Today marked the 15th and final practice of the spring for Kentucky football. Hard to believe, isn’t it? Many of us, myself included, are still winding down from the basketball season, while some are still in mourning from how it ended. (And that’s okay; it sucked.) But sports keep rolling along with or without you on board and the book was closed on Mark Stoops’ third spring in Lexington today.
So if you’re in that aforementioned group of mourners, or you’ve been too busy worrying about basketball recruiting to follow football, allow me to give you a brief rundown of what you missed on the gridiron this past month. Give it a read and then put forth your best effort to get in football mode. Basketball is over, people, and Stoops is excited to reach a bowl this fall. (Spoiler alert: He will.)
Here’s 10 things we learned this spring…
1. CJ Conrad is going to be a star.
We’ve heard nothing but great things about CJ Conrad since he first set foot on campus as an early enrollee this past winter. Vince Marrow said Kentucky “struck gold” by landing the freshman tight end from Ohio and the praise for Conrad doesn’t stop with Marrow. Mark Stoops has been very impressed; the quarterbacks love him; and others are already tossing around the Jacob Tamme comparisons.
It’s all talk for now, but Conrad, who has added 20 pounds to his frame, will get his chance to shine as a true freshman this fall. He and Darryl Long will compete for grabs at tight end, a position that hasn’t seen much production since those Tamme days.
2. Stoops is pleased with Shannon Dawson so far.
“I’ve been very, very impressed,” Stoops said after today’s practice, when asked about his first impressions of Dawson. “I was very pleased with what we were doing (under Neal Brown). I really like what we’re doing right now. I just think it was exactly what I was looking for and I just feel like we made a lot of strides and I like what we’re doing schematically. I think our players are really enjoying it, like I said, and in some ways maybe eliminated a little bit of thinking, a little bit of pressure off certain guys. So overall, I’ve been very pleased.”
Stoops knew the offense would be better this season, simply because it’s the third year with better personnel, and he’s happy to see Dawson keeping the momentum Neal Brown was building before he left.
3. Boom Williams is the starting running back.
At least for now.
Boom has grown from a risky playmaker who relied on his raw talent to a well-rounded back with a better understanding of the position. He will have to fend off Mikel Horton and JoJo Kemp if he wants to keep the title of RB1, but for now, running backs coach Chad Scott has no problem naming Boom the numero uno on the depth chart.
“He has a chance to be a real special player,” Mark Stoops said of his sophomore back.
4. Ryan Flannigan is ready to perform at linebacker.
Ryan Flannigan’s progression ran a little behind schedule when he arrived on campus last fall as a JuCo transfer. The staff had hoped he would jump right in and contribute right away, but that was not the case. Flannigan found himself on the bench through most of the first half of the season, before breaking out late in the year, capped off with strong performances in Kentucky’s final two games. He ended the year as the Cats’ fourth-leading tackler, despite starting in only four games.
Now, Flannigan is ready to be a big time contributor for an entire season. Mark Stoops named him one of the four players who took the biggest leap this spring, his first at Kentucky. Flannigan missed last spring and summer while completing academic work to get into UK, so his final season in Lexington will be his first after a full year of preparation. It seems the early offseason work is already paying off.
5. Kentucky may send out the biggest fullback in all of football.
If 330-pound sophomore Jacob Hyde can’t crack the lineup at defensive tackle, the position he was recruited to play, fans may see him on the opposite side of the ball. And in the backfield, of all places. Kentucky tried Hyde at fullback this spring and it went surprisingly well, enough to possibly give it a shot in the fall.
Hyde is all for it if his number is called. Vince Marrow is all in, too: “Can you imagine a 330-pound fullback with a full head of steam coming at you, and you’re a 230-linebacker? It’s not going to be good for him.”
6. The Cats can go deep at wide receiver.
Finally, Kentucky has a receiving corps it can be proud of. After years and years of dropped balls and flat-out disappointing play on the outside, UK is loaded with pass-catchers. Several of the guys vying for playing time made big plays this spring, which is unheard of around the Kentucky football program the last five or so years. Now we have plenty of receivers we can not only trust, but look forward to watching in the offense next season. It’s really lining up to be a fun year in the passing game. (If anyone can remember what that’s like.)
7. George Asafo-Adjei is strong as shit.
Freshman offensive lineman George Asafo-Adjei is already making noise, especially in the weight room. The three-star offensive guard from Ohio recently told reporters he benches 410 pounds, cleans 325 and estimates he squats something in the 600s, though he hasn’t maxed that one out yet. And to think, he’s been on Kentucky’s weight program for, oh, three months. At this rate, he’ll be throwing the students’ cars from Commonwealth’s parking lot to the library on gameday mornings.
Big George will see immediate playing time. He won’t get near a redshirt.
8. New linebacker coach Andy Buh coached Richard Sherman at Stanford.
The newest face on Kentucky’s coaching staff was at Stanford with one of the NFL’s loudest mouths and best players, Richard Sherman. Buh brought Sherman to the facility one day to speak to the Wildcats, maybe the biggest off-the-field moment of the spring.
Sherman’s message to the team: You don’t have to be the fastest or most athletic player on the field to be the best. He explained what he does to gain an edge on his opponent, and his words really connected with the players, especially the secondary.
“Our players really profited off of his talk,” said Buh.
9. Patrick Towles will likely be your starting QB.
Mark Stoops hinted earlier this week that the staff is close to knowing who will be under center in the season opener next fall. The two candidates, Patrick Towles and Drew Barker, each had their moments this spring while competing for the job, but Towles’ accuracy, leadership and experience will likely give him the nod.
Towles received nothing but positive reviews from Stoops and Shannon Dawson throughout the past month, from how well he listens to how well he threw the pigskin in practice. He outplayed Barker in Saturday’s scrimmage and seems to have separated himself from the two-man race as spring ball concluded.
Stoops said he believes he can win with either quarterback, but it sounds like it will be Towles’ time once again this season.
10. Stoops is pleased after his third spring at Kentucky.
Today he wrapped up the final spring practice by saying, “It’s definitely the most consistent we’ve been for 15 practices. We weren’t perfect for all 15 but the guys were really out there trying to make a conscious effort to improve on the things we point out in the meetings. We had great energy. Guys were really flying around this morning, having fun, competing, getting better the whole way through. Really pleased with the progress we’ve made. I feel like we have more depth. We have some good, young talent that we need to continue to work with. Overall very productive, very good spring. We need to keep that momentum, keep that consistency going here with the last two and a half, three weeks of school and have a great summer — physically and mentally getting tougher, getting stronger, getting bigger. And if we do that, then we’ll be excited heading into fall.”
142 days ’till kickoff…