This may come as a disappointment to some, but apparently Kentucky’s spring practice will not involve a quarterback competition for the first time in a long while. Mark Stoops told a media gathering on Monday that Drew Barker would not be full-go during spring practice and that his offensive players felt comfortable with the team’s most experienced quarterback, Stephen Johnson.
Here are some of my observations following Mark Stoops’ opening press conference.
Stephen Johnson’s Development
Stoops was asked about what he’d like to see Stephen Johnson improve upon in spring practice. The UK head coach said, “Protecting the football, first and foremost. I think that’s something that we need to emphasize, and we talked about that. We addressed that yesterday, day one, in the first team meeting before spring practice, number one, is ball security. I think that’s an area that he needs to protect the football when he can.”
No sugarcoating reality: Kentucky had a significant turnover problem in 2016
- 28 total turnovers. Opponents scored 113 points off those turnovers.
- Comparatively, Kentucky scored 63 points off 21 forced turnovers.
- -50 points off turnover and a -7 turnover margin are staggering totals.
It all starts with the quarterback. Stephen Johnson’s turnover probability has been well documented. Adding to misery, multiple fumbles were scooped and scored. With extreme need of improvement; there’s a fine line in terms of overloading a signal caller to the point of ball security obsession. Stress importance absolutely; obsession, no. This can cause the QB to overthink and become robotic to the point that he rejects athletic instinct.
At times there are turnovers that are completely out of the hands of the quarterback, no pun intended. Ball security is all about confidence, situational awareness and fundamentals. Best case scenario is for Johnson’s experience as well as added strength and weight will expedite a remedy for excessive and untimely fumbles. There’s an old QB coach saying that is applicable in this situation, “Control the controllables, manage the manageables, forget the rest, be an athlete, and lead.”
Redshirt freshman Gunnar Hoak is participating in his second spring practice. With Barker’s limitations, the opening is there for the Ohio native to solidify the backup role and to push Johnson on a daily basis. Both quarterbacks will benefit from the carryover of offensive coordinator Eddie Gran. On Tuesday, quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw said he thinks Drew Barker may play in the spring game.
New Defensive Coordinator Responsibilities
Matt House was named as Kentucky’s defensive coordinator on January 30. Mark Stoops mixed no words when asked if he’d continue to call defensive plays, a role he was forced into in 2016. “No, Matt (House) will call the plays. Matt will call the plays and be the defensive coordinator, and I’ll be there to assist.”
No confusion in that statement. House will run the defensive show. Stoops will provide over-watch. Additionally, UK’s defensive staff is comprised of five coaches with defensive coordinator experience.
Unlike DJ Eliot, Kentucky will not be House’s first stint as a defensive coordinator. He led defenses at Pitt and Florida International. Thus, expectation and competency level are somewhat different.
Every hack with a laptop and a pulse has reported the need for improved defensive line play. This position group could hold the keys to the scoreboard and win/loss column. Matt House inherits an upper-level linebacker corps and a highly talented, accomplished secondary. Even with situational overachievement in regards to Naquez Pringle and Adrian Middleton, the Wildcat defensive front can only be described as-underwhelming. This especially applies to “Havoc” statistics (TFL, QB sacks, QB hurries, etc).
- The Kentucky defensive line combined for just 13 tackles for loss (Adrian Middleton registered 5.5), and 2 QB sacks in 2016.
When asked about his defensive line, Stoops did not dodge the fact that Derrick LeBlanc’s group must produce at a higher level and do so in a hurry, “You know that across the board we need to improve. And then interior defensive line, we need to play better. It was not a strength of ours last year at all. It was an area that we need to address, and we are addressing, and we expect to play better.”
Reading between the lines and interpreting coach speak, the Wildcat defensive line was put on notice. Derrick LeBlanc has the unenviable task of transforming discontent into optimism with virtually similar personnel.
DE/OLB Denzel Ware could be the key. If he lines up with his hand in the dirt as a defensive end, the junior automatically becomes the front seven’s top pass rusher.
It appears that Bunchy Stallings will start the spring as Jon Toth’s replacement at center. Stallings’ experience trumps Drake Jackson’s potential. But, I anticipate this situation to remain fluid. Stallings will be in the starting rotation either at guard or center. Stoops was also asked about Freshman All-SEC guard Logan Stenberg and he couldn’t help but to gush.
“He’s (Stenberg) is going to be very good. We’ve got a — you’ve got to slow him down a little bit. I’d rather say whoa than giddy-up. I had to slow him down a little bit yesterday. Started getting a little feisty, we’ve got no pads on. But he does have the attitude you’re looking for, he really does. He’s a nasty guy, and he’s big and strong and has some experience and some confidence now.”
The coach seems to appreciate the sophomore’s aggressive nature as there have been very few players that forced him into pulling back the reins. Luke Fortner is another offensive lineman who garnered a positive reaction. John Schlarman’s highly rated offensive line rotated 9 players last season. With the addition of redshirt freshmen Drake Jackson and Luke Fortner, he could reach 10 this fall.
Spring practice is all of two sessions old. It seems like yesterday that we gathered for National Signing Day. Pro Day is Wednesday. Year-around football is very SEC-like and fun. Much more to come.