UK football: 4,000 fans line up early to show Cats who they're playing for

Herald-Leader staff writerAugust 9, 2014 

  • Important upcoming dates:

    Aug. 11, 12, 18: UK football practices open to the public

    Aug. 30: UK football's season opener vs. UT-Martin

It was early when Mark Stoops pulled his black Mercedes up to the Nutter Indoor Training Facility.

Clouds hovered overhead and there was dampness in the air for the second straight Kentucky Fan Day.

So Stoops was a little taken aback when he saw the line of fans already stretching around the side of the indoor training facility.

"I was shocked," the UK head coach said.

He figured the early-morning Fan Day coupled with the weather issues and Commonwealth Stadium construction would keep fans away.

"But I was amazed, as usual, and greatly appreciate the support and the kind words," Stoops said of the estimated 4,000 fans who crowded into the Nutter Center to get autographs from Stoops, his coaches and the players despite their 2-10 record last season.

The head coach and coordinators Neal Brown and D.J. Eliot had nothing on the defensive linemen, whose autograph-seeking line spread halfway around the indoor facility at one point.

Brown was pleased to see little kids, including his own little girls, running around the indoor facility.

"Lots of young kids, which I think is important," he said. "It's important not only for Kentucky but for the game of football to keep young kids involved.

There was another set of "kids" that it was important to as well, Brown said.

"It was really good for our kids, them to understand what they represent," Brown said of the UK players. "When they put Kentucky across their chest, what they represent, the people. There's people from all over the state here, and out of state, alumni, people like that. I think it's great for our kids to be around those."

The players seemed appreciative of the love.

"I didn't expect that many people to come out because it was that early and a lot is going on, but we got the support and we love the fans," wide receiver Javess Blue said.

After the first of four open practices, Stoops is hopeful that his team will show more than it did last season and more than it did on Saturday at the stadium.

"We weren't as clean as we (have been)," he said. "Our ball handling wasn't as clean as it's been and we didn't execute as well as we have been. We've been a little bit more consistent than that."

Practice notes

Signs of renovation are everywhere at Commonwealth Stadium. The good news is there also seem to be signs of rebuilding on the field, too. Not a finished product, but Kentucky does look like a team that seems to have upgraded at several positions.

Here are some initial impressions:

Some key players sat out with various injuries. Of note were cornerback Nate Willis, defensive end Jason Hatcher, safety Glenn Faulkner, cornerback Fred Tiller, running back Jojo Kemp, wide receivers Javess Blue, Jeff Badet and Garrett Johnson and offensive lineman Jordan Swindle.

Afterward, Stoops said none of the injuries were significant. "There's a lot of things that are not major but are lingering ... when you're going this many reps and doing all that, you're gonna get some nagging injuries," he said. "I don't think anything ... significant that'll be more than a couple days on most everybody."

Blue, who had shoulder surgery in the offseason, said he sat out as a precaution, but he did note that he wears a sling on the shoulder when he's in full pads. Wideout Ryan Timmons wore a red (no-contact) jersey on Saturday, but he said he was fine.

■ Saturday's practice seemed pretty indicative of what the coaches are talking about with the quarterbacks. They make a really nice-looking play and then follow it up with a near-pick.

It happened to all of them at least once. For example, Patrick Towles was leading a drive, seemed to be in rhythm and found Dorian Baker for a 40-yard pass. Then he immediately overthrew Blake Bone on a short pass.

"You guys saw it today," Stoops said. "You think I'm lying. There's good and bad with all of them. That's the bottom line. We need to be more consistent. We need to play better.

"I saw each of them do some things we can't have them do and that's give seven the other way," Stoops said of Towles, Reese Phillips, Drew Barker and Maxwell Smith. "So I think I saw each guy with an opportunity to convert seven for the defense, so we can't have that."

After excessive quarterback talk at Media Day on Friday, Brown politely declined (twice) to discuss them on Saturday.

