Mark Stoops previews Chris Rodriguez’s return and more in weekly news conference

Weekday broadcast of WYMT Mountain News First at Four
Published: Sep. 26, 2022 at 7:24 PM EDT
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HAZARD, Ky. (WYMT) - Kentucky is set to travel to Oxford to face No. 14 Ole Miss in a noon kick on Saturday.

After missing the first four games of the season, Chris Rodriguez will return to Kentucky’s lineup against the Rebels.

Weekday broadcast of WYMT Mountain News First at Four

Coach Stoops also discussed Kentucky’s rise in the polls and how his team stacks up against Ole Miss in his weekly news conference.

Opening statement...

“Looking forward to getting back on the practice field today and another big challenge this week going on the road with our second road game of the year in conference. So, we know it will be a big challenge. Going back to Northern Illinois briefly, after watching the tape, much like I said after the game, we did some really good things at times and then at times we were just terribly inconsistent. A lot of the focus is on offense, it seems like, which generally that’s going to happen. But, after viewing the tape and watching it, it really goes to us being very undisciplined defensively this week. So, we have to get it straight and get to a point where we play all three phases, playing with the consistency we’re looking for. Just very simple things, uncharacteristic of how we’ve been playing defensively. I would describe it as undisciplined play. Offensively, again, very good at times and then certain drives, a play here or a play there got us off track. I think the turnovers are obvious. When you put the ball on the ground at the end of the first half, that cannot happen. After an aggravating start, and give them (Northern Illinois) credit, after the long drive to start the game, defensively we were starting to settle in. Got the turnover at the end of the first half; uncharacteristic of us playing the middle eight (minutes) so poorly – well, actually, just the end of the first half. That was not good and then the end of the game, same thing. Just did not finish the game well and defensively let them hit two big plays to start two drives at the end of the game. We need to get a lot of that cleaned up and continue to work.

“The good news is, we’re 4-0 and have an opportunity for a great challenge this week. We’re playing a very good Ole Miss team that we know. Playing them, they’re going to go at an extremely high tempo. They are running the ball extremely effective, and when you can run the ball like that it obviously creates explosive plays in the pass game. They haven’t needed to rely on that as much in the first four games but certainly they can do a lot of things and be as balanced as they want to be. They have two tremendous tailbacks, really three, but two that will play against us that are playing at a very high level along with their quarterback. (They will) Put a lot of stress on us defensively, they play extremely hard. I think they have some very good players and somewhat unorthodox in some of their structure in the way they do things and bring some pressure. It will be something with us being susceptible to some pressure and some sacks this week. I’m sure we’ll see a lot of exotic pressures and things of that nature, so we need to get that ironed down.”

On getting Chris Rodriguez Jr. back, your teaching points for him and how he has responded...

“For Chris, it was just a matter of managing him while he was out. Just getting him the reps that we needed to. The last week or two, as I mentioned last week, he was getting reps with the first and second team – mainly the second team or different quarterbacks just to make sure he wasn’t totally removed from practicing our plays, along with staying in shape, being on the scout team, doing whatever was necessary for staying in good shape. For Chris, he just needs to be himself. He doesn’t need to come in and be our savior or anything like that or save our run game – any of that. We don’t need him to worry about that, we just need him to be him. And, we need the people around him, the other guys around him that are playing, to do their job and to strain and to do things better in certain moments.”

On how much Chris Rodriguez Jr. returning will affect the passing game, helping open that up...

“I’m not sure, we’ll see. I have no control over the way they play.”

On an update on J.J. Weaver...

“Doesn’t look good for J.J. this week.”

On how undisciplined play shows on defense...

“With us, a lot of movement, eye candy, taking our eyes off our reads, being out-leveraged, just basic things. We just didn’t play as clean as we have been.”

On if it is frustrating that the team is making undisciplined mistakes...

“It’s why we work. It’s why we do things. There are very few teams out there, you can ask whoever is (ranked) one, two, three, anybody, you’re going to ask any coach right now and there are going to be parts of their team that they’re going to want to work on. We’re not any different. We want to continue to work and grind and get better.”

On if there is an advantage, from a teaching standpoint, to defeating Northern Illinois by just eight points rather, say, three touchdowns...

“Not really. Our guys, they’re going to watch the film and we’re always going to put that on the tape and call it the way it is.”

On the running backs hitting the right holes during the Northern Illinois game...

