THE MODERATOR: We have coach Rich Brooks from Kentucky.
COACH BROOKS: I’m back (smiling). If you remember my opening statement the last two years, my goal for this upcoming season would be that I was able to be here at this function the next year.
Well, finally got it on a little bit more solid footing, and hopefully I won’t have to answer too many questions about job security this year.
I think, without a doubt, this is the best football team that I’ve had going into a season at Kentucky. 97% of our weapons return. Offensive production, defensive tackling, interceptions, fumble recoveries, however you want to calculate it, it almost all returns. Also the returning game, the kicking and punting, all of that.
We have more speed at Kentucky than we’ve had since I’ve been there. We obviously have some talented individuals that were able to accomplish something that hasn’t been done at Kentucky very often, and that’s win a Bowl game last year.
The difficulty is, looking forward, as I’ve seen the predictions going into this season from all the prognosticators is that they think we’ll have a hard time repeating what we did last year. I can understand the arguments against us doing that, but we’re going to make it an interesting year for Kentucky football.
THE MODERATOR: All right. We’ll take questions for Coach Brooks.
Q. Can you talk about your running back situation, in particular the role of Tony Dixon this year?
COACH BROOKS: Well, Tony has been bothered by some nagging injuries through his career, but came up huge in the turnaround in the middle of the season last year after we’d been clubbed at LSU.
Tony and Alfonso Smith played very well on the road at Mississippi State, then Tony Dixon on the second comeback drive in the fourth quarter against Georgia. I think he carried the ball, I don’t know, six of eight or nine plays on that drive and scored the winning touchdown.
Tony’s I think a very, very good football player, very tough to tackle. And hopefully, after coming off of a major surgery the year before and having some nagging injuries last year, he’ll have a healthy year this year and can even be more productive than he has been.
Q. The good news is you have a lot of offensive weapons to score points. But is the bad news still that you’re going to have to score a lot of points because of the defense? Do you see the defense making progress in some areas?
COACH BROOKS: Well, the good news about that bad defense is that against Tennessee we played good enough defense to win and the offense didn’t get it done. Three of our last five games against Georgia, Tennessee and Clemson, in my opinion, we played SEC defense. In many of the other games, we did not.
The good news is that 19 of the 22 on defense, first and second stringers, were freshmen and sophomores last year. I expect us to be much improved. If we want to be a factor in the race, in the SEC, if we want to beat teams we haven’t beaten in a long time, our defense has to improve as much as our offense did last year.
I expect it to. So whether we do or not, we have to go out on the field and prove it. But we certainly have more talent on the defensive side, even though some of it will still be relatively young next year.
Q. This time last year did you see Andre’ Woodson getting ready to have the type season he had this past year? How do you see him improving on that this time around?
COACH BROOKS: Well, I’d be blowing smoke up here if I said I thought he was going to go from six touchdowns and six interceptions to 31 touchdowns and seven interceptions and lead the team in quite the way he did.
I felt at this time last year I wasn’t sure Andre’ was going to be our starter. He was battling Curtis Pulley for the position. He totally turned around, and Randy Sanders has to get a lot of credit for that, who joined us last year as our quarterback coach.
He made Andre’ focus on the positive things, not the negative. He was able to get him to focus and channel his ability, which he always had, in the right direction.
It’s maybe one of the biggest transitions from production, leadership, accountability that I’ve seen a young man make from one year to the next in my coaching career. And thank God he did, because I’m back here talking to you (smiling).
Q. How much of an impact guys like Rafael Little and Andre’ Woodson have as far as changing the approach and mental attitude, trying to create a winning tradition at Kentucky? What other things do you feel you need to do to take Kentucky football to an even higher level?
COACH BROOKS: Well, I told the team after the Music City Bowl what we did this year isn’t going to be good enough, because people are going to look at us a little differently next year. To even have the same results, we have to do everything a little better next year. If we want to have better results, we have to do it a lot better.
But the senior leadership that we’ll have this year is clearly superior to anything that I’ve had at Kentucky because we have a lot of ‘em that have developed into outstanding leaders, and they were the major leaders last year, whether you’re talking about Andre’ Woodson, Keenan Burton, Jacob Tamme, Rafael Little.
You’re talking about Wesley Woodyard on defense. These are the guys that kind of banded together and decided they wanted to change the perception of Kentucky football. They’ve gone about it in every way, shape, and form on and off the field to try to do that.
It takes a special group of young men to put it on the line like they did. Marcus McClinton is here and Wesley Woodyard and Kennan Burton last year did a little video, we believe. I was a little skeptical, I was a little worried they were putting themselves out there too much. We played it before home games.
I wanted to make sure they were comfortable with it because I told them if things didn’t go well, this he could be ridiculed and criticized for it.
They stuck with their guns, said they were comfortable with it. They’d go out and back it up. We won six of our seven home games. They proved to be prophets, if you will.
