The 2020 Wildcat football team finished the regular season with a 4-6 record. Kentucky’s offense was, at times, offensive. This was especially applicable in its passing game that averaged just 124 yards per game. However, this team, this particular group of players, is my favorite of the Mark Stoops era.
There could have been discourse between Brad White’s defense that led the SEC in interceptions throughout most of the season and Eddie Gran’s sputtering offense. But there wasn’t. PFF All-American Chris Rodriguez could have complained and provided division in the locker room because he only carried the football twelve times per game. He didn’t. The Big Blue Wall could have been disgruntled that their status as one of the top offensive lines in college football came into question due to an inept passing game. But it didn’t.
The 2020 Wildcats are a team in every aspect of the definition of that term.
Team: a group of players forming one side in a competitive game or sport.
Mark Stoops’ team dealt with more adversity in six months than most do in a decade. All-star linebacker Chris Oats missed the entire season while dealing with a serious health matter. How did the team rally? A pre-designated defender wore his No. 22 to pay respect to their treasured teammate. Oats visited the stadium and locker room which delivered an enormous level of love and motivation. The team presented Oats the game ball following its 24-2 win over Mississippi State. Respect. Locker room tightened.
Offensive line coach John Schlarman is and will always be Kentucky Football. The architect of the Big Blue Wall was more than a mere instructor of all things line of scrimmage. He personally evaluated and selected each lineman for many years. A former UK All-SEC performer, Schlarman was beloved by the Big Blue Nation. His last game on the sideline was against Tennessee. The Volunteers are an arch-enemy. Much like most former Wildcats, John disliked orange. Coach Schlarman’s pregame speech will go down in history as the most inspiration moment in program history. A statue with his remarks should ensue. UK kicked UT’s butt 34-7 on that momentous afternoon. John Schlarman never returned to the Wildcat sideline.
The adored coach passed away on November 12, 2020. His players eloquently talked about his impact on their lives during an emotional memorial service fittingly held on Kroger Field. Kentucky opened the Vanderbilt game in a formation that honored John. Senior tackle Landon Young wore Schlarman’s college number which had developed into a tradition started by senior center Drake Jackson. The locker room, the team, tightened in honor of John Schlarman. May he rest in sweet peace.
In a year of opt-outs, Kentucky endured just one in 2020. CB Kelvin Joseph left the team early in order to prepare for the NFL Draft. While several others will likely be chosen ahead of the LSU transfer, Stoops’ team had zero more decisions to leave the team. Many other programs experienced mass exoduses. Kentucky did not.
Cornerback MJ Devonshire announced his intentions to transfer. There will be more departures once the influx of incoming transfers is announced. However, the Cats have zero opt-outs going into the Gator Bowl. There could have been several. But there wasn’t. Locker room tightened.
Team’s value isn’t based on a win/loss record or style of play. There were several instances when I became frustrated watching Kentucky’s offense. But there was never a time when I became frustrated with Kentucky’s players. QB Terry Wilson was on the receiving end of inaccurate and unfair displeasures from a small fraction of the fan base.
Wilson will go down in team lore as the leader of an offense that won 10 games including a Citrus Bowl victory over Penn State. He quarterbacked teams that broke nasty losing streaks at Florida and Tennessee. He may have played his best game against Louisville during a convincing 56-10 win at Papa John’s Stadium. Terry could have opted out. He could have listened to outside noise. He didn’t. Respect. Locker room tightened.
Mark Stoops and his staff should be forever commended on its job of keeping this team moving forward in a year that saw several programs crumble in the COVID-19 dominated season. Refreshingly, Stoops met criticism head on. He always faced the media regardless of outcome. He kept his locker room intact. That can’t be said with a certain other UK men’s athletic team. Stoops never gave excuses. He displaced praise on players and assistant coaches after wins. He shouldered blame after losses. Mark Stoops gets the BBN. He understands this unique fan base that has remained passionate regardless of wins and losses. Heck, Stoops is a part of the BBN. Locker room tightened.
I love this team. Seniors have led by example. Landon Young, Drake Jackson, Luke Fortner, Quinton Bohanna and other veterans did not allow this team to crumble in a year that most would have understood if it cashed it in. Locker room tightened.
The 2020 Wildcats are my favorite group of Wildcats.