Through five weeks, Kentucky completed 15 football practices to prepare for the 2018 football season. The best spring season in his Kentucky tenure, Mark Stoops saw his team take their play to a new level.
“I felt like we got better. The guys really worked hard. I challenged them,” Stoops said after Friday’s Blue/White Game. “If we continue with that attitude, then I like where we’re headed.”
With more experience on the spring roster than ever before, Stoops’ team answered some of the questions we had entering spring practice, but the most important one will linger until September 1.
1. The Quarterback Battle is not Ending Soon
The Blue/White Game was supposed to provide fans with a little clarity on the quarterback competition. Instead, we learned the QB race might not end until after the season begins. Stoops and offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said they might have to wait until they see Gunnar Hoak and Terry Wilson play in a game before making a final decision.
A cliche will tell you that’s a problem: “If you have two quarterbacks, you don’t have one.” We did not discover who will be the one, but we did learn a lot more about Hoak and Wilson’s game.
Every time Hoak threw in live scrimmages, he lived up to expectations. An efficient and accurate passer, he made the easy passes look easy. Quick routes were hit on time and Hoak did not hesitate to place a ball in between multiple defenders. His deep balls were precise, but the 8-15 yard passes need more mustard. Sometimes Hoak was able to deliver under pressure. Other times he reacted too late and was toast.
Hoak would be the starter right now, but Terry Touchdown has tremendous upside. His speed is unlike anything we’ve seen from a quarterback at Kentucky in quite some time. His arm is an absolute cannon, to the point where he often overthrew his deep targets. Wilson’s biggest problem is that he’s only been on campus for four months.
“We gotta remember where Stephen Johnson was at this point. Everybody was like, ‘Whew! Not quite sure,'” Gran said two weeks ago. “It’s the quarterback position, it’s tough.”
Right now the race is a dead-heat. Whoever can improve their game the most throughout the summer will take the reins from Stephen Johnson.
2. Receivers Must Mature
During spring practice, when asked about the quarterbacks, Stoops, Gran and Co. would often defer by saying something like: “The quarterbacks are playing well, but it’s really on the players around them.” In fact, Stoops said that twice on KSR before saying anything specific about any individual quarterback.
What I thought was simply coach-speak, is actually the truth.
Clevan Thomas, Isaiah Epps and Josh Ali brought plenty of potential to the sideline last year, waiting their turn behind a veteran-laden group. Now is their time. Unfortunately, inconsistency defined the young wide receivers all spring.
“It’s time to grow up. They’re not freshmen anymore,” Gran said. “The consistency from that group; their job is to get open. Their job is to make plays and it’s time…There’s no excuses.”
Kentucky will not have to completely rely on the young guys as pass-catchers. Dorian Baker and C.J. Conrad will return in the fall, but if the new guys cannot become reliable targets, depth will be a problem.
3. Lynn Bowden is a Beast
The freshman that is the exception to the previous statement, Bowden did everything he needed to this spring to become a highlight-maker this fall.
“He’s taken it very serious,” Stoops said. “I like the way he worked this winter. You could see he’s stronger. If you get stronger, I think it’s only going to help his explosiveness, his top end speed when he goes and plays a game, along with spring practice and just continuing to grow.”
Bowden had seven receptions during the spring game. He didn’t haul in a deep ball to wow the crowd, but he did it regularly during practice. Exhibit A:
— Kentucky Football (@UKFootball) April 10, 2018
4. Kentucky NEEDS Tight Ends
The Cats had to get a little weird with formations during the spring game because they did not have one healthy scholarship tight end on the roster. C.J. Conrad rehabilitated a broken foot and Justin Rigg had another internal injury while Vince Marrow waits for two freshmen to join his meeting room this summer. Reliable pass-catchers are in high demand, and that’s what the tight ends must provide this fall.
5. Benny has Help
“Make me play you,” is what Eddie Gran told A.J. Rose at the beginning of spring practice. Rose listened.
