The only thing that has slowed Mark Stoops since the regular-season finale against Louisville was rotator cuff surgery that sidelined him for a day.
“They zapped me up on Tuesday … but I was back at work on Wednesday,” Stoops said Monday.
It has been a hectic week for the Wildcats’ head coach.
First on the agenda was meeting with his current players about their future plans with transfers, NFL Draft early entry and pandemic eligibility years all on the table. The recruiting dead period ended Friday, allowing Stoops and his staff to return to the road as they look to close strong with the 2023 high school class before signing day later this month. On Monday, the transfer portal officially opened for undergraduates, and the staff has already been active in its pursuit of veterans to fill holes on the roster.
If the roster management concerns were not enough, Stoops is also remaking his staff. Last week, he fired offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello and running backs coach John Settle. The search for their replacements is underway.
Preparation for the Music City Bowl versus Iowa on New Year’s Eve has not started yet, but Stoops was part of the conversations about which bowl his team would participate in leading up to selection Sunday.
Stoops took a break from all those tasks to meet with reporters Monday. Here is a look at the biggest takeaways from that session.
1. Offensive coordinator search moving forward
Stoops said he has been pleased with the early response to his offensive coordinator job. He held an interview with one candidate Sunday and has an interview with another scheduled for later in the week.
Public speculation has centered on the return of former UK offensive coordinator Liam Coen, who is currently working as the Los Angeles Rams’ offensive coordinator, but Stoops went out of his way to note there are multiple candidates for the job.
“I feel like there’s some very good options out there and I’m not going to limit myself,” Stoops said. “So, we’ll see where it goes. I’m optimistic. I’m excited. I think each time this position seems to open up there’s even more and more interest in the job, which is a good sign to me.”
What is Stoops looking for in his next offensive coordinator?
Physicality and balance remain key parts of the identity Stoops wants for his offense, but he also wants to increase the tempo, acknowledging that Kentucky’s 2022 offense took too long between plays. The fact that Kentucky has a much better group of young receivers than it did two years ago when Coen was initially hired by Stoops will play a role in the philosophy, too.
“I want to create explosive plays,” Stoops said. “Is that tempo? Is that run-pass? All that, you put it together and you’ve got to look at things and analyze things and always try to adapt and ultimately hire the best coach that fits us. Somebody that has that ability to adapt, not just be one thing or another.”
Despite the transfer portal already being open and several high-profile quarterbacks looking for new schools that could be options for Kentucky in the search for Will Levis’ replacement, Stoops said there is no rush on the timing of the hire.
“I think you have to have some urgency about you but no panic,” Stoops said. “I’m not going to rush things. It’s vitally important that we hire the right guy. You have to get the right person rather than rush just to get one player or to worry about that.”
While he was not ready to make an official announcement, Stoops did reveal he has a coach lined up for the running backs coach position. That coach will also serve as special teams coordinator.
2. Who will play in the bowl?
When Kentucky shows up to Nashville for the Music City Bowl, the roster of available players might look significantly different than the one that took the field for the Governor’s Cup rivalry game.
Quarterback Will Levis has yet to make a decision about playing in the game. Stoops expects a decision in the near future but wants Levis to take some time to gauge his physical health after an injury-plagued season.
“The biggest thing was physically had some things to work through,” Stoops said. “Wanted to see how his body responded, how he felt with treatment and see where he’s at injury-wise. So, we’ll get together I would imagine real soon here and he’ll let me know. I’m sure not long after that, you all will know.”
Even if Levis decides not to play in the bowl, he will remain with the team for the game, Stoops said.
That will not be the case for the UK players who enter the transfer portal this month. A year ago, several Wildcats planning to transfer played key roles in the Wildcats’ Citrus Bowl win over Iowa, but Stoops said transferring players will not make the trip this year.
3. More transfers coming
As of Monday, eight Kentucky players had entered the transfer portal. More departures are expected.
“There will be several more that we know are coming,” Stoops said. “You just don’t want to be surprised. To this point, I haven’t been surprised, so I hope it stays that way.”
As for incoming transfers, Stoops expressed confidence Kentucky would do well in the portal. Any transfers who commit this month will not be eligible to play in the bowl, though, so several young players who did not play significant snaps during the regular season could see expanded roles in the bowl in order to fill the holes left by outgoing transfers and any draft prospects who opt out of the game.