LEXINGTON, Ky. (KT) — Coach Mark Stoops breathed a sigh of relief Monday as No. 23 Kentucky began preparing for Saturday’s season opener at eighth-ranked Auburn.
“Seems like it's been a long time coming, but it's an exciting time for us — that's for sure,” Stoops said Monday. “ … For us, it's been a long preseason — a couple of weeks longer than usual - so it seems like it's been a long time. But we will need that preparation."
As expected, senior Terry Wilson will be the starting quarterback in the opener, while freshman Beau Allen is listed as the backup. The status of Auburn transfer Joey Gatewood remains a question mark. Stoops didn’t specify whether Allen beat out Gatewood for the No. 2 slot at quarterback.
“I’m going to punt on (that) question,” Stoops said.
Wilson missed almost all of last season because of a knee injury and will be counted on to give the Wildcats much-needed leadership in the pocket. Stoops said having experience at all positions and a proven starter at quarterback will prove to be beneficial against a 10-game Southeastern Conference schedule.
“An experienced quarterback helps and experience football team helps and certainly in these uncertain times in the way things have been so different,” Stoops said. "An experienced football team is something that I like and (also) a team with strong leadership is something that I like and a team that is very tough physically and mentally, I like. Things that are out of our control is our schedule. You know, it's brutal. It's brutally hard.”
Stoops has a preliminary list of 80 players available for the opener, but the numbers could change depending on COVID-19 testing throughout the week. He added 70 players would be an ideal number to take on the first road trip of the season.
“We are working off that number right now,” he said. “There will be some minor changes here throughout this week, depending on injuries.”
As the Wildcats step into uncharted territory, Stoops is confident the Wildcats will adjust to adversity both on and off the field.
“We have to adapt,” he said. “And, you know, just like we talked about on the football field, just like we had to do a year ago, adapt and overcome. It is what it is. But our players are used to adapting to the situation. They've done a remarkable job.”
Despite the preparations, Stoops said the biggest question mark is the future unknowns.
"Being able to stay healthy and having enough depth to compete and to play 10 SEC games is something that's an unknown," Stoops said. "But I like our football team. I like a lot of things, starting with their experience and their toughness, physically and mentally."
Stoops said the team plans to honor junior linebacker Chris Oats with a different player wearing his jersey number on a week-by-week basis.
DeAndre Square will wear No. 22 in the opener against the Tigers. Keaton Upshaw will wear Oates’ number in the home opener the following week against Ole Miss.
“(That is) to show him that he’s still with us and we’re thinking about him,” Stoops said.
Oates has been battling an undisclosed medical condition since May.
GAMETRACKER: Kentucky at Auburn, Saturday, noon. TV/Radio: SEC Network, UK Radio Network.
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter @keithtaylor21.