Big day for Kentucky running backs in Blue-White Game

jsmith3@herald-leader.comApril 21, 2014 

An Air Raid siren sounds at Commonwealth Stadium each time Kentucky scores a touchdown.

But that blast might not be terribly accurate this season because a good portion of the Cats' scores might come on the ground.

While coaches were happy with improved quarterback play and UK struggled with a lack of depth at wide receiver, it was the ground game that stole the Blue-White Spring Game show on Saturday.

"If they can perform like this, I'll be giddy every day," running backs coach Chad Scott said. "It's good to see, it really is."

Kentucky's quartet of running backs combined for 308 yards and four touchdowns, led by Josh Clemons' 93 yards and Jojo Kemp's 90 yards and two touchdowns. The Blue team (starters) topped the White team (backups) 38-14 in front of 35,117.

The sophomore Kemp, who had bone spurs in his ankles surgically repaired in the off-season, said the group doesn't mind the "Air Raid" moniker for Kentucky's offense.

"This offense can be called anything as long as we're getting W's," he said. "That's what it's all about."

While Kentucky figures out the best pilot for its Air Raid attack — on Saturday it was sophomore Patrick Towles leading the first-teamers out on the field early — the ground crew is happy to do its part.

"We got to have something to hang our hat on," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "Right now we're pretty good at running the ball, and our play-action game is pretty good. We hit a couple big play-action plays today."

That has helped take some of the weight off the shoulders of UK's Towles, Reese Phillips and Drew Barker.

"It's a huge asset to have in the running game like I think we could have," said Towles, who completed 11 of 15 passes for 126 yards and an interception at the line by defensive end Za'Darius Smith.

All three quarterbacks helped direct scoring drives (three for Towles, three for Phillips and two for Barker) and all showed signs of good things.

Kentucky's coaches said the competition is still wide open heading into the summer.

For the game, Phillips went 10-for-17 for 74 yards and two touchdowns. Barker threw for a touchdown on a 30-yard strike to Demarco Robinson with six minutes to play in the shortened game. The true freshman completed 7 of his 19 attempts.

"I thought they did some good things," Brown said of his quarterbacks. "I didn't think they threw it as well as they have. So we'll take the things, get them corrected, but I am encouraged by their play and their decision-making."

Having two receivers make big plays helped, too, with Robinson getting eight catches for 115 yards and sophomore Ryan Timmons adding five grabs for 47 yards.

But until the return of the Air Raid, which was missing key pieces in receivers like Javess Blue (shoulder injury) and Alexander Montgomery (knee), it will have to rely more heavily on the ground.

Guys like Kemp, Josh Clemons (11 carries, 93 yards and a touchdown), Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard (seven carries for 55 yards) and early enrollee Mikel Horton (13 carries for 70 yards and a late TD run) are happy to do their part.

Scott said Kemp and Heard are like "1A and 1B" at the running back spot and that they complement each other well.

"I know you guys saw the big runs, and that was great to see," Scott said of the running backs. "But I was more excited to see them do the little things that they did in practice, in a game setting. Now that makes me feel a whole lot better going into the season."

The Cats' defense was led by Daron Blaylock, who had six tackles for the non-starters. Jaleel Hytchye added 4.5, while Alvin Davis added 3.5.

For the starters, J.D. Harmon led the way with four tackles at cornerback and five other players, including Smith, added at least three tackles each.

The UK running backs coach isn't the only one who feels better going into next season after last season's 2-10 struggle.

The head coach feels better, too.

"I really tried not to ever — you know, throw everybody under the bus, including myself and the team, but we just weren't very good" last year, Stoops said. "We're better. We're still not where we need to be but we're better. We're at that point where you can really start to feel that improvement."

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

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