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By Alex Forkner | Football columnist
When Mark Stoops and his staff and players jogged, walked and limped off the field after their 27-14 loss to cap a disappointing season, it was the end of a beginning.
In his first year as head UK football coach, Stoops performed no miracles. The Cats’ 2-10 overall record and 0-8 effort in the SEC is identical to a season ago.
“We are all disappointed with the 2013 season when it comes to the wins and losses, and I take responsibility for that, and I need to do a better job, and all of us will, and we’ll continue to keep on grinding and keep on pushing this program,” Stoops said.
So what’s different?
Whereas we were all waiting for the end credits to roll during Joker Phillips’ final games as head coach, this season felt more like exposition. We met new characters on the coaching staff, learned their back stories and calculated their motivations.
And after watching them struggle through act one, we’ll spend the intermission wondering what will happen next.
But what we already know is there are some familiar faces who won’t be returning.
A set of seniors was honored before the last game they’d ever play as Cats. They had one last chance to do something they seldom did— win. But the familiar narrative held steadfast, like the same sad bedtime story a melancholy child would demand before putting head to pillow. Now behind them are careers filled with frustration.
UK will wave goodbye to several key players, none bigger (literally) than defensive tackles Mister Cobble and Donte Rumph. The two entered the post-game interview in tandem, Cobble helping a hobbling Rumph.
“After the game, I stopped (Rumph) and said, ‘Keep your head up. Stand on the field and enjoy it one last time,’” Cobble said. “We got in the locker room and I just couldn’t take my shoulder pads off. I had to keep the jersey on. Before we broke it down, I had to talk to the team and let them know how much I care about them. I hugged everyone. Like I said, it’s an emotional day. The best way to end it is hanging with my brothers and that’s why I’m here. I love the Big Blue Nation. I love my teammates. I love my brothers.”
But ahead of them may be hope. The two pondered their NFL potential, how it would be a dream fulfilled to make a roster next summer. Humans that large should get considerable attention from the pros come combine season.
And their hope extends to UK’s future, too.
“We have a great group of young guys. They’ve been making big influences during the game and as the season went on,” Rumph said. “We had a lot of younger guys step up and make big plays in hard times so you can see the potential there. Going into the off-season knowing that and knowing they have time to build during the offseason, it’s going to be a special year for UK next year.”
And part of what may amount to major improvement in the next 12 months is what those young guys are inheriting from the seniors, what they’ve learned by watching players like Avery Williamson.
The senior linebacker has been Stoops’ go-to example of a guy who goes about things the right way, and he’ll definitely be playing on Sundays next season.
“I feel like I left my leadership and the way I played, guys are going to see that on the film and I feel like I instilled the leadership quality in a lot of guys this year,” Williamson said. “They really look up to me and I’m glad and hoping that it carries over. I know it’s going to carry over and these coaches are going to make it carry over. I really feel like I laid the ground foundation for this program and it’s going to get better. There’s no choice but for it to get better.”
And so the first chapter comes to a close. It was similar to so many tales we’ve read before, but who knows what will unfold in the volumes to come. Dog-ear the page— it could get interesting.