LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- In his first game-week news conference as a head coach, University of Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops said, "We can be a very good team, and we can shock a lot of people."
Here's the question for the Wildcats as they enter the 2013 season: How?
The answer? Score. Ring the air raid sirens. Stoops comes to UK as a defensive guy, and has some experience to work with on that side. But it's an ability to score points that will determine this team's level of electricity this season.
Offensive coordinator Neal Brown knows how to do that. His offenses in three years at Texas Tech all ranked in the top seven nationally in passing, top 15 in total offense and top 25 in scoring.
Brown was the youngest offensive coordinator in the Football Bowl Subdivision when he took over at Troy in 2008. A year later his team ranked third in the nation in total offense, fourth in passing and 16th in scoring.
Does he have the players to achieve similar results at Kentucky? This is going to sound crazy, but I'm not sure the players matter as much in the system he's installing as you might guess.
His biggest problem heading into this season is a lack of wide receivers. Not a single player returns with a college TD reception, and injuries have now reduced UK's number of returning scholarship receivers to three.
But before you write them off, ask yourself this: Who were the receivers at Texas Tech? It's not like Brown needed household names to get the Red Raiders' offense off the ground. There are three Texas Tech receivers in the NFL, the most recent of which was drafted in 2009.
Texas Tech quarterbacks threw for thousands of yards, but have not been next-level type players.
But Brown does have a few playmakers to work with. Demarco Robinson is a wideout who has shown great potential but hasn't always delivered. He's about to get more chances. Javess Blue, a top junior college receiver, says he wants to be the leading receiver in UK history. Ryan Timmons, a freshman out of Frankfort, is going to have to contribute from the start.
There's not much depth, but there should be open spaces if Brown can get the spread working. And there should be lots of chances, if he gets the tempo where he wants it.
"We want to be at 75‑plus snaps," Brown said. "We want to be 48 percent or better on third downs. We like being 50 percent or higher on first downs, which means a good play is four yards."
When asked if the offense is getting close to the tempo Brown wants, Stoops said Monday, "I think we're close. Again, I think, if you asked Neal that question, probably not the tempo that he would like to see, and I think we'll improve as we go forward. I think still, again, as a defensive coach and watching it, it's still at a pretty good clip."
UK has some experience on the offensive line, but has been shuffling players to try to create a bit more depth. At running back, seniors Raymond Sanders and Jonathan George are solid, but depth again is a concern.
Here's what Brown does have -- quarterbacks. There are three of them, and all have talent. Brown and Stoops, in fact, have settled on a starting quarterback. They'd tell you who it is, but then they'd have to kill you.
They're leaving it in the air for a competitive edge, to force Western Kentucky to prepare for both options, and in fact they expect to play two quarterbacks in Saturday's opener.
Jalen Whitlow is a run-pass threat who creates problems with his ability to extend plays and to move the ball on the ground. Maxwell Smith has a quick release, proved to be a good study and reading defenses and delivering the ball quickly a year ago and proved himself capable before being injured.
One of those two will get the call. Stoops said he won't announce the starter prior to the game, though the players will know. "This first game, I don't see a reason," he said. "It's been a close battle the whole time. Might as well use it to our advantage, if it is one. I'm sure they'll be prepared for both guys. . . . We'll name a starter. A starter's going to go out there, and he's going to go. He's going to run with it. We do plan on playing both quarterbacks, yes. But if the other guy's rolling and we're doing well, then we may stick with it."
Grabbing a lead is the first step to putting pressure on opponents, to putting the notion of an upset in their minds. If the UK offense can land some punches early, it'll be a big deal for the Wildcats.
Defensively, Stoops seems to feel he has more holes to fill.
"I think personnel wise, it's fair to say probably defensively, that we need to continue to improve throughout this year," Stoops said. "Offensively, there's a lot of unproven guys as well. We're going to count on some guys offensively that have not played a lot of football. So it's important to see how they play in a game like situation."
UK has experience along the defensive front, which should be an edge in the opener against Western. Stoops expects good things from ends Za'Darius Smith and Bud Dupree. Donte Rumph and Mister Cobble are seniors at tackle. Talented freshman Jason Hatcher from Trinity didn't even make the two-deep and has battled some nagging injuries in camp, but should play.
Avery Williamson gives the Wildcats leadership at middle linebacker. The secondary is young.
Stoops has, at times, been critical of his team's attitude. He wants more toughness, a more aggressive approach. But that will be something that has to develop over time. A few wins early will help it along.
"I think any coach will probably tell you that, until you get out there and play that first game, you don't know exactly what you have, or what your team's demeanor will be or how they'll respond in certain situations," Stoops said.
Having said all of that, UK could show great improvement on both sides and still not show it in its final record. The Wildcats play five of the Top 10 teams in the Associated Press preseason poll. It's not a schedule conducive to building. But in the SEC, it probably never will be.
The opener against Western Kentucky, then, takes on a bit of added importance in setting a tone for the season, and Stoops knows it.
"I've not shied away from that question," Stoops said. "I think it's very important. There's a lot of excitement around our program and around the state, and nationally really. It's time for us to go out and prove it and see what we're all about. I'm excited, and I think our team will be as well."
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