Every fall camp in scrimmages past, Mark Stoops has had a clear rooting interest. He wanted his defense to do well.
But in his first fall camp scrimmage as a head coach, the former defensive coordinator is torn between pride and frustration.
As he has been in past years, he was pleased his defense made big moves (including four interceptions in the session at Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday), but he also is concerned that the offense was struggling.
The Kentucky defense didn't dominate the scrimmage, but it certainly walked away a winner.
"The defense got some good pressure, got some good turnovers and once we got in all the situational parts of the scrimmage, the defense had the upper hand," Stoops said after the scrimmage, which the media were not allowed to attend. No stats were offered afterward.
When the game started, it looked like it was going to be the offense's day.
"We had some missed tackles and we had some big plays early, and that was very alarming," Stoops said. "And then we started settling in and playing good team defense."
He started to see a defense that showed promise, players that were where they needed to be, making key plays.
"We were making cleaner tackles," he said. "And the defense was staying on the right side of the chains. Early, they were getting 5, 6 (yards) or breaking a big run and (the defense) started to settle in a little bit as the scrimmage went on."
But one thing the head coach is still looking for on both sides of the ball is attitude and edge.
"We're just seeing some guys that are a little bit timid, a little bit quiet and we need them to play with more of an attitude and play with more confidence," he said.
Offensive coordinator Neal Brown is definitely looking for more of all of the above.
"I thought our energy level was low," he said. "You can make an excuse and say, 'OK, we're two weeks into camp.' Nobody cares. Everybody else that's playing college football is at the same point that we are."
It was mental lapses, mainly, senior running back Jonathan George said.
"We started out fast and we kind of died down," he said. "You have to be ready to play the whole duration of the game."
Specifically, Brown was disappointed in how the offense handled some of its situational work, the two-minute drill, its plays inside the 20-yard line.
Neither Brown nor Stoops was ready to crown a starting quarterback quite yet, either. In fact, it sounded like the staff thought it was close, but has had new questions come up in the battle among Jalen Whitlow, Maxwell Smith and Patrick Towles.
"Well, every time you start thinking you're getting closer to making a decision, maybe some things go good or go bad with the other guys," Stoops said. "We've been good and patient. Like I said, it's not at a point where we're getting antsy about it, but we'll look at all the information, all the data and see if we have some player decisions. Then we can let them know and move forward."
Brown said each of them had their "highs and lows" but he said it's hard to assess on the field. It also didn't help that there were several dropped passes.
"We've got to figure out who our playmakers are at wideout because I didn't really feel like we had anyone step up at wideout today," Brown said.
That Achilles' heel for UK wide receivers the past couple of seasons had seemingly gone away. But it re-emerged on Saturday.
"It was an epidemic in the spring and I thought we'd kind of been over that, but then we took a step back today," he said.
When asked if any of his wide receivers impressed at the scrimmage, Brown simply responded: "No."
Other scrimmage notes
■ With Zach Myers out with an injured foot, it was expected that Zach West would get most of the snaps at center, but that wasn't the case. Brown said most of the reps went to Max Godby, who had been running with the second team as Myers and West battled it out on the first team. Brown said West and Teven Eatmon-Nared split time on Saturday at left guard.
■ Brown was pleased with freshman Jojo Kemp's running and the run blocking by the first-team offensive line, especially early in the scrimmage. Presumed starting running back Raymond Sanders didn't get many reps in the scrimmage, Brown said. "He's got a lot of carries in camp so far, and we kinda got a good feel for what he can do."
To name or not to name?
Last week, Neal Brown implied that the team might never formally announce who its starting quarterback is once that decision is finalized. "Why give Western Kentucky extra time to prepare?" he asked aloud.
After the scrimmage Saturday, Stoops was asked his take on that philosophy: "I'm not sure. We're gonna sit down here today, and we'll go through it as a staff and see where we're at. And if we make any decisions, we'll let you know. But we're gonna work through some of that for sure this week."
But as a former defensive coordinator, does Stoops think naming a starter gives defenses too much extra time to plan?
"Probably not too much, because I'm sure they're working for both — all three — of the quarterbacks, or both styles, if you will," he said.
Cats care packages
There are 19 former Cats playing in NFL training camps around the country and Stoops and staff wanted to make sure each of them got a little something to remind them of home.
Players such as Randall Cobb of the Green Bay Packers and Matt Smith of the Atlanta Falcons both tweeted out pictures of the care packages stocked with plenty of Kentucky gear (hats, visors, shorts, a media guide) and a hand-written note from Stoops.
"Our hope is that they'll wear that UK gear around at camp proudly," UK spokesman Susan Lax said this week.
In an interview with the Herald-Leader on Thursday morning, Stoops said he wanted to make sure that former UK players, whether NFL stars or not, feel a part of the program.
He called staying connected with past players "very important.
"I watched my brother Bob do that at a very early stage at Oklahoma, before the early success," he said. "We maybe don't have as much tradition as they have with all the years of history there. But the history we do have here and the great players we have had here, I want them to feel comfortable.
"Every player I run into, whether they were a great player here or an average player here, I always tell them they're welcome here, and I'd love to see them around practice. It's always open to them, the ex-players, and I want them to feel at home."
Friend of the fullback
Kentucky's running backs have each gotten their share of attention and praise this pre-season, but there's one guy who probably will make all of them look good by the end of the season and rarely have his named mentioned: junior fullback D.J. Warren.
Warren is oft overlooked. The 6-foot, 226-pounder from Alcoa, Tenn., has managed just three carries for 1.7 yards and six catches for 24 yards in his two years as a starter.
But coaches are noticing Warren in fall camp.
"He's versatile," running backs coach Chad Scott said. "We aren't going to just hand him the ball all the time, but we've actually used him in certain situations in practice. Just working his footwork. And what we've asked him to do blocking wise, and guys he's going to be asked to block, he's going to have to be mobile and agile and be able to block guys who are bigger."
Warren has been a good leader as well, Scott said.
"He's a smart kid and he catches onto things really well," Scott said. "It actually makes our offense a little more multiple to be able to use him in different aspects."