Yesterday in Lexington, fans and media got their only look at the 2019 Kentucky football squad until Toledo rolls into town on August 31st. For the first time since the spring game, we saw what UK will have on the field in Mark Stoops’ seventh season. The expected strengths remain the strengths while the preconceived weaknesses are still the weaknesses.
Nick Roush caught you up to speed on some quick takeaways from the practice, but now we’re going to go just a little more in-depth on what happened in between the lines.
We have to start out with the quarterback spot. Terry Wilson enters his junior season with high expectations and it is clear he’s head and shoulders above any other signal caller on the roster. The team had some trouble connecting on the deep ball, but for most of the day Wilson’s intermediate accuracy was excellent. We saw a lot of swing passes to running backs and completions to tight ends on hooks or sit patterns. The Oklahoma City native looked very comfortable out there and still knows his legs are a huge weapon. You saw what you needed to see from TW3.
As far as the backups go, Walker Wood got most of the reps with the twos but that is to be expected. The redshirt sophomore has yet to play in a game, but he’s been in the offense the longest. Troy transfer Sawyer Smith had a shaky day, but it was only his second practice with the program. He’s still learning the scheme, playbook, and how Kentucky operates in a practice setting. True freshman Amani Gilmore throws the prettiest spiral on the team and delivered the ball with zip when called upon. He’s an intriguing prospect. Nik Scalzo flashed a live arm and is wearing a knee cast that is about as big as him to protect that recent ACL injury. Expect a redshirt/development year for both.
At running back, A.J. Rose is the leader and is the clear top option. Without full pads, there wasn’t much to take away from team period, but it’s easy to tell the redshirt junior is entering this season with a ton of confidence. At media day, Eddie Gran spoke about how the passing game was going to get the running backs more involved this year and we saw that on the practice fields. The group worked extensively on swing patters and even lined A.J. Rose up in the slot and threw a bubble screen to him. He’s going to get a lot of touches.
Kavosiey Smoke is currently second on the depth chart, but he struggled at the open practice. The redshirt freshman dropped numerous passes and just didn’t have his best day. Fellow redshirt freshman Christopher Rodriguez, Jr. certainly looked the part and got a ton of reps with the twos. True freshman Travis Tisdale has a chance to join the rotation, but struggled. The Valdosta native was used to catch punts and was not seeing the ball well. He had a few dropped passes and did not finish off runs in team drills. It’s a clear adjustment time for recent high school grads in their first college practices.
On the outside, there was no Isaiah Epps due to an unspecified leg injury suffered in the first practice but we got a feel on who will be Terry Wilson’s top second option. Josh Ali is entering his junior season and is a prime breakout candidate. The Hollywood, Florida native created separation consistently and make competitive catches. In Epps’ absence, Bryce Oliver, Allen Dailey Jr., and Ahmad Wagner all got reps with the ones. Now on to the big star.
Lynn Bowden, Jr. was the best player on the field and it really wasn’t even close. The junior consistently created significant separation and was seemingly wide open on every play. He was smooth catching punts and he still has that juice that makes him so dangerous in the open field. He’s set to have a huge season and become one of the most dominant receivers in college football.
In the past, a lot of fans have expressed frustration with the lack use of the tight end in the passing game. C.J. Conrad not getting enough targets was always a postgame talking point. On Friday, both Eddie Gran and Vince Marrow spoke glowingly about their three scholarship tight ends. We now know why.
Keaton Upshaw redshirted last season and certainly looks the part. The 6-foot-6 and 255-pound tight end glides when he runs and smoothly catches the football away from his body. He’s going to be a huge weapon this season. Justin Rigg has been a great blocker to this point, but flashed receiving ability at practice. Redshirt freshman Brenden Bates certainly passes the look test.
The most popular personnel grouping UK used on Saturday appeared to be 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers.) The tight end spot could be a strength for Kentucky and Keaton Upshaw can provide an element to the offense that could totally change how defenses scheme against Eddie Gran’s offense.