“I think there’s a combination of things. There are several runs that they could’ve hit up in there without a doubt. There were other times when it was cloudy, and you could understand what they saw. There are a lot of things we could clean up and I thought they were doing some things that were creative. They were twisting and getting some guys in some gaps and then there were times when we hit it pretty well and sealed them up. We just want more consistency.”

On if teams are trying to exploit Kentucky’s protection issues by “bringing the house” etc. ...

“Yeah, I think anybody would do that and you’re going to see different – like last week with Northern, every game they go into, there are new pressures. Everybody builds and puts new things in per week. Just don’t know what exactly they’re going to be until you get out there and play. They could be more aggressive and that, as I mentioned postgame Saturday, that helped create some very big plays as well.”

On having more than two options at receiver with Barion Brown...

“It’s very important and I feel like we have as much depth as we’ve had in my tenure here at Kentucky. We have 5-6 wideouts that we have a lot of confidence in. The games are going pretty quick. If you noticed Saturday that game went fast. We had one possession in the first quarter. That’s where defensively we have to get off the field. Offensively we had some drives that took some time, and we had a couple (of scoring drives) go extremely fast, which is good. Defensively is where we can’t allow them to drive, and really we settled in. The first possession went for 11 plays, too many. That takes the air out. Let me mention it while I’m thinking about it —the stadium, the fans, they’re awesome. We had an unbelievable crowd once again, thank you. Then we start that way and let them drive and kind of takes the air out a little bit. It offsets it because the rest of the time we go through some possessions, outside of the turnover and we let them drive 34 yards right at the end (of the first half), which was an aggravating drive. The rest of them there, there’s six drives in there where there’s like 27 yards, something like that. We have a chance to pull away and we’ve got to capitalize. It was one of those games and we let it get close at the end and shouldn’t have done it.”

On an update on Tyrell Ajian and seeing Zion Childress and Jordan Lovett in the tape after the Northern Illinois game...

“Zion showed some flashes, he did some really good things. Then he had a few plays that were uncharacteristic of him, where he had bad leverage and could have got him down on the 30 (yard line) on the one explosive (play) there. A couple plays he could play better. Jordan is doing some really good things. Some of this experience is invaluable to him. There are some things that he’s seeing for the first time. You need to bank those reps, play cleaner and learn from some of the things that are going on. Ty has an injury that he’s dealing with and was bothering him a little bit Saturday. Hopefully he will get back to full strength this week.”

On how the Associated Press poll rankings this week hit you and the team...

“I like it there, and I’d like it to stay there. That’s really what’s most important. Sure, it helps with the fanbase and showing up and having the people there. It helps with recruiting. It helps with your team and hopefully it motivates them to practice hard to stay that way because, we know we have a very tough stretch starting here this week. Our team is mature enough, certainly there are some young guys that still need to be taught quite a bit. The leadership of this team knows that’s fine, but it’s really about how we practice and how we prepare to get ready for a really good team and another tough challenge.”

On responding after Miami’s (Ohio) and Northern Illinois’ first scoring drives...

“It’s a credit to the players and the coaches. They have all week, we have all week, to scheme up a lot of plays and set you up. Some of that is how they’re getting to what they do, different presentations. You get a chance to get over on the sidelines, settle the guys down, talk to them, show them what’s going on. Generally, we pick things up and slow them down a little bit.”

On how your pass rush is doing right now going into Ole Miss...

“It is different in a game like this because there’s so much deception and they’re so fast. A lot of their pass game is off that. They still have a lot in their tank that they haven’t had to use. There is a lot there that they can do. That’s where we have to be much better, much more disciplined, more locked in on our assignments because there’s a lot going on. Off the run game their play action, wheels and verticals, different layers that they can throw out there. There is a lot to it where they can strike fast. Dropback passing game isn’t as much (of what they’re doing), except when you have to in certain predictable situations.”

On what makes Lane Kiffin such a great offensive playcaller...

“I think they’re very aggressive and their style of tempo definitely puts pressure on you. Also, it’s a credit to him because you can see the way they are adjusting and how creative they are in their run game this year. They have very talented running backs and they have a scheme where they can take it a lot of different ways. It’s very complex and creative with the way they are creating space and then their play action off of it. With Lane, he adapts to the players that are around him, really always have. I go back to the days competing against Lane way back when I’m at Arizona and he’s at USC. Much different style of offense and much different style of defense. Obviously just a lot of respect for him and the way that he coaches and their aggressive nature.”

On what about their defense that makes it unorthodox...

“It’s just a little different with how they line up. Everything that we’ve seen is about how they present it and how they get to it.”

On JuTahn McClain after the Northern Illinois game...

