It’s easy to forget about the redshirt players.
They work out in a different rotation, they’re usually running an opponent’s offense or defense as a part of the scout team.
They’re the forgotten group during the long grind of a season.
But perhaps no group benefits more from the weeks of practice leading up to a bowl than the redshirt players.
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“As you get into this preparation, it’s good to push them a little bit, see who mentally can handle things,” Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops said as UK gets ready for the TaxSlayer Bowl on Saturday.
Especially in some of the early practices leading up to the bowl game, the players usually relegated to scout-team duties have gotten rotated in with the other players.
“You can push them forward in this bowl prep just as far as some pressures and being multiple with the pressure that you put them under,” Stoops said. “So they have to execute and you just see who can respond and who can pick things up. So it’s a real benefit that way.”
If everyone who is supposed to come back next season does, the Cats will return 18 starters (nine offense, nine defense), the most at the school since UK started tracking starters in 1986.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t playing time to be had or positions on the depth chart to be earned. The coaches said they’ve been preaching that to the younger players during bowl preparation.
And of the position players who do graduate for Kentucky, coaches are taking advantage of what Stoops called an early set of spring practices to spy future playmakers.
“I want to know coming out of this bowl practice what we have and getting ready for spring and what they look like,” Stoops said.
Defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said he saw plenty of young guys standing out.
“We have some good young players, and I’m glad that we’ve been able to work with them throughout this bowl preparation,” he said.
Stoops encouraged the coordinators to put a lot of stress on the redshirt players during this break between games, and the coaches have been happy to oblige.
“We are going to challenge them and not just be base offense or base defense,” offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said early in bowl practices. “We’re going to throw everything at them and see who can do it and who can’t and who can get ready.”
It’s been interesting to see what a season of working out under UK’s strength and conditioning coordinator, Corey Edmond, and his staff already has done for some of those players, several Cats coaches said.
“Coach Ed has done a great job of getting their bodies different, and they’re faster,” Gran said. “You can see a little bit more twitch in them. So, every single one of them. Been looking forward to having some fun with it to see how they’ve grown, especially mentally.”
In the last week or so, the same players have gone back to scout-team duties to help prepare their teammates for Georgia Tech and its unique triple-option offense.
Much like in the prep for Louisville, when redshirt running back A.J. Rose was asked to try to simulate the Cards’ Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, Lamar Jackson, Rose has been asked to play an active role running the Yellow Jackets’ scheme.
“He’s got the quicks,” Stoops said. “He’s a big, strong guy, but he also is very elusive.”
Coaches have asked Rose to home in on UK’s base offense, and they’ve seen a lot of growth from the freshman.
“I can already tell he is light-years away from where he was in the fall,” Hinshaw said. “He’s really locking in.
“He’s a big-bodied guy. He’s really fluid, too. This practice, what we’re doing right now, is for guys like that. You can tell they’re getting a lot better.”
Throughout the last couple of weeks of practice leading up to the bowl game, coaches pointed out high-level play from several of the redshirt players.
Here are some potential playmakers who were mentioned in recent weeks:
▪ On the offensive line, Drake Jackson and Luke Fortner have regularly come up.
“Watching him the other day and watching him come around and pull on some of our gap stuff, he’s really athletic and he’s really big,” Gran said of Fortner. “He’s got me excited.”
▪ After kidney lacerations early in the season sidelined tight end Justin Rigg, he was forced to sit out the rest of the season (and probably will receive a medical redshirt when the time comes). Now that Rigg has been cleared for limited action, he has impressed coaches all over again.
“He’s a big guy with soft hands that can block,” tight ends coach Vince Marrow said. “Tight end position is going to be pretty good the next few years. I mean, he’s going to be a good one. Rigg’s going to be a real good one.”
▪ Because of uncertainty at the quarterback position, freshman Gunnar Hoak has been practicing almost all season with the Cats’ first and second teams. It has given him a leg up, co-offensive coordinator Darin Hinshaw said.
“He’s gotten really quality reps,” Hinshaw said. “He has gotten better. He’s not gotten that playing time in games yet. That’s going to be the next step. Again, we’re going to have to throw him into the fire in the spring and get ready to roll and continue to get him better.”
▪ On the defense, linebackers Jamar Watson and Jaylin Bannerman have impressed their position coach. They’re “doing some good things and they’ve got a bright future here,” Eliot said.
▪ Defensive linemen Kordell Looney and Ja’Quize Cross have shown dramatic improvement and gotten bigger. Coaches also are high on T.J. Carter, who didn’t redshirt, but has come on in the past few weeks.
▪ Defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale was high on Tobias Gilliam, a safety, and cornerback Davonte Robinson from Henry Clay.
“Tobias has a pretty good role playing safety,” Clinkscale said. “I travel him just about every away game, so he’s been able to get better at his skill set and getting better at his position. Same thing with Davonte. This was a good week to get him better at man coverage, off coverage and knowing his responsibilities.”
Kentucky vs. Georgia Tech
When: 11 a.m. Saturday
Where: EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla.
Records: Kentucky 7-5, Georgia Tech 8-4