Stoops appreciative of his team ahead of UK football’s Senior Day


Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops waves to fans during the Cat Walk before the UK vs. Tennessee football game on Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021, at Kroger Field in Lexington, Kentucky. Tennessee won 45-42. Photo by Jack Weaver | Staff

Hunter Shelton

A 34-17 victory over the Vanderbilt Commodores on Saturday snapped a three-game skid for Kentucky. 

The win clinched UK sole possession of second place in the SEC East for the first time since the conference split into divisions in 1992.

Up next for the now 7-3 Wildcats is a non-conference matchup with New Mexico State in Lexington. 

The Aggies will enter Kroger Field with a 1-9 record, having lost their last six games by an average of 24 points. 

While Kentucky is heavily favored to win on Saturday, the Cats will have even more motivation to put on a show for Big Blue Nation, as it will be the last game of the season inside Kroger Field. 

“I encourage and ask our fans to continue to come out and support,” UK head coach Mark Stoops said. “It’s been an amazing year as far as [the fans’] presence in packing the stadium, we greatly appreciate it.” 

If the home finale wasn’t enough, Saturday will also serve as Kentucky’s Senior Day. 

“This will be the last time quite a few players are playing in this stadium and we ask for your support to come finish this thing off with our last home game,” Stoops said.

Twenty-two seniors will be honored on the field pregame as part of the festivities. Dubbed the “Super Seniors,” Wildcats Josh Ali, Luke Fortner and Justin Rigg were honored on Senior Day 2020 but will still be suited up on the field for UK this Saturday.

“I greatly appreciate our seniors; they’ve meant so much to our program,” Stoops said. “You look at some of the guys that have been here six years and you know, arguably, [it’s been] one of the greatest six years in the history of this school.”

Fortner, one of UK’s Super Seniors, first arrived in the Bluegrass in 2016. Almost five seasons and over 50 games later, the offensive lineman is nearing his finale in blue and white. 

Before the 2021 season began, it was announced that Fortner would be moving positions from guard to center, taking over the role of graduated, longtime starter Drake Jackson. Ten games into the season, Stoops is pleased with the transition that Fortner has made.

“I think it’s just been a great move all the way around. It’s been really good for our team. To replace somebody like Drake [Jackson] that’s so intelligent and can direct so much, [Fortner’s] done that,” Stoops said. “It’s really helped him and shown his versatility.”

Darian Kinnard, one of Fortner’s fellow O-linemen, will be one of the 22 seniors celebrated on Saturday.

In the lead-up to the year, Kinnard was tabbed with numerous preseason awards, headlined by being named a preseason First-Team All-American by multiple outlets including ESPN, USA Today and Pro Football Focus. 

During the season, Kinnard has done nothing but impress his coaches and teammates. Despite Kinnard having his approval, coach Stoops is quick to note that everyone should not let Kinnard’s talent go unnoticed.

“I don’t want to say take [Kinnard] for granted because we don’t, but people don’t talk about him enough because he is a dominant player,” Stoops said. “He played exceptionally well this past week, and that’s really good to see a guy that you know is going to have a bright NFL future, finishing the way he is. That says a lot about him and that will help him and that will help us.”

On the defensive side of the football, no one has earned the respect of BBN and the UK coaching staff more than Josh Paschal. 

“You cannot say enough good things about Josh. I’ve bragged on him and he deserves it. He truly is one of the most special players,” Stoops said.

Like Fortner, Paschal is in his fifth season as a Wildcat. A three-time team captain, Paschal has done it all on the field but also off the field. Aug. 7, 2019, saw Paschal complete a year-long immunotherapy treatment plan for melanoma found on the bottom of his right foot.

Since his return to the field, the defensive end has made a consistent impact, earning multiple All-SEC honors. 

“The way [Paschal] empties his tank, the way he goes about his business, the way he impacts players, he leads, he is so selfless, he has overcome so much,” Stoops said. “One of the most special players, if not the most, I’ve ever coached.”

A defender who has flown under the radar during his time at UK, at least compared to Paschal, is defensive back Yusuf Corker.

On Nov. 24, 2018, Corker made a tackle against Lousiville in that year’s Governor’s Cup, a game that saw the Cats rout the Cardinals 56-10. 

Fast forward to this weekend against NMSU, and Corker has recorded a tackle in all 35 games between the Cards and the Aggies.

“[Corker’s] just been sturdy. He’s been an anchor for us the past several years … and he’s one of those guys that’s there every day,” Stoops said. “[He’s] just physical as heck, very reliable, always working hard and trying to influence and impact others and take charge. So, I have great respect for Yusuf.”

Senior Day often brings excitement that could take away from the task at hand on the football field. Stoops knows that while Saturday’s spectacle will be different from previous games this season, his group will carry the same approach.

“They’ve been through more than this. I don’t consider [Senior Day] a distraction. Different? Yes. But by the time they come through and are here as many years as they are, they’ll be able to handle that,” Stoops said. “I think [they’ll be] excited family is here. They’ll take the 10 minutes it takes to go through Senior Day, come back in and regroup and want to go out there and play well.”

Despite the ups and downs that the past two seasons have brought the Kentucky Wildcats, Stoops is aware that at the end of the day, when it comes to taking care of his players, football comes second.

“We’ve had a lot of conversations. With COVID and with Senior Day, I want to make sure I do these young men and their families properly,” Stoops said.