It was 20 only minutes, hardly indicative of what’s happened all spring.
But seeing his offense get dominated — even if it was just for 20 minutes of an unofficial scrimmage on Saturday — had Kentucky’s Eddie Gran quite displeased.
That’s putting it nicely.
“They’re drinking some Kool-Aid and it’s bad Kool-Aid and I’ve got to get them to quit drinking,” the offensive coordinator said after his group had multiple turnovers and was beaten handily at the line of scrimmage at the end of Saturday’s practice at Commonwealth Stadium. “We’ll get that fixed. It was an absolute joke.”
For more than an hour on Saturday, UK’s offense was making plays, finding its rhythm and looking generally comfortable.
Turned out the defense was holding something back.
“They were looking forward the whole practice to getting to the end, scrimmage,” UK defensive coordinator Matt House said. “At the end of the day, I think coaches getting off to the side and them playing on the field, really that’s what you want to do as a football player. There’s no question the energy changed.”
The defense was dominant even without two of its top players and key leaders in safety Mike Edwards and outside linebacker Denzil Ware. Ware missed the practice attending a funeral and Edwards was at his sister’s wedding.
But even without two of its top four tacklers from last season, the UK defense gave the offense all that it could handle.
“They whipped us. I don’t know what else to say,” Gran said. “Their 11 whipped our 11. For an hour and a half today, we whipped them. For the last 20, we got smoked.”
Who does Gran want to see step up and become a vocal leader when things get tough?
“All of them. Somebody,” he pleaded. “Somebody. It’s their offense. Anybody.”
Kentucky starter Stephen Johnson seemed ready to shoulder that responsibility.
“It’s all on me,” the quarterback said. “This is my offense, this is my team. I have to be able to bring our guys up when we’re in a little lull like that. That’s really all on me for me not being able to pick those guys up.”
Some of the defensive success had been brewing for a while, Coach Mark Stoops said after the two-hour practice that was open to the media.
“Defensively you can see the strides we took today,” Stoops said. “The last two days it’s been like that — really good defensively up front — and it’s a start. We have a long way to go, but I like the energy they’re playing with, I like the confidence they’re playing with.
“You can see we made some turnovers, made some big plays, and that’s good to see. Offensively we’ve been having a really solid spring. Last couple days, like I said, defensively I think we’re making strides. But they’re doing good things as well. Getting better.”
Kentucky’s coaches have been working hard to install things methodically and make sure players understand it fully before moving on. He saw some of that fundamental work pay off on Saturday.
Johnson, who was pressured regularly during the 20-minute span, said he’s seen the defense make its move recently.
“They definitely came with a lot more intensity,” the quarterback said. “It was really cool seeing them being able to do the things and execute the plays that they needed to. We just need to come with the same type of intensity on the offensive side.”
It’s hard to imagine Gran will allow that to happen again this week as UK puts its finishing touches on for the spring game.
“It was not good enough,” he said. “We got no chance if we practice like that last 20 minutes. If we’ll practice and do what we did the first hour and a half, we’ll be a really good football team.”
Hughes on the move?
Zy’Aire Hughes has had some experience moving to different positions, playing running back, quarterback, wide receiver and defensive back at McCracken County High School.
The redshirt freshman wide receiver is now on the move at Kentucky, too, with coaches trying out Hughes at defensive back for the past couple of practices.
“We’re exploring. We’re looking at him,” Stoops confirmed on Saturday after a two-hour practice/scrimmage combo at Commonwealth Stadium. “This was just his second day out there. Wanted to get a good look at him. It’s a double-edged sword. We lose a bunch of wide receivers after this year, and he’s doing a good job at wide out.
“But we’re getting thin in the secondary, and he’s just so quick. He has such great change of direction. He can run, so I just wanted to look at him a bit.”
The UK defensive coordinator seemed high on what Hughes could bring to that position.
“He’s a quick twitch guy, now,” House said. “I’m excited to see him improve. … He’s hungry to learn, which is huge.”
Two of Kentucky’s most versatile defensive backs — Marcus McWilson and Blake McClain —graduated and nickelback Kendall Randolph is out for the rest of the spring after ankle surgery. This has created a short secondary and the need for reinforcements.
Less than a week away and in his final meeting with the media before the Blue-White Spring Game, Stoops divulged a little bit about the format for the game at Commonwealth Stadium on Friday night.
The game will be similar to how UK played it last season with the first team players on one team and the second- and third-string players together on the other team.
“We’ve gotta look at it with numbers, but I believe we’re gonna do it a lot like last year,” Stoops said.
Special teams also will be similar to last season in that there won’t be much shown.
“It’ll simulate special teams but it won’t be,” Stoops said. “It’ll be like the offense just punting it so we can work the operation of the game. We’ll just keep the offensive team in there. Punter, snapper, punt the ball, fair catch it and go from there. It’ll be very basic.”
Other practice notes
Kentucky went from zero players wearing No. 8 on the roster to two of them after number changes for both cornerback Derrick Baity and wide receiver Jabari Greenwood.
▪ Granted it was just drills and a short scrimmage period, but the Cats’ offensive line starters appear to be (from right to left) Kyle Meadows, George Asafo-Adjei, Bunchy Stallings, Logan Stenberg and Cole Mosier.
▪ Of the small amount of special teams work at Saturday’s practice, Charles Walker was the main punt returner. UK also practiced some different punts and formations. “We’re moving the pocket a little bit and letting them try to unload a little pressure from him, yeah,” Stoops said of punter Grant McKinniss.
▪ Walk-on quarterback Davis Mattingly is no longer with the team, a UK spokesman confirmed on Saturday.