Stoops, Kentucky taking first steps to rebuilding
AUG 23, 2013 12:13p ET
“The offense had a very good day today and we didn’t have a very good day,” said Eliot. “We didn’t execute and we didn’t tackle well. That was our biggest problem. I’m disappointed because fundamentally I thought we were coming along and I thought we took a step back today.”
There are bound to be plenty of days like this for UK this season, days when the steps seemingly taken forward previously are followed by days when the coaching staff will wonder if they’ve practiced before. The priority for Youngstown native and new head coach Mark Stoops and his staff is to eliminate those backward steps as much as possible heading into the season opener Aug. 31 in Nashville against Western Kentucky.
Stoops has taken over a program that has had three straight losing seasons, including a 2-10 campaign last year that was the program’s worst since going 1-10 in 1994. Turning around a program is one thing. Turning it around in the Southeastern Conference is a bigger project and will take time but that hasn't deterred Stoops.
His message is simple: Attack every day.
Miles Simpson was all-everything at Simon Kenton High School in Northern Kentucky, helping the school reach the 6A (big school) state title game as a junior in 2008 and win its first district championship as a senior in 2009 while rushing for more than 2,000 yards each season. Mid-way through his true freshman season at UK, his redshirt season, he was moved to safety on the defensive side of the ball.
Three years and three defensive coordinator combinations later, Simpson is vying for playing time as an outside linebacker. Simpson is like a lot of players on the Kentucky roster; plenty of talent but how does he fit into the plan Stoops, Eliot and the rest of the staff have to transform the Wildcats into a perennial winner?
Simpson played all 12 games for Kentucky last season, starting 11 of them as a hybrid safety/linebacker in a 3-4 scheme deployed by former defensive coordinator Rick Minter, the former head coach at Cincinnati. He had a pretty good season, finishing third on the team with 70 tackles, including 12 stops against South Carolina. Fellow junior Kory Brown was the backup behind Simpson at that spot last season but is ahead of Simpson on the depth chart heading into the opener.
“It sort of is a big change because last year I was that outside linebacker who was running around a little more,” said Simpson. “I didn’t have to come in and get heavy on people. Now, I’ve got to learn how to get down in the box and be more physical. Nothing comes easy. It all comes with practice. That’s what we’re here to do at fall camp.”
Eliot spent the last three seasons as the defensive ends coach at Florida State while Stoops was the defensive coordinator. His vision for his defense at Kentucky is to be fundamentally sound and physical. Simpson can fit that mold. Yet like everything for the Wildcats this season, it will be a work in progress.
“I think Miles is a physical player. He’s got instincts,” said Eliot. “He’s a coach’s son. He knows football. He’s a guy that has had game experience, too. He’s a tough player.”
Eliot said aside from senior middle linebacker Avery Williamson no linebacker position is settled.
“I’ve said it before and I still feel it, Avery is miles ahead of the other ones,” said Eliot. “At times those guys do some good things and at times they don’t play up to par. He’s still miles ahead of the others.”
Williamson has been tabbed as a third-team All-SEC preseason pick by the coaches. He was second in the SEC and seventh nationally with 135 tackles last season.
“Our biggest challenge is being where you’re supposed to be. Everybody has an area on run fits, everybody has an area on pass drops,” said Williamson after Monday’s scrimmage. “The biggest challenge is having everybody on the same page at the same time. I think we’ve been doing a better job of that. We just had a rough day today. We didn’t execute well and didn’t tackle well.”
It’s all part of the learning and growth process. The schedule won’t be forgiving to a team in transition. Kentucky has five games against teams ranked in the preseason top 10 – Associated Press No. 9 Louisville, No 10 Florida and No. 1 Alabama at home, with trips to No. 6 South Carolina and No. 5 Georgia also on the docket.
“This team can become anything it wants,” said Simpson. “We have a lot of great guys. We have the attitude but the days we need to bring it, we need to bring it. We can’t shy off from it. We need to always have that attitude like we did in our (first) scrimmage where both sides of the ball were fantastic.
“We need to do it every day.”
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