■ The running backs are as good as advertised (and as deep) with Braylon Heard and Josh Clemons taking many of the first-team reps and breaking loose for a couple of nice runs where they had to make defenders miss.

Seeing Mikel Horton wear the No. 4 jersey this season causes double takes. He's infinitely bigger and broader than Raymond Sanders was last season and he's a more physical runner. He's going to make it difficult for coaches to redshirt him this season because he adds a more physical, aggressive running style and finishes strong.

Fellow freshman Stanley "Boom" Williams broke away for a nice run late in practice and the stadium yelled out a collective "BOOOOOM." Brown didn't seem ready to hold a coronation for the back quite yet, but he did say he's the "fastest guy we have back there. The good thing about him is he goes from zero to full speed really fast."

■ Freshmen T.V. Williams and Dorian Baker stood out among the depleted wideouts. Williams' size is questionable, but his speed is not. He made several big-play catches. Having his parents in town was added incentive, Brown noted.

"T.V. had his best day today, which was encouraging," Brown said. "He made some plays. He can run. He adds a dimension because he's got good speed plus he can make people miss."

Stoops said Baker has been sure-handed this fall so far. And while impressed with some of his acrobatic catches and moves, his head coach seems to want more.

"Dorian usually comes down with some of those opportunities," he said. "He had some big plays today, but I saw him have a few drops that I have not seen all camp, but (we) have good players as you can see."

'You've gotta get the flow'

Kentucky's four quarterback candidates all have distinct skill sets and styles, but three of the four also have the same similar short, buzzed hair cuts.

The lone wolf is redshirt freshman Reese Phillips, who gets teased frequently for his long, flowing locks.

In fact, the flow of those locks is quite important to Phillips.

"Here's the deal: You've gotta get the flow," he said, smoothing his wavy dark brown locks for media on Friday. "The flow. Let it grow.

"They all shave it off and they think it looks so cool, but it's not. Think about some of the best quarterbacks ever and they've got the flow. Nowadays everyone's shaving it off. You've gotta keep the quarterback look."

He noted the "flow" that New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady used to sport.

"That's why I wanted this," Phillips said. "Now I'm not going to grow it out crazy. I was going to get a haircut, but I didn't want to have that awkward haircut look at Media Day."

Does this also mean that Phillips is looking to land himself a super model like Brady's Gisele Bundchen?

"Is that a bad thing?" he said laughing. "If that's your goal, that's a pretty good goal."

Smith's shoulder

While many have counted Maxwell Smith out of the quarterback race, the junior said he still feels in the mix despite missing spring having his right, throwing shoulder surgically repaired.

The only UK quarterback on the roster with any career starts is still limited, throwing every other day, but he insists he's in the hunt.

"If I didn't think I had a chance, I might as well quit right now," he said on Friday. "That's definitely not my mindset. We're all going out, we're all competing hard and we all want this job."

Smith said his shoulder felt good.

"The coaches decided, and the trainers, that it would be in both of our interests to do that and just kind of 'progress' my way into it," he said. "So that, later, my arm, hopefully, doesn't die out on me — which might have happened if I had been throwing every day."

Stoops the recruiter

Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell started tweeting his list of the top 10 recruiters among college football head coaches a few days ago, and UK's Mark Stoops came in at No. 7.

Farrell completed that list Thursday afternoon. It was no surprise that Alabama's Nick Saban got the No. 1 spot. Following Saban on Farrell's list were: 2. Ohio State's Urban Meyer, 3. Penn State's James Franklin, 4. Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin, 5. Florida State's Jimbo Fisher, 6. Tennessee's Butch Jones, 7. Stoops, 8. Clemson's Dabo Swinney, 9. Auburn's Gus Malzahn, 10. Miami's Al Golden.

Interesting note: Five of Farrell's top 10 currently coach in the SEC, two others (Meyer and Franklin) did until recently, and the other three (Fisher, Swinney and Golden) all coach at schools in southern states.

Herald-Leader staff writer Ben Roberts contributed to this article.

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Email: jsmith3@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukfootball.bloginky.com.

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