Mark Stoops and Company exited the 2015 season with a lot of uncertainties. After three years at this head coaching thing, Stoops’ career stood at a crossroads. And if certain things didn’t change fast, his tenure in Lexington would not last too much longer.
Well, change happened. This offseason saw the departures of OC Shannon Dawson, WR Coach Tommy Mainord, RB Coach Chad Scott, OLB/ST Coach Andy Buh, and DB Coach Derrick Ainsley along with a number of key transfers.
Though in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t mean much, Saturday’s Spring Game was the public’s last glimpse of the Cats until the opener in the Fall. Some of the concerns have been addressed but others are still apparent.With the running clock and absence of Drew Barker, the second half wasn’t granted a whole lot of attention: My Observations (In no particular order)
UK Has a Great Crop of Running Backs:
Whether it was Kemp, Horton, King, or Tobler, each back made plays. JoJo showed versatility breaking a long run (though it was brought back on a ticky tack penalty) and caught balls out of the backfield. King slipped through tight spaces and proved his legs can provide a burst. Horton continues to be the between the tackles force, and Tobler looks to be a contributor in a few season. And uh..oh yeah. We still haven’t talked about Boom Williams, arguably the Cat’s best offensive player. UK has four SEC capable backs on day one. With Gran’s desire to establish the run game early and often in his offensive approach, this crop could be UK’s most important group to move the ball and keep UK’s thin defense on the sidelines. At this point, Boom is still the Day 1 starter in my mind, but you got to love what JoJo showed. JoJo had moments last year, but was widely inconsistent. Boom’s talent cannot be ignored, nor his home-run ability.
The Defense Might Have Found its Playmakers:
Denzel Ware made his presence known on Saturday. The converted OLB is now considered UK’s best pass rusher. He finished with 12 stops, four sacks, and five tackles for loss (But let’s remember who he played against). I really like Jordan Jones moving forward. Though he doesn’t quite jump off the box score, he made plays all over the field and delivered a nice thud on Tobler in the hole. The secondary remains the units strength. But if UK will steal some games this fall, it needs its front seven to consistently show up. Jones and Ware should help with that. Though the defense is not as deep as Stoops would like, it has enough talent to make things interesting for 3 quarters for most opponents. Though I must admit, the White Squad’s defense was soft and often let the backs gain extra yards after contact. A huge difference between an average defense and a good defense is efficient tackling in space. Not giving up an extra yard or two can be the difference in forcing a three and out or bleeding a long tiresome drive. Outside the corners, Edwards, Jones, and Ware, UK is still looking for guys to step up and be known.
UK’s Offense Will Be Super Balanced:
In the first half, the Cats ran 70 plays between the two squads; Gran called 37 passes and 33 rushes. Though some pass plays broke down resulting in a sack or QB scramble, it is apparent UK’s offensive MO will keep defenses guessing by exhibiting balance. To the dismay of some, screens will still be a major part of Kentucky’s passing game. It all boils down to get the ball to your best players in space. Of course lackadaisical blocking and absent-minded wideouts can make them less effective, screens have become staples in spread and pro schemes. I’m sure Gran did not want to tip his hand too much hence the watered-down play calling, but it clear what passing concepts he prefers thus far with his men under center. Seams/Streaks will be a large part of this offense’s plan to move the ball as well as utilizing play-action. I was surprised at the rarity of crossing routes and absence of mesh plays. Like Stoops and Barker hinted at in interviews this off season, this offense operates solely out of the gun and pistol. Regardless at this juncture, get rid of the sirens…
Quarterbacks: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly
The Good: Going 12-18 for 158 yards with 2 TDs is nice and all, but what made Drew Barker’s day is what was said after the scrimmage. Stoops officially named the Burlington, KY-native the starter. It is his team….but we already knew that. Barker has shown the ability to make certain throws and, maybe more importantly, lead the Wildcats on the field. Completing tight throws and leading a two-minute drill after a bad INT showed he is ready for the moment and won’t fold under pressure.
The Bad: Barker is still far from a well-oiled quarterback. He missed a few throws due to over extending his base and still could get better at getting the ball out of his hands quicker. It is clear Barker’s arm strength is limited and uses his legs quite often to put more umph on the ball causing for a longer release.
The Ugly: The second quarter interception. The play was four verticals and Barker eyed Juice Johnson as the isolated wideout on the right side with one:one coverage. Though it isn’t exactly clear what Barker wanted to accomplish, his pass needed more air in order for Johnson to run under it or his back shoulder fade was off the mark by five yards. Bottom line: it was a turnover due to an errant throw and not being on the same page as your wideout. To his credit, he bounced back with a nice two minute drill.
The Good: Johnson quickly showed the type of athlete he is at the quarterback position. In the first half against UK’s starters, Johnson was able to scoot around and make play after play with his legs. But the best thing he did was lead his squad to three scores on the day including a 85 completed screen to Jeff Badet in the third quarter.
The Bad: Johnson did not look comfortable in the pocket. He was only 4-11 for 36 yards before his big TD completion against UK’s starters and was afraid to let it rip downfield outside of a pre-snap read on a fade route. He often starred down his primary target and did look sound reading the defense resulting in a lot of tucks and runs.
The Ugly: Coming from the JuCo ranks, the staff knew Johnson would be rough around the edges and would be far from a finished product. Johnson’s throwing mechanics are pretty poor right now. His drops his elbow and swings the ball downward before letting it go; allowing defenders opportunities to swipe the ball out of his hands before its released (This occurred a couple of times Saturday). Johnson vastly needs to improve his pocket presence and quarterback intangibles. At this stage, Johnson is like a freshman Jalen Whitlow.
3. Mattingly, Hoak, and Wright
The Good: All three of these young men are not afraid to throw it downfield. Each had a big completion over 20 yards. Wright had a few bucket throws that ended up being dropped and Hoak completed 80% of his passes.
The Bad: Inaccuracy is a common affliction for young, happy-footed quarterbacks. Plus, this was the first time each of them played in front of Big Blue Nation. Though the groups completion percentage wasn’t horrible, the actual placement of their passes can vastly improve.
The Ugly: I think we can all agree: if Barker goes down, the Wildcats will be in trouble.
Looking at the team right now, BBN will have another frustrating fall. They still appear to be a playmaker on offense and 2-3 players on defense from being where this team needs to be in order to consistently win.
Though it is possible to make a bowl, they will need to take care of business at CWS if they even want to think about bowling. Though on paper UK is favored in it’s opener, it is a game they can easily lose if they do not show up. But with all else considered at this moment, I feel this team finishes 5-7 for the third straight year.