UK football notebook: What fans can expect to see at Kentucky's open practices

Herald-Leader staff writerJuly 26, 2014 

UK running back Braylon Heard runs during UK's 2014 Blue White Game at Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington, Ky., Saturday, April 26, 2014. Photo by Matt Goins

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With the announcement of Fan Day and Media Day and all of the other days that crowd the weeks that lead up to an actual Kentucky football game came the announcement of three open practices.

The first year under Coach Mark Stoops did not include a ton of open practices. So what do these three extra looks into the program, scheduled for Aug. 11, 12 and 18, mean exactly?

Do they mean an improved football team Stoops is ready to show off for curious fans (and media) in advance of the Aug. 30 opener?

Do they mean a quarterback selection will come quickly in the race among Drew Barker, Reese Phillips and Patrick Towles (and maybe Maxwell Smith)?

Do they mean Stoops and staff are looking for more fan input?

Probably no on the last one, but the second-year head coach said it is an opportunity for the team to be "hospitable."

"Just wanted to open it up, see what we've got going on and just be a little bit more open," Stoops ventured.

In the first year, as coaches and players were getting to know each other and figuring out what makes the other tick, having too many open practices could have made things awkward, offensive coordinator Neal Brown said.

But this season, in year two of the Stoops era, open practices will be good for not only the fans but also the players as they trudge through the seemingly never-ending month of August and its 30 allowable practices.

"You know, when you're practicing every day, and the game — the carrot — is a long way away," Brown said. "I like it when they open up because our guys have a little bit more juice about them when there are people in the stands or there's a camera out there."

Camp doesn't open until a week from Monday and Fan Day and the first viewing doesn't happen until a few days after that, but here are a few things coaches expect fans will notice this fall:

■ Better running backs: The Kentucky run game has been among the worst in the Southeastern Conference the past three years, averaging 137 yards a game and 12.7 touchdowns a season (or a little more than one per game).

League champion Auburn had 48 rushing touchdowns last season, 10 more than Kentucky has had in the past three seasons combined.

And as much as Brown loves the Air Raid, the Ground Assault could be the biggest key to the Cats turning their offense around this season behind sophomore Jojo Kemp and junior transfer Braylon Heard as well as the return of Josh Clemons from knee and Achilles' injuries.

Add in two highly touted recruits in Stanley "Boom" Williams and Mikel Horton and UK could make inroads in the run game.

There are so many options that Brown said the idea of a starter at that spot is "overrated," arguing before the Greater Louisville Alumni luncheon on Friday that a multi-back approach is likely.

"We're going to try to play two of them at a time quite a bit to be honest with you," Brown said. "Braylon and Jojo are probably at the top right there. Excited about Josh Clemons and what he's doing and we've got the two young kids.

"But no, we don't really have a starting running back and it may change from week to week, but we feel like we have several guys who can be productive at that position."

■ Better quarterback play: There may not be a starter named yet, but both Stoops and Brown have been complimentary of their options.

"This spring, I started seeing some throws you'd want to see, some big-time SEC quality throws," Stoops said of Towles, Barker and Phillips. "And putting the ball in positions defensively that makes it very difficult. ... There's a lot of positives with each of them."

The key to winning the quarterback battle, Brown said, will be accuracy. He's not talking only about completion percentages, in which UK passers ranked 10th in the league last season at 59.5 percent.

Just getting the ball there isn't enough, Brown said.

"Really what hurt us last year was our inaccuracy," he said. "We couldn't get the ball to guys in a position where they could make a play after the catch. We had a ton of catch-tackles and a ton of incompletions, so that's what I'm looking for."

If the coaches were judging their quarterbacks solely on accuracy in the Blue-White Spring Game, then Towles would have to be the front-runner. He completed 73.3 percent of his passes compared to 58.8 percent for Phillips and 36.8 percent for Barker.

The players' accuracy will be tested early and often under fire in the first week of camp, Brown said.

"We're going to turn up the pressure on them the first week of practice and kind of see where it takes us," he added Friday. "Each practice that first week, I want it to be game-like."

■ Better overall football: Before the first snap of camp, Stoops can't promise a certain number of victories, but at every speaking engagement this summer, he has guaranteed fans will see marked improvement.

There is better leadership now than a year ago, the players are in far better shape and there is an upward trajectory, the head coach said.

"We're proud of the improvement that we're making," he said Friday. "We're proud of this team. They are going to see some improvement. What that translates to in wins and losses, I don't know. But we're an improved football team, and the program's heading in the right direction."

Depth chart questions

When the 2014 Kentucky media guides came out, media types (like me) couldn't help but notice that the post-spring depth chart wasn't set up using the Cats' base 4-3 defense.

Instead it listed UK in the nickel package with just two linebackers. Was that because of the Cats' question marks at linebacker or because of their confidence in nickel back Blake McClain, who started the final 11 games of last season as a true freshman, or was it maybe just a misprint?

At SEC Media Days, Stoops cautioned not to read too much into the defensive depth chart's scheme.

"We're very multiple in what we do," he said. "We play with three linebackers sometimes; we play with four and sometimes we play with two. Bud (Dupree) is a defensive end, but he also can play some linebacker in certain packages. We're multiple and we're just looking at the two inside spots there."

Extra face time

The little extra time coaches got with their players this summer — per the new eight-hour-a-week ruling by the NCAA — has meant a world of difference for a young team, Stoops said.

"It's really helped us, as you would imagine," he said before Friday's alumni speaking engagement. "The first thing is just your presence being out there. Those players work extremely hard in the summer, and it kind of didn't feel right, with coaches obviously needing some time to get away here and there, but for us to be gone and not out there and be present while they're working their tails off sweating and lifting and working hard and everything.

"So our presence just being there supporting them I think means an awful lot. And then the time, spending on football and watching film and doing those things can do nothing but help us, and in particular the young guys, the guys that are just joining our program."

'Getting it right'

Maybe the governor should've declared it Wilbur Hackett week last week. The former three-year starting linebacker at UK and one of the pioneers of SEC integration was honored at the Governor's Cup luncheon and then again at the Louisville alumni event on Friday.

The first black captain of any sport in SEC history and a former official, Hackett received a standing ovation from the more than 700 fans that filled the Galt House hall on Friday.

Hackett offered his own vote of confidence for Stoops before the head coach gave his state of the team address to alumni on Friday.

Hackett thanked UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart for "getting it right" with Stoops and for investing extra money in football this offseason, including the $120 million renovation of Commonwealth Stadium and the $45 million practice facility.

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

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