Day three started with what we thought would be the marquee event -- Coach Nick Saban.
However, few could predict that Saban would wind up being the most boring speaker of a tumultuous day. Mark Stoops, Barry Odom and especially Bret Bielema all turned in fine performances.
But for the first time in a long time, Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops will not be discussing the merits of one quarterback over another. After the spring game in April, Stoops announced that Barker will lead the Cats’ offense. It’s the first time since 2011 — when Morgan Newton was named the starter — that UK has a starting quarterback going into fall camp. Barker, who played in five games last season completing 35 of his 70 passes for 364 yards and a touchdown, has had a whole summer to get used to being the offensive leader.
"He’s building a relationship with the receivers, building a relationship with the offensive line, building a relationship with the running backs," UK quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw said of the import of a starter being named after the spring game. A month ago, Stoops talked about Barker’s "command of his group," including scheduling early-morning workouts. "He’s a guy that does have command of the players, of the receivers and getting them together and getting on the same page and throwing," Stoops said of the sophomore.
In a conference where fully half the teams have undetermined starters at the QB position, Kentucky is in the rare position of having named its starter out of spring practice. In an East that should be chaotic with the diaspora, and subsequent influx, of coaching talent, the Wildcats are set up to make noise in 2016, a belief echoed by Stoops.
Offensively, the Wildcats return nine starters, including four on the offensive line. Redshirt sophomore Drew Barker will be Kentucky’s starting quarterback, replacing Patrick Towles who transferred to Boston College this offseason. Defensively, eight starters are coming back, with former Nebraska inside linebacker Courtney Love among the unit’s biggest additions this season. Senior center Jon Toth, who recently was named to the Rimington Trophy preseason watch list, agreed that Kentucky is ready to turn the page this season, citing leadership as a reason for that. "I think that there has been a big leap forward in the leadership from the players and that has come from the coaches holding us more accountable," Toth said. "Players are holding each other more accountable on and off the field and I think that that will help us make the leap forward this year."
It's easy to be bullish on the 'Cats: in addition to having identified a QB going into fall, Kentucky returns 17 starters, has awards watch list players along the lines, and already have identified internal leadership, the intangible that often decides a good season from a special one. The Wildcats could be a dangerous, if thin, football team when the Tide face them in Bryant Denny for the homecoming game.
There is one disturbing development in Lexington, however, and that is the trend of Stoops failing to hold on to elite recruits (a la Mac Jones.)
It’s been hard to miss the rash of players once committed to Kentucky opting out, including high profile names like quarterback Mac Jones, who flipped from the Cats to Alabama in June.
But Mark Stoops said UK isn’t panicking about it and has continued to recruit them. "We still love any guys that decommitted or whatever," Stoops said. "Listen, I want our fans to embrace them. They’re good people. These are hard decisions for these kids. They get pulled a million different directions. We try to have an approach where you don’t put a lot of pressure on guys, but let’s face it there’s pressure. There’s pressure on these recruits.
Depth is non-existent in Lexington, and it's hard to hold on to elite talent. But, in the main, Stoops would rather be in Kentucky's position than Mizzou head coach, Barry Odom.
Ignore Saban's kerfuffle with Finebaum, and Bret Bielema's humorous schtick, by far the biggest story of the day happened in Columbia, Missouri where, an hour before Barry Odom's virgin media days appearance, Mizzou AD Mack Rhoades left the flaming garbage heap at Missouri to jump into the toxic tire fire at Baylor...of all places. If your workplace is so unstable that you think Waco is a more settled situation, then you have problems, Tigers.
"I was in Mack Rhoades’ office at Missouri last October. He was happy and enthused. Life was good. He was just half a year into his job as athletic director at the school. He was a popular hire and had the support of an entrenched administration. He had the most stable of football situations with Gary Pinkel, best football coach in school history, who led the Tigers to improbable Southeastern Conference Eastern Division championships in 2013 and ’14. Men’s basketball was underachieving, but that was survivable in the short term and fixable in the long term.
I dropped in again on Rhoades in April. He looked like he’d been hit by a truck. The president and chancellor who hired him were gone, swept out in the tumultuous aftermath of the Concerned Student 1950 hunger strike and campus protests. Pinkel abruptly retired, having been diagnosed with lymphoma. The search to replace Pinkel was arduous, with rejections from multiple candidates. The basketball program ended a second straight terrible year with a self-imposed postseason ban for NCAA violations, and the investigation is ongoing. An internal investigation of the softball coach’s leadership style was proceeding behind the scenes.
By June, the baseball coach had resigned. Given the way everything shifted under his feet, the news Wednesday that Rhoades is leaving Missouri was not surprising. But leaving for Baylor? That says even more about the state of Mizzou, and it’s not a flattering commentary.
