Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops

On being selected for the VRBO Citrus Bowl …

“We are honored to be a part of this great bowl and looking forward to it. It’s going to be a real challenge playing a great team in Penn State. We embrace that challenge and are looking forward to the opportunity of getting down there, getting in some sunshine, enjoying the weather and competing in a great game.”

On his team …

We are very proud of this team and the work they have done and the coaching staff. To be able to represent our great university in a New Year’s Day game in Florida against Penn State … it means a lot.

Kentucky athletics director Mitch Barnhart

MITCH BARNHART: Thanks everybody for getting here on a Sunday night. This is what we try to make an annual occurrence, to get to bowl games and have some fun. So we’re excited for where we are and honored to be in a spot where we’ve accepted a bid to the VRBO Citrus Bowl. So really excited about that.

First, want to congratulate Penn State on a great year. Dr. Eric Barron is president at Penn State. Sandy Barbour, their AD, and James Franklin, the football coach, have known most of them — don’t know Dr. Barron, but I do know Sandy and James and congratulate them and look forward to seeing them in Orlando as we meet down there for the football game.

I know they have a pretty dynamic team. They’ve had a lot of success. And James has done a great job of building that program back to Penn State’s traditional power. And so we’re looking forward to being able to play them on New Year’s Day and excited about that for our football program.

Extremely appreciative of Steve Hogan, executive director of the Florida Citrus Bowl, VRBO Citrus Bowl. I had a good conversation with Steve this afternoon. Was thrilled that they offered us the opportunity to come and play. They have a choice. And they chose our team and our fan base. And I think it speaks volumes of both for them to select us.

And so Pete Schaefer and Tom Sittema were on the phone as well. They’re the president and chairman of the board of the Florida Citrus Bowl respectively. They were on the phone, and they extended their congratulations to our team, to Coach Stoops and our players. And I let them know it was an incredible honor for us to take this step in the program.

And this is a step for our program as we try to move this thing forward. And really excited about the chance to showcase our program on the national stage with a team like Penn State. So that was spectacular.

I’m really happy for our fan base. We get to go to a destination that I think is a lot of fun. And people are excited about that. The tickets have been — the presale for the tickets, pre-order, if you will, have gone extremely well. We’ve got some left. We’re working with — those open to the public tomorrow and they’re on our website. You can go through our ticket website and work through our ticket office. And certainly we want to paint Orlando blue — and Kentucky blue; make sure to clarify that — and that we get it to the right spot where our fans are in the stadium and cheering on the Wildcats. So we’re looking forward to that.

It’s a great time. And I’m happy for these guys sitting over here (players Kash Daniel and Terry Wilson). You will have a chance to visit with them. Probably want to visit with them more than you want to visit with me. I’m happy for them.

They’ve worked extremely hard to be 9-3, be 14th in the CFP rankings, to have an opportunity to have a 5-3 record in SEC play. To do the things on the field that they’ve done, to set new standards and do new things that we haven’t done in an awfully long time at Kentucky is exciting.

To have a chance to go down and get our tenth win, incredible opportunity for us to do that on, again, on a national stage. And so looking forward to that.

And then the last for me is I’ve been in this league a long time. And to represent the Southeastern Conference against an opponent like Penn State in Orlando is a big deal. So I think we’re looking forward to that and we look forward to representing the SEC. Let me stop and answer questions.

Q. Why do you think they chose Kentucky?
MITCH BARNHART: I think for a variety of reasons. One, we’re deserving. Our program is very deserving. We’ve been ranked — I’m not sure when we broke into the rankings, I want to say it’s the end of September, somewhere in that range, and we’ve been there ever since.

We had the losses with Georgia and Tennessee back to back, but we never wavered out of the rankings and we hung in there. When the CFP rankings came out, we cracked that egg and got in there and moved up to 14th today.

So I think that in terms of where we were, if you look at their protocol and their procedures, we were supposed to be the team that was selected. I’m sure that they have choices and they could have gone outside that if they wished to. And there were some other teams just below us in those rankings. I think they knew our team was deserving. We’ve got some guys on our team that are certainly worthy of that recognition and that attention.

