“It feels like a football school,” the veteran defensive end told ESPN.com on Tuesday. “We’re becoming that much more of a football school and not just a basketball school. Coach Stoops has done everything to change the culture around.”
Mark Stoops isn’t going to be mistaken for John Calipari anytime soon. But Stoops and his players are getting noticeably more attention than in years past. Thanks to back-to-back strong recruiting classes and the influx of talent that has followed, Kentucky football has been put back on the map where it has historically been most difficult to come by: right at home in Lexington.
Despite a 2-10 record last season, there’s hope for better days ahead. The Wildcats were competitive in losses to Louisville, South Carolina and Mississippi State, and with a top-20 recruiting class already making its way to campus, they might just get over the hump. The next step toward being competitive in the SEC begins Friday when Kentucky starts spring practice with an eye on finding more playmakers and settling who will start at quarterback.
“Next year will be our year,” Dupree said. “Next year we’ll come out and we’ll shock a couple of people. We’ll start off with the first couple game in the nonconference, and then against Florida I think we’ll be ready to show how much Coach Stoops has changed the program.”
Dupree has reason to feel good about his team’s chances. He and fellow defensive end Za’Darius Smith put the NFL on hold in order to return for their senior seasons, believing the defense will take a big step forward.
“I’m so impressed with him,” Stoops said of Dupree. “I’ll tell you what, after working with him at linebacker and defensive end, he’s so versatile. He understands the game so well.
“The same with Z. He’s a guy that’s getting better all the time. He already looked good, but he’s put on some good weight and is getting stronger.”
You’ll have to forgive Stoops for gushing over his seniors. The way he and his staff have made hay on the recruiting trail, it seems all he’s asked about now are underclassmen.
But such is the case when you’re a program building from the ground up. The talent pool Stoops inherited in 2012 wasn’t what you would describe as deep or even that well populated. Now it’s growing with each signing class and each high-profile recruit; guys like defensive tackle Matt Elam, who chose to sign with Kentucky over Alabama.
“There will be over 50 new players in a quick year and a half,” Stoops said. “So I do feel like that change is happening fast.”
More than anyone, Stoops is anxious to see how last year’s freshmen have matured and how his seven early enrollees will hold up this spring. Two junior college transfers -- defensive tackle Cory Johnson and cornerback A.J. Stamps -- are expected to contribute immediately, along with several newcomers on offense.
“We definitely signed some of these guys to help us fill some holes,” Stoops said. “You never can tell until you get them in here and see how they can adapt to college football. But we love their athletic ability and their leadership. We’ll see how it goes but we do anticipate getting some of those guys coming in and having to play.”
The most anticipated newcomer is 6-foot-4, 217 pound quarterback Drew Barker, who was the crown jewel of the 2014 class.
“He has every opportunity to take control [at quarterback] because we’re so unsettled there,” Stoops said. “He’s a guy that’s very mature. He’s a guy that has high expectations himself and he’s OK with the pressure that comes along with playing that position.”
Asked for a quick scouting report, Stoops played along.
“He’s a guy that is a drop-back quarterback,” he said. “He can distribute the ball to any spot on the field. He’s a big guy. He’s strong and has good arm strength. But he also can run it when he needs to. He’s definitely a throwing quarterback first, but he has that ability to run it on a few quarterback-designed runs if we need to.”
Whether it’s Barker or the field, Stoops said he’d “love to come out of spring with a clear-cut starter.” That means Maxwell Smith, who will miss all of spring recovering from shoulder surgery, is out of the running, leaving Jalen Whitlow and Reese Phillips as the other two top contenders.
One thing is certain, though. Stoops wants to make a decision and stick with it.
“I’m not really keen on going through the year like I did last year being unsettled,” he said.
Conceptually, the offense should look the same. Stoops said he’d like to run a version of the hurry-up sometime in the future, but for now he’s content to let his personnel dictate the system. The talent is improving, it just has a little bit further to go.
There’s a youth movement taking place at Kentucky, and even veterans like Dupree understand where the program is headed.
“If you really want to win, you’re going to go out of your way to help them get better,” he said. “You can’t be selfish. You have to sacrifice certain things, maybe even your own playing time to get other people on the field to help the team win now.”
If Kentucky is going to shake its basketball-only school status, the football program is going to have to step up.
Year 1 of the Stoops era brought promise. Year 2 must pay dividends.
“We need a drastic improvement,” Stoops said. “A year ago we were taking very small steps to understand concepts and things like that. We need to improve now as football players and as a football team. We need to have the ability to make some big plays on offense and on defense.”
In other words, Kentucky football needs to demand the spotlight.