It has been 11 days since the University of Kentucky football team checked in for its fall camp. Those 11 days have felt more like two months with all of the talking coming out of the new practice facility, and there is still another 10 days before camp concludes and Week 1 prep begins.
So since we’re at the halfway point in camp and have consumed more news than most have been able to keep up with, I thought I’d revisit the top headlines of the preseason.
Some have been good, others have not.
GOOD / NOT GOOD
NOT GOOD: Darius West out for the year
Mark Stoops delivered the devastating news following Saturday’s practice: Darius West out for the season.
West, the team’s projected starter at strong safety, suffered a patella tendon injury in his knee during last Friday’s practice.
“That’s a tough blow for him,” Stoops told reporters. “He’s been through injuries before. It’s not the same leg. It’s not the same injury that he had before.”
Seniors Blake McClain and Marcus McWilson, two very experienced veterans, will carry the load in West’s absence. Obviously it’s a blow to the defense, but if there’s a position on that side of the ball with trusted and proven depth, it’s at safety.
Still, heartbreaking news for the young sophomore who was poised for a big year in the secondary.
GOOD: Charles Walker earned a full scholarship
Formerly a walk-on wide receiver, Charles Walker is now on a full scholarship as a member of the Kentucky football team. And he earned it, dammit.
Walker was gifted his hard-earned scholarship during a two-hour meeting last Friday night, captured here in this video from UK:
Today he told reporters, “My heart was about to jump out of my body.”
NOT GOOD: Regie Meant out indefinitely
Arguably the worst piece of news from fall camp, junior defensive tackle Regie Meant took an indefinite leave from the program for personal reasons. He is not expected to be back this season.
Meant was one of the only veterans on Kentucky’s worrisome defensive line and the Cats’ leading returning tackler in that group. His unexpected departure leaves an enormous void on the D-line with only inexperienced youth left to take over his role.
Though we do not know the reason behind his exit, it came as a huge surprise considering most of the talk around Meant had been how much progress he had made entering his junior season. Adrian Middleton and Tymere Dubose are two players who will get a look in his place, among others.
GOOD: Drew Barker impressing his coaches and teammates
Barker is a new man now that he’s been “given the keys” to Kentucky’s offense.
Everyone, from coaches to teammates and others around the program, has said Barker is a completely different player after his rebranding and commitment to the job.
Early in camp, it was Barker’s accuracy that turned heads. Saturday, it was his decision-making.
“I thought he really made good decisions,” Stoops said after the scrimmage. “I felt like he was really smart with the ball and was decisive, made good decisions, quick decisions and took care of the football and moved the offense.”
Along with the accuracy and decision-making, Barker’s leadership has improved immensely. He says he is ready to be the guy for the Wildcats, and his teammates are all confident he will, too.
NOT GOOD: Darryl Long left the team
A bad piece of news we can live with is the departure of Darryl Long, a would-be redshirt sophomore tight end. Long decided to pack up and move to another program for his three remaining years of eligibility, likely due to a fall down the depth chart.
ESPN’s 19th-best tight end in the 2014 class, Long dropped behind C.J. Conrad and Greg Hart at his position with another young player, Justin Rigg, drawing some attention as a true freshman.
The loss shouldn’t be too detrimental to the offense; if anything, it shows how deep the talent is at tight end.
GOOD: Landon Young pushing the starters as a true freshman
It should come as no surprise that Landon Young is already fighting for snaps as a true freshman. The third-ranked offensive tackle in last year’s high school class is build like an SEC veteran and has the tools to compete right away.
Anytime a player or coach has been asked which young players have stood out in camp, Young is always the first name out of their mouths.
“He’s pressing our guys to go out there and play,” said offensive coordinator Eddie Gran.
Cole Mosier and Kyle Meadows will likely start at the two tackles positions in Week 1, although they better not get too comfortable in those starting roles. If Young continues to adjust to the next level at his current pace, I predict he’ll be starting by the time the halfway point in the season rolls around.
NOT GOOD: Inconsistency in kicking and punting
A true freshman and a walk-on sophomore are competing for the starting punter job, while the veteran placekicker struggled in Saturday’s scrimmage.
First, the punters. Freshman Grant McKinniss signed on as the fourth-best in the 2016 class and the presumed starter, but consistency has been an early issue in camp. Stoops hinted that Bryan Kirshe is also an option if McKinniss is unable to perform on game days. “Hopefully he will,” Stoops said.
Then there’s Austin MacGinnis, the team’s junior placekicker who performed well in his first two seasons, including making a school-record 11 consecutive field goals. He is completely healthy this season, but was inexplicably bad in Saturday’s scrimmage. Stoops said he missed a few of his “seven or eight” kicks in live-game situations.
GOOD: Matt Elam lost 30 pounds, in much better shape
The talk of Media Day was Matt Elam’s obvious weight loss. Elam’s appearance confirmed what Stoops told us earlier in the summer, that Elam had dropped somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 pounds. He looked like a completely different person in his first public appearance with the team and said he worked hard in the offseason to shed the bad weight.
Many have said the entire season could come down to the play of Elam and Barker, so it’s good to hear they’re both using that responsibility and pressure to improve what needed to be improved. There is still a lot of work to be done before Elam is the reliable run-stopper UK needs him to be, but dropping some weight was a great start in that direction.
NOT GOOD: Coaches disappointed in linebackers and tackling
The defense let its coach down in Saturday’s scrimmage, the first live-game scrimmage of the fall. Defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said, “I would have liked to have tackled a little better. So that’s something we have to harp on.”
Tackling will be an emphasis moving forward with more live tackling drills implemented into practice. Stoops expects it will improve as camp goes on.
As for the guilty parties, it sounds like Stoops was very disappointed in his linebackers. “We weren’t very good Saturday,” he admitted.
Stoops said that unit has a lot to iron out, from ball pursuit to assignments to discipline and tackling. Linebackers are a major concern entering the season with many new faces, and Stoops’ comments after Saturday’s practice did not ease those concerns.
GOOD: Wide receivers are catching the football and they’re not pouting!
As Kentucky football fans, we’re pretty accustomed to watching wide receivers drop passes. That goes for members of the current wide receiving corps and those in years past. It’s just something we’ve had to deal with, for reasons we’ll never fully understand.
But things are on the up and up this year, we hope. Eddie Gran and Lamar Thomas have both been pleased with their receivers’ pass-catching and playmaking abilities thus far. In fact, two of last year’s frequent butterfingers, Ryan Timmons and Dorian Baker, were singled out for catching the football on Saturday.
“You know, really they’ve got a really good attitude, and they’re making some plays,” Gran said of the whole bunch. “We talked about that. There’s going to be some drops once in awhile, but I think our kids made some plays today, some contested plays. That was huge. That’s what I’m excited about. And I don’t see anybody pouting.”
18 days until kickoff…