“I think he’s getting back healthy and looking better. That would be good for us to get him healthy as well.”

On if the undisciplined play is a result of a younger team...

“Defensively, I don’t know. We’ve got to see them and talk to them. It’s uncharacteristic. I was challenging the team last week in the team meeting, especially the offense in certain positions where the defense had a relatively good game (against Youngstown State). You come back a week later, I guess it is the old adage, that’s why you don’t pat us on the back. You know as coaches, we try to offset that and talk about that constantly. I pounded it with the team last week about us – the way we practice, the way we play, the discipline we have. I guess it’s human nature. They hear good things, they’re playing good, then they go out there and play very average.”

On the development of Kiyanta Goodwin...

“As I say every Monday, he’s a really good young man that’s working really hard. He’s working his way into shape and I believe will be a very good player. When that is, we don’t need to rush people. Look at guys that have been here. They blow up as a fourth-year player or fifth-year player. You just never know. Some guys are ready to go early, not many are. It’s a hard game to play, it’s a hard position to play. He will be good in the right time.”

On what team you’ve played this season most compares to Ole Miss…

“I don’t know if that’s, I mean the last thing I need is a headline comparing Ole Miss to one of the four teams I’ve played. You know no matter how I say it that’s how it would come out, right? Like in the headline, you know I’m a little wiser than that.”

On Ole Miss quarterback Jaxson Dart…

“Yeah, I think he’s a really good player, he’s getting better with every rep. He’s explosive, he’s making good decisions, you know there’s been games this year where much like our offense they’ve just stopped themselves. I’m sure they’re sitting there saying who stopped us? We stopped ourselves, bad snap, bad communication, just certain things, but you can see when they’re clicking and in the rhythm, he’s very talented. He can run, makes good decisions, can throw it, and like I said, they’re sitting on a lot of explosives that they’re setting up and you know they can do a lot of different things.”

On how different it is to have so many explosive options on offense this year…

“It’s great. I’ve mentioned that every week, it’s certainly really good to see us take a dig (route) or take a deep in (route), take it to the house and have explosive guys. We’ve been looking for that, so it’s really good and that is certainly our pass game right now, our dropback passing game is the best it’s been since I’ve been here by far. That has a lot to do with Will (Levis), but it has a lot to do with the wideouts, and we’ve had our moments in protection being very good. We all know that we need to improve but we’ve hit some very big plays because of that protection.”

On how Chris Rodriquez Jr. was helping the defense by being on the scout team…

“Yeah, he needs to get down there and get the reps, get the feel and have the vision that we’re talking about and just get thudded up a little bit. He picked his spots, went down there and was working with the offense. There’s always individual (periods) in practice, so there’s a lot of different ways.”

On Keidron Smith and Jaquez Jones playing against their former team…

“I really don’t know, you’ll have to talk to them. They’re both older, mature guys so I’m not overly concerned about it, I think they understand that they just gotta go out there and play.”

On how Kentucky thrived in Florida’s road atmosphere…

“Well, every game is different because right now we are maybe one, I think it’s one, but we’re right at the top of the league in fewest penalties, and that’s a good thing. We’ll go back to, if I could go back to game three and we talked about game three vs. Youngstown, we had 10 if I’m not mistaken, but we’re still top in the league in fewest penalty yards in the league so we have to continue that, that’s another tough challenge with going on the road, it’s a new opportunity it’s a new game. Just because we handled some of that environment fairly well in the Florida game doesn’t mean it carries over, we have to have that same level of concentration.”

On restaurant or tailgating recommendations at Ole Miss…

“You know, this is one of the few places that I’ve never been. So, it’s new for me as well. No clue, you know I wouldn’t give it to you anyway (laughter), but I do appreciate the fan base going down there and as I mentioned, the home games have been terrific. I wish we would’ve started faster to get the juice going.”

On the 11 a.m. Central time kickoff…

“You know, it is what it is. That’s the situation, let’s go deal with it.”

On if you can see the offensive line gaining continuity…

“Yes, I can and there’s optimism there for us with that growth. We’ve seen it before, when you have new guys and you’ve got new positions. They’re getting experience with every game, they’re getting better with every opportunity. There’s moments that it sticks out, but there’s a lot of good things they’re doing as well.”

On your record against SEC West Division teams…

“I don’t even know what it is, I’m sure you’ll point it out for me (laughter). So no, I mean it’s a new game, new opportunity. When it’s on the right side of something it doesn’t mean anything either, right? So, I mean it really doesn’t.”