The University of Kentucky quarterbacks have been the talk of the spring and will be the talk of the summer and fall camp.
But it was UK tailback Donald Russell who was the talk of Saturday's Blue-White Spring Game at Commonwealth Stadium.
With No. 1 tailback Derrick Locke seeing limited action, Russell took the reins and ran for 118 yards and two touchdowns on just nine carries, including a 70-yard scoring run. Russell also hauled in a beautiful 35-yard over-the-shoulder catch near the sideline from Mike Hartline.
Coach Joker Phillips said Russell made a strong claim for the No. 2 tailback spot behind Locke.
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"Russell continues to plead his case, and he's building a nice little résumé as to why he should be the second-team running back," Phillips said. "I was telling Jonathan George (who's also competing for the No. 2 tailback spot) that (No.) 23 (Russell) is making a case for himself; you better make one for yourself, also."
UK will also welcome three highly touted tailbacks in the fall, and Russell felt it was important to finish the spring with a bang.
"I think I made a statement that if you want a spot, you're going to have to earn it," Russell said.
The game pitted the offense (Blue) against the defense (White) and featured a specialized scoring system.
Technically the Blue won, 60-25, in front of an estimated crowd of 9,000, but the White had some qualms about the scoring system.
The offense was awarded a point for first downs in addition to the traditional means of scoring. The defense got points for third- and fourth-down stops, turnovers and defensive touchdowns but received none for sacks.
"We were on the sideline talking like, 'How are they going to get a point for every first down?'" said defensive tackle Mister Cobble. "And we didn't get any points for sacks. The way the scoring system was, they were destined to win."
Even the offense admitted they weren't on top of their game outside of Russell. Part of that can be attributed to the limited snaps of Locke (two carries, 11 yards) and Randall Cobb (one reception, 6 yards; no rushing attempts), but the offense was also plagued by ill-advised throws, receivers having trouble keeping their footing, and spotty pass protection.
"I think it was a sloppy game," Hartline said. "We didn't play very well offensively although the score said something completely different."
Phillips said he implemented the point system in part to force the defense to become more effective at third-down stops.
"I think it's fair," Phillips said. "They've got to get themselves off the field. That's been a huge emphasis. We weren't able to get ourselves off the field as much as we would have liked last year. If we tackled, the score would have been a lot closer."
Overall, however, there were some nice individual performances by the defense, and many of the players felt it was their best showing out of the three spring scrimmages.
Defensive coordinator Steve Brown's unit came with more pressure than they showed last year and was in the quarterback's face much of the afternoon.
Linebacker Danny Trevathan had a sack, an interception and a quarterback hurry, and the UK offensive line had a tough time containing Cobble.
"Defensively, I thought the first-team defense swarmed the football," Phillips said. "Trevathan showed up all over the field. We've been getting on Danny, trying to get him to be more of a leader. Sometimes guys don't think they're leaders, but he showed it today the way he played."
As for the quarterbacks, Phillips said he'll continue to let the three-man race among Hartline, Morgan Newton and Ryan Mossakowski play out through the summer and into fall camp.
Hartline finished 11-for-24 for 124 yards. He was intercepted by Trevathan on the opening drive but rebounded to throw a 21-yard touchdown pass to E.J. Fields.
Newton made several big plays, including a 36-yard run and a pair of nice deep balls to Chris Matthews late in the second quarter. But that drive ended when Newton's pass intended for Matthews was read perfectly and picked off by Winston Guy. Newton finished with 92 passing yards and 45 rushing yards.
Mossakowski finished 6-for-13 for 37 yards and led a scoring drive that resulted in a 34-yard Ryan Tydlacka field goal.
Phillips did say Newton and Mossakowski closed the gap on Hartline, who was clearly the most effective quarterback through the first couple of weeks of spring practice.
"The coaches are going to let it ride through the summer and fall and let us compete," Hartline said. "When they announce it, they announce it, but I'm preparing like I'm going to be the guy when Sept. 4 comes."