LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Mark Stoops said his Kentucky team is making progress despite another 2-10 finish.
Defining exactly where he saw progress was difficult for the Wildcats' rookie coach following Saturday night's season-ending loss to Tennessee that left Kentucky 0-8 in the Southeastern Conference for the second straight season. Stoops praised players' effort and preparation but lamented how they failed to carry those factors over to games.
Lack of execution was a frequent problem for Kentucky, which finished near the bottom of several statistical categories in the conference. The Wildcats got behind early, then had rallies fall short late against South Carolina and Mississippi State. But against most of their opponents, Kentucky was never in the game.
Stoops' offseason message to players is to return ready to give a complete effort next year.
"I know we're improving," Stoops said after the 27-14 loss loss to the Volunteers. "There's no doubt in my mind. We're getting better and we need to continue to build this team and I accept responsibility. I know I can do better, and the coaches can do better.
"The players will continue to develop and we're going to continue to recruit players that can come in and make a difference in this league."
Stoops knew that improvement would be tough in a competitive conference that has won seven consecutive national championships. Making the Wildcats' task even harder was a schedule featuring four consecutive ranked opponents including defending BCS champ and then-No. 1 Alabama.
Kentucky lost those games and another to eventual SEC East champion Missouri. Its only victories were against Miami (Ohio) and FCS Alabama State.
"We knew we had a tough schedule coming in," quarterback Maxwell Smith said. "We fought every game. Just disappointing. Things didn't go our way, that's for sure."
Kentucky's rebuilding process will require addressing many offensive concerns, particularly at the skill positions.
Though the Wildcats improved slightly from averaging 315 to 341.3 yards per game this season, offensive coordinator Neal Brown's pass-oriented "Air Raid" scheme rarely took flight with either Jalen Whitlow or Smith at quarterback. The two began the season alternating series and plays before the mobile Whitlow claimed the job at midseason.
But the sophomore endured shoulder and neck injuries that sidelined him for most of the final two games. Whitlow played only a few snaps against Tennessee as Smith passed for 254 yards and two touchdowns in his fourth start.
Stoops said establishing consistency under center is a priority.
"I think each guy did some good things at times and some things that weren't so good," the coach said. "That's our whole team, though. That's not just on those guys. We have to play better around them."
Kentucky's ground game could offer some hope. Freshman tailback Jojo Kemp (482 yards, three touchdowns) emerged late in the season to finish as the top rusher; sophomore Dyshawn Mobley rushed for 210 yards and a touchdown the past two games, including career highs of 17 carries and 143 yards against the Volunteers.
The Wildcats still must find a deep-threat receiver and shore up an offensive line that allowed an SEC-worst 37 sacks. Smith was sacked five times by Tennessee.
The defense also has room for improvement after allowing 427.2 yards per game, up from 391 in 2012. Kentucky has big voids to fill with the departures of leading tackler Avery Williamson (102) and tackles Mister Cobble and Donte Rumph.
Fortunately for the Wildcats, sack leaders Alvin Dupree (6.5) and Za'Darius Smith (six) return, while growth is expected from numerous underclassmen in the secondary.
More help is on the way with a top-10 2014 recruiting class, one area where Stoops has made a positive impact in spite of the losing. Rumph is confident the mix of veterans and newcomers will eventually yield results in the rebuilding process.
"We had a lot of younger guys step up and make big plays in hard times so you can see the potential there," he said. "Going into the offseason knowing that and knowing they have time to build, it's going to be a special year for Kentucky next year."