ATLANTA — When Mark Stoops accepted his first head coaching job more than six years ago at Kentucky, he had a chip on his shoulder. He still does.
“I hope we have a chip on our shoulder no matter what we are rated,” Stoops said during the Southeastern Conference Media Days Monday. “That’s what I’m looking for. We do have a group that I like. I like their mentality and the way they are working.”
Like Stoops, standout running back Benny Snell has carried the same attitude in his first two seasons with the Wildcats and wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I’ve had a chip on my shoulder ever since I’ve been here my freshman year,” Snell said. “Nothing really has changed. A lot of doubt has been on Kentucky since I’ve been here, so I’m still going to keep a chip on my shoulder and the team is still going to keep a chip on its shoulder and prove people wrong.”
The Wildcats have made marked improvements in Stoops’ first five seasons at the helm, especially on defense. Stoops has guided the Wildcats to back-to-back postseason appearances, first a loss to Georgia Tech in the TaxSlayer Bowl, followed by a heartbreaking 24-23 setback to Northwestern in the Music City Bowl last year.
In what has become the norm in the Stoops era, Kentucky won six of its first eight games last year, but slipped down the stretch, a slippery slope that resulted in a 1-5 mark during the final games. Kentucky did win seven games, giving the Stoops, his staff, player and fan base yearning for more. Stoops didn’t shy away from higher expectations.
“We expect more (and) we’ve been close,” Stoops said. “We’ve done some good things. I’m proud of the work that we’ve done, that we look forward to making a big jump this year. We return some players with experience. We returned some talent. We returned some players that decided to forego the NFL and come back to do more, to play with a chip on their shoulder, to win some football games. We’re tired of being close in some.
Now that his Wildcats have established themselves as one the upper echelon teams in the SEC East, Stoops wants his squad to keep climbing the proverbial ladder and not look back. His first task is formulating a plan for a starting quarterback, a position that’s currently a toss-up between junior college transfer Terry Wilson and Gunner Hoak going into fall camp.
Stoops said it would be “reckless” to make a decision before fall workouts begin.
“We’ll just have to see where it goes,” he said. “It’s a very unique situation, but on the flip side of that, I feel like all of those guys are experienced. They haven’t taken a college snap in a game or anything like that for us, but they’ve been around. They are both very poised and very confident.”
In addition to finding a replacement for two-year starter Stephen Johnson, Stoops, and his the Wildcats have been focusing and turning the season into a marathon instead of a sprint and Snell understands what his coach wants on both sides of the ball.
“Finishing the season (strong) and finishing games have been one of the things we have been focusing on the most this summer,” Snell said. “When it comes to Florida, Louisville or Texas A&M this year … it’s about (winning) those close games and finishing those games is (what is) going to (help us) this season, converting on third down, getting stops on defense and things like is going to help us (with the) bigger picture.”
While Stoops and the Wildcats aren’t one of the preseason favorites to win the SEC title, the veteran coach isn’t worried about predictions in any way, shape or form. Instead, he’s more concerned about his own squad.
“I don’t know if that’s for me to judge and I worry about ourselves, so I don’t pay much attention to that,” Stoops said. “I know we’re very confident in our abilities and feel very good about what we have, what we’re doing and the position that we’re putting ourselves in. You can’t really worry about that. If you’re not doing the things necessary and not putting in the hard work (over the summer) and taking things to another level and just worrying about our backyard. None of that matters. Talk is cheap and it really doesn’t mean much.”
That’s why talking season doesn’t mean much until the first snap. Until then, it’s all speculation and nothing else matters.