Kentucky makes headway under Stoops

October 6, 2017 GMT

COLUMBIA, MO. • Two games into Mark Stoops’ fourth year at Kentucky his future looked bleak. The Wildcats started 0-2 last season, dropping Stoops’ record to 12-26. He had the right last name and a successful pedigree as a college assistant. Recruiting was on the upswing, and Kentucky supported his regime with sparkling new facilities.

Six days a week the program seemed to make strides in the Southeastern Conference.

Saturdays were another story.

To complicate things further, a back injury sent four-star franchise quarterback Drew Barker to the sideline the third week of the season.

“Everybody in our building knew we had a good football team,” Stoops said this week, “while everybody in the outside world was questioning us.”

Not for long. Stephen Johnson, a junior college transfer who began his career at Grambling, took over at quarterback and changed the program’s trajectory and, perhaps, saved Stoops’ job. The Wildcats won five of their next six games, secured bowl eligibility in November, finished .500 in SEC play for the first time in a decade and knocked off in-state rival Louisville. Kentucky finished 7-6 last year, its best record since 2009.

All thanks to Johnson, who gave UK stability and identity on offense.

“We found the recipe that’s been successful for us,” said Stoops, who instead of looking for work got a two-year contract extension in the offseason.

The Wildcats (4-1, 1-1 SEC) test out that recipe again Saturday when Missouri (1-3, 0-2) visits Kroger Field in Lexington, Ky.

Kentucky, the rare SEC school that still loves basketball first and without apologies, has invested in making football another priority on campus, including a recent $125 million renovation of the stadium and another $45 million football complex. The school isn’t cheap on salaries either: Stoops, who had no previous head-coaching experience when he left Florida State for Lexington in 2013, makes $3.35 million this year and could top $6 million next year if he hits all his incentives.

Like his brothers Bob and Mike, Oklahoma’s former head coach and current defensive coordinator, respectively, defense is Mark’s specialty, and this year’s Kentucky team is among the nation’s best at stopping the run, yielding just 74 yards per game. Only Michigan and Alabama has been better against the run through five weeks.

“He’s found a way to flip that program,” said Missouri offensive coordinator Josh Heupel, who coached with Stoops at Arizona in 2005. “Was it easy in the beginning? No. He’s a good leader, believes in what he’s doing. He’s going to preach toughness and discipline inside of that program. His kids bought into it. It’s a process. He’s been able to get it on the right track.”

Since taking over the program, Stoops has signed 19 four-star recruits as rated by 247Sports.com, including 12 in the current depth chart. His classes have ranked between Nos. 10-13 in the SEC but as high as No. 22 nationally (in 2014). The Wildcats have four more four-star recruits among their 18 commitments for 2018, a class that currently ranks No. 7 in the SEC and No. 21 nationally.

Unlike his first three years in Lexington, Stoops has a winning product as part of his sales pitch. The Wildcats have won 11 of their last 16 games since Johnson took over as the primary quarterback.

Under first-year offensive coordinators Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw, Kentucky changed course early last season. Rather than build around the strong-armed Barker, the Wildcats became a ground-oriented attack behind 1,000-yard running backs Stanley “Boom” Williams and Benny Snell Jr. UK left tread marks on Faurot Field last year with 377 rushing yards, often splitting Johnson wide and snapping the ball directly to Snell or Williams.

As a passer, Johnson has shown growth this season, completing 64.9 percent of his throws with seven touchdowns and only one interception.

“He’s playing like a real veteran guy,” Missouri coach Barry Odom said. “He’s able, if you do play well in coverage on third downs, he always knows where the sticks are and he’s able to get the needed yardage and do what he needs to do in the quarterback run game. He’s so savvy with that.”

“It doesn’t look like he’s ever in a strained situation,” Odom added. “He’s able to deliver the ball in any position on the field.”

The Wildcats have struggled to put away opponents this year, beating Southern Miss, Eastern Kentucky and Eastern Michigan by a combined 22 points, but with a clear identity on offense, a fierce defensive front and the infrastructure to compete in the SEC, UK has made a return on its Stoops investment — on Saturdays, too.

Said Odom, “They’re finding ways and making ways to win games.”