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2017 SEC Media Days Recap: Wildcats swagger; Mizzou looks to grow; Aggies swear it will be different

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We covered Saban in depth yesterday. Here’s the rest of the story.

NCAA Football: SEC Media Days Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports
SiriusXM At The 2017 NFL Draft Photo by Lisa Lake/Getty Images for SiriusXM

Kevin Sumlin: Texas A&M

I know that some people praised Sumlin’s effort yesterday. But, for me, it was really more of the same: dedication to renewed strength and toughness, promises to get better down the stretch, a ton of coach-speak, and just enough earnest down-hominess to remind you how likeable Kevin Sumlin can be sometimes. There just wasn’t anything of substance to sink your teeth into. Sorry. I’ll make him do better next season. For someone who sold swagger, his prepared remarks are like eating a milk sandwich.

  • He heavily praised the leadership of Christian Kirk and Armani Watts, in particular. While we know leadership begins with the team members, it sounded like too much was being placed on those guys to instruct younger players -- not to teach them work habits or about the culture, but on mechanics. They sounded more like coaches than players. It was particularly noticeable when listening to his remarks about Kirk.
  • The wide receiving corps is very young. Three players were lost on that unit last year, and freshmen will definitely be called upon to move the ball.
  • Changes have been made with offseason strength and conditioning and generally in becoming a tougher program. Last year, Sumlin spoke at length about the analytical approach he uses and the data-driven training the Aggies have. This year he made no mention of anything concrete, other than to assure a rightly-skittish Aggies’ fan base that changes are being made but they’re being done internally. This time we really mean it. Pinky promise.
  • Cuppy Cup et al at Good Bull Hunting did a great job recording their sessions. Next year, we will definitely do the same. Here’s the full prepared remarks if you missed them yesterday. In fact, I wish someone would listen to it again and see if my appraisal was too harsh. But, this is what I meant by coach-speak. Sumlin can toss out 10 minutes of well-worn cliches, throwing in an amusing anecdote here and there, while not saying much of anything. He’s easily the most frustrating SEC Media Days speaker year-in-and-year-out.

Mark Stoops: Kentucky

At last season’s event, we noted that like Vandy’s Derek Mason, Mark Stoops came to Hoover with a little more swagger than you’d expect. After being in contention for the divisional title with just two weeks remaining in the season, Kentucky’s confidence was again present this year but this time was very much earned.

NCAA Football: SEC Media Days Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports
  • Stoops was very blunt about Kentucky not being in the mix because they had not earned the right to be relevant. However, he thinks that the entire program is making strides to gain that relevance, and is finally starting to show that improvement on the field rather than just internally. Last year was not a blip, but part of the progression. A win against Louisville and a bowl victory showed what the team is capable of.
  • Stoops was particularly pleased with the progress of the defense. Last season underachieved tremendously relevant to its talent level, and it especially showed up front. However, 7 of their top 10 tacklers from 2016 return this year, including the top four performers. Better for the Wildcats, players he did single out as making strides in performance and leadership were on the front seven (and the ‘Cats desperately need that to happen.)
  • Having returning skills players, especially in the passing game and with the coaching staff, has given the program much needed continuity. UK went 7-6 last season, but has an even smoother transition this year with an experienced offense and more than one quarterback with experience.
  • The real fireworks came when Kentucky responded to Greg McElroy’s criticism of Matt Elam. GMac was harsh calling Elam “one of the laziest and most underachieving players he’s ever seen,” a criticism which was warranted watching him play last season. Not just Elam, but the entire front, would take drives off at a time, especially in run defense where they were beyond porous.

LB Courtney Love tried to use the criticism as tough love to challenge Elam and the rest of the defense:

“He’s gonna respond to that. The whole defensive line is going to respond to that. For that matter, the whole defense is going to respond to that. When someone else is getting called out, that’s a direct correlation to the defense and our team as a whole. We all want to help make Matt successful, make our defense successful. When one guy gets called out, that’s all of us getting called out.”

But, Coach Stoops’ tepid defense seemed to concur with McElroy. I’m not sure you can say “don’t do that to my player” while also tacitly agreeing with him quit like this:

“I’m not ever going to condone anybody singling out anybody. I try not to do that. On occasions, I’ve spoke the truth about certain things with players in media conferences, but that’s not my style to throw any one person under the bus. I’ve been the first to say we need to improve in that area. There’s no hiding that. Our players know that we need to get better.

Yikes.

  • Finally, he was floored when Bob decided to retire. No one saw it coming. (Who had Mark Stoops in the last-Stoops-standing sweepstakes? Put your hand down; you did not.)
NCAA Football: SEC Media Days Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

Barry Odom: Missouri

Outside of Butch Jones or Nick Saban, you’d be hard-pressed to find another coach that emphasizes program culture quite like Mizzou’s alum-cum-head coach Barry Odom does. While he emphasizes it, you still don’t quite have a handle on it. Alabama is “playing to a standard -- the Process.” Tennessee is “relentless, toughness, intelligence.” Odom just says “the Missouri culture,” and while he is earnest and believes in and loves MU, I don’t know if he does a good job selling it to someone who does not have the firsthand experience.

  • While many coaches say they need to improve, or they let the team down, I’ve rarely heard one as blunt as Coach Odom when he said “I made mistakes. I’m going to make mistakes,” and “we weren’t good enough. When you win four games, it hurts your soul.” His humility is a welcome change of pace, especially when he could have easily blamed the talent level and coaching turnover for the 4-8 start.
  • Missouri return’s the SEC’s leading passer, Drew Lock, along with 9 other players. Odom is bullish on that side of the ball, provided the offense can be more consistent.
  • Like Mullen, Saban, and Smart, Odom again emphasized the need for his quarterback to keep growing, to take the easy throw, to become smarter. Patience and growth have been the touchstones for coaches this week.
  • The defense, which was an abysmal 118th in the country last year, has been recruiting heavily since Odom’s arrival. It will have quite a few young players, particularly the defensive line where he expects multiple freshmen to contribute immediately.
  • Like Bielema, he stressed the importance of the Arkansas rivalry. The two states compete for the same recruits, share a long border, and last year’s remarkable comeback will help stoke the fires of two fan bases that already don’t much care for one another.
  • You can tell Odom is not a fan of the league looking at ways to shorten game length if it involves game mechanics. He said that pace of play is just one factor that goes into game length and that he wants to see the effect of some other measures the SEC is initiating this year before the league “makes other changes.” (The fact that Mizzou runs one of the fastest and most pass-happy offenses in the country wouldn’t anything at all do with that, you suppose? Naaaaah.)