A week before the season-opener, Kentucky was faced with the tall task of replacing Landon Young. The Cats had plenty talent on the depth chart, although without much experience. When Naasir Watkins and E.J. Price were thrown into the fire, Mark Stoops liked what he saw.
“They had a lot of pressure on them. I was really proud of the way they played. We expected them to do that, and we expect them to get better. They played winning football, and they had a great attitude,” Stoops said at this afternoon’s press conference.
Price’s attitude was questioned by many this spring after the USC transfer had a public social media outburst. Through it all, the staff stuck by him. Price was grateful to have the opportunity to finally return to the game he loves after a two-year hiatus.
“Today was like Christmas for me,” Price said after the game. “Everything’s kind of surreal right now. I’m just so excited. I’m happy. I appreciate Coach Stoops and Coach Schlarman…I’m excited, I’m humbled and I’m just grateful to be here.”
Stoops’ staff was confident that once Price had an opportunity to show he deserved another chance, Price would have no problem earning their trust.
“He’s doing just a very good job,” said Stoops. “It’s hard for those guys, and people go through things. He’s gone through a lot, and he’s come through it. You take away somebody’s hope and you take away everything. I think getting on the field and having some positive things happen to him, he’s been good.”
The offensive line earned Stoops’ vote of confidence, but there are still plenty of areas they must improve. It starts with pass protection. In the first half, Terry Wilson and Gunnar Hoak faced early pressure far too often.
“The one that sticks out to everybody, Naasir gave up the pressure and the hold early. After that, I thought they both did some very good things. Both, as you would expect fundamentally, need to get better because as our competition steps up this week the little things will catch up to you. But their effort was good, their assignments were pretty spot-on, couple here or there, but they played winning football. We just have to get some technique things cleaned up with them as we get better, face better players.”
Some of the miscues in pass protection were on the new offensive linemen. One was on the tight end and another fell squarely on A.J. Rose’s shoulders. Kentucky’s miscommunication in pass protection prevented them from making five big plays.
“We felt like there were five opportunities for big plays and we gave up a bit of pressure here. It was a different guy every time. It wasn’t like just the offensive line or just the running backs. Overall they did some very good things. When we have an opportunity to have some big plays we need just a fraction more protection and we have some opportunity for big plays.”
There were a few hiccups on the offensive line in game one. Each mistake will be used as a learning lesson ahead of Kentucky’s road trip to Gainesville.