Second thing is our fan base. There’s no question that our fan base plays a part in that. Our fan base follows — and this is an opportunity, again, for them to see the quality of the Kentucky fan base.

We talk about the Big Blue Mist — you can talk about whatever you want to talk about, but they come. And they’ve shown up when we needed them to show up. And we need them to show up  in force. These guys deserve it. They deserve to have their fans out there in a big-time atmosphere, big-time game on New Year’s Day. Kentucky fans, this is a chance to show why the Big Blue Nation is as special as it is.

Q. There’s been a lot of talk about saying you should have been ahead of Florida in the CFP rankings. What were your thoughts and conversations, did you talk to (CFP selection chairman) Rob Mullens? (Note: Mullens worked for Barnhart at UK before becoming AD at Oregon.)
MITCH BARNHART: No, I don’t think that’s appropriate. I tried to steer clear of that. I respect where they are in their deal. They are a committee that has to sit behind closed doors and they work at that; I know how hard that is, being on the basketball committee (NCAA Basketball Tournament). It’s hard.

What you do in that room is a hard. And you have a lot of vetting and splitting of hairs of where that is. And I respect that. It’s a really hard process to be involved in.

And we could sit there and I could say, much like they did on 4, 5, 6 in those rankings, we could do the same thing on probably 8 through or 9 through 15 and be in the same spot and split hairs.

We could say there’s teams, couple teams – (Texas) A&M beat us. And could they say, yeah, well, we beat Florida. We could play that game all day long.

And we could do that. Would we have liked to have had the opportunity? We would have been honored to do that. But I want to make sure people understand: we’re honored to be where we are.

I won’t say we’re new to the party. We’re not going to come into the party and act like we’ve arrived. We want to show up, show people we’re appreciative. We’re going to be involved in it. And we’re going to work hard to stay in it.

I want people to understand that. I get it. It’s hard. Those decisions to be in the 12 are really hard. And they had to make some decisions. That’s okay. That’s okay.

We finished 14th. And we’ll go fight like heck to prove to people that maybe we earned a spot or two higher. But, more importantly, we get a chance to play a great opponent in a really cool venue, on a good day. We’ll go do that.

Q. How important is it, do you think, to the fan base to go to a different place; nothing against past cities or past bowl games, but to go to someplace brand new?
MITCH BARNHART: It is. It’s unique to go to Orlando over the Christmas break and have a chance to spend some time in a city that we haven’t been to in terms of football, in a venue we’ve never played in before really special. A lot to do there. I think people will find something to do. I presume they can figure that out.

So I think they can have a lot of fun. And I think a lot of families will dial that in pretty clearly and be a part of that. I hope they will. We need everybody there. We need the Big Blue Nation there.

And so I’m asking them to come down and support these guys and let’s give it our best go and go play a great football game on that day and have a lot of fun together as a community, as a commonwealth.

Q. Are you at liberty to say who else was in the running besides Kentucky for the Citrus Bowl?
MITCH BARNHART: I didn’t ask. I didn’t ask, and I didn’t care. Once they said that we were the ones they chose, I’m good. Let’s move on. Be thankful and move on.

So we’re glad that they picked Kentucky. And I don’t think that it was — I would like to think it wasn’t that close. I don’t know that it was or wasn’t. But that’s their choice. They had a choice. And the fact that they chose our guys and our fans means a lot to us as a department.

So whatever it was, their process, I’m thankful. Steve’s been a great friend of the league. I’ve had an opportunity to spend time with him in our meetings that we’ve had in Orlando.

They’ve hosted the SEC athletic directors on numerous occasions. We know many people on their staff very well and they’ve always wanted to have Kentucky. We’ve never been there as a school. So for us to have a chance to be in the Citrus Bowl as an institution for the first time, pretty cool deal.

And I think it’s a great honor for our program. It’s a step for our program. And I’m really proud of Coach Stoops and the staff and how hard they’ve worked and the things they’ve done to get there. So it’s good stuff.

Q. Have they told you that, that they always wanted to have you?
MITCH BARNHART: Absolutely. I think everybody knows our fan base would — there’s only a couple of schools in our league that haven’t been to that game. And we were one of them. So they started looking around. And sometimes, in different bowls, they put the helmets of the teams that have been there. Right? Well, ours was noticeably missing.