Baylor is the biggest dumpster fire in college sports, having just swept out its president, athletic director and football coach after a succession of violent incidents that involved multiple football players. If an athletic director jumps at the chance to take on that mess, then the school he’s leaving is truly dysfunctional."
What a pity for Coach Odom too. The Mizzou alum built some fantastic defensive lines at his alma mater, revamped the ailing Memphis defense, and last year at Missouri built a defense second only to Alabama in the SEC. He is well-liked by players, is young, energetic and has enough Pinkel in him to already be accepted by an older coaching fraternity.
He tried his best to put a good face on an awful situation.
Odom said all the right things despite the tough situation Wednesday. Even with the turmoil from last year still lingering and the athletic department in disrepair, the first-year coach said he, his staff and his players are making sure "our football team's singular focus is on moving forward and being the best that we can be in 2016." And, on paper, Missouri has a chance to at the very least compete in an unsettled SEC East.
Despite massive struggles on offense last season — they ranked dead last in the conference in every category — the Tigers return eight starters from a defense that ranked only behind Alabama in the SEC. "I love experience coming back," Odom said. "But it's our job, as coaches — they got to play better than they did last year. And that's a tremendous responsibility and opportunity for us to be a really good football team."
The talent is there, no doubt, and should only improve. Likewise, defense will never be a problem in Columbia. The offense should be a bit more dynamic. Odom brought in OU's Josh Heupel to install the old Mangino/Leach air raid that was so successful early in Bob Stoops' Oklahoma tenure. Despite the upheavals Mizzou, don't count out the Tigers this season in the East. Are they realistic contenders? Probably not, but a middle-of-the-pack finish isn't out of reach either.
Despite the pathos of Nick Saban, the slow-developing trainwreck at Missouri, and the sweaty, guarded optimism at Kentucky, the comedic relief and "winner" of SEC Media Days thus far was Bret Bielema and his unique ability to turn a phrase and tweak other coaches.
On Arkansas not being in the news for arrests lately: "You don't have to worry whether or not I'm going to suspend anybody for the first game. It doesn't come up in our program. Not to say it won't. At some time it may rear its ugly head. ... You guys are getting me to talk about this too much. I believe in karma and there's things that come back."
On Michigan canceling its series vs. Arkansas: "I was in Europe with my wife. We were on a train headed to Paris. It's ironic for me to say that. ... My wife said, 'Hey, there's something on the internet about a Big Ten team canceling with an SEC team.' I said, 'I don't know anything about it.' She said, 'Really? Your picture's right here.' She's real quick. And so I read the article and realize we've been canceled. ... I understand the Michigan-Notre Dame thing sounds sexy to everybody else, but I think Michigan and Arkansas sounds sexy."
On his assistants targeting top recruits: "If you get one that's hot, that we like, that we've got him rated at the top, he's Farrah Fawcett."
On players leaving early for the NFL who won't get drafted high: "First and foremost, if you're not invited to (a proposed junior class NFL scouting combine), if you even think about coming out, you're a moron."
He didn't stop there, either.
Bielema didn’t take any true shots at any coaches in the league. He spoke about a talk he and former SEC Commissioner Mike Slive had when the head coach took a shot at Gus Malzahn some time ago, and has learned, as fun as it can be, to not go in that direction anymore.
The only coaching "jabs" he took was at Kevin Sumlin regarding when the two met at midfield following Arkansas’ loss to Texas A&M in Arlington in 2014. Bielema says Sumlin remarked, "Coach, I don’t know what to say," to which Bielema replied, "Don’t say anything, I might punch you."
There was some talk of football -- it wasn't solely standup night at the Wynfrey ballroom. But, what we mainly learned is that the lines are going to be fierce (something we already knew,) that Austin Allen is developing nicely (his brother wound up being the conference's best QB by his senior year,) that many of the assistants (particularly new DB coach Paul Rhodes) have head coaching experience and are terrifying in practice. Finally, we learned that the not-so-secret weapon of the Hogs offense will be Devwah Whaley, a player Bielema calls the best running back he's ever evaluated -- which is singularly high praise for a man who has been around some great backs.
We also learned that BERT just can't help himself...he had to take a shot at Hugh Freeze for 4th and 25:
Bielema points out that Hunter Henry's father is a pastor, giving him faith divine intervention helped on that 4th-and-25.— Daniel Paulling (@DanielPaulling) July 13, 2016
He also said that Hugh Freeze was on the field during the play and should have drawn a penalty. Love you, Bert. Love you so hard.
Les, Hugh and Boom are live today. Let's take it out with the play that won the West (for Alabama.)