On the offensive line, there wasn’t much to really talk about. The ones played well in team period and were pretty good in pass protection. The twos had their struggles. Starting right guard Luke Fortner took snaps with the twos at center. He could be the guy if Drake Jackson gets banged up. Naasir Watkins rotated in at tackle while Mason Wolfe rotated in at guard. Mountain of a man Nick Lewis was your second-team left tackle. Kenneth Horsey and Austin Dotson ran with the twos at guard and UK needs one of them to break the rotation this fall.
On the line of scrimmage, Kentucky certainly passes the look test. Starters Quinton Bohanna, T.J. Carter, and Calvin Taylor, Jr. all look like SEC starters. Each is over 285 pounds and is at least 6-foot-4. These guys are going to do some damage this season, but there is depth there.
Phil Hoskins and Kordell Looney will also be heavily involved in the rotation. Marquan McCall can make plays at nose if his stamina is up to par. Kentucky should feel good about the trenches.
On the edge, Joshua Paschal is with the ones at Jack and will be the starter there. At 284 pounds, Kentucky is making it clear that they are determined to stop the run with their front. There could potentially be a dynamic rotation at the hybrid spot. Jordan Wright platooned with the ones while Xavier Peters got a ton of reps with the twos. Peters is still waiting on a waiver while Wright was the primary starter in the spring. At Sam, Boogie Watson is a returning starter and played very well. His backup appears to be true freshman Jared Casey who ran with the twos all day. Expect the Louisville Ballard alum to play this season. With Paschal shifting over, Kentucky’s edges are in a very good spot.
Inside, Kash Daniel is the leader of the team and that doesn’t take long to figure out. The senior will be a force on run defense but still needs to improve in pass coverage. At Will, both DeAndre Square and Chris Oats rotated with the ones. After practice, Mark Stoops met with the media and essentially admitted to having three starters there. If the injury bug bites, however, Kentucky could be in some trouble.
Now let’s get to the secondary. Everyone knows this is a position of weakness and projected starter Brandin Echols was held out of practice with a leg injury. That’s not a great way to start camp. At the boundary corner spot, redshirt sophomore Cedrick Dort, Jr. consistently held up in press coverage and made numerous play on the football. That’s a good thing to see.
In the boundary corner role, Dort is often going to have to play very tight and not give up much space. He will see some big receivers and at 5-foot-11, 182 pounds he’ll be giving up some size. He didn’t back down from the fight on Saturday.
At other spot, Jamari Brown was with the ones at field corner while freshmen M.J. Devonshire and Taj Dodson also got reps there. At safety, Yusuf Corker and Jordan Griffin are your starters. We did not see much, if any, from nickel. As expected, true freshman Moses Douglass rolled with the twos and will be playing this fall.
After practice, Mark Stoops made it clear that he likes his team and how they go about their business. This is a squad that practices well and that will always be a coach’s best friend. Stoops states he feels good about some spots and less good about some spots. It doesn’t take long to figure those out.
Kentucky loves what they have on the line of scrimmage and that is a huge reason for the optimism entering 2019. After practice, Mark Stoops said “we have our limitations, but having an attitude and playing physical is not one of them”. That attitude and physicality all starts with the big guys that put their hand in the dirt. Kentucky knows what they have in the trenches and they believe that will separate them from opponents.
The injury bug biting is definitely a concern. Brandin Echols and Isaiah Epps were both projected starters who UK needs to step up to the challenge. Not having them on the practice field stings. Keaton Upshaw is nursing a hamstring injury and missed half of the open practice. The young player needs reps to break the rotation. Joshua Paschal has one more cancer treatment and is being brought along slowly. Kentucky is already fighting off injuries and the pads haven’t even come on yet.
Entering practice three today, Kentucky is where we thought they’d be. Terry Wilson looks better, the trenches will lead the way, and the wide receivers and secondary have a lot to prove. There’s still a lot of work to be done in training camp and we will start to learn more as August rolls on.