Considering he has to replace five starters, including four All-SEC picks, Kentucky defensive coordinator Steve Brown has a lot to do between now and the season opener at Louisville on Sept. 4.
For now, though, Brown isn't as worried about adding new wrinkles or doing anything fancy. He's just trying to get his guys to tackle.
In order to improve its tackling, Coach Joker Phillips decided this spring to let the defense wrap up ballcarriers instead of just "tagging" off as they have in the past to avoid injuries.
The Wildcats completed its second spring scrimmage on Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium, and while the scrimmage was closed to the media, both Brown and head coach Joker Phillips said tackling once again was a major issue.
Never miss a local story.
Phillips said the defense struggled to get off the field on third down, with many of those failed conversions a direct result of poor tackling, particularly in the secondary.
"They're (the defense) flying around, but fundamentally we've got to be better tacklers," Phillips said. "We've got people in position, they've just got to wrap up. That's why we changed practice. We've been tagging off way too much and I think it's made us not very good tacklers."
Phillips did single out four defensive players who have been playing well: defensive end Tristian Johnson, defensive tackle Mark Crawford, defensive end Collins Ukwu and linebacker Qua Huzzie.
"Those four guys continue to show up," Phillips said. "We've just got to get more guys around the football, and we've got to be able to tackle."
Brown knows his defense is a work in progress and said he's not pushing the panic button despite the offense having its way for much of the spring. Brown has kept the defense vanilla thus far, instead focusing on making sure all the new faces are where they're supposed to be and know what they're doing.
"It's a fine line between pride and what you're seeing and understanding who's doing it and what stage they're at," Brown said. "You get in a situation where it's competitive, every time they take the field you want them to go three and out, which is not realistic at this point."
As for the three quarterbacks, Mike Hartline played just three series, including none in the short-field portion of the scrimmage. Hartline finished 7-of-13 passing for 82 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions.
When Brown was asked which player was giving the defense the most problems, he immediately said Hartline.
"He's a guy that's so smart," Brown said. "He's kind of like Andre Woodson in that he can read coverages very well and he can see things coming and get his offense in good position for their plays."
The red jerseys were put away and the quarterbacks were allowed live contact during the scrimmage. Newton took advantage by accounting for three touchdowns, one in the air and two on the ground. Newton finished 10-of-16 passing for 98 yards to go with 48 rushing yards on seven carries.
"The thing he was able to do today was pull the ball down and run for a lot of yards," Phillips said. "He made some positive plays when we were covered downfield and that's what he's got to do, because he's the type of guy who can make things happen with his legs also."
The red jersey is supposed to protect quarterbacks, but Newton said it might have had the opposite effect on him.
"The red jersey in some ways kind of handicaps me," Newton said. "That's the one thing I've been able to do is use my feet and break out of little arm tackles in the pocket. Working on that in practice helps me out on the field just being fundamentally sound and getting through reads. Being able to come out and kind of showcase everything in a game-like situation is helpful."
Newton felt like he made strides from the first scrimmage.
"That's the important thing is make progress every day," Newton said. "I was able to make progress from last week and now hopefully I can carry over to next week."
Ryan Mossakowski was 7-for-17 for 78 yards, including a 2-yard scoring pass to Aaron Boyd.
Phillips was again non-committal on Saturday when asked if he would name a starter by the end of spring. While Hartline is currently the leader, the quarterback said he has no plans to coast whether he can sew up the job early.
"I would love to (be named the starter by the end of spring), but that's up to Coach Phillips and the rest of the staff," Hartline said. "It would feel good, but at the same time I don't think it would change anything going into the summer or the fall. The other quarterbacks are still going to compete hard and still come after what they want, and that's what we need. If we had that at every position, this team would greatly improve."
Jonathan George got the spotlight among UK's tailbacks behind Derrick Locke in last week's scrimmage with 127 yards, including a 73-yard touchdown run. On Saturday it was Donald Russell's turn. Russell, who saw mop-up duty as a freshman last fall while George redshirted, had 147 total yards, rushing for a game-high 63 yards on 13 carries while catching four passes for 84 yards. Russell also had a 27-yard touchdown run.
"Russell showed up today," Phillips said. "I like the way Donald ran the ball in the open field. He made people miss, and a lot of that had to do with the way we tackled. You can't drop your head when you have a back that moves the way he does."
Wilson playing some DE
Linebacker Ridge Wilson has been spending time this spring lining up at defensive end in third-down situations.
Wilson played in 11 games, mainly on special teams, as a freshman last fall. He is currently competing with Jacob Dufrene for the No. 1 spot at strong-side linebacker.
"To be honest, I feel like that's a more natural position for me," Wilson said. "Anything to get on the field, I'm willing to do it."
Spring Game info
The Blue/White Spring Game will be held next Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium. Kickoff is set for 1 p.m.
With the Cats relatively healthy, Phillips has decided to have a standard game format with two separate teams playing each other. The teams will be chosen later this week.
Parking is free and on a first-come, first-served basis. The parking lots open at 8 a.m, with stadium gates opening at 11:30 a.m. The game will be broadcast on The Big Blue Sports Network, including WLAP-630 in Lexington. Concession stands and the Nike Team Shops will be available on the stadium concourse. The stadium ticket office outside Gate 4 will be open from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. in order for current season-ticket holders to renew their tickets. Current season-ticket holders should receive their renewal forms in the mail this week.
Brooks to be honoredon Saturday
The Rich Brooks Foundation and the Bluegrass Chapter of the American Red Cross will present "A Salute to Coach Brooks" Saturday at 6:30 p.m. at the main residence of Donamire Farm.
"We wanted to give the public an opportunity to come out and thank Coach and Mrs. Brooks for all that they have meant to Kentucky," said Will Sutherland, President of the Rich Brooks Foundation. All proceeds benefit the Rich Brooks Foundation and the Bluegrass Chapter of the American Red Cross. Tickets are $125 each for single tickets or $100 each for two or more.
To order tickets or for more information visit www.redcrosslexky.org or call 859-253-1331.