And so now they’ve got a brand new Kentucky helmet down there and we’ll put that thing up there, and we can say we’ve been there. Now we’ve just got to go down there, find a way to win a ballgame.

Q. You had the nine wins. You flirted with a slot in the SEC championship game, New Year’s Day bowl. When you hired Mark Stoops, how confident were you that a day like this was possible?
MITCH BARNHART: I don’t think you’re ever confident when you go — you hope. And that’s the thing. You don’t want to lose hope. And for our fan base, for a long time, they’ve been hoping. And we’re not there yet.

Our goal is still to get to Atlanta, to play in that championship game in Atlanta. That’s still the goal. So that’s goal number one.

And then goal number two is obviously to play in the CFP and get to that next spot. But you have to take steps to get there.

And what Mark has done, systematically, he’s taken steps to get there. And so my hope was what we built — we would build a defense over time that would allow us to not be so reliant and so leaning on our offense all the time to do that.

In this league, you must be able to stop somebody and you must — in the fourth quarter, you’ve got to be able to stop them on a third and short and get the ball back for your offense.

We all know those scenarios. We’ve seen them play out time and time again. And Mark has built a team on both sides of the ball that has been able to, sometimes when the offense has struggled, the defense picked up the task. Sometimes when the defense has struggled, the offense has picked up the lead.

So Mark has done a job of building on both sides of the ball. And I think these kind of opportunities, when you get the chance to go to a bowl of this type, gives you a chance to continue to build on that success and puts you on a different stage. Really important for us as we use this in terms of recruiting and we use this in terms of building the heartbeat of our fans.


