Stoops: ‘I feel good where we’re at’

Published 10:11 am Thursday, July 22, 2021

HOOVER, Alabama (KT) — Mark Stoops is nearing a decade as football coach at the University of Kentucky and remains focused on turning the Wildcats into a national title contender.

In his ninth appearance at Southeastern Conference Media Days on Tuesday, Stoops reaffirmed his commitment to taking the Wildcats to the next level.

“I said it when I got to Kentucky that we were going to recruit, we were going to develop, we were going to compete, and I wanted to take this program to national prominence, and people laughed at me,” Stoops said. “We’re not there yet, but we’re on our way. I’m going to continue to work. I feel good about where we’re at.”

Stoops has guided the Wildcats to five consecutive bowl appearances, but the Kentucky coach has yet to find the right leader to fit his offensive vision. He opens his ninth season with his fourth offensive coordinator. Eddie Gran appeared to be the answer, but Stoops wasn’t satisfied with the team’s progression on offense, especially last season.

The Kentucky coach wanted more passes and more balance than what the Wildcats achieved under Gran’s guidance and Stoops is hopeful he found the answer in former Los Angeles Rams quarterbacks coach Liam Coen.

“That’s a big reason why I hired Liam,” Stoops said.  “It took me some time to clearly look at what I wanted our team to look like and what I felt like we can do. So I spent quite a bit of time researching people and systems and ultimately came down to Liam. I have full confidence and trust in him, and that is part of his system, part of the offense to be able to play action pass and get the ball down the field.

“I felt like this spring we got the ball down the field better than we have in years, so I feel very good about it.”

The players feel good about the future under Coen, including offensive lineman Darian Kinnard, who opted against the NFL Draft in favor of returning for a fifth season.

“One of the biggest things he wants is just pinpoint accuracy with everything we’re doing,” Kinnard said. “Everything has a purpose and a reason, and it sets up a lot of stuff for a lot of the game I feel like we’ve just got to keep sticking to it, keep working, and master this new offense that we’re getting.”

The team’s success under Coen in the first year will largely depend on the quarterback, with Auburn transfer Joey Gatewood, Beau Allen and Penn State transfer Will Levis battling for the starting position.

“There are a lot of things that go into that decision,” Stoops said. “The bottom line is who is going to give us the best opportunity to win the most games. That’s the most important thing. … ultimately, it comes down to how the team is playing.”

Aside from getting a handle on the offense, Stoops added that everything comes into play when it comes to naming a starting signal caller during fall workouts.

“We get 12 opportunities and it’s the whole body of work,” Stoops said. “Camp is important, the first game is important — all that momentum and how we play throughout the season and (close games) with a razor thin margin. It’s all important. I’m just excited about camp at that position, how we progress offensively and how we progress as a team.”

As college football navigates past the COVID-19 era, Stoops isn’t taking anything for granted.

“It’s very nice for us to go back to doing the things that we do and spending time with each

other during the summer,” Stoops said. “A year ago, all those things were taken away. This year that’s a big piece of our culture, is to spend time with each other.”

Now that talking season has began, Stoops knows the season is just around the corner.

“We’re excited about the season — ready to get going,” Stoops said.

Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at keith.taylor@kentuckytoday.com or Twitter @keithtaylor21.