HOOVER, Ala. — Kentucky coach Mark Stoops says his team has “worked extremely hard” after going 2-10 last year and has “done everything we’ve asked them to do” since his arrival after a 2-10 finish in 2012 cost Joker Phillips his coaching job.
“I think the area where we need to improve the most was leadership. I feel like our players have worked hard to be better leaders, to be more accountable, to be more dependable to their teammates and to the program,” Stoops said Thursday at the SEC Media Days here.
Senior defensive end Bud Dupree, the accepted team leader, offered even more insights into that process about how Stoops brought a different mindset to UK when he arrived from Florida State.
“If you weren’t all in on the team, you got to go. So once people started leaving the team who were a cancer, you’ve got to make sure people are all in for the team and benefit the team in the long run,” said Dupree. “All the people who were saying ‘I hate being at practice,’ stuff like that, they got to go. Once everything happened, no dead weight, the team started to rise up.”
Stoops doesn’t “dwell on anything that’s gone on in the past” and said little about players who left for various reasons since his arrival.
“We all take accountability in wins and losses. We all accept that,” Stoops said.
But Dupree still appreciates the opportunity Phillips gave him and believes some may have given up on him too soon.
“Coach Joker was a good coach, but people just gave up on him too easy. I was never one of those guys who gave up on him,” Dupree said.
Dupree said Stoops does not allow anyone to give up and no one quit on the team after going 2-10. Instead, Dupree insists players believe they can win now.
“Our coaches tell us each and every day, we ain’t going 2-10 anymore,” Kentucky defensive end Za’Darius Smith said.
“We have enough talent to win games,” Dupree said. “Now do we believe we have enough talent to win games? The mindset of a player going out on the field can’t be given by the coach. Even though the coach is telling me I can do it, if I don’t believe in my mind I can do it, it’s not going to happen.
“Other leaders on the team are helping install in people’s minds that we can be the best. People are starting to buy in and make better things happen in practice and the offseason, as well as seeing our numbers rise in the weight room and testing numbers rise, as well.”
Kentucky’s slogan this year is “Change The Game” on its cover — Stoops said Thursday that the slogan did not come from him and he wasn’t sure what it meant. But Dupree thinks he knows what it means.
“We’re definitely trying to change the game, not only for our team but for our whole program,” Dupree said. “This is my last year, so if we go to a bowl game and win a lot of games, it will only help the program. It will put them in contention for a national championship on down the road, too.”
Stoops knows just being competitive in the SEC is no easy task.
“It’s competitive as heck in this league, and that’s OK. That’s fine. That’s the great challenge. That’s what motivates us each and every day to get up. And you better recruit. You better recruit, recruit, recruit. And then you better develop your players,” the UK coach said.
Offensive tackle Jordan Swindle believes that development can pay off this season.
“I feel like success for our team is going to a bowl game,” Swindle said. “That is my personal goal as a team for us. So I’m going to work my butt off trying to get us to a bowl game, and that will be a success for us.”