Mark Stoops has emitted an extremely optimistic aura since taking the Kentucky job in December. His first recruiting class grabbed national attention, and fans expressed their newfound confidence in the program by making the Blue-White Game one of the most-attended spring scrimmages in the entire country.
With another strong recruiting class in the making for 2014, UK football fans are giddy about the future. Stoops welcomes that. But the UK boss also wants that excitement tempered with a dose of reality, and perhaps more importantly, patience.
When asked Wednesday how he feels about the progress his team is making in its second week of fall camp, he reminded everyone that it’s all part of a long process.
“I’m pleased with our progress. We are definitely getting better,” Stoops said. “Now, then again, you guys know me. It’s not my style to try and throw the players we have under the bus. (But) we are not good enough at certain positions to win a lot of football games. We need to coach them better, we need to get better, and that’s what we’re working on.
“So, right now, I’m pleased with their attitude. I’m pleased with their effort. I’m pleased with the coaches. We just need some more talent at certain positions, and that’s just the truth. And we need to get the guys we do have better.”
Recent injuries have underscored how thin UK is at certain position groups. Redshirt freshman center Zach Myers and sophomore cornerback Cody Quinn suffered an ankle injuries on Wednesday. Neither are expected to be of serious nature, but both made Stoops think about the team’s depth issues and how far to push the physical limits of practice.
Kentucky has only one experienced player at cornerback, sophomore Fred Tiller, currently active in practice. He's joined on the first-team defense by freshman Jaleel Hytchye, who signed with the Cats in February. Along the offensive line, Myers was only one of six players that assistant coach John Schlarman said was truly ready to play up front if the season were to begin this week.
“We do (get concerned) because there’s a real fine line that we’re always trying to toe,” he said. “I said it from the very first day I was here – it’s a very physical league. You have to be tough and you have to be physical, yet we’re not very deep. We’re still going about our business, trying to find that balance, but we’ve been very physical.
“(Myers) got hurt during a physical drill at the beginning of practice, but we need that. We can’t slow down. We need to keep on developing this program and developing our players to be tough, to be physical, to be able to play, to be able to run the ball when you have to and to be able to stop the run when you have to. There’s no way around it if you want to build a good program.”
Sophomore Zach West, who started 12 games at left guard last season, will move into the No. 1 spot at center while Myers is sidelined. Walk-on Max Godby, a 6-foot-4, 180-pound junior, will get second-team reps.
Junior defensive end Za’Darius Smith also missed his sixth day of practice since suffering a sprained ankle.
“Nothing major, but it is bothering him,” Stoops said. “It’s going to take a little bit of time.”
Meant Impressive in Return To Action:
Freshman defensive tackle Regie Meant returned to action in practice after missing the first week of camp recovering from two minor injuries to his forearm and ankle. He wasted little time in grabbing Stoops’ attention.
“He’s been impressive,” Stoops said. “We talk about that freshman class, he’s a grown man. He’s going to be a good player. Very physical.”
According to Stoops, Meant is another newcomer with an unusually-high competitive streak. And a glaring example of how the recruiting rankings aren’t always the be-all, end-all.
“We want to recruit at a high level,” Stoops said. “We want, for what it’s worth to you all, we want five-star guys. We want to recruit the best guys there are. But there’s a perfect example (of a player being better than advertised). He’s going to be a very, very good football player.
“I don’t care what he was rated. I know he was rated low. But I loved him all along. Wanted him, and we were in fights to sign him out of high school. We knew all along how important he was. Didn’t matter how many stars he had by him. We wanted him, and sure enough, he’s going to be a good player.”
Meant was rated a three-star prospect by Scout coming out of Baker High School in Cape Coral, Fla. He received very little attention from other SEC programs, picking the Wildcats over schools like Kansas State, Iowa State, Minnesota, Washington State and Florida International.
He was listed at 6-foot-4 and 270 pounds during his senior year of high school, but is now close to 6-5 and 300 pounds at UK.
Meant’s emergence could give the Cats a significant boost on the depth chart at defensive tackle. Expected starters Mister Cobble and Donte Rumph have been dealing with injuries in camp. Veterans Mike Douglas and Tristian Johnson are converted ends who play a bit undersized, but have solid experience. Christian Coleman is coming off an inconsistent sophomore season, and young players like Thomas Chapman and Patrick Graffree lack experience.
Freshman a ‘Pit Bull’:
Freshman running back JoJo Kemp has caught the staff’s eye on many occasions during fall camp and looks like a good bet to be in the rotation when the season begins.
The 5-foot-10, 190-pound DeLand, Fla., native brings “an added dimension” to the offensive backfield, according to Stoops.
“Jojo, he’s a pit bull,” Stoops added. “We do (one-on-one) board drills over there, and I thought he was going to pull a knife out of his sock and stab someone. He’s just got that (competitive fire). He’s a pit bull. I love him.”
Kemp came to UK known for his speed and exciting ability to change direction in and make defenders miss in the open field, but his toughness has been a pleasant surprise. Running backs coach Chad Scott said Kemp will often initiate challenges with defenders for one-on-one board drills when they outweigh him by a wide margin.
“Doesn’t care,” Scott said. “He’ll take on anybody. He’s a really tough kid.”
Kemp is in the running for playing time alongside expected starter Raymond Sanders and backups Jonathan George and Dyshawn Mobley.
Juco Corner Arrives in Lexington:
After a long battle to complete his junior college classwork and get clearance from the NCAA, Nate Willis officially arrived in Lexington on Wednesday morning.
“Nate’s here,” Stoops said. “He was cleared. He’s here and on campus. Got that information this morning. He’s doing his physical and compliance, and he’ll be out here this afternoon.”
The 6-foot, 180-pound Willis was considered one of the top juco corner prospects in the country coming out of Arizona Western College. The Pahokee, Fla., native is expected to provide immediate depth to UK’s thin group of corners, which lost J.D. Harmon to academic issues prior to camp starting.