Kentucky football notes: Coaches say receivers a sure-handed group

jsmith3@herald-leader.comAugust 5, 2014 

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A collective groan from Kentucky fans was almost audible after dropped passes were discussed on day one of fall camp.

The head coach was grouchy about it.

"Those guys need to step up and make the big catches and we need to function as a unit much better," Mark Stoops said Monday. "I was a little disappointed that we dropped the ball a little bit today and put the ball on the ground when we had an opportunity to make some plays."

By the second morning, offensive coordinator Neal Brown tried to calm the masses and drop the drop talk.

"We were nervous day one, especially the new guys, the freshmen, and it showed," he said. "We dropped some passes, but we caught the ball really well today. I don't anticipate that being an issue at all, like it was at times last year."

It has been a problem for the past few seasons, before Brown arrived with Stoops last season.

But it's a thing of the past, wide receivers and their coaches said Tuesday.

"Obviously, the balls are really wet because it's dewy outside and it was pretty humid yesterday morning," Brown said. "I'm not making excuses for them, but I wasn't overly surprised and really wasn't worried about it."

Wide receivers coach Tommy Mainord offered a few other potential reasons for the balls in the grass: "We're going to have a lot of stuff to scrape off those the first few days, running and catching with a helmet on, that's going to happen naturally, so we're going to work through that and get ready."

But neither coach sees it as a long-term problem for this group, which returns 73.2 percent of its production from last season, including its top four receivers in Javess Blue, Ryan Timmons, Jeff Badet and Demarco Robinson.

The Cats add freshmen wide-outs Thaddeus Snodgrass, Dorian Baker, Blake Bone and Garrett Johnson, the latter three drawing extensive praise from coaches after two days of camp.

Just having the core of his receiving corps back has been the biggest benefit, Mainord said.

"Those guys from last year who are returning can help those young guys," he said. "I have someone right here right now trying to do it the right way. I can show them and say, 'Here's how you do it.'"

A deeper bench also means better competition, which means the ultimate penalty for drops: a drop in playing time.

All of those things have Brown more confident.

"You're talking 20 months where as a daily routine they catch balls," the offensive coordinator said. "We do a lot of it with tennis balls, we had an emphasis on it in the spring, we had an emphasis on it this fall during camp. I just don't foresee it being a problem."

Neither does Badet, who blamed the first-day drops on nervous energy.

"We just came out jittery, a little bit too hyped," the sophomore said. "But we backed it up today. A lot of (caught) balls, gave it to the defense a little bit today."

Turning up pressure?

At all of the preseason meet-and-greets, Kentucky coaches talked about putting the quarterbacks under fire early in camp to help decide which one will earn the starting job.

Offensive coordinator Neal Brown said in many ways that's "more talk than anything."

"The defenses kind of install how they're going to install, so we're seeing the pressure packages at kind of a normal rate, but really I'm keeping track of every throw they make," he said.

He's trying to constantly be in the ear of quarterback contenders Drew Barker, Reese Phillips, Maxwell Smith and Patrick Towles, reminding them that the job is on the line.

"I'm talking about it, talking about situational football a lot, probably coaching them harder and being more intense with them early in camp than I normally am," he said. "So that's some of the type of things I'm doing."

■ There also was some discussion in July about trying to simplify communication for the offense, to make it easier to call plays among other things. When asked about what had changed, Brown was vague about the "new system."

"It's similar to what we've done, but we've really tried to be as much one word and one syllable as possible with one signal," he said.

QB Smith 'getting better'

There are still questions about whether or not Maxwell Smith will be part of the four-man competition at quarterback.

On Tuesday morning, the second day of camp, offensive coordinator Neal Brown said he wasn't comfortable discussing injuries, but indicated Smith and his surgically reconstructed shoulder are improving.

"He's getting better," Brown said. "I think it's going to be a little bit of a process to get him back to full speed."

Smith had what has been called "extensive" off-season surgery on his right throwing shoulder. He missed all of spring practice. As of mid-July, he had been cleared to throw, but had not tested his full arm strength.

As with the other quarterback competitors, Smith is wearing a red jersey (no contact) during camp and has been on the practice field. Beyond that, it's unclear what he is and isn't able to do.

Dupree honored

Kentucky senior Bud Dupree has been named to the preseason Ted Hendricks Award watch list. The award is presented annually to the nation's top defensive end.

Louisville senior Lorenzo Mauldin also was named to the 29-player watch list.

Dupree is also on the Chuck Bednarik and the Bronko Nagurski Trophy preseason watch lists. Both of those awards go to the top defensive player in college football.

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

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