By Matthew Hunter
When the University of Kentucky hired former Florida State defensive coordinator Mark Stoops on Nov. 27, 2012, the culture surrounding Kentucky’s football program immediately began to change. Stoops replaced Joker Phillips who was fired after a 2-10 (0-8 in SEC play) record last winter. The big blue nation was calling for a new leader.
Phillips was named the successor of former great Wildcat coach Rich Brooks in 2010. Joker was Brooks’s offensive coordinator, calling the offensive plays for a high-powered offense. In Joker’s first and second season, he led the Wildcats to an unpredictable appearance in a bowl game and snapped the winning streaks of both Steve Spurrier and Tennessee’s infamous 26-game winning streak against Kentucky.
Even so, Joker couldn’t grab the attention of the fan base altogether in his three seasons. Every time a game was on, one would think the human population was extinct because the stadium was so empty. Lack of fan excitement, inconsistent play and not being able to put a competitive product on the field ultimately lost Joker his job.
In come Mark Stoops. The fiery, animated red head from Youngstown, Ohio rejuvenated a bro- ken fan base. His marketing of the program including a Super Bowl commercial, his defensive back-ground, his emphasis on recruiting and the hiring of a top notch coaching staff all led to over fifty thousand fans at Kentucky’s annual spring game (a Kentucky record.). There has never been more excitement around Kentucky’s football program than there is since Stoops has arrived. Mottos like “attack every day” and “yahtzee” have spread like wildfire in the commonwealth and have the fans excited once again about football.
Fast forward to August 31; it is the kick off to Mark Stoops’s first game wearing the blue and white.
The Stoops era would eventually start off to a 35-26 loss to Western Kentucky for the second year in a row. Kentucky fans were anticipating a win to launch this season, but are now left wondering where all the hype went. Fans were left scratching their head after giving up an abysmal 487 yards to a Sun Belt Conference team. After all, Stoops is a defensive coach; how could he give up so many yards to Western?
The defensive line was supposed to be the team’s strength, but they gave up 216 yards on the ground. Bounce over to the offensive side and they weren’t much better. The air assault only saw 203 yards passing. But in the fourth quarter, Max Smith replaced starting quarterback Jalen Whitlow and moved the ball down the field more effectively. New guys like Ryan Timmons, Za’Darius Smith and Javess Blue also showed signs of talent with great plays that Kentucky is sure to see in the future. With all that went wrong in the opening game of the season there is one bright spot: there are still eleven more games to go. Kentucky fans should hope for progress over the season because it’s something they haven’t seen from the blue and white in years.
Asbury freshman Tyler Smith is expecting big things from U.K. football this year. “[I expect to see the football team] playing harder for the entire four quarters rather than half of the game,” said Smith. “They also have to tackle better, and take pride in what they are here for.”
It’s safe to say Smith is optimistic about Max Smith getting the start are quarterback. “He’ll have more accurate passing,” said Smith. “He takes chances and throw the ball down the field.” The season did not start off with a win like most people expected. Nonetheless, don’t throw the towel in on these players and coaches yet. They might be backed into a corner where the only choice they have is to come out fighting. And that’s what wildcat fans want to see.