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Mark Stoops previews Week 1 for Kentucky Football

Finally, it’s game week for the Kentucky Wildcats.

Up first, the Cats travel to Auburn for a Week 1 showdown with the Tigers, who are a consensus preseason top-10 team. Auburn is also favored by 8-10 points, depending on which sportsbook you read, but Kentucky is plenty used to being a big underdog and still coming out on top since Mark Stoops took over.

On Monday, Stoops met with the media to preview the Cats’ Week 1 matchup while also discussing the state of his team heading into the new season. Here is a recap of everything he had to say via UK Athletics:

Opening Statement

“Good to be in game week. Seems like it’s been a long time coming but it’s an exciting time for us, that’s for sure. You have to thank a lot of people for getting us to this point, starting with all of our (SEC) presidents, (Kentucky president) Dr. Capilouto, our athletics director Mitch Barnhart, and certainly (SEC) commissioner (Greg) Sankey, for all the hard work they’ve done getting us to the point where we can go and play. For us, it’s been a long preseason, a couple of weeks longer than usual, so it seems like it’s been a long time but we will need that preparation. We’ve got a challenging schedule with a great opportunity from the start going to Auburn. It’s going to be a real challenge. Obviously, a different climate and situation and I’ve never played there before but I know it’s one of the great SEC venues that is usually packed. Obviously, it will be a different circumstance this year with only a percentage (of fans) but nonetheless we know the challenge we have ahead of us. I’m excited about our team and the work they’ve done. I feel like we’re in a really good position and we’re relatively healthy so we’re looking forward to getting started this week.”

On QB Joey Gatewood’s status

“Not at this point. No word.”

On travel roster situation

“We’ve already been working on that for several days and we have a list put together. We will have up to 80, 82 guys ready to travel because we are having a rapid (Covid-19) test on Friday morning as well. Obviously, (a player) won’t travel if they come back positive on Friday morning. We need to have more than usual prepared to go but we have to work off the 70 (players). There will be some minor changes this week depending on injuries, guys coming back and how they feel and guys coming back from the other situation. We’ll see where we are at but, yes, we have to make preparations for that.”

On importance of winning the first game in a 10-game SEC schedule

“Starting fast. It’s the opener. We’re on the road and it’s an early kickoff, so starting fast is key. You’ve got to come out swinging and come out fast, so we will talk about it and prepare for that as best we can.”

On familiarity with Auburn coach Gus Malzahn and offensive coordinator Chad Morris

“It’ll help in certain ways. That’s a good tandem with Chad and Gus. If you watch the film they are very similar in so many ways, even with the way they think, the way they set up plays, when they take their shots, the way they use gadget or trick plays. I’m sure that’s very comfortable for Gus and Chad to have each other. That’s two very, very good coaches working together. You look at Chad, you may see a coach that throws it slightly more. The passing game is different and we’ll analyze that from Arkansas and SMU (where Morris was head coach), along with the things Auburn has done well through the years. Again, a challenge and we have to prepare for a lot. And (defensive coordinator) Kevin Steele on the other side of the ball, he does a fantastic job. They have a great coaching staff so we’ll have to be on point, for sure.”

On what separates a good offensive line from a great offensive line

“I think experience is a big factor. These guys have seen a lot, that really helps. We were good a year ago and hopefully we’ll take it to another level. I think it’s very good for these guys to have some experience and get all the different looks. Talent never hurts either and we have some talented guys but we’ll see that each and every week this year.”

On improvement of UK receivers

“You need guys to continue to develop, continue to show up and make those plays. If you watch football you see some wide receivers making miraculous catches, competitive catches and that helps a quarterback out when guys can come down with those 50-50 balls. I feel like our guys have worked really hard and are very competitive and want to take it to another level.

“Listen, they were all for doing the things that were necessary to help us win football games a year ago. They were all in. They bought in and I’m so grateful for that, however, they’ve worked hard and want to get the ball in their hands this season. I’m excited to see what they can do. I know when you play a Kevin Steele defense you have to create that space. You have to get open. That’s something we will see each and every week. Some of that football you see in other leagues you are not going to see Saturday. There is going to be nobody open. We have to create space. We have to get guys open. You have to work leverage and the quarterback has to throw it in small windows. We play 10 SEC games and I can promise you you’re not going to see that stuff where there is green grass all over the place, easy throws and guys running wide open. We’re not going to see that.”

On whether the team will have any pregame social justice message

“We have not to this point talked about that. The things we’ve (already) done we are proud of. We are going to recognize (UK linebacker) Chris Oats and have a player each week wear his number in honor of Chris, starting with DeAndre Square this week, who would normally be playing side-by-side with him as the two inside linebackers. (Tight end) Keaton Upshaw is his roommate and wants to wear it an honor him for the first home game. Those are the first two we have set and from there we will alternate his number to honor him and show him he’s still with us and we’re thinking about him.”

On Auburn QB Bo Nix

“The first thing is just talent. He has all the talent you’re looking for, that’s for sure. He’s really talented on the move. He did a really nice job for a freshman with a feel for the pocket, buying time and then delivering the ball down the field with some accuracy while on the move. He has a very good presence about him and all the arm strength to make any throw. Very talented young man.”

On whether there was any agreement with Auburn to not play transfer Joey Gatewood

“There’s no agreement, no gentlemen’s agreement. I’m waiting to hear back from the league because it’s (a transfer) from SEC to SEC school. We’re waiting to hear back from them.”

