It was our first opportunity to see the 2018 Football Cats play under the lights at Kroger Field. We got to see Terry Wilson’s unofficial debut, AJ Rose make a move for the No. 2 spot at running back, and the defense turn heads throughout the scrimmage.
There was certainly some rust, but there was a lot of positive to take away from both sides of the ball.
Here are four things Kentucky needs to build off of from the Spring Game:
Battle in the trenches
One of the biggest problems for Kentucky football in the Mark Stoops era has been their inability to wreak havoc on the defensive line against elite SEC competition.
After getting back NFL talents like Josh Allen and Denzil Ware, along with the development of young studs such as Joshua Paschal and Quinton Bohanna, Stoops is excited about the potential of the defense this season.
“I definitely feel stronger about the defense, there’s no doubt. I think we’ll be an improved unit,” Stoops said after Kentucky’s Spring Game on Friday night.
It was the PG version of what he told KSR on Friday morning, when he said it was about time he had a defensive unit that lived up to his high standards.
“Damn it, it’s time,” Stoops said.
John Schlarman’s offensive line has been one of the best in the SEC over the last two seasons, and that won’t be slowing down anytime soon. The unit is returning talented veterans Landon Young, Bunchy Stallings, Logan Stenberg, Drake Jackson, and George Asafo-Adjei, among others. Barring another outburst before the season begins, they will also be working in star USC transfer EJ Price, only adding to the unit’s overall success.
In the Spring Game, we saw six sacks, eight tackles for loss, and two forced fumbles from the defense. There was solid pressure coming on the quarterback against a stellar offensive line. If the defensive line can take the next step up this season and get consistent pressure, the Cats will be in a solid position.
One-two punch in the backfield
We all know what Benny Snell is and what he brings to the table. He’s already broken nearly every rushing record in Kentucky history, and we still have (at least) another year with him.
We’re not worried about the No. 1 spot.
It’s who gives Snell breathers at the backup position night in and night out that makes the Big Blue Nation a bit uneasy.
Siheim King finished his 2017 campaign with 364 yards and two touchdowns on 79 carries. He had his moments, including solid outings against EKU, Florida, and Vanderbilt, but he was far too inconsistent. AJ Rose struggled in pass blocking situations and his rushing production never compensated for that. There was no solid second option. In fact, Stephen Johnson was actually second on the team with 375 rushing yards and five touchdowns.
What worked with Boom Williams and Benny Snell two seasons ago absolutely vanished last year, forcing Snell to do it all on his own.
Insert AJ Rose 2.0.
After rushing for 134 yards and three touchdowns on just 11 carries, Rose showed off talent we have yet to see out of him in his young career. He caught a couple passes out of the backfield, made impressive cuts upfield, and even showed some much-improved awareness as a blocker in the pocket.
“He’s been doing — he’s been showing flashes for a long time, but to put it all together and play winning football all the time, he’s been doing that this spring,” Mark Stoops said after the Spring Game.
Benny Snell agrees, saying Rose has the opportunity to be the perfect complementary back this season.
“We’ll wear defenses out. I can drive, drive, drive and get them tired. AJ can come in and run them down. He’s got speed, we’ll beat them around the corner. I’ll get the short yards. I’ve got a lot of excitement. I feel like we’re going to be deadly all around,” said Snell.
It was just one scrimmage, but it’s certainly something to monitor this summer and going into the 2018 season.
Gunnar Hoak began the scrimmage as the team’s No. 1 quarterback, with Terry “Touchdown” Wilson running with the second team. They switched back and forth throughout the first half and into the second, with both getting acclimated with the starting linemen/receivers.
We saw some good and some bad with both, but neither separated themselves as “the guy” in front of an announced 36,090 fans at Kroger Field.
And they didn’t have to.
Mark Stoops said there would be no decision on the quarterback competition until this summer, leaving little pressure on either player to dominate the event. Hoak finished the day 14 of 25 passing, 121 yards, and a touchdown. Wilson finished 10 of 24 under center for 131 yards and an interception (on a dropped reception, for what it’s worth.)
Hoak made some throws on the run and under pressure, but excelled in the pocket. We’ve always known he was poised, but he really showed that on Friday night. On one play in particular, he made his reads, and under pressure, hit Josh Ali on a double-clutch throw in the endzone for the touchdown. He didn’t connect on any long balls, but his short/medium throws were accurate, for the most part. He’ll have to work on his throwing velocity, as some of his passes hung in the air far too long and will get intercepted in a real game setting. But overall, it was a very positive sign.
As for Wilson, his first throw to Zy’Aire Hughes skipped off the dirt and missed by a few yards. He had a couple other throws that missed by a mile. But when he settled in, you could tell Wilson had that “it” factor you look for in a quarterback. On one occasion, he escaped the pressure, turned the corner outside, and hit Brett Slusher on a perfect ball on the sideline. On another one, instead of making a throw on the run, he turned upfield and managed 17 easy (or so he made it look) yards out of it. In the postgame media interviews, he told reporters that run would be a touchdown in a real game, and I believe him.
Wilson admitted he was really nervous and had to shake off the rust a little bit. Hoak said he had nerves, as well. And it was evident for the both of them.
We didn’t receive any major answers from the quarterback battle on Friday, but each of their performances proved Kentucky has two extremely solid options at their disposal.
Depth at Wide Receiver
With Garrett “Juice” Johnson, Kayaune Ross, and Charles Walker gone, the receiving corps will have a lot of new faces for fans this season.
And judging by the unit’s performance in the Spring Game, the Big Blue Nation will be impressed.
11 different players caught balls on Friday night, with eight coming from normal rotation guys. And that’s not even counting Dorian Baker, CJ Conrad, and Justin Rigg sitting out due to injury.
Lynn Bowden caught a team-high seven balls for 42 yards. He will be one of the biggest pieces of the offense this season. Josh Ali and Isaiah Epps both impressed and will be key rotation guys. Tavin Richardson will likely be one of the top-two receivers on the team. Eddie Gran will incorporate more passes out of the backfield this season to Benny Snell and company, and they gave just a taste of what that will look like on Friday.
David Bouvier finished with four receptions for 52 yards. One source within the organization said he is “easily the hardest guy to cover in practice. Almost unstoppable because of how shifty he is.” Mark Stoops said after the game that he will absolutely have a role on this team this season, with some saying he could be the next sure-handed Charles Walker on the inside.
Slusher, Hughes, Clevan Thomas, etc. You go down the list, and you’ll see it was an extremely balanced attack at receiver.
New WR coach Michael Smith has a lot to work with this season.