I want to be perfectly clear in this post. I fully support sports media. Some of the folks that I respect the most in the arena are journalists or media. I cringe every time I hear a grouchy coach or misguided player gripe that media types wouldn’t understand a certain situation or question because they’ve never played the game. Horse hockey. I played the game. I now attempt to write about the game. At times, writing can be a whole heck of a lot more challenging than staring down an Alabama blitz. Not physically, but you get the picture. Being a former player does have certain advantages. But it is absolutely NOT a prerequisite to cover the game.
One of those advantages is that I can speak some truth about spring practice based on a first-hand experience. I am a veteran of four spring practices as a former player. I can write about it until my typing fingers bleed but the fact that I endured four of them allows me to say that the lull experienced by players midway through spring ball is real. Been there, done that. That lull can be mental, physical or both.
The first two weeks of this year’s spring practice were filled with excitement. This especially applied to Kentucky’s offensive side of the football. As the number of session’s rise and attention spans flounder, coaches are tasked with providing motivation on a daily basis. I was one of those players. I needed to be motivated. Heck, we all did. The first week was awesome as a player. Competing against my friends was fun. Post-scrimmage trash talking fired up the locker room. But, the truth of the matter is that I hated every session of every spring practice. There’s no real opponent. Scouting reports are repetitive and based off going against your own team for a month. Both sides of the ball can read each-others signals and pick up on verbal audibles at the line-of-scrimmage by the 15th practice. You’ve heard of freshmen hitting the proverbial wall. The same can be said of the spring practice lull.
Liam Coen Challenged His Players
Know it or not, Coen challenged his players on Tuesday. There is a sense of euphoria when implementing a new football scheme. This is especially applicable if the system is one that is based on NFL principles. Liam Coen’s presence in Lexington signified innovation and brought forth an exhilarating beginning to spring practice. All indications pointed to the Cats throwing the football all over the yard in the first couple of weeks. Fun was being had by all. However, based off the offensive coordinator’s press conference comments from the Joe Craft Football Training Facility, it seemed as if some of the newness may have worn off the Kentucky offense. In other words, it hit the expected midway lull. The lull refers to the mental approach to the game more so than the physical aspect. A big part of the mental side of football is studying the playbook. Coen didn’t appear to be impressed by some of his player’s preparation practices in relation to the play book.
Coen issued a strong reminder that he expects his players to study the playbook, “We have guys that need to get in their book. You don’t have enough time for an hour meeting and then go out on the field and expect to do it. They gotta get in their books, study it and get in extra work. At the end of the day that’s something that needs to get done when you’re behind like we are getting an offense in. The defense has been running the same system for five years, so the expectations are high.”
Don’t worry. This is completely normal. The defense always catches up at some point. One particular aspect of Liam Coen’s presence on the UK staff that excites me the most is that there is a true sense of positional competition. The best player will be on the field regardless of experience or class. Competition produces intensity. Intensity helps to break the lull.
With practices being closed to media and fans, most garner information from press conferences. Liam Coen did not seem pleased with Tuesday’s execution, “Somebody’s gotta stop the bleeding. Somebody’s gotta step up and make a play.” These remarks suggest that Brad White’s defense may have gotten the upper hand during Tuesday’s practice. They may also infer that the Cats were perhaps less than effective on third or critical down scenarios. Who knows why the remarks were made. However, the message was clear; the Cat’s offensive boss was not happy. That’s a good thing. At times, attention needs to be grabbed.
Coen’s system is fresh. I have a gut feeling that it’s going to provide a passing game spark not seen in Lexington since the days of Andre Woodson. But it’s going to take work. Serious work and preparation. This applies on and off the football field. Experience matters to an extent, but all offensive players started new with the implementation of Coen’s system. Players that were rumored to be starring early in the spring session are now finding competition from more youthful contributors. Talent always surfaces. Players are going to play. While a less than stellar practice may not be the preferred outcome and is likely a one-day occurrence, it has to be music to the coach’s ears. Competition breeds intensity. With every snap and rep being filmed for future evaluation during the summer months, intensity and positional precision are mandatory. Players got to get in the playbook. Non-negotiable.
Liam Coen mentioned two early enrollees by name on Tuesday: running back La’Vell Wright and receiver Chauncey Magwood. Both are considered perfect fits for Kentucky’s new offensive system. Tuesday’s remarks were not surprising. I consider them to be refreshing and challenging. Let’s take a deeper dive and look at Coen’s remarks on the rookies as well as a quick look back at my pre-Signing Day evaluations on each:
Liam Coen had this to say about his rookie receiver, “Chauncey is another kid similar to La’Vell that just eats it all up. He’s doing a really nice job of learning the book and getting in it. He’s just a great kid. You can see some of the former quarterback traits come out in his game in terms of just understanding some zones and voids. A little bit out of control at times just because he’s not used to running a ton of routes, but he’s got big strong hands and he’s a natural leader. He just wants to do things the right way all the time.”
Magwood’s Evaluation Prior to National Signing Day.
-Magwood is one of the best players in UK’s Class of 2021.
-Elite, crisp route runner.
-Proven to make contested, difficult catches. Finishes explosive plays in the end zone.
-Magwood’s film showed a Swiss Army Knife athlete that is intensely competitive. Winning matters to him. Appears to love the game of football.
-Ultimate team player that moved from receiver to quarterback out of necessity. Also played defense. Started 56 consecutive games on a team that is a 6A powerhouse in Georgia.
Coen on La’Vell Wright–“La’Vell Wright is a kid who’s a mid-year enrollee who’s a freshman who’s supposed to be taking geometry class right now. And that kid has done an unbelievable job of learning the offense, knowing what’s he’s supposed to do with alignment, assignments just as well as some of those older kids. Now reps and game reps are those things that he’s missing right now. But in terms of understanding what we’re trying to get accomplished, some of those young guys have definitely stepped up and done a nice job.”
Wright’s Pre-Signing Day Evaluation
-Production matters at the running back position. Wright accounted for over 4,000 yards at North Hardin High School.
-Patient runner with top-level vision fits in well in a zone blocking scheme. His 6’0, 205-pound frame is reminiscent of AJ Rose.
-Runs behind his pads and through arm tackles. Will be effective out of the backfield as a pass catcher at the next level. Relentless, appears to be highly competitive.
-Wright’s unique running style fits well in the Kentucky running game.
What Does All This Mean?
Spring practice can be arduous; a mandatory task for college football players across the nation. There is a common lull that takes place during the middle of the sessions. Tuesday offered Liam Coen an opportunity to remind his players that studying the playbook is an ongoing proposition.
New players are being singled out for excelling in practice. Competition exists. The offense will get the best of the defense soon and we’ll be having this same argument in reverse order. Spring practice lull is thing. Welcome to the reality of spring practice.