Stoops has extra step, heartbeat ahead of opener against Toledo

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By KEITH TAYLOR, Kentucky Today

LEXINGTON, Ky. (KT) — Mark Stoops couldn’t hide his excitement going into Kentucky’s season opener set for Saturday against Toledo.

“Waking up (Monday) morning, I had a little extra heartbeat,” Stoops said during his first weekly press conference Monday. “I’m excited. It’s game week and I’m really looking forward to it. ” 

That added boost comes a year after Stoops guided the Wildcats to a 10-3 campaign, including a 27-24 win over Penn State in the Citrus Bowl that put an exclamation point on the most successful season in Stoops’ tenure as coach at the school. 

Although it’s a new year and a new team, Stoops is expecting the same results from his squad.

“We need to play aggressive, we need to play to win,” he said. “You can’t beat anybody if you beat yourself. I think if you watch some of the football that’s played early, you see a lot of that. We as coaches try to offset that as much as possible with camp and put them in pressure-packed situations but there’s nothing like game (experience).”

In addition to his own excitement, Stoops said containing the players’ enthusiasm also is a priority, especially with the season opener. In order to help alleviate the hype, Stoops and his staff have already gone through their pregame routine twice the past week to prepare for kickoff and stay in a consistent “rhythm.” 

“Motivation and how we handle our players on day by day basis is a part of (getting them ready to play,” Stoops said. “It’s a very, very long year and that’s part of it. We learn the best from mistakes and there have been (mistakes in) openers here before.

“You go back to Southern Miss (three years ago) and our team was just overly excited to come out and play and we played fantastic in the first half. We left a lot of it out there and in the locker room. It’s just handling the emotions, especially guys who have not played much. Some of the guys that have played a lot of (football) understand that and how to contain themselves.”

Stoops and his staff have most of their offense intact but the biggest question mark is within the team’s secondary, which is revamped from last season. Two freshmen — MJ Devonshire and Taj Dobson —are on the team’s two-deep depth chart. 

“We’ll see (how they perform),” Stoops said.”It is what it is — I’m excited to watch them play. I can’t wait to see them play and I’m excited to watch our whole team play. As coaches, you have an idea of who you are and what your team is going to look like, but there’s definitely a few more emotions with the first game. You really just want to get out there and play and see exactly what you have.”

Although it’s a new season, Stoops said the priority is to focus more on his team than the opponent.

“No matter who we are playing we’re worried about us and putting ourselves in the best position to play the best football that we can,” he said.

HOSKINS, PETERS OUT

Toledo native Phil Hoskins, a defensive tackle, won’t play against the Rockets or the first two games for that matter. Stoops said Hoskins will miss the first two contests because of an academic issue.

Hoskins played in all 13 games last season and collected 21 tackles, including 3.5 for a loss and three sacks. He added a career-high four tackles and one sack in a loss at Texas A&M.

The school also is awaiting word on Florida State transfer Xavier Peters, an outside linebacker expected to contribute once he’s cleared to play.

“He’s out right now until someone tells me differently,” Stoops said. “There’s a lot of things we had to get in order as well and the information we had to get from Florida State — it takes some time to get it all in.”

Gametracker: Toledo at Kentucky, Saturday, noon. TV/Radio: SEC Network, 98.1 FM WBUL.

Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at keith.taylor@kentuckytoday.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.

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