Kentucky Student-Athletes

#3, Terry Wilson, QB
On how he heard the announcement …
“I was actually scrolling on Twitter and I saw our UK Football profile, they tweeted it actually. I was excited. This is a huge, huge deal for this program and we’ve worked so hard to get to this situation that we’re in right now. Like Mr. Barnhart said we’re going to be thankful and we’re going to be grateful and we’re deserving of it. We’re going to work hard and go down there and show everybody what we can do.”
On if he envisioned this scenario happening …
“Yes sir. I feel like as an athlete you have to envision these types of things. I feel like it helps when you’re in the heat, 103 degrees, you’re looking forward to something to get you past that hump. You’ve got to look big. You’ve got to look to want to win the SEC East. You’ve got to look to get to a big bowl game. I feel like we did that as a team. Everybody has put in so much effort and time to get into this predicament we’re in, so I feel like I envisioned it.”
On Penn State …
“I haven’t had any time to watch them, but knowing Penn State football, they have some guys over there (who are really good) and they work pretty hard. Just gotta watch some film on them and do a scouting report.”
On what beating Penn State would mean to Kentucky …
“All I can speak for is us. Like I’ve said this before, we hold ourselves to a different standard. The way we practice and the way we go about things are different. I feel like our guys are hyped and ready to get after it. We’re going to practice our tails off. That’s all I can speak for. I just know as long as we handle what we need to handle everything will be fine.”
On whether the team sees this as a showcase opportunity…
“This whole season, we’ve had a chip on our shoulder. I think personally we’ve always had a showcase, every game. That’s what you have to do when you’re playing a dominant team like those guys and teams like Georgia. You always have to bring it because they’re going to bring it too. They’re not going to back down. We just have to do the same thing. We have to bring our intensity and we’ve got to bring our game and just play a big game.”
On why there has been a chip on the shoulder …
“All I can speak of is this year. In previous years, people have always slept on Kentucky football. Going into every game they have us as underdogs. You can have us as an underdog, but we don’t play like it. We’re going to come out there and play ball. We’ve caught a lot of teams off-guard because we’ve always come out humming. We were ready. We were hungry. We were just ready to show everybody that we could play football. We’re going to get ready.”
On how valuable the extra practice time will be for the bowl game …
“It will help a lot. I want all the practice I can get to get ready for this game. I feel like it’s going to be fun. This is my first time ever dealing with a bowl game or anything like that. Just being out there on the field with those seniors and those guys out there, just bonding and having fun. Going to a nice venue. I feel like it’s a beautiful opportunity for this team, staff, and university. I’m going to cherish all those practices that we have.”
On how his confidence has increased since the Louisville game …
“I’ve probably watch that game two or three times, and I looked really comfortable out there. Just watching it, I felt like I came a long way from the beginning of the season. I still have a lot of things to work on. Just seeing the growth that I’ve been having over the season it’s great because it just tells me that I’ve got to keep going and just keep progressing in my game.”
On where he feels he improved the most …
“I would say in my decision making. Early in the season, some of my decisions weren’t quite there and weren’t the best. Middle of the season I was a little hesitant, but I feel like these past four or five weeks I’ve been trusting myself and trusting where everybody’s going to be at and trusting the o-line and trusting the play calling that’s being called. Just doing what we do every day at practice. I feel like I’ve improved in a lot of things.”
On when he got injured …
“It happened around the Texas A&M game. I’ve just been in the treatment room just trying to battle it and get right. Playing in the SEC, you’re never going to be 100 percent. Just been trying to get right in there. Later down the stretch, I’ve been feeling better and getting back to myself. I’ve got a little bounce in my step, so I feel a lot better.”
#56, Kash Daniel, LB
On if he’s talked to the players from Florida about the announcement of playing in the Citrus Bowl …
“No, but I’ve seen a couple of tweets and snapchats and stuff like that. I know the Florida boys are ready to go home and get out of this cold weather for a week.”
On the significance of playing in a New Year’s Day bowl …
“As a kid growing up, those were the games you were looking forward to, to kick off the new year in college football. To be able to be a part of one is truly a blessing. Like, Terry [Wilson] and Mr. Barnhart said, this team’s worked really hard to get where we are. I don’t like to use the word deserving, but I think this team has earned where we are, and I think we’ve earned the right to be playing this game. We’re very thankful that the Citrus Bowl wanted us to come and to be a part of this great bowl, and we can’t wait to get to work and get down there and experience it.”
On the benefit of the extra bowl practices last year …
“It’s different. All year you practice in the same spot, I mean you practice in either the indoor or out on the practice field, but now you get a chance to go to a neutral site that you’ve never been before with a locker room that you’ve never been in, familiar with it and stuff like that. Getting those extra bowl practices in, not only down at the bowl site but up here as well, especially for young players and guys that are developing. I think that’s really key for them because it’s almost like you’re going through an extra spring ball schedule because you get 15 of them just like you do for spring ball. A lot of it too is you get back to technique, you get back to form, what makes you a football player basically, refine those things and get tuned up before you get ready to go full blast on it again.
On watching the younger players develop during these extra practices …
“I’m very excited. I’m very excited for our young guys, especially in my group and seeing Chris [Oats], DeAndre [Square] and Jamin [Davis. To get up there and get some snaps at practice and seeing how this whole year how they’ve grown since camp until now. Not just those guys but everybody in every position room from the DBs to the D-Line to the receivers, running backs, you name it. So, we’re all very excited to see what our young guys can do.”
On what it means for both him and Kentucky Football to potentially get a 10th win …
