LEXINGTON, Ky. - As an assistant, Mark Stoops was accustomed to getting his hands dirty. Having led defenses for the last nine seasons, Stoops knew where he was going to be on the practice field.
"I'm usually as a defensive coordinator, right in the middle of it," Stoops said. "I like being right in the middle of the huddle and in the middle of the play."
But for Stoops, the last five months have been a series of reminders of just how different his life is now having taken over as Kentucky head coach. On Friday, as UK held its first scrimmage, Stoops got another such reminder.
"In a critical situation today, a third down where the offense was about to get a first down and dropped it, I'm mad at the offense," Stoops said. "Normally, I'd be mad (at the defense) because they were open."
Rather than focusing on just one side of the ball, Stoops has shifted his priorities. He now must take a broader view. He now must think about all phases of the game and how they fit together. Nearly halfway through spring practice, Stoops sees a situation that would please his former defense-oriented self.
"Just like you would expect, the defense is further along," Stoops said. "If the defense just gets lined up right and makes them execute, the offense... It's always a little bit harder for them to get started."
Running approximately 140 plays in a morning session outside at the Nutter Training Facility, Stoops saw a UK defense that consistently had the upper hand over an offensive group still very much in a learning mode as Neal Brown installs his system.
"The defense got some takeaways and got some big stops," Stoops said. "I think that's probably the best thing of the day. Offensively, they moved the ball, did some good things at times. Critical turnovers, penalties, things like that. Just typical things you would expect for the first time out."
As has been the case throughout the spring, tempo defined much of the action. Defensive and offensive players alike are adjusting to the speed with which they're being asked to play.
"For only doing it for half a spring, we're doing well," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "But we're not where we need to be to handle that tempo. We had guys that weren't lined up at times and those were free plays for the offense if you don't get lined up."
Though spread offenses haven't permeated the Southeastern Conference quite like in other leagues, having to defend this UK attack - which cornerback Cody Quinn has dubbed "NASCAR" - is the best preparation the defense could ask for. Not only are the Cats having to learn a new base 4-3 defense on the fly, they're also having to do it with minimal time to think.
"That's pretty fast what they were doing and a lot of teams in the SEC aren't going to go as fast as that," linebacker Avery Williamson said. "So when we go against the different teams, other fast-paced spread teams, it'll be a lot easier and we'll be in a lot better shape than the other defense."
As for the offense, Brown sees a unit that is quickly taking to the pace of the new system, though mistakes - most notably in the form of dropped passes and fumbles - are inevitable.
"I was really pleased with our tempo. I thought we moved around pretty fast," Brown said. "Our operations were good, had very few penalties. Ball security, not where it needed to be. And it's the first time we tackled, so not surprised by that."
At quarterback, contenders Maxwell Smith, Patrick Towles and Jalen Whitlow rotated with the first and second teams, while freshman Reese Phillips worked with the third team. Brown refrained from talking in depth about how the quarterbacks performed, opting to save his evaluations for after the spring. Even then, there's a good chance Stoops and Brown will not name a starter until fall camp.
Because of that, it's difficult to predict how UK's offense will look. Each of the three potential starters has different strengths, strengths Brown will be looking to accentuate as he adds nuance. The same goes for every position on the field.
"We'll give a little different presentation with whoever wins the job," Brown said. "I'm just trying to figure out what our best personnel is, who our best 11 are, and then once I figure out who our best 11 are, who is our next best skill guys? Then let's kind of form the package around them."
If the first two weeks of spring are any indication, it's likely running back Raymond Sanders will be included in that group. The 5-foot-8 senior has taken immediately to the new system, showing himself to be a good runner, consistent pass catcher and capable blocker.
"I knew it was an offense that would definitely get me in space and let me challenge some guys in space and set up some blocks in space," Sanders said. "Looking for a lot of home runs this year. The line is doing a great job. The wide receivers are on the outside blocking. I was very excited to find out it was going to open up some things."
The scrimmage was closed to reporters, but they heard plenty about an on-field encounter between Sanders and Williamson, UK's top tackler from a season ago who was also second in the SEC in total tackles.
"He's a handful back there," Williamson said. "He got me one time today, shook me up a little bit."
On a stretch run play, Sanders was carrying the ball and Williamson shot through the gap and came barreling toward him. Sanders used a stutter step move to evade the tackle and Williamson went to the ground.
"I had to do something, so he wouldn't run through me," Sanders said. "Avery is a great player, so I knew all the rest of the scrimmage he was going to be after me. I just had to keep running and keep making sure I tried to make him miss."
Sanders said Williamson got him back with a good hit, but it was "not as clean as I got him."
That back-and-forth is exactly what Stoops wants more of this spring: good football players fulfilling their assignments getting after one another. Sometimes the defense will come out on top and other times it will be the offense.
"We have a long way to go," Stoops said. "We're getting a better sense of urgency each and every day. Offensively, I like the positions the coaches are putting them in. I like the tempo and things. Defensively, the same things. We're coaching them hard. I like what we're doing."
Rumph undergoing shoulder surgery Friday, expected back in fall
The Cats were dealt a blow this week as Donte Rumph went down on Monday with a potentially significant injury. On Friday, Stoops revealed that the injury is to the senior defensive tackle's shoulder and that Rumph would undergo surgery to repair the damage on Friday afternoon. In a bit of good news, Rumph is expected to make a full recovery and return to the team for fall camp.