Patience pays off for Mark Stoops at Kentucky

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- A steady rain pelted the turf at Kroger Field on Saturday night as Kentucky's players waded through jubilant fans to the locker room after not just beating then-No. 14 Mississippi State 28-7, but beating up the Bulldogs physically.

Offensive tackle E.J. Price, his face soaked with a mixture of rain and sweat, summed up perfectly this whole "New Kentucky" mantra that has engulfed the Bluegrass and carried the Wildcats to their first 2-0 start in the SEC since 1977.

"That's how you dominate. That's who we are," Price barked. "You keep pounding until they quit."

Thanks to some patience -- a rarity these days in big-time college athletics -- by athletic director Mitch Barnhart and the Kentucky administration, not to mention coach Mark Stoops' steely determination to build this program from the inside out, the Wildcats are in a position to keep pounding with the kind of strength in both lines of scrimmage, depth and experience that this program has rarely sniffed over the past 40-plus years.

Not only did Kentucky rework Stoops' contract last year to where he would receive an automatic one-year extension for every season he wins seven games (with a $250,000 raise) and a two-year extension for every season he wins 10 games, but Barnhart has made sure UK has become fully invested in football. The facilities have been upgraded significantly. The Wildcats have kept up in the staff arms race, and their recruiting budget has also increased.

"The administration here has been phenomenal, and it's not made me panic, cut corners or do things the wrong way like a lot of people do and shoot for the quick fixes because everybody gets a quick trigger by Year 3," said Stoops, who in his sixth season at Kentucky is tied with Auburn's Gus Malzahn as the second-longest tenured head coach in the SEC at the same school.

"I wasn't interested in this place if everybody thought it was going to be a quick fix because I knew it wasn't going to be. You don't turn Kentucky around by getting a few players and then all of a sudden win in this league. The people in charge have been extremely helpful in this process and have given me the support to do it the right way, and they've believed in what they've seen."

Stoops, the youngest of four brothers from the famed Stoops coaching family, has admittedly tired of hearing all of the reasons why you supposedly can't win consistently at Kentucky. He jokes that "we're knocking the dang doors down one at a time."

And for perspective on what kind of challenge Stoops faced when he arrived in 2013, the Wildcats' most recent winning record in the SEC came back in 1977 when Art Still was playing for Kentucky and Bear Bryant was still five years away from retiring as Alabama's head coach.

So, yes, it's a hard job. But Stoops in his grind-it-out, Youngstown, Ohio-bred way, is showing that it's not an impossible job.

"The guys are bigger and stronger, and you can see it," Kentucky senior tight end C.J. Conrad said. "All summer, I was looking at our team and thinking, 'We've got some dudes on this team.' You combine that with playing with that chip on your shoulder, and you're going to get results. You see all of the guys who are making plays for us, and those are our best players, guys who've been around here for a while. It takes time."

With South Carolina coming to town on Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET on the SEC Network), it's yet another chance for Kentucky to prove that it may indeed be the most equipped team in the SEC East to unseat Georgia, which visits Kroger Field on Nov. 3. And that's not to suggest that Stoops or anybody on Kentucky's team is thinking about anything other than what's right in front of them. After all, the Wildcats have been on the cusp of breaking through and finishing with a winning record in the SEC each of the past two years only to fall short.

"We're built for this. We came back for a reason," said Kentucky pass-rushing whiz Josh Allen, one of a handful of seniors who returned to school after contemplating a jump to the NFL. "With coach Stoops, I love that guy. You look at what he's done around here and the way he's changed this program. I want to help him do that and help him be the coach he can be. We've got his back. We've got Kentucky's back. We've got everybody's back who believes in us, and we're going to keep pushing."

Stoops has been able to create depth, never an easy thing at Kentucky, and he has also stockpiled experience. Of the 22 starters in the Mississippi State game, 19 were in at least their third year with the program, including 12 seniors.

It's also no coincidence that so many Ohioans are playing key roles on this Kentucky team. Stoops, with his deep Youngstown roots, has been able to go into neighboring Ohio and sign talented players. Naturally, Ohio State and Michigan get most of the A-listers in that state, but Stoops has also won a few recruiting battles and has been especially adept at convincing those players who once might have gone to Wisconsin, Michigan State or somewhere else in the Big Ten to come play in the SEC at Kentucky.

Case in point: In the Mississippi State game, nine of Kentucky's 22 starters were from Ohio, including junior running back Benny Snell Jr., who rushed for 165 yards and four touchdowns in the win over a Bulldogs' team featuring multiple future pros in its defensive front. That's after Snell rushed for 175 yards earlier this month in the win over Florida, which was the Wildcats' first over the Gators after 31 straight defeats.

"I can say that this team is different," said Snell, who rushed for 1,333 yards and 19 touchdowns as a sophomore. "We're going to run it down a team's throat over and over and over again until they're tired and can't take it. That's what we're good at, to keep pounding. In the third and fourth quarter, I'm under the pile and can hear the defense [breathing hard]. That's when you know that you've got 'em. They're tired.

"I'm proud of this offense. We can go against anybody, and I'm just speaking facts."

"The guys are bigger and stronger, and you can see it."
Kentucky tight end C.J. Conrad

Equally impressive has been Kentucky's defensive prowess. The Wildcats are tied for seventh nationally in scoring defense (13.3 points per game) and are 11th nationally in total defense (279.5 yards per game). They're big and physical up front, and with Allen leaving a vapor trail when he comes off the edge, they also have what it takes to get after the opposing quarterback. Moreover, they have as many as five players in the secondary who have a real chance to play in the pros based on the feedback Stoops has received from NFL people.

"We know to win that it takes so many players in so many different areas," Stoops said. "You've got to have that depth. That's what we've been doing these last few years, building that and piecing it all together. Now we have some guys across the board with the talent that everybody else in this league has and the right kind of experience."

In the past, Stoops might have had a Bud Dupree or a Za'Darius Smith, both of whom are now in the NFL, but didn't have the other pieces around them. And as much as anything, Stoops has created a physical presence that has permeated a program that was once known for not being able to finish games.

It has been just the opposite this season. In two SEC games, the Wildcats have outscored Florida and Mississippi State by a combined 41-6 margin in the second half.

"You've got to put it all together, and the guys in this league are damn good, physical monsters, and you've got to be able to match up with them across the board," Stoops said. "We knew we were building toward that. You go through those ups and downs and go through trying to throw stuff against the wall when you're maybe trying to disguise some personnel. We're not having to do as much of that now."

The Wildcats enter the South Carolina game ranked No. 17 in the Associated Press poll, the first time they've been ranked in the AP poll since the 2007 season. The Wildcats climbed as high as No. 8 in the polls that season under Rich Brooks after beating eventual national champion LSU, but finished the season unranked after losing four of their last five games in the regular season. Kentucky has also beaten South Carolina four straight times, so forgive longtime UK fans if there's some uneasiness about getting too giddy about this 4-0 start.

Conrad said this team is far too mature and has come too far to get ahead of itself before the calendar even flips to October.

"It comes down to our leaders," Conrad said. "We have to stay grounded and absolutely will. We wanted this. We wanted to change this program, but we are far from done and are going to keep this thing going."