There has been a subtle shift for Kentucky football in the last season or so.
Go to a practice — like the open practice for fans on Saturday morning after Fan Day — and the loudest voices aren’t the coaches anymore.
There was junior cornerback Derrick Baity on the sidelines barking orders to the younger defensive backs about where to be and what was coming.
There was junior wide receiver Kayaune Ross, just minutes after making a contested catch in the end zone, offering a better technique to a freshman.
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“It’s all about communication,” senior wideout Dorian Baker said. “If I see something and I’m not in the game, I still gotta call it out. That’s going to help another receiver who’s in the game. That’s what we’ve really been harping on.”
Junior outside linebacker Denzil Ware has taken that “harping” to a whole new level.
“We hold everybody accountable,” he said of the younger players. “We’re always willing to help anybody, everybody. … We’re getting them in the playbooks early, just chewing them out. We’re hard on them just like we’re hard on one another.”
Take freshman newcomer Josh Paschal. From the first day this offseason, Ware pulled Paschal aside and said he needs to do whatever he has to do to steal Ware’s starting spot.
“I told him from day one, if you’re not looking to take my job, then you’re not working hard, you’re not giving it everything you’ve got, then I can’t be your friend and I can’t call you my teammate,” Ware said on Saturday.
“At the end of the day, I only hang around with people who give it everything they got on this field because that’s what I do. If I see him not trying to take my spot —take my job —then I’m on him.”
It’s a shift from just a couple of years ago when Ware arrived, he said. The veterans now are acting like leaders.
“Older guys weren’t talking to me like that,” he said of when he was a freshman. “But I want to win. If (Paschal) is the better man, or I’m the better man, the best gonna play. I just wanna win, even if I gotta sit in the passenger seat and let him drive.”
There’s more competition, accountability and leadership at almost every spot now, which is big for his football team, Coach Mark Stoops said after practice.
“There’s very little selfishness going on,” Stoops said. “There’s guys they know they’re competing for their jobs and still trying to help them. It’s about the team. … This team they’re taking it. They’re taking the medicine, they want to be better. It’s important to them.”
‘We trust the plays’
Quarterbacks Stephen Johnson and Drew Barker looked strong in the open practice, but they got a lot of help from the wide receivers, who made some impressive grabs with only one questionable drop all afternoon.
Baker, a senior wide receiver, noted confidence and a familiarity with the offense being big factors.
“It’s our second year under the same offensive coordinator and the same coaches, so for us to be comfortable with the playbook, it just has a different feel,” he said. “We trust the plays; we trust each other.”
Stoops also noticed that the wide receivers seemed especially on for the crowd on Saturday, but the former defensive coordinator had a slightly different take.
“It was good to see some competitive plays today,” he said. “Guys that were covered and they forced it in there and made good plays. I’d like to see us win some more defensively, some contested plays. But it is good to see them throwing and catching, yes.”
As for the quarterbacks, Johnson appeared in command of the offense, including making a pretty, designed quarterback run in 11-on-11. He also found tight end C.J. Conrad for at least two short passes in the middle of the field (a play they struggled on a bunch last season).
“Stephen looks sharper making the routine plays look routine, throwing and catching,” Stoops said.
As for Barker, coming back from season-ending back surgery, he had zip on passes all over the field and was less tentative than he was in the spring during his recovery.
“He looks very confident and stronger, can make all the throws again,” Stoops said of the junior. “The last time I saw him he wasn’t the same as he is now. It’s really nice to see him out there strong, confident and just going through practice.”
Catching coach’s eye
There were specific names mentioned from the 2017 class that clearly had Stoops excited after the open practice, including Josh Paschal, a 6-foot-3, 270-pound outside linebacker who didn’t look like a player roaming the halls of his high school a couple of months ago.
And he doesn’t sound like a guy heading for a redshirt season.
“Very good football player,” Stoops said of the player, who is working primarily at the jack linebacker spot (hybrid defensive end), but might be moved around. “What’s great about Josh is, he has a lot of things going for him. … Football’s very important to him. He’s in here all the time, he’s taking care of his body, he’s lifting, he’s running, and he’s got instincts. He’s definitely gonna be a guy that plays as well.”
One of the Cats’ biggest question marks going into the season is defensive line play. At least one true freshman appears ready to help right away in Quinton Bohanna (6-4, 320 pounds).
“I’m pleased with what he can do athletically,” Stoops said. “He’s a big, strong guy. He’s tough. It’s very important to him. He has shown up. He definitely will be a guy that we’re gonna start forcing into the two-deep.”
On wide receivers Josh Ali and Isaiah Epps: “They’ve been strong; they’ve been very good. They’re what we’re looking for. They’re guys who can run; they make competitive plays.”
While the media was busy singling out freshmen that made plays on Saturday, Stoops mentioned how pleased with the group as a whole a week into camp. “The whole freshman class, I’ve been pleased with. Very conscientious. They work. Football’s important to them. They’re competitive, so I’ve been pleased.”
News and notes
It was his first full practice with his new teammates, which meant limited work for recently cleared wideout Lynn Bowden, but he was back with the group of punt returners, which included Charles Walker, Sihiem King, Josh Ali and Garrett Johnson.
That spot belonged to Walker last season, who was fifth in the Southeastern Conference averaging 7.8 yards a return with one touchdown. The former walk-on from Louisville had a crazy catch in team drills that had the crowd cheering.
“He’s hard to cover,” Stoops said of Walker. “He makes competitive catches and he goes hard every day. You’ve gotta love Charles and the way he competes.”
As for Bowden, the return game might be one place where he can come in and help right away as he wades into the playbook, the head coach said. The freshman from Youngstown who was cleared to begin practicing late Friday had one individual workout before Saturday’s live action.
“We’ve got to bring him along,” Stoops said. “He’s missed some days. He can’t install everything. Nobody can handle that, so we’ve got to go to day one install and feed him a little bit, yes.”
▪ After six practices in seven days, there are a couple of players banged up, Stoops said. Specifically cornerback Derrick Baity wore a boot on his left ankle, which has a minor sprain. Linebacker Eli Brown is battling a hamstring injury.
▪ A university events worker helping with crowd control collapsed late in the practice after becoming overheated. Practice stopped briefly and Stoops went over to check on him. An athletics department spokesman said the worker was treated by the medical staff on site and is expected to be fine.