Kentucky football hopes to eliminate drops

jsmith3@herald-leader.comSeptember 23, 2013 

  • Tennessee at Kentucky

    When: 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 30

    TV: ESPNU

    Records: Kentucky 2-9 (0-7 SEC); Tennessee 4-7 (1-6)

Ryan Timmons learned the hard way just how focused he needs to be on the football field.

That lesson came from a most unlikely source: a tennis ball.

It was the Kentucky freshman's first day working after practice with the machine that hurls tennis balls at the wide receivers.

To work on hand-eye coordination, they catch 60 before practice and 60 after practice.

"My first time doing it, I was hit in the face," Timmons said laughing. "They were coming out pretty fast, and they change speed. It came slow once and fast the second one, and I missed it and it hit me in the face."

Coaches are hoping that multiple unexplained drops in a recent loss to Louisville will provide a similar sort of tennis ball-to -the-face moment for Kentucky's group of young wide receivers.

They're using whatever sport necessary to get the point across.

"I explained it to them like shooting free throws," wide receivers coach Tommy Mainord said. "If you're a basketball player and you want to get better at shooting free throws, you gotta go practice shooting free throws. If you're trying to hit a curve ball in baseball, you gotta go practice hitting the curve ball more, keeping your weight back and hitting it."

This equals catching more balls before, during and after practice, whatever they can do to get rid of costly drops, especially this week against Florida, which boasts the nation's second-best defense overall and 15th best pass defense.

Going back and watching film and seeing so many drops — seven by one unofficial count — against Louisville two weekends ago was "embarrassing to those guys and they don't want that to happen, so we get out here and put the extra effort in," Mainord said.

Part of the problem is the Cats' youth at that position, where there were only three returning scholarship players to start fall camp.

Two of their top three receivers are true freshman and the leading wideout is junior college transfer Javess Blue. Then there's others surging up the depth charts like freshman Alexander Montgomery.

"Those are our best guys, and those are the guys who are going to play," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said when asked last week if he'd ever had to rely so heavily on so many young players.

"There's going to be some growing pains," he said. "They made some mistakes, they dropped some balls on Saturday, but they're getting better."

He noted big improvements from that group on blocking, playing speed and adjusting tempo.

Now Brown hopes to see improvement at holding onto the ball against a Florida secondary that head coach Mark Stoops called "fabulous."

"They cover the heck out of you," Stoops said Monday to preview Kentucky's game against No. 20 Florida on Saturday. "Very, very talented in the secondary."

With the younger receivers, much of the problem seems to be a desire to take off before actually making the catch.

"It goes back to trying to do too much," Brown said. "They've got to do their job. It's like I tell them all the time: We're down by 10, there's no 10-point play. It's not like we can go out there and get a 10-point play. All you can do is catch the ball. Once you catch it, let's get straight up field and see what happens."

Mainord said it's about "breaking bad habits."

"All they're trying to do is have a great reaction to where their opponent is," he said. "We've got to get the ball first, and those are some of the growing pains we're going through."

Injury updates

Maxwell Smith, who practiced but didn't throw all of last week as he tried to heal his injured shoulder, was expected to be back this week with limited repetitions.

"He's planning on practicing this afternoon, so we'll see where he's at," Stoops said on Monday before practice. "Hopefully he'll be on point. He's going to practice; he'll be on a pitch count. We'll keep an eye on how many throws he's making, maybe just let him ease back into it for a day or so."

The quarterback, who said last week this newest injury was not connected to previous AC joint injuries in that shoulder, missed most of the second half against Louisville after losing velocity on his throws.

Defensive tackle Donte Rumph also appears likely for the Cats' game against Florida after missing much of the Louisville game with an injured shoulder. The senior had the same shoulder surgically repaired in the off-season.

When asked on Monday how he's feeling about Rumph's chances of return, Stoops said: "I feel good. I feel fine. Again, I'll tell you if I feel like anybody's out for this week. Other than that, we should be good."

Depth chart updates

There were few changes to the Kentucky depth chart, with the two most prominent being the addition of the word "OR" between names at both the starting quarterback and running back spots.

The UK starter at running back all season has been senior Raymond Sanders, Monday's depth chart now says it's Sanders or true freshman Jojo Kemp. At the QB spot, it's either Smith or Jalen Whitlow. Smith had started the previous two games.

Sophomore Josh Forrest is listed ahead of previously injured Kory Brown at one linebacker spot.

Starting right tackle Jordan Swindle is listed as the backup left tackle behind Darrian Miller, replacing Jon Toth, who has gotten the starting nod at center.

Cody Quinn is listed at the starting cornerback spot after working his way back from a pre-season ankle injury.

Quick hitters

Florida defensive back Brian Poole will miss the first half of the game Saturday against UK, per new NCAA targeting rule. He was ejected from the Gator's last game against Tennessee for a helmet-to-helmet hit.

Florida linebacker Dante Fowler is SEC Defensive Player of Week after three tackles for loss, a sack, two forced fumbles, including one fumble recovery in win over the Volunteers.

Kickoff for UK's game at South Carolina on Oct. 5 will be 7:30 p.m. Fox Sports South will broadcast the game.

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader.Blog: ukfootball.bloginky.com.

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