Josh Clemons is more than happy to get hit again.
It's not like he wants to get hit. It's still painful getting thrown to the ground after all, but it beats the alternative of sitting around watching other people get hit.
"I'm just happy to be back here on the field," Kentucky's sophomore running back said after the Cats' final closed scrimmage at Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday. "It's been a long time since I got hit. I'm just enjoying the moment."
Clemons also enjoyed getting in the end zone for the first time in more than 19 months. And he got there at least twice (maybe more, but no official stats are provided to the media after a scrimmage) on Saturday.
Clemons was one of many bright spots for the Kentucky offense, which dominated the final tuneup before next weekend's Blue-White Spring Game.
For the first time in the Mark Stoops era, the coach said he saw one side of the ball dominate the other. Surprisingly, it was the offense, which had been pushed around the past few practices.
"It wasn't even close today," the head coach said.
Even offensive coordinator Neal Brown was pleased. One day after urging patience, he looked a little relieved. "It was really the first day that I thought we looked like an SEC offense," he said.
Clemons was a big part of the reason.
"Josh Clemons really stood out today," Brown said of the 5-foot-10 sophomore. "He had a couple of nice runs. That was encouraging. He hit one big run up the side."
He also caught at least one pass for a touchdown, but he said he couldn't recall which of the three quarterbacks hoisted it his way.
For the first time since Clemons tore his meniscus at South Carolina in 2011, he feels like he's back from the injury. Swelling and tenderness kept him sidelined last season.
Is he all the way back? "I feel like I am, yes."
Is the knee holding up? "It's feeling good. It's the best it's felt."
Whether Clemons is 100 percent physically is less important to Brown than where the rusher is mentally.
"It's a step that he thinks he is (better)," Brown said. "That's the hardest thing with knees, is mentally. ... If he mentally is there, that's a huge, huge breaking point, really. There's probably some things he can get better at, but I was big-time encouraged with him today."
It wasn't just Clemons. Brown had kind words for UK's other ball carriers.
Of senior Raymond Sanders: "Ray's shifty and probably a little bit better out of the backfield and motion-wise and some things."
Brown said Clemons and Dyshawn Mobley both have proven to be a "load to tackle. ... Those guys are hard, physical runners."
And of senior Jonathan George? "One of those guys you don't notice, but he plugs, he always falls forward. He gets what he's supposed to get."
And if UK can get the running game going, it presents at least a chance for bigger things from an underperforming offense the past couple of seasons.
"If we can run the football, then we have some opportunities to hit some big plays," Brown said. "It's always going to go back to that until we can get some guys with more speed who can make plays in space."
As happy as he was with the offense turning a corner (at least for one scrimmage), Stoops was as disappointed that the defense didn't do its part.
"It surprised me that we didn't have more guys step up or (show) more toughness about us," the former defensive coordinator at Florida State said.
When asked what parts of the defense struggled specifically on Saturday, Stoops didn't mince words. "All of it. I still feel like there were some guys up front that did some nice things, but overall it was a struggle."
If there is a front-runner at quarterback, the coaches aren't giving any hints.
The three sophomores, Maxwell Smith, Patrick Towles and Jalen Whitlow, all have gotten nearly identical repetitions in spring drills and scrimmages. Coaches were providing zero details about which of them was leading the offense's biggest drives or making the scrimmages' biggest plays.
One thing is clear as spring practice winds down, the quarterback competition will continue well into fall camp.
"It will definitely go into the fall," Brown said. "In fall camp, you've got four weeks. I like to have two weeks — and I'm not setting a deadline, this is just kind of my thought process — I like having two weeks to kind of see who you're going to play with and two weeks to get prepared to play. It's definitely going into those two weeks and maybe longer. I'd love for a guy to jump up and take it."
Collectively, he said he was pleased with their progress.
"They had more command," Brown said without offering any specifics. "Their body language was better, their energy was better. They were actively cheering for each other."
As a group, he saw them forgetting the previous play (both the pretty and the ugly) and focusing on the next play, something that's going to be key.
Coaches aren't allowed to mandate or even watch workouts in the summer, but both Brown and Stoops said that probably will be the time when some separation occurs.
"Those guys are going to have to work, to be leaders this summer and get the receivers out here," Stoops said. "These guys have to work on their own. We expect them to do that and we'll see the results when we get back out there in the fall."
Stoops acknowledged last week that there are drawbacks to not having a starter now.
"Again, we're telling the truth there," he said on Friday. "We feel like we have three guys and that's great in a lot of ways, but that hurts in some ways because they're not getting reps with the ones and the consistency that we need."
There are many questions about how Kentucky's team will look on Saturday for the first spring game under Stoops, but the new head coach did offer a schematic for how the scrimmage will look.
There will be a competitive game format, with a true Blue team playing a true White team.
There are some drawbacks to doing that, though, the coach said.
"What you worry about is the (lack of) depth and being a little bit sloppy," he said. "You know, you want to put on a good performance. You want to look good for our fans and all of the excitement out there. So you want to make sure you go out there and execute."
Is there any chance the coaches will give away their quarterback pecking order with who starts on Saturday?
"We figured everybody would put some attention on who starts with the first group and all that," Stoops said. "We're probably going to flip a coin, probably right in front of them."
It's likely that Smith, Towles and Whitlow all will see time with the first and second teams.
One area that will not get much special attention for the spring game is special teams. It's likely there will be one or two kick returns and some punting, but no returns.
"There's no point getting anybody hurt going live on the special teams," Stoops said. "So it will be toned down."
'Public display of that excitement'
As of late Friday, the Kentucky ticket office is reporting that more than 42,000 tickets have been distributed for the spring game. If that figure holds, it will be more fans in Commonwealth Stadium than at any home game last season other than Western Kentucky (53,980 announced, 43,174 actual as scanned by TicketMaster).
In fact, the actual attendance total for the Cats' final two home games last season combined was only 39,815.
Kentucky officials are trying to make Saturday's contest have the feel of a home game, including having the Wildcat Refuge (inflatable rides and games for kids outside of Gate 9), as well as a Catwalk and for the first time in the spring, a partial marching band.
"We're going to try to make it feel like a game experience as much as we possibly can," said Nathan Schwake, UK's assistant athletics director for marketing and licensing.
"We're trying to really capitalize on the excitement of everything that's happened. We're just trying to keep that rolling. ... This is obviously a very public display of that excitement."
Special giveaways on Saturday will include a poster celebrating the upcoming season.
A website has been created to answer questions about the spring game and can be found at www.ukathletics.com/fbgameday.
Free tickets for the 7 p.m. kickoff are available by calling the UK ticket office at (859) 257-1818. Tickets are also available online at www.ticketmaster.com, but will include a service fee. Walkup tickets on game day are available starting at 4 p.m. at the Will Call booth outside of Gate 4 and at a ticketing tent between gates 10 and 11.
UK Spring Game
Where: Commonwealth Stadium