(Photo Courtesy Of Louisville Courier-Journal)
So, it’s been a minute since I’ve written about anything related to the University of Kentucky athletic programs. The last time I published an article, I was sharing my thoughts on how the 2017-18 edition of the UK men’s basketball team was progressing. While that didn’t turn out as we had all hoped, this year’s version of Coach Cal’s basketball Cats should be one of the best that he has assembled since the 2012 National Championship team. But that is not why I am here. Actually, it is far from it. I am here to discuss something that I have been saying was coming for the last three years. Something that I was ridiculed and made fun of for verbalizing. What I am here to discuss is the rebirth of Kentucky Wildcat football.
The University of Kentucky has never been considered a dominant football program. We are never listed among the powerhouse programs in the SEC, like Alabama and Georgia. We are never considered to be anything other than an “also-ran” when predicting the SEC East. Much of the disrespect is for good reason. Kentucky Football has never had a sustained period of success that lasted more than a few years. Fran Curci, Jerry Claiborne, Hal Mumme and Rich Brooks all had short periods of winning football at the University of Kentucky. Each coach had a fair amount of success, but could not sustain the winning long enough to establish a winning mentality and identity at UK. Enter Mark Stoops.
(Photo courtesy of Mark Stoops Twitter)
Mark Stoops was born into a family of football. His father, Ron Stoops Sr. was a defensive coordinator at Catholic high school powerhouse Cardinal Mooney, in Youngstown, Ohio. Cardinal Mooney High School has produced some famous football alumni, such as the Pelini brothers (Bo and Carl) and the Stoops brothers ( Ron Jr., Bob, Mike and Mark), as well as former NFL players and professional boxer Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini. Youngstown is a blue collar town and that work ethic rubbed off on the Stoops’ brothers.
The Stoops brothers were taught the value of hard work and what it meant to grind when times got tough. This has carried over into all four of the Stoops brother’s coaching careers. Bob Stoops and Mike Stoops have both been head coaches at Power 5 schools, with Bob having more success during his time at Oklahoma, where he won a national championship. Mike was the head coach at Arizona, before becoming Bob’s defensive coordinator.
(Photo courtesy of Saturday Down South)
At Kentucky, Coach Mark Stoops has assembled a group of blue collar type coaches, who share his belief in hard work and grinding. Offensive Coordinator Eddie Gran and his protege Darin Hinshaw are examples of this work ethic. Gran and Hinshaw have made several stops together, including Florida State University, where they worked with them defensive coordinator Mark Stoops. The pair have always been known for developed tough minded quarterbacks and hard running tailbacks. Many of Gran’s pupils played in the NFL and that trend will not stop anytime soon, with Benny Snell poised to be a 1st round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.
Benny Snell has broken several records and is only five games into his junior season. Keep in mind, Snell did not play a snap in the first two games of his freshman year. He was also ejected early on in last year’s Music City Bowl. So, that means that he has accumulated over 3,000 yards rushing in just over 28 games. Snell also holds the record for touchdowns at the University of Kentucky, with 40 and counting.
(Photo courtesy of KSTV)
Another Youngstown, Ohio native who has made a difference in the transformation of the Kentucky football is recruiting coordinator and tight ends coach Vince Marrow. When Marrow arrived at Kentucky, the recruiting classes were consistently ranked at the bottom of the SEC and middle to bottom of the FBS teams. That quickly changed. “Big Vince” has a charisma and air about him that allows him to own any room he is in. When Marrow speaks, it sounds like a cross between God and James Earl Jones and you can not help but listen to what he has to say. Marrow has won several recruiting battles with the “big boys” of college football and most of the battles were won because of the relationship that Marrow builds with the players and their families.
(Photo courtesy of USAToday Sports)
Defensive coordinator Matt House has been a surprisingly good addition to the Kentucky staff and has turned the usually average Kentucky defense into a force this season. I believe that some of that can be attributed to the shuffling of roles, which put Dean Hood coaching the now dominant secondary. Mike Edwards may be the best safety in the SEC. His secondary teammate Darius West might lay claims that title, as well. However, the most important change was the addition of defensive line coach Derrick LeBlanc.
Derrick LeBlanc has transformed the average UK defensive line into a formidable one, which is worthy of wearing the SEC patch on their uniform. Adrian Middleton and Quinton Bohana have been especially pleasant surprises. TJ Carter is a force on the defensive line, along with Kordell Looney and Marquan McCall. All of these players have clearly been coached well on the different techniques needed to be successful in rushing the passer and stopping the running game.
LeBlanc’s biggest success, however, has been the polishing of Josh Allen. Allen is the current sack leader in the SEC, with six sacks in five games. Allen credits LeBlanc for teaching him his favorite pass rushing technique, the rip. Allen combines his speed and power, along with impeccable technique, to overpower unsuspecting opposing offensive tackles. He will be a top 10 pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.
(Photo courtesy of A Sea of Blue)
So what does all of this mean? Now that UK has SEC caliber coaches, the two and three star recruits are getting developed into four and five star talents. Kentucky is also winning some four and five star recruiting battles, like getting Marquan McCall from his home state school Michigan State and getting Chris Oats from Ohio when he had a committable offer from Ohio State. I believe that Coach Mark Stoops has built this Kentucky team, slowly but surely, into a program that can compete with anyone in the SEC and will be able to sustain this success for as long as he is here.
My prediction for the 5-0 (3-0) Wildcats the rest of the way is 6-1 (4-1), with a loss to eventual SEC East champion Georgia. That would give us an 11-1 (7-1) season, which has not happened since before I was born. That will guarantee Kentucky plays in a New Year’s Six bowl, giving exposure to the new brand of Kentucky football.
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