LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Mark Stoops' long-term approach in rebuilding Kentucky includes making some short-term improvements.
The rookie head coach seems to have made progress by changing the Wildcats' mindset.
Despite consecutive losing seasons including 2-10 last year, Kentucky enters the season optimistic thanks to Stoops. He envisions a team capable of eventually competing in the tough Southeastern Conference. That's asking a lot in a league that has won the past seven national championships, and with title contenders — Florida, Georgia and South Carolina — in the East division.
But Stoops is succeeding in making the Wildcats believe because of his history building strong defenses while stressing the importance of a good offense. Stoops hopes by handling details will translate into more victories this season.
"You know, we are going to build this program brick by brick, and we have to lay the foundation," Stoops said on media day. "There's no shortcuts. I said that from day one.
"We want to go to work every day, give an honest day's work and we expect our players to do the same thing and just lay the foundation and get better. That's all we can control."
A veteran defense will be the cornerstone of Stoops' foundation until Kentucky's revamped offense takes shape. The Wildcats have experience up front, at linebacker and in the secondary; and after injuries created opportunities for freshmen and sophomores, nobody will be shellshocked.
And defensive players are especially eager to carry out Stoops' 4-3 philosophy that the Wildcats hope will make it difficult for opponents to run or pass. Hopefully, that will create chances for Kentucky's offense to execute in those same areas.
"I definitely feel like things are a lot more level," senior linebacker Avery Williamson said. "We're working harder to get off the field on third down and we've got some guys on offense that can move the chains, so that's what I'm so excited about. With those mixes, it equals the playing field a lot more."
Acquiring that balance will take time.
Here are five things to watch in Kentucky's journey back to respectability:
. STOOPS' INFLUENCE: The third and youngest Stoops brother to become an NCAA head coach arrived in Lexington with a reputation as a defensive guru after success at Arizona and Florida State. His track record includes an encouraging trend of immediate improvement and Stoops' most impressive turnaround came with the Seminoles, who improved from 108th to 42nd in total defense his first year and ranked second last season. D.J. Eliot will run the 4-3 scheme but Stoops will definitely have a say in matters.
2. MULTIPLE QBs: Coaches hope that a clear winner emerges from the competition between Maxwell Smith, Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles, but they haven't ruled out using multiple quarterbacks as an alternative. The bottom line is that the experienced Smith must stay healthy after returning from an ankle injury, Whitlow must smooth out rough edges to his mobile game and Towles must show more than he did in five appearances last season.
3. 'AIR' APPARENT: Neal Brown learned the pass-heavy "Air Raid" offense as a Kentucky player under coach Hal Mumme and aims to continue its record of success as offensive coordinator at his alma mater. Brown comes in off an impressive body of work at Texas Tech, which ranked 15th or higher in total offense the past three years while the Red Raiders' passing game was seventh or better including second (361.9 yards per game) last year. Creating the same excitement and proficiency will take work with the Wildcats, who averaged just 176.2 passing yards last season.
4. DEPTH: Injuries decimated Kentucky last season and resulted in a lot of growing pains with underclassmen forced into extensive action. The upside is that 31 Wildcats have made at least one start with the defense boasting depth across all three units. While they feel better about their experience, the key remains staying healthy.
5. THE SCHEDULE: Kentucky's tough home docket includes games against rival Louisville and defending national champion Alabama, but the most intriguing matchup comes on Sept. 28 when Kentucky hosts a Florida team likely to be ranked in the top 10 and including wide receivers coach Joker Phillips, Stoops' Wildcats predecessor. Besides watching the reception Phillips receives in his first visit back to Commonwealth Stadium, it will be interesting to see if he gets the last laugh against his alma mater.
Predicted order of finish: Last in seven-team SEC East.