Stoops expects greater impact from freshman class in 2014
The Kentucky Wildcats are a young football team, and head coach Mark Stoops’ comments at the team’s Media Day Friday indicated UK will be even more reliant on young talent in 2014 than it was in 2013.
The second-year head coach has led a recruiting overhaul since arriving in Lexington in December 2012, infusing the program with four-star recruits on both sides of the ball and laying the foundation for the future of the program. In the meantime, however, Stoops has not shied away from his team’s dependence on its younger players – especially its freshmen.
“We’re a deeper football team,” Stoops said Friday. “I think our freshmen really help us in that area. I think there’s about 12 or 13 freshmen that will play.”
That’s a lot of freshmen. But who among the Cats’ rookie class is poised to make an impact this season?
Let’s start with four-star, 375-pound defensive tackle Matt Elam. Stoops told the media Friday he anticipates Elam “playing in the first game and being ready to go.”
This would be huge (no pun intended) for a team losing three of its top defensive tackles from a season ago. Elam will have the opportunity to make an instant impact in the trenches lining up between star defensive ends Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith.
“(I’ve) been very impressed with Matt,” Stoops said. “… He’s so big, but he’s so athletic for his size. He’s a very unique player. Guys like that don’t come around all the time. He’s got a bright future because he picks up on things well. He’s extremely athletic for his size. I’m very excited about Matt and his future.”
Stoops referenced two more true freshmen defensive linemen in Adrian Middleton and Lloyd Tubman, both of whom could see time on the field this season.
When asked about his freshmen corners, Stoops referenced Jared Tucker as a candidate to earn playing time as a freshman, adding “if we need him, we’re going to play him. … I really like the way he’s playing. We’ll see where it goes.”
On the offensive side of the ball, four-star quarterback Drew Barker has headlined the freshman class since his commitment to Kentucky last year. But Barker is in a four-man competition for the team’s starting quarterback job, and Stoops indicated Friday there is still no clear-cut favorite to win the job among the four signal callers. If Barker fails to earn the nod as the Wildcats’ starter, he may be redshirted to preserve a year of eligibility down the line.
Although Barker may not see the field in 2014, Stoops did speak highly of his freshmen receivers and the difference they’ll be able to make this season, regardless of who is throwing them passes.
“I think we have to play the (freshmen) receivers,” Stoops said. “Those guys have really looked good, really all the freshmen receivers can help us and (I’m) looking forward to having that depth.”
The Cats have five true freshmen receivers, all of whom could see playing time on offense this season. Stoops mentioned four of the five by name during Friday’s press conference – Blake Bone, Garrett Johnson, Dorian Baker and Thaddeus Snodgrass – and hinted the Cats will need their presence in the Air Raid offense this season.
Kentucky’s head man also mentioned freshmen tailbacks Mikel Horton and Boom Williams, but clarified playing time is less competitive in the backfield “because you need to play so many running backs. Who takes the first snap really isn’t a big deal to a football team. …they’re going to all play.”
Kentucky may rely on a freshman-heavy lineup in 2014, but Stoops did talk about potential redshirts this season during his time at the podium Friday. Many of the names Stoops mentioned were offensive and defensive linemen in need of another year of physical development before earning a spot on the field, and Stoops also mentioned names like offensive linemen Ramsey Meyers and Kyle Meadows and defensive tackle Regie Meant as players who could be difference-makers coming off redshirt seasons in 2013.
Stoops was asked to comment on Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason’s assertion at SEC Media Days in July that he does not believe in redshirting players. The Cats’ head coach defended the redshirt process even while leading one of the conference’s youngest teams through training camp this month.
“I feel like there’s 12 or 13 guys that have a good chance of playing as freshmen. The other 12 or 13 for me or for us ‑ I’m not saying anything about what (Mason) does, but for us, it wouldn’t make a lot of sense for us to play them if they weren’t going to have an impact, where maybe five years down the road, they would have a big impact,” Stoops said. “Some guys just physically need it, some guys are just coming off injury, things like that. … I don’t ever have it where we’re definitely going to play a guy or definitely going to redshirt him. We’ll see how it works out.”
There is still plenty to be worked out between Saturday’s “Fan Day” in Lexington and the season-opener on August 30, and Stoops and his freshmen are taking it one day at a time.
“We’re staying the course, and I really love the direction of the program,” Stoops said.