Posted: Sep 23, 2013 9:36 PM
Updated: Sep 24, 2013 12:40 PM
LEXINGTON (AP) - Kentucky hopes having the weekend off provides energy for the toughest part of its season.
The Wildcats (1-2) returned to practice Monday to prepare for Saturday night's Southeastern Conference opener against No. 20 Florida (2-1, 1-0), the first of three straight against ranked league opponents including No. 12 South Carolina next week and No. 1 Alabama on Oct. 12.
Saturday also marks the return of former Kentucky coach Joker Phillips, fired last fall after three seasons and now Florida's wide receivers coach. Mark Stoops' hiring followed, but the rookie coach doesn't believe that subplot gives the Wildcats added incentive to end a 26-game drought against the Gators.
However, Stoops' knowledge of Florida that he garnered as Florida State's former defensive coordinator has him preparing the Wildcats to be more physical.
"They're very good defensively; as good as maybe anybody will play this year," Stoops said of the Gators team his defense went 2-1 against at FSU. "They want to control the football, keep the time of possession and be physical in the run game and take their shots off of that."
That's where last week's bye proved timely for the Wildcats.
Stoops said Kentucky's first three games left room for improvement in many areas. Some examples that stand out are the handful of dropped passes by Wildcats receivers in their 27-13 loss to No. 7 Louisville as well as the 242 yards rushing allowed by the defense in that Sept. 14 game. The secondary also has yet to intercept a pass.
Stoops nonetheless has seen growth from his offense and defense in that initial stretch. Both units have become more comfortable with the schemes and now need to focus on better execution.
That will be the case for Kentucky's offense, tied for fourth in the SEC in total offense (490 yards per game). The Wildcats will square off against a Florida defense leading the conference in many categories including yardage (212.3 per game).
Last week provided time for correcting things as well as getting healthier after Western Kentucky, Miami (Ohio) and Louisville left Stoops' players "banged up." One Wildcat whose health has drawn the most concern is starting quarterback Maxwell Smith, who left in the third quarter against Louisville with a left shoulder injury.
Smith underwent rehabilitation over the weekend and was expected to practice Monday afternoon while being monitored on a "pitch count."
"Hopefully, he'll be on point," Stoops said of the sophomore. "We'll keep an eye on how many throws he's making, just to let him ease back into it for a day or so."
Kentucky's defense meanwhile is preparing for new Florida quarterback Tyler Murphy, who will make his first career start. The redshirt junior took over after Jeff Driskel's season-ending leg injury on Saturday and led Florida to a 31-17 victory over Tennessee.
Stoops doesn't foresee making any defensive changes for Murphy, who passed for 134 yards, ran for 84 and scored touchdowns both ways against Tennessee. The main things are having the numbers and aggression to keep pace with the Gators' read option offense.
Murphy will throw to receivers now being coached by Phillips, whose return to Commonwealth Stadium is certain to elicit reactions from many Wildcats that he recruited. Stoops downplayed any added emotional aspect, insisting that the Wildcats have all the motivation they need just facing a good team - in this case, the first of three in a row.
"We talked about getting better, getting back healthy, and going through a three-game stretch after that," Stoops said. "We didn't talk about the opponents. We can't worry about that. We've got to worry about Florida this week and getting better.
"The last time we stepped on the field, we got better in certain areas. Let's hope we get better in all areas with this next game."
(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)