With college basketball officially behind us, it is time to pay closer attention to all of the exciting things going on around the UK Football Training Facility where Mark Stoops’ Wildcats are nearing the conclusion of spring practice. The reigning Gator Bowl champions have been going since mid-March with fifteen allotted practices this spring, and some of you may have been too caught up in March Madness (or boycotting it) to stay up to speed on the early development of Stoops’ ninth football team in Lexington.
So throw those brackets in the trash like you should’ve done weeks ago and let’s go over some of the storylines around spring football. We’ll do so with a review of quotes that caught my ear from practice discussions.
“We got the ball downfield better than we have in years.”
With a new offensive coordinator and a new starting quarterback to be named later, the passing game is a hot talking point this spring, more so than usual. Adding to the public interest in UK’s QB play, the Cats haven’t been good through the air in years. The run game has been consistently good to great; the passing attack, not so much. Hit with inaccuracy issues and a talent problem in the wide receiver room, UK was very one dimensional in the final stages of the Eddie Gran era.
But now things are looking up.
This longtime Kentucky fan couldn’t believe his big ears when Mark Stoops said Joey Gatewood and Beau Allen combined to complete 29 of 35 passes in one of the first practices of the spring.
“I know we got the ball down the field today better than we have in years,” Stoops said. “We threw the ball very efficiently. The play action game looked really good. We got over the top. It was nice to see accuracy on the deep balls and it really good to see guys go up making competitive plays, so very pleased with the progress so far.”
Still a wide open competition and will remain that way through the fall, the quarterback battle between Gatewood and Allen, and eventually new transfer Will Levis, is off to a hot start with early reports of accuracy unlike anything we’ve seen in awhile.
“Chris Rodriguez needs to touch the ball as many times as possible.”
It didn’t take long for new offensive coordinator Liam Coen to find that Chris Rodriguez is, in fact, a beast out of the Kentucky backfield. In one of Coen’s first press conferences at his new job, he said what UK Football fans shouted at their televisions every Saturday last fall: “Chris Rodriguez needs to touch the ball as many times as possible.”
Rodriguez should get over 25 touches a game, Coen added.
Rodriguez averaged 13 carries per game over nine games last season, an inexcusably low number for the SEC’s leader in yards per carry.
“If you can block Marquan, you can block anybody.”
A fan favorite for his personality and his four-star rating out of high school, senior Marquan McCall is in the starting lineup for Quinton Bohanna, a three-year starter, and McCall is doing well in his expanded role as a team leader and the first option at nose guard.
New UK center Quintin Wilson believes McCall and the challenges he presents are making a huge impact on the Big Blue Wall. “If you can block Marquan, you can block anybody,” said Wilson.
In the locker room and around the building, Mark Stoops sees a new and improved McCall, as does fellow senior Josh Paschal, who texted McCall some words of encouragement regarding his growth.
“It meant a lot to me,” McCall said of Paschal’s text. “It really uplifted me and made me want to go harder and pushed me to want to do more. I really appreciated Josh for that.”
“Jager’s got some big time potential.”
It won’t take long for one of the in-state signees to play his way into the rotation on the offensive line. Jager Burton, the four-star lineman out of Frederick Douglass High School in UK’s own backyard, is already turning heads as an early enrollee in his first college practices. New offensive line coach Eric Wolford has the 2020 Paul Hornung Award winner beginning his career on the interior of the Wall at guard.
Hear what Liam Cohen had to say today about Burton and fellow early enrollee/in-state signee LaVell Wright, a freshman running back.
— Nick Roush (@RoushKSR) April 6, 2021
“Wan’Dale and Josh are playing at a very high level, a level we haven’t seen around here in a while.”
We’ll finish where we started, with encouraging comments about a revamped passing game (or the dream of one, at least). The roster has seen a lot of turnover in the wide receiver room with many players bolting for the transfer portal, including the exits of Bryce Oliver and Allen Dailey and their combined three TDs the last three years. As Mark Stoops sees it, turnover has to occur for the program to move forward, and with each departing wideout there is another one on the way. “We’ve got some guys coming in the fall that have some juice,” he even said.
Already on campus, Josh Ali and Wan’Dale Robinson have separated themselves as UK’s top two receiver targets, as expected. Stoops said, “Wan’Dale and Josh are playing at a very high level, a level we haven’t seen around here in a while.
“Very, very efficient, those two guys are kind of feeding off of each other. They’re excited about what they’re seeing, there’s a lot of opportunities for them, and they’re making plays. You feel those two guys in every drill we do, so that’s been very good.”
— Manny Harper (@mannyharper20) March 31, 2021