Alvin Dupree predicted it would happen.
The 6-foot-4, 264-pound defensive end, known as “Bud” to coaches and teammates, paced Kentucky’s sideline on Saturday during the Wildcats’ game against South Carolina, exhorting his teammates. “We’re gonna make a big play,” he kept muttering. “We’re gonna make a big play.”
Then, the senior went out and did exactly that.
Tied 38-38 with 2:41 to go and the Gamecocks driving, Dupree grabbed a tipped pass and rumbled six yards for the game-winning score. Another Kentucky interception on the ensuing drive deflated any remaining hope for South Carolina while the Wildcats celebrated a signature win. Never mind that the Gamecocks don’t look to be up to their recent standards: For a program that’s seldom experienced success, Saturday’s upset win meant a lot in Lexington.
After back-to-back 2-10 seasons, the Wildcats are 4-1 and in a four-way tie for second in the SEC East. And if the officials had paid closer attention to the play clock three weeks ago in Gainesville, Kentucky would likely be among the eight remaining undefeated teams in college football. The Wildcats will take this week’s match up with Louisiana-Monroe to fine tune any deficiencies before getting into a brutal stretch that includes LSU, Mississippi State and Georgia. And this, says Dupree, is exactly why he came back for his last season.
Labeled a “freak” athlete by various publications, Dupree could have skipped out on his final year to enter the NFL draft. But something about second-year coach Mark Stoops and the recruiting classes he put together told Dupree it would be a mistake to leave early. Some of his friends and family felt differently, chiding him for leaving millions of dollars on the table. Dupree brushed it aside.
“I think it’s working out better for me in the long run. Now a lot of people are telling me if I left, I would have been crazy,” Dupree says. “I didn’t want to be selfish. It’s about my teammates, too.”
When he told Stoops he planned to return, the veteran head coach played it cool in his office. Ten months later, Stoops admits he was ecstatic.
“The special thing about him is, I didn’t have to ‘pitch’ him anything,” Stoops says of Dupree. “He knew why he was here, knew what we were doing and wanted to come back. I still got him the (NFL evaluation) information and showed it to him, but he wanted to help change this program.”
Stoops arrived in Lexington in December of 2012 understanding that some would be leery of taking this job. The SEC is stacked with four- and five-star talent and boasts seven of the last eight national champions. In the first year of the College Football Playoff, while other conferences sweat whether they'll get one team into the bracket, the conference of heavyweights all but expects to have two teams make the cut. Stoops wasn’t scared off by any of it.
“Why not us?” he says. “I understood it was a great challenge, but that’s part of what was exciting to me. We got a staff together and really worked a six-hour (recruiting) radius from Lexington. This is a beautiful place and a great college. I know what the potential is.”
He got to work immediately, taking a recruiting class ranked in the 60s and pushing it as high as No. 29 in under two months. The youngest in his family coaching tree -- older brother Bob runs the program at Oklahoma and is assisted by brother Mike, a defensive specialist, while oldest brother Ron is an assistant at Youngstown State -- Stoops has roots in Ohio and went into the Buckeye State to snatch three players for Kentucky's 2013 recruiting class. In 2014, he upped that number to 10 (the Wildcats signed 28 total in 2014).
But perhaps Stoops' greatest recruiting job was when he walked into a team meeting for the first time and sent a message Dupree bought into: Kentucky could compete in the SEC, and it would happen sooner than people thought.
“I believed in him,” Dupree says simply. “I did my research, saw the things he had done at previous schools and figured it would work out for us, too. I saw the players he had sent to the NFL, the teams he had brought back from losing seasons, the guys he was bringing in. I knew we were on the way up. I wanted to stick around for it.”
|Aug. 30||UT Martin||W, 59-14|
|Sept. 6||Ohio||W, 20-3|
|Sept. 13||at Florida||L, 36-30 (3OT)|
|Sept. 27||Vanderbilt||W, 17-7|
|Oct. 4||South Carolina||W, 45-38|
|Oct. 18||at LSU||?|
|Oct. 25||Mississippi State||?|
|Nov. 1||at Missouri||?|
|Nov. 15||at Tennessee||?|
|Nov. 29||at Louisville||?|
Dupree came to Kentucky almost 40 pounds lighter with plans of playing tight end. (Scout.com had him rated as the No. 45 tight end in the country.) The switch to defense -- which he also played in high school in Irwinton, Ga., -- has served him, and the Wildcats, quite well. Dupree has already totaled 196 career tackles, including 27.5 for loss. In 2013, he led all SEC linemen in total tackles with 61, more than No. 1 overall NFL draft pick Jadeveon Clowney or No. 23 pick Dee Ford. And he’s spent enough time terrorizing quarterbacks in the backfield (17.5 career sacks) to know he wants to do it even more.
“When you hit someone good, you can see it in their eyes: They don’t want to get up,” Dupree says. “Those are the ones I like.”
Dupree tells a story about when he went airborne for a pass in high school, and a defender took him out from underneath. Dupree landed with a thud -- and a new appreciation for big hits. Since then, he’s worked to deliver as many as possible.
Dupree tries to sidestep all the attention he gets for being a freak athlete but acknowledges some of his numbers will draw eyeballs no matter how much he talks about team success: It’s been reported that Dupree has a 40.5-inch vertical leap and 10-and-a-half-foot broad jump and can squat 550 pounds. Yet Dupree says his most athletic moment happened years ago on the basketball court. In high school, when he led Wilkinson County to the Class A state title as a senior, he caught a defender in the paint off guard when instead of jumping around him, he jumped right over him, slamming the ball through the hoop.
Unfortunately, he hasn’t had a chance to recreate this during a pickup game on Kentucky’s campus.
“They don’t like us playing basketball so much,” Dupree laughs. “But most definitely, I can dunk on everybody on my team.”
The Wildcats' early success this season has already generated a change in attitude throughout the locker room. After a 4-20 record over the past two seasons, a heartbreaking triple-overtime loss to Florida could and would demoralize most teams. Stoops knew that and emphasized the good in postgame.
“I think we grew up a little bit that day,” Stoops says. “We’ve developed the mindset of belief, and we’re beyond that. Now it’s about execution, technique and getting better.”
He also hammered home the idea that if the Wildcats had taken care of little things, it might not have come down to the wire. After Week 6 offered one of the most chaotic Saturdays in college football history, Stoops is even more convinced Kentucky can make noise in the SEC. Dupree thinks so, too.
“Days like last Saturday, it gives us hope,” he says. “Maybe we can even get to the SEC championship.”
First Dupree said Kentucky would be good this season, and the Wildcats are living up to it. Then he predicted the defense would make a big play when UK needed it and followed through. Now he’s making title game forecasts?
Don’t bet against him. If Dupree has proven anything this season, it’s not that he’s a freak athlete. It’s that he often knows what’s coming next.