Q. How significant do you think moving the kickoffs back to the 30 is going to be? How does that change the approach in the college game?
COACH BROOKS: It’s going to be one of the most significant rule changes to come about in recent years maybe in a decade in college football. Very few teams will have a guy who can kick it into the touchback area or out of the end zone.
You’re gonna see offenses starting with a lot better field position. You’re gonna see scoring averages go up because of this rule change. You’re gonna see a lot more gimmicks on kickoff coverage. By “gimmicks,” I’m talking with pooch kicking, possible squib kicking.
There may be some people that decide want to kick it out of bounds and give it to the team on the 35 yard line rather than kicking it deep and having a return out to the 40 or 45.
Just depends on the strength of the kicker, the talent on the kickoff team. But I think you’re going to see more strategy in kickoff coverage this year because of that rule change and how people kick the ball off.
If you look at us, for example, we should benefit from the rule from the return end, because we have one of the better kickoff return groups in the nation and in the league. Keenan Burton was outstanding last year. Alfonso Smith. We’ve got some guys that can return ‘em.
But I think what we’re gonna see is more teams giving us those pooch kicks and things, things that change it up, so you can’t get that return going quite as well.
Q. Could you compare the potential of the 2007 Kentucky team to the 1994 Oregon team that went to the Rose Bowl, some of the similarities?
COACH BROOKS: Well, I think the similarities would have fallen on last year’s team. We were a much younger team at Oregon that went to the Rose Bowl. Many of our players were sophomores and juniors on that team. We had senior leadership more like this team, some very key players like Danny O’Neill, my quarterback.
But a lot of the really good players on that team were underclassmen. It wasn’t in as tough a league as we play here in the SEC.
But I think that this team potentially, from a talent standpoint, is as good as that football team was and probably better. But you’ve got to remember, it’s also 13 years later. Everybody else is better, as well.
Q. Is it as simple, you mean your points about the 30 yard line, the NFL didn’t have that same transition when it moved back some years ago. Did you find being in the league it was as simple as having a kicker that could get it back that far?
COACH BROOKS: Well, in college it has been. In the NFL you have a 46 man active roster, which that 46th guy is your third quarterback. So you’ve got pretty good players covering kickoffs for the most part.
Now, you look in college football, and you’ll see a lot of third string guys, walk ons, scout team guys that are just headhunters that are covering. I think you’ll see maybe the quality of maybe putting more of your defensive starters on the kickoff team.
In the NFL, they can’t kick it in the end zone either. The ball’s a little different now in the NFL. It doesn’t go as far on those kicks as the college ball does.
I think you’re starting to see, even in the NFL, some of that different type of kicking, not to the extent you have already seen it in college. I predict you’ll see it more this year. I just think it’s something that probably most college teams don’t work on quite as much as NFL teams do.
The personnel you’re using to cover the kickoffs is a little better in the NFL level than it is usually at the college level. You don’t find a lot of teams that put their starters on kickoff coverage in college football.
Q. What do you think it means to be committed that Kentucky? Is that different at different places? Different guys react differently to being committed, so to speak?
COACH BROOKS: I think it’s pretty much the same being committed to Kentucky versus being committed to Florida or Auburn or Alabama. I know even those schools sometimes lose a commitment when another school like them comes in and offers and tries to steal somebody at the very end.
It probably happens more to a school like Kentucky, that’s a middle of the road team in our league, or has been in recent years, or below that.
But obviously there’s a pretty strong feeling in our league that most of our coaches are not in favor of an early signing date, which I have been on record as saying I am in favor of.
Q. Can you talk a little bit about your upset win over Georgia last year. Do you feel that was a springboard or landmark win for your program, starting to get you to the next level?
COACH BROOKS: Well, it had to be considered that since we hadn’t beaten Georgia in 10 years at Kentucky. It followed a huge win on the road at Mississippi State after an embarrassing loss at LSU. It kept our hopes alive and I think convinced our team that these post season thoughts of ours could be accomplished.
The very next week we became Bowl eligible by beating Vanderbilt. It would have been a struggle to move forward, I think, if we had not beaten and pulled the upset against Georgia.
Q. How has you and your staff’s recruiting strategy changed now with the anticipation of the text messaging ban going into effect August 1st?
COACH BROOKS: Everybody’s thumbs are going to be healed starting after August 1st. You’ll just be more email, which some people can get on their BlackBerries or their phones, as you know. There will be more emailing. Probably a little more correspondence, handwritten notes, those type of things.
The young people of today have gotten very, very used to texting. I’m sure they’ll still be texting us, which they do on a regular basis. We just won’t be able to text them back. We’ll have to drop ‘em a note, or when it’s legal to make the phone calls in the timeframe that the NCAA allows you to do that, call ‘em back, whatever.
It will complicate the process a little bit because it’s something that everybody’s been doing, and all of a sudden the curtain comes down on it.