“It would mean the world. That’s something that hasn’t been done here in a very long time, and not only just to be a part of it now, but when I’m done playing football and all that stuff, I can look back and say that was my team and be proud of it and be something I can hold on to for the rest of my life.”
On what the team has learned from bowl prep the last two years to make the outcome different this time around …
“I think we can dial it in a little more. Coach [Mark] Stoops takes care of us. He really does, and that’s what makes him a great coach. In these practices too, I think the past years we were kind of new to this. We kind of didn’t really know what to expect. None of the players from the first time we went to a bowl game had ever been to a bowl game, so literally none of us knew what to expect. None of us knew what was going to go on when we got down there, who we were playing because it’s a different conference, and it’s different that you don’t really hear much about them because you’re too busy watching your film and worrying about your next opponent. Being back there two years in a row, following up this third one, I think we know what to expect, and I think we know what we have to do to prepare and how well we have to prepare to go out and win this game.”
On what it’s like to be a part of a foundation that could last into the future …
“It’s very special, and I’m very thankful that I’m a part of it, but at the same time, we’ve been to two bowl games and came back empty handed both times. It’s great that you made it, but if you made it, you might as well win it. That’s our mindset going into this one.”
On playing against a team with a name like Penn State …
“Just the tradition that Penn State has, a football powerhouse for the longest of times, and any time that anybody mentions Penn State football, everybody’s attention sparks up. They’re a really good football team. They’re very well coached. They’ve got some athletes and going out there and being able to compete against them is going to fun, and I can’t wait for the opportunity.”
On where he has made the biggest growth this season …
“Just playing calm, and I’ve been playing my game and not getting too caught up in it, not trying to do too much. Just doing my job and letting the game come to me instead of me chasing after the game and trying to be too fast. I want to be fast but not too fast. I think ultimately that I learned to watch film better over the year. Because before, sometimes I wouldn’t know what to look for. I’m just thinking they’re just trying to play cool. I’m not looking for guard stances or back depth or tight end locations and stuff like that or splits, you name it. So, when I finally learned how to watch film and know what to pick up on, it really helped me out there on the field. I think one of my best attributes is to be a talker out there on the field and to communicate with my teammates of all of the stuff I see on film, he’s not deep, splits are tight, alert under, stuff like that. I think it makes us all play faster. As well as we communicate and now what we see on film, it helps us play faster on Saturdays.”
On what it would be like to get a win for this senior class …
“It would mean the world. I’ve played sports my whole life, and I’ve been around a lot of guys and a lot of great guys coming through high school and college. This is a group that opened their arms to me when I was a freshman coming out of high school. They took me under their wings, and they showed me the ropes of how to become a college football player and what it takes and the do’s and don’t’s of what you can and can’t do. Ultimately, if it wasn’t for them, this senior class and the guys that are in it, I wouldn’t be up here on the podium talking to you. I wouldn’t be the player I was today without those guys, so the bond that I’ve built with those guys over the past couple of years and the stuff that we’ve all been through together, the grind of the seasons and the offseason and killing yourself basically to get to be the best team you possibly could be. When you put that kind of work with guys that mean so much to you, it’s easy to go out and give it your all for them. I’m very excited to go out and play with these seniors one more time.
On last year’s fun times in Nashville (country music singing competition) and what he’s expecting in Orlando …
“Way to bring that up. I totally forgot about that. We got robbed on that. I’m looking forward to Disney World? I’ve been there once. I finally get to do a little bass fishing hopefully, so they’ve got some ponds down there, and see if we can’t catch a couple.”
On what it means to play with Josh Paschal (who recently returned from cancer) one more time this season and to share this experience with him …
“You ever like look at a living room and you look at one piece of furniture like a carpet, and you’re like, ‘Wow, that really ties the room together.’ That’s what Josh does to this team, and Josh ties this team together. It’s a funny way to put it, but seriously, that guy’s the heartbeat of this team, and he brings everybody together when we’re feeling down or we think we can’t go harder in this or that, we look over at Josh and the whole season this kid would literally give anything to be out there with us. A couple week ago when he got his chance that was really special, and it’s something I know he’ll never forget, and I know I’ll never forget to be able to be out there and experience and hear the crowd go crazy when he came on to the field and when he made his tackle. Getting to play with him again against Louisville and now with a third game in here at the bowl game and all of next season, it’s truly special because you know the guy’s resilient, really hard worker. Through the whole process, never saw him in a bad mood, easily could have quit, gave up on it, but no, he was a fighter, and he was a worker. When we were out there practicing, when he was strolling around on his scooter, in the (weight room) bench pressing, curling, whatever he could do because he knew was going to get back because he knew he was going to beat it, and I think with a person like that that’s just a tough dude. As it’s always said, the tough times don’t last but the tough people do, and Josh Paschal is definitely one tough dude.”
On how Paschal helps the defense …
“Josh comes off that ball with a purpose. He’s a ball hog. He’s always around the ball, and he makes plays for us, a lot of great plays for us last year, and he’s made some plays with the time he’s gotten this year, so we’re really looking forward to having another game with him and seeing what he can do on the football field with us.”
On if he’s actually looked at a piece of furniture …
“You know the Big Lebowski? ‘Man, that really tied the room. Yeah, it did, man.’ That’s really what was going through my head. Great movie if you haven’t seen it.”


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