Football

Cats Not Running from Expectations

by Guy Ramsey

There were days not long ago when a bowl berth would have sufficed.
 
Mired in a long postseason drought, reaching a bowl game – any bowl game – meant success.
 
Now, coming off back-to-back bowl trips, times have changed. It’s a change for the better.
 
“As I move into year six, the biggest thing you look at at Kentucky, the biggest thing I feel is the change in expectation, and that’s a good thing,” head coach Mark Stoops said at Southeastern Conference Media Days on Monday. “We’re excited about that. We embrace those expectations.”
 
Expectations from those outside the program – especially blue-blooded Kentucky fans who have waited a long time for their team to win at a high level – have certainly increased. That comes with pressure, but no more pressure than the Wildcats put on themselves.
 
“We expect more,” Stoops said. “We’ve been close. We’ve done some good things. I’m proud of the work that we’ve done, that we look forward to making a big jump this year. We return some players with experience. We returned some talent. We returned some players that decided to forego the NFL and come back to do more, to play with a chip on their shoulder, to win some football games.”
 
Two of those players who elected to return – tight end C.J. Conrad and linebacker Josh Allen – accompanied Stoops at Media Days in Atlanta. The only reason the third such player – safety Mike Edwards – didn’t join them is the fourth spot in the Kentucky contingent was taken by All-SEC running back Benny Snell, Jr.
 
Those four players are the foundation of a group that, perhaps for the first time, gives Stoops a roster on which the best players are also veteran leaders. They have all been around the last two seasons for those bowl bids. They’ve also been around for the heartbreaking losses that could have made those two seasons special. That gives them valuable perspective.
 
“I think it’s about a winning culture,” Conrad said. “We’ve had games in the past we’ve won that we probably shouldn’t have won. We’ve had some games in the past that we’ve lost and probably should have won. Everyone’s looking for that perfect ingredient to do it, but I think ultimately right now what we’re doing in the summer is all we can do. It’s working extremely hard, finding leaders on this team that can step up in big moments, and we have to make the plays in order to do that.”
 
Everyone knows the importance of those big moments, but what has often hurt UK in the past is the seemingly smaller ones. The Wildcats’ veteran leaders are taking it upon themselves to teach their younger teammates about that.
 
“It’s just the small things that Coach Stoops preaches all the time, just little things that add up in big moments,” Conrad said. “They may not be the headline of the game for why we lost, but there’s a lot of things that go into every single game. We have to take care of those things and give ourselves a chance.”
 
A chance is all you can ask for in the rugged SEC, which of course features both participants in last year’s national championship game. UK will face only Georgia among those two, but plenty more challenges await. The Cats are ready to face them.
 
“We talked last year about being consistent,” Stoops said. “And now it’s a matter of just honing in and refining all of the things that we’ve been building the past five years to take it to another level. But I feel very good. I think the experience that we have and the talent that we have is going to give us an opportunity to win each and every time we take the field, and that’s where I talk about embracing those expectations and enjoying that and being ready for the grind.”
 

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