Embedded with the White team across the field, Darin Hinshaw wasn’t able to get his message to Kentucky’s starting quarterback.
“I was screaming and he couldn’t hear me,” Hinshaw said of Stephen Johnson.
There’s little doubt the message will be heard when they go back and study the tape from the Blue-White Spring Game.
If the quarterbacks coach had been able to talk to his starter during Friday night’s game at Commonwealth Stadium, his message would have been simple: “We don’t have to throw the deep ball every pass; find your check downs, get the ball completed.”
Johnson, who completed six of his first eight passes in the spring game, misfired on eight of his final 10 passes of the spring game.
“I tried to do a little bit too much,” said Johnson, who passed for 106 yards and was picked off once before sitting most of the second half. “Some throws I was overthrowing guys. Those were the easy passes for me to make in practice. I got a little bit too greedy today. I’ve got to come back this summer and try to be as consistent as I can.”
Those were not problems the UK starter had all spring, Hinshaw said. And he doesn’t think they will continue.
“He’s going to get ready, roll his shirt sleeves up and get ready for this summer,” Hinshaw said. “I’m very proud of him and what he’s done as a quarterback this spring.”
Getting a little push from reserve Gunnar Hoak, who had a solid spring game throwing for 198 yards and two touchdowns while running for another score will no doubt give Johnson extra motivation to keep improving, Hinshaw said.
And the fact that Hoak was able to put up those numbers against the first-team defense made it more impressive to his coaches.
“I’m really proud of him. I don’t want him to get a big head,” Hinshaw said. “He did a good job. … He needs to continue to get better, be a leader so when his time comes, he’s ready to go play.”
It was a consistent spring for Hoak, head coach Mark Stoops said. All of the quarterbacks — including former starter Drew Barker (who missed the spring game while coming back from back surgery) and true freshman Danny Clark — have played well this spring.
“He’s been very poised,” Stoops said of Hoak. “You see he’s effortless at times. And I just like the way he handles himself back there. He throws a very catchable football. He’s very accurate. The more experience he gets, the better he looks.”
At the end of most spring games, Kentucky walks away with a lot of question marks.
But this spring, Stoops was pleased with the progress made and the questions answered.
“We made some strides,” he said after the 31-14 win for the Blue team starters. “We still have a ways to go in certain areas, but I like this team. There’s certainly fewer question marks coming out of spring than in years past. So, I feel like there’s a lot to build on.”
Stoops specifically challenged the defensive line to get better this spring. It was a group that struggled last season.
He saw some progress.
“We have improved a great deal there,” Stoops said.
He had a front-row seat to the improvement Friday night, spending the spring game directly behind the running backs.
“It looked like we got some pressure tonight, uncharacteristic of the rest of the spring practices, but we — the good side is the defensive line was getting some pressure,” Stoops said.
“The bad side was the offensive line was giving up some pressure today. Because I sit back there and that’s one of the reasons I stand back there and I could feel that pressure and that’s a good thing for the defense, but offensively we got to clean it up a little bit.”
The Blue team defense was led by Adrian Middleton, who had five tackles, including a sack.
Several other young defensive players stood out to the head coach this spring, too. He specifically mentioned lineman Kordell Looney as well as defensive backs Tobias Gilliam and Jordan Griffin.
Reserves Jamin Davis and Boogie Watson both had nice stat lines as well, with Davis leading the White team in tackles with eight, including one for a loss.
Watson was pesky, too, with six tackles with time split between two teams and four credited sacks, which he argued should’ve been five.
“He’s a guy that, with reps, you could see he has the ability and he has a good understanding,” Stoops said of Watson. “You heard me talk many times about the nuances of that position, and I like where he’s at. I think he’s going to be a good player.
“Same thing with Jamin. You saw that on film when we recruited him; you saw him here. He’s a guy that takes the game very serious. He works at it, he’s gaining weight, he’s getting stronger, but he’s got the instincts to play linebacker.”
A longer look at running backs
Right before a hard collision with Eli Brown knocked him out of the spring game early, redshirt freshman running back A.J. Rose was about to switch jerseys from white to blue.
Offensive coordinator Eddie Gran was eager to see how Rose would run behind the first-team offensive line. Instead, Gran had to settle for just a taste from Rose, who had just three carries for 33 yards before a neck strain ended his night early.
Coaches said after the game that Rose was fine and was held out as a precaution.
“I really wanted to just start handing it to him and Sihiem (King) and see what they could do,” Gran said. “You can see the three plays that he had. He’s explosive and he’s really got a chance.
“I felt bad for him because he was very disappointed, but the young man has a chance. He’s come light years from where he was last year to this year.”
King played well, gaining 107 yards on 19 carries with two touchdowns.
Another running back that was disappointed (at least a little) was Benny Snell, who wanted way more carries than the three for 22 yards and a touchdown he got early before sitting the rest of the way.
“I was flipping out in my head but I didn’t show it,” Snell said with a smile.
Snell also showed a new wrinkle in his playmaking ability, catching three passes for 20 yards. That’s something he expects to do much more in the fall.
“I’ll be catching the ball way more,” Snell said. “Coach Gran has been adding that in and I’m very grateful for that. I wanted to get some more receiving yards than last year. … I want to better my game overall.”
Other news and notes
In his first public scrimmage since moving from wide receiver to cornerback, Zy’Aire Hughes finished with one tackle and a forced fumble in reserve action.
This past week, the former McCracken County standout said he was excited to show what he could do on that side of the ball.
“I feel like I can make a statement,” he said.
Hughes said his move to defensive back started as a joke in the fall when he was on scout team and Stoops would tell him to come over to the more fun side on defense.
“Eventually it got serious and Coach (Steve Clinkscale) told me to come back to a meeting with him that I was a DB now,” Hughes said, which the redshirt freshman was fine with as long as it meant getting to play.
Spring is a perfect time for tinkering with things like that, the defensive backs coach said.
“We know he’s a young man who can maybe contribute for us, no reason for him to be standing around,” Clinkscale said. “So we just brought him over and gave him a shot. … With some of our injuries right now, let’s give him an opportunity and see what he can do.”
▪ True freshman quarterback Walker Wood, a former Lafayette star, is “very close” to being full speed again after having surgery in the offseason, Hinshaw said.
“He’s progressed and they told him around May-June time is when he’ll be 100 percent,” the quarterbacks coach said. “He’s out there throwing, doing some different things.”
Wood has made good use of his time off the field, though.
“I call him the gym rat,” Hinshaw said. “He’s one of those guys that is over here at the facility all the time. He’s constantly learning the offense. He’s figured it out. He really understands it.
“This summer will be big for him and then we’ll wait for fall camp and have Walker get reps. He’s progressing exactly where the doctors and trainers thought he would be.”