Each week Gran provided a little praise for Rose, with a caveat, “he needs to do it consistently.” The redshirt sophomore-to-be proved that by running for 134 yards and 3 touchdowns in the spring game. He was fearless between the tackles. He powered through opponents, and cut past others. He even caught a couple of passes and got yards after the catch.
Rose proved to his coach that he can be the perfect complement to Benny Snell’s game. Now it’s all about consistency.
6. A Solid, Cohesive Front Five
The 2016 Wildcats dominated the trenches to pave the way for a pair of 1,000-yard rushers. It took almost half of the 2017 season for the offensive line to figure out the right combination. Once Drake Jackson was inserted int the equation, the Cats were rolling once again. We will not need to wait for UK’s O-line to click in 2018.
Limited with only 11 offensive linemen, John Schlarman split the groups in half and seldom rotated. The result was continuity. Landon Young, Logan Stenberg, Jackson, Bunchy Stallings and “Big” George Asafo-Adjei will be Kentucky’s starting five this fall. A few guys could work their way into the rotation, but that core five will carry the load for Snell and Co.
7. Depth at Defensive Line
The defensive line is no longer Kentucky’s weakest link.
After an abysmal year in the trenches, Kentucky’s defensive line developed into one of the team’s deepest units in just one spring. If that sounds too good to be true, there are a few simple reasons why the dramatic change happened so quickly.
First and foremost, Josh Paschal is now a defensive end. An excellent pass rushing outside linebacker, last year he only put his hand in the dirt on third downs. The move allowed the elite athlete to bulk up and play every single down, dramatically changing the make-up of the D-line.
Paschal is not the only one who showed the ability to penetrate the line of scrimmage and create havoc in the backfield. Hampered by shoulder injuries in his first season, JUCO transfer Phil Hoskins showed his coach enough to be called a “rolling ball of butcher knives.”
The addition of a few athletes and the development of a few veterans — DuBose, Middleton, Taylor Jr. — has made UK’s defensive line a formidable SEC foe.
8. Emerging Young Talent
A few new names surprisingly popped up as potential contributors this fall. Many people are saying that David Bouvier is the next Charles Walker after the man with magnet hands made a ton of tough catches. Jamar “Boogie” Watson solidified a pass rushing role, while Yusuf Corker and Davonte Robinson turned heads in the secondary.
The greatest surprise this spring was the emergence of DeAndre Square. The 17-year old should still be in high school, but the early enrollee was forced into action after Jordan Jones and Jamin Davis were sidelined with injuries. He made a few mistakes, but his instincts and athleticism got him to the ball frequently. Square finished the spring game as the defense’s second-leading tackler.
9. High Expectations for the Secondary
Kentucky’s pass defense struggled a season ago, even though Mike Edwards was one of the best safeties in the SEC. A year of experience has taken JUCO transfer Lonnie Johnson’s game to the next level. Entering last season off a pair of devastating injuries, Darius West’s inexperience showed at the worst times in 2017. He shook it off and made his head coach proud this spring.
“It’s really important to have that kind of experience. And for him to stay healthy through the entire season and then have a solid spring, we all see him more comfortable,” Stoops said. “He sees things and is playing with a lot of confidence and a lot of poise. He’s an impactful guy. He’s a strong person and can also run. He’s one of the fastest guys we have, so I’ve been pleased.”
Kentucky’s secondary should be the best we’ve seen in a long time. Kentucky fans will believe it when they see it.
10. Standards have been Raised
Depth was a problem with injuries at certain positions (tight end, linebacker), but for the first time, experience was not a problem. With more upperclassmen returning than ever before under Stoops, this spring they were challenged to the raise the bar for the entire program.
“We’re going a hundred miles an hour right now. It’s full-force accountability,” Stoops said on day one of spring practice. “You’d better be doing what you’re supposed to be doing 24/7. Some guys are going to like it and some guys aren’t.”
In his first press conference of the spring, Stoops played a card he’s only done once in six years: call out players individually. The defensive line responded to that challenge, as A.J. Rose responded to Eddie Gran’s challenge. Afforded the luxury of experience, Stoops’ staff took a hard-line approach this spring, one that will pay dividends when the team takes the field this fall.