Q. Coming out of last season going into spring, then coming out of spring, did you identify any specifics for Andre’ to work on heading into this year?
COACH BROOKS: Just everything overall. I mean, he doesn’t have, in my mind, a weakness. He just needs to continue to progress and get better at everything, understanding, making sure that he understands how much time he has to make a check at the line of scrimmage to get the play off before you get the delay of game on the three yard line in the Tennessee game (laughter). Oh, boy, that was a good one. Just things like that. You know, just overall improvement.
I’ll be honest with you, if he could have the same success he had this year, the same numbers, I would consider that a fantastic year. To throw 31 touchdowns and only seven interceptions in this league is phenomenal.
Q. You touched on the loss to LSU, then beating Georgia. You went on to have a lot of success after that. What changed for your team after the LSU game, going to the Georgia win? What do you hope carried over from that season? Do you believe momentum carries over from one season to the next?
COACH BROOKS: Well, I think a couple of things happened to us going into the LSU game. We had just lost our only home loss of the year against South Carolina at home by seven points in a game that we felt we had a great chance to win. They got the win. Our team was very disappointed.
LSU lost a tough game at Florida, a game that I think they felt they should have won. They turned the ball over a couple of times. We were, I think, suffering a hangover, if you will, emotionally, and didn’t respond the way we should with the loss to South Carolina.
LSU was getting beat up for a week and they decided they needed to come out and prove they were a great football team and they did.
I met with the team that Sunday after that game and told them that I thought we needed to get back to basics, that we needed to defend the run better, we needed to run the ball better, we needed to not be in the shotgun as much as we had been, because I thought it had made us a little soft as a football team.
We went out to practice and tried to get more physical. They didn’t hang their head. They didn’t question it. They rolled up their sleeves because they wanted to get to post season play. They bought into it and we got better.
We ran the ball better. We defended the run better in the latter half of the season. And we also were able to throw the play action pass better because we had a semblance of a running game.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you, coach.
COACH BROOKS: Thanks, guys. Hope to see you next year (smiling).
Quarterback Andre’ Woodson
On last season:
“It was fantastic. We’ve come a long way since I first came here as a freshman, from knowing where the program was going, to where we want it to go now. This season, there’s a chance to make a big statement about where our program is headed for the future. We think we have a chance to be an SEC contender and go to a BCS game.”
On the transformation he’s seen while at Kentucky:
“I came to this university to help turn things around. We’d been a doormat for so many years, and now, we want people and teams to know that we are a contender and want to be a contender year in and year out.”
On Quarterbacks Coach Randy Sanders:
“Randy has done a fabulous job. He’s made me understand how important practice is and given me a great understanding of what it takes to be a great SEC quarterback. Last year, it began to show in my game just what I was learning and what I could do.”
On the East Division:
“We’re very excited about our schedule. We have three BCS home games, and we’re excited to get out there. We start the season with Eastern Kentucky, a school about 15 miles from here, and we want to get the season started in the right direction and not look past anyone and the best way we can do that is to go out and play Kentucky football.”
“We just want to contend and win games. Last year was great, but it was last year, and we have to stay humble and move on. We’ve done a great job this summer, and we’re ready to get out there this year and get after it.”
On the importance of last year’s Georgia game:
“I think the Georgia game was a big game, but the bowl game win was the most important win. It was our first bowl win in 22 years. Coach Brooks has done a great job bringing in the talent we need and we know we’ve got to be ready because we’ve got some good teams coming in this year.”
Free Safety Marcus McClinton
On playing big games at home:
“Well that is the only place I would like to play these big games. I feel comfortable at home, as well as the team. We will play in front of our fans which allow us to play more loose and better.”
On last year’s season:
“Well, last year was definitely the building block for our program. We beat good teams. We went to a bowl where the attendance was a record 50,000, and we beat a good team. We won five out of six games before that, so it definitely was not a fluke. It’s going to be the building blocks of this year and having these eight homes games and being able to play in a comfortable environment gives us a great opportunity to do big things. We want to prove to everyone else that last year was not a fluke.”
On the lowest point last season:
“I believe that everyone knows that we did not perform at LSU. That game was the turning point. We were embarrassed and things get worst before they get better. Since then, things have been on the up and up. Now we know we can compete in the SEC and beat some good teams.”
On people’s view of Kentucky this season:
“I believe people are going to look at us like we won’t compete well. But, they better not look at us as a homecoming game because they will be in for a rude awakening. I mean they aren’t going to look at us as just a push over team as they have done in the past. We have SEC caliber players and we have the best quarterback in the SEC. They know that our defense has experience and is playing with passion. They know that we are a threat and we can beat them. They should not underestimate the University of Kentucky.”
“I don’t believe that I’m talking smack. I just believe that with what we have accomplished, we can talk with a little more confidence.”
Courtesy SEC Sports Information