On how QB Terry Wilson is different as a player after his injury

“I think he’s different, just experience even though he didn’t get the reps, the playing time a year ago that he would have liked. He missed the year and that hurts but he’s still older and wiser and has more understanding of the offense. It comes with reps. We’ve got to have a great week and he’s got to get out there and get started. We’ll ease into it with a road game at Auburn (laughs).”

On his team’s academic performance

“We’ve had to adapt, just like we did on the field last year. Adapt and overcome. Our players are used to adapting to the situation. They’ve done a remarkable job. Last semester was the best we’ve ever had and I appreciate their effort last spring. We were on them from the start. They had a heck of a semester and are off to a good start (now). We’re doing the best we can. The big thing for me is just keeping them accountable and doing the things that are necessary.”

On running back situation

We have a bunch of backs that are all very talented and can step in and go. We’ll have a rotation set but then we’ll see where it goes from there. To this point, we’re confident in all (AJ Rose, Chris Rodriguez Jr. and Kavosiey Smoke) but really can go down to four or five because we’ve got guys with different skill sets. But there’s only one football and those first three will get the majority of the reps.”

On level of optimism about the team

“Certainly, having an experienced quarterback and experienced team helps. In these uncertain times and the way things have been so different an experienced football team is something that I like, a team with leadership is something that I like, a team that is very tough physically and mentally, I like. Things out of our control is our schedule. It’s brutal, brutally hard. Again, I sit and watch other folks and just shake my head in amazement at how difficult and well prepared each and every team we play is. That’s the challenge. And being able to stay healthy and have enough depth to play 10 SEC games is something that’s an unknown but I like our football team.”

On thoughts about whether can complete a full season

“It is what it is. We are going to control what we can control. We’re going to get ready for this meeting today and get ready to go play Auburn and play one heck of a football game. Can’t worry about the rest of it. I have no idea. There are probably medical experts who can give a much better answer than I can.”

On watching his son’s 8th grade football game

“I feel I do a good job of taking off the coach’s hat but I will say my son’s game, we were in a tough game. I was glad somebody caught it on tape. My son (Will) had a great catch, the only touchdown of the game. That was fun for me to see that. It was a close game and I sat up there and enjoyed it with my wife and (younger) son but there came a point in the game late where it started getting a little dicey where I had to get down there and throw a few suggestions out to my son. In the eighth grade they aren’t used to backpedaling so I had to deepen them up a little bit. Lo and behold we intercept and ice the game and win 8-0 so that was a fun game.”

On LB Marquez Bembry

“I really like the way he’s progressing. He’s got the size and length we’re looking for and he’s getting more instinctual inside so I like the way he’s coming along, along with Jared Casey. We’re going to need them. They’re getting a lot of reps and getting better.”

On DB Davonte Robinson

“He had a setback this past week with an injury and was out all last week but he’ll be back today and practice and hopefully wont have any side effects and be able to move forward this week. He was having a really strong camp and hopefully will be back to full strength. It’s good to have a guy who is that versatile and can play multiple positions. We probably overloaded him at times in moving him around but now we can hone him in at one position.”

On Wilson overcoming the mental aspect of return from injury

“He hasn’t been hit full contact yet. He’s taken some shots, it’s just going to happen because we practice physical. Our quarterbacks aren’t live but as physical as we are with as much tempo and pressure we put on he’s taken some inadvertent hits. He’s got to take that first hit. He’s got to pull the ball down, scramble and ball security is a big thing. He’s got to be very conscious of that but otherwise he’s just got to go play and do what comes naturally. That’s what I’ve seen.”

On Naasir Watkins not being on the depth chart

“Naasir (Watkins) got a little banged up. Understand this, I still need to get a grip on me releasing (information) with the situation this year and seeing the way the league is going to handle that, how opposing coaches are going to handle it. Things happen during the week with this Covid. I think you know I’ve been as forthcoming as any coach in the country with injuries. I try to be open and honest about that and give you the information without giving someone a competitive advantage. We’ve been pretty open about the Covid as well. I think as you get into the season we have to be very conscious of that and we’ll work our way through that. If we’re down a certain number of guys in a position group it can be, in some situations, a competitive advantage to the opposing coaches. I’ll work with you as best I can on that. I always try to be as up front about that as I can. As of now I’m just going to stay away from the Covid questions.”

On special protocols for Coach John Schlarman (going through cancer treatments) and contingency plans if Coach Stoops gets Covid

“Yes and yes. With Coach Schlarman’s situation, we all will be tested and we won’t leave our little bubble here that we’re with each other on Friday, so travel is different. Some of my plans in the way we do some things on Friday will be different from time to time. Again, we have to adapt to it. Once we come in Friday we will have the rapid test, so everybody that’s in contact with Coach Schlarman or any of us will have a test, and so we will be as safe as we possibly can. We’ll be in as much of a bubble as we can be in from the time we leave here until the time we plan and come home.

“Should something happen to me, very fortunate, I have some experienced coaches here. I have two assistant head coaches, and certainly (defensive coordinator) Brad White is ready to be a head coach, but Eddie Gran and Vince Marrow have the titles (of assistant head coach). We have some plans in place to make sure we operate and stay as smooth and on schedule as we can.”

Re: Kavosiey Smoke playing close to home

“Kavosiey has had a good camp. You don’t know in any given game which one of those backs is going to have a breakout. We’re going to continue to chop wood, we’re going to continue to play physical, hopefully one of them will get an opportunity for some big plays. Kavosiey certainly has that ability and I’m sure he will be motivated for the game, just like the rest of our players.”

Re: LSU Coach Orgeron being on “60 Minutes,” how important is that exposure?

“Is it important? Sure. Would think it would be important, any exposure like that is important and good and I don’t think you’d turn it down.”

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