Stoops: Kentucky program must ‘move the needle’ in Year 4
Kentucky coach Mark Stoops remains optimistic his football program will end a five-year drought and qualify to play in a bowl game next season.
Considering it will be the fourth year of the rebuilding process, he also knows that is essentially his only option after the Wildcats went 5-7 for the second year in a row to miss the postseason again.
''It's fair to say that it's important in Year 4 to see the needle move,'' the third-year coach said in a phone interview with The Associated Press.
''I expect to see progress each and every year and you're not always going to see that in wins and losses. But we all know how important that is, we all know it's a bottom-line business and I feel good about the work we've put in these three years to get that needle to move and turn the corner.''
Kentucky began 4-1 but only beat FBS newcomer Charlotte over its final seven games and closed with a 38-24 loss to rival Louisville – a particularly painful defeat for Stoops to digest because the Wildcats led 21-0. Dissatisfied fans certainly expected better, especially after a $120 million renovation of Commonwealth Stadium and ongoing construction of an adjacent $45 million practice facility.
Some criticism has been directed at the coaching staff and play calling. Stoops wouldn't discuss his assistants' futures, but he did say they are being evaluated like everything else during the offseason.
The coach understands the fans' overall frustration and said players and staff are determined to build a program that will make them proud.
''I get it. The fans have been in there for a long time and they haven't had a consistent winner for a long, long time,'' said Stoops, 12-24 in three seasons. ''Together we've just got to push forward to put the pieces in place to get that consistent winner and I'm very confident we're on pace to get that done.''
One area of concern for Kentucky is quarterback, which looks to be redshirt freshman Drew Barker following the Nov. 29 announcement by junior Patrick Towles that he will transfer. Towles had made 22 straight starts before Barker replaced him against Charlotte and leaves with career passing totals of 5,099 yards and 24 touchdowns.
Sophomore Reese Phillips has recovered from a torn Achilles and appears set as the backup, but Stoops said Barker must produce now that the job is his.
''It's his time,'' Stoops said of Barker. ''It's time to step up and be the leader he needs to be.''
In the interim, Stoops has been busy on the recruiting trail trying to bolster personnel at numerous positions. Kentucky hosted more than 15 prospects last weekend and the coach said he has received encouraging feedback in his travels.
Stoops has also consulted brothers Mike and Bob, the defensive coordinator and head coach respectively for a fourth-ranked Oklahoma squad preparing to face No. 1 Clemson in a playoff semifinal on Dec. 31. Bob Stoops was on the hot seat himself a year ago but stayed the course and now has the Sooners competing for a national championship.
Their advice to little brother: Block out the noise, look in the mirror and stick to the plan.
''We just have to continue to build and put players in situations where they can handle more,'' Stoops said. ''We're not that far off.''