
While some of that will be reflected in fan-favorite “skill” players like junior quarterback Patrick Towles and sophomore running back Stanley “Boom” Williams, the most notable upgrades might be found in the trenches.
“We have to be good in all phases,” Stoops said. “Offensively, I think we will control the ball a little bit better, move the ball better. I think, defensively, we’ll be better. We certainly need to be better on third downs, you limit some opportunities, you limit some plays if you can get off the field. We need to improve in a lot of areas, (and) run defense is one of them. But I anticipate that we will be improved.
“I feel really good about the amount of work we were able to get done this summer… It’s nice to be able to practice a little more physical and have a little bit of depth and have those practices where you can really work it and you feel like you have a good chance because you’ve got some guys who are strong enough to move some people when they have to, and defensively stop them as well. We’re by no means perfect, and we need to continue to improve, as you know, throughout this season we play some very physical teams, but I think we’re getting to the point where we’re more comfortable with the way we run the ball.”
Getting out of the gates strong against UL Lafayette could set the tone for what, on paper, looks like a season in which UK can find its way back into bowl game contention.
“Any time, any game you’d certainly like to start fast. I think it’s important, I think it’s important for us to not get too far ahead of ourselves,” Stoops said. “I think the guys will be extremely excited. I’d be completely shocked if we we’re not very excited to come into the new renovated stadium. The guys have worked hard, the anticipation for a new season. We better tell them, “Whoa.” I’d rather have to tell them, “Whoa” than “Giddy Up.” I think they’ll be ready to go and anxious but that’s where it’s got to come one play at a time, but it is important to start fast.”