Mark Stoops nearly stole a page from the John Calipari playbook.
UK’s basketball coach doesn’t have the rebuilding job ahead of him that his football-coaching colleague has tackled, but you wouldn’t have been surprised if Calipari had whispered to Stoops, at some point, “Be sure you tell ‘em, ‘There’s no magic wand.’ “
Stoops nearly went that way at his Monday news conference when he reminded the media and fans, “There’s no magical scheme on either side of the ball that we can do overnight.”
If only there were.
The loss to Western Kentucky exposed a lot of things about the Wildcats, magnifying some and uncovering others. Perhaps the most shocking was that the defensive line, at least right now, is not the major plus that we all thought it would be.
The front four of Bud Dupree, Mister Cobble, Donte Rumph and Za’Darius Smith was supposed to be adept enough at stopping the run and rushing the passer to cover for a lack of depth in the back seven. Instead, they were shredded by Western Kentucky’s lethal combination of pulling guards and pounding tackles. The Hilltoppers played from a comfortable position of power for much of the evening: Second and short.
“I was very disappointed and I can’t put it all one any one person or one group,” Stoops said. “Anytime people are getting big chunks on first and second down the way they were doing, that’s poor team defense. It was at all levels. It was defensive linemen trying to do too much, it was poor pursuit by the (linebackers) on things we worked extremely hard at, and it was poor positioning and reaction by the secondary in certain situations. So it was everybody.”
Casting the blanket of blame, starting with himself, was the theme throughout Stoops’ comments to the media. “I just have a hard time saying bad things about our players,” he said, reiterating the message he delivered the first time he evaluated his talent to the media back in the spring.
Laying all of the Wildcats’ shortcomings on a lack of big-time players would be understandable, given the all-but-empty cupboard left behind by Joker Phillips and his staff. Phillips himself, before he left, encouraged whoever his successor would be to blame him, thus potentially buying time in a profession where you’re judged now after your second season, not your fourth or fifth.
But Stoops wouldn’t bite. He blamed himself and his staff as much as he did the players. And he was correct in doing so.
“I’m not one to throw anybody under the bus,” he said. “I said it from the very beginning – it’s our job to put them in a position to be successful. That’s still our job.”
Stoops said he didn’t do enough to help his guys overcome first-game nerves and just play – but within themselves. “I saw some wide eyes out there on Saturday and we gotta get over that,” he said. “We gotta cut it loose and play.”
And when they do cut it loose, he said, they have to do so with discipline, which evaporated into the humid Nashville air Saturday night. “I saw some people going back to some poor habits,” Stoops said. “I should have done a better job of foreseeing that because when things go bad, players wanna go out there and just try to make plays. That’s never a good thing.”
When panic sets in, people forget about the little things – which, as they say, can get you beat. “I accept that responsibility,” said Stoops. “You had a good idea that some of that was going to happen, and it did. Guys mean well but that doesn’t mean they’re playing well. You can’t just get out there and start doing you own thing.”
Changes are on the way, beginning with the depth chart. Maxwell Smith, who briefly rallied the Cats in the fourth quarter Saturday, is number one now on the depth chart, although Stoops said they’ll treat the situation the same way against Miami of Ohio Saturday. Smith will play until the coaches see a need or an opportunity to play Jalen Witlow.
You’d have to think other starting jobs are in jeopardy. Even though most fans have issued this coaching staff a pass on the 2013 season, given the brutality of the schedule, Stoops doesn’t see it that way. Accepting losses as inevitable would put him another year behind when it comes to changing the culture of Kentucky football. But he knows it’ll take time. He needs more play-makers.
“We all have to accept the reality of what it is, and accept that and embrace it,” he said. “It is what it is. I’m not discouraged. I’m anxious to get back out there. That’s just it. There’s no easy formula. There’s no easy switch. We just have to get back to work and handle it with the right attitude and get better.”
He could also use a magic wand.
(Dick Gabriel is in his 25th season with the UK TV and Radio Networks, and can be heard on the Big Blue Insider Monday through Friday from 6-8 p.m. ET on 630 WLAP-AM and wlap.com.)