Think of Kentucky’s special teams unit as a reality show.
And Saturday was the day that a handful of the players got kicked off the island or didn’t get the rose.
It’s a part of a renewed push — based in reality — to increase the competitiveness of that group behind new special teams coordinator Andy Buh.
Think of Buh as the commissioner who split UK’s team into four smaller teams and selected four players with being in charge of those teams: linebacker Courtney Love, wide receiver Charles Walker and defensive backs Blake McClain and Darius West.
Never miss a local story.
Those four players look at the week’s data from drills and practices, then they franchise a set of players, make trades for others and are forced to “cut” a teammate or two.
“Maybe a guy that hasn’t been performing very well or taking enough reps,” Buh explained of the game, which he stole in part from John Baxter, the special teams coordinator at Southern Cal.
The first round of cuts was on Saturday before the Cats’ second scrimmage. The players who get the axe won’t be on special teams for the rest of the spring.
“That’s real life; you either win or you lose,” Stoops said of the reality-show-style ousting. “It’s in black and white. They’ll get another opportunity, not the rest of this spring though. They’re cut from special teams. But I think we’re making it fun but also putting that accountability back on the players.”
It’s not fun for the player that got cut, but it’s also a little challenging for the guy charged with the cutting, Walker said.
“I’m not exactly the best at trying to cut someone,” he smiled. “I try to be friendly with everyone, so it was tough.”
Walker, who heads up The Hammer team which is winning so far 4-1, was able to pull aside the player that he had to cut on Saturday and talk to him in advance, but he said it’s a “stressful” thing to be in charge of an entire group of teammates.
The cuts haven’t been too complicated — at least not yet — because so much of the information available makes it clear who isn’t pulling his weight. Techniques are the plays and drills are the game, Buh explained.
We’re not just teaching them about special teams, we’re also teaching value. What is your value to the team? How much energy are you giving us? How are you performing? Are you listening to the rules? Are you learning the plays? Are you winning the games?
Special teams coordinator Andy Buh
Each game played identifies the best kickoff coverage players, the best kickoff return players, the best punt coverage players and the best punt return players.
Much of what the coaches and graduate assistants see from the charts and film will help them get the best players on special teams in the fall.
“We’re not just teaching them about special teams, we’re also teaching value,” Buh said. “What is your value to the team? How much energy are you giving us? How are you performing? Are you listening to the rules? Are you learning the plays? Are you winning the games?”
It sends a larger message about accountability, said Stoops, who added that he saw some good special teams work at the closed scrimmage again on Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium.
“You either win or lose, and we’re tired of being close,” the head coach said. “We want to win and we want to find those plays, those yards, those inches, whatever it is. It’s great, because it’s right there in black and white. You either win a rep or lose a rep.”
It has shown up in effort plays elsewhere, too, offensive coordinator Eddie Gran added.
“Everything’s about winning the drill, winning the competitive battles that we have at the end of those segments,” he said. “You can certainly see it already that it’s showing up with the effort, it’s showing up with the technique right now and it’s awesome.”
Walker, who did not disclose who was cut or given franchise status on Saturday, said special teams has become way more competitive this season because of the added elements.
“There’s people last year who didn’t want to do the drills and now they’re first in line when they can be,” he said, noting that the winning team also gets the candy of its choice (that’s like a rose, right?)
Walker said he’s still figuring out some of the rules involved, though. His team, The Hammer, didn’t get to make a trade because it’s in first place overall. So he had another team poach one of his best players on Saturday.
“I need to talk to Coach Buh about the rules right now because they took one of our good ones and I don’t know what’s happened,” he laughed.
But overall, what UK hopes will happen is special teams play will improve come September.
“We’re having fun with it and it’s way more competitive than it was last year because there’s teams, there’s points, there’s cuts, there’s franchises,” Walker said. “Everyone is really working really hard.”
Kentucky’s scrimmage at Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday was closed, but there are always updates around. Here are a few we gathered on a windy, chilly Saturday:
▪ Some standouts: On offense, Stoops said that wide receiver Ryan Timmons has been a pleasant surprise this spring. “He’s really done some good things; he’s shown up well.” … Defensively, linebacker Courtney Love drew some praise as did defensive lineman Regie Meant. “Regie is a guy that’s been a good leader and really passionate,” Stoops said. “Really playing physical.” … Defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said linebacker Jordan Jones has an enthusiasm for the game. “Some people may find that annoying; I don’t,” he laughed. “But he brings that love for the game every day.”
▪ Some scoring: running back Mikel Horton scored at least twice for UK. … Quarterback Drew Barker, who coaches said faced some adversity early in the scrimmage, was able to bounce back and finish strong, including finding fullback Will Tom Collins for a touchdown pass.
Campus visitor ‘huge’ for many reasons
The beaches of Florida have been dotted with Lexington high school kids on spring break all week.
But one specific high school kid decided to get up early several days this week and go to Kentucky football practice: Five-star offensive tackle Landon Young from Lafayette.
“That says a lot about him,” offensive line coach John Schlarman said of Young being actively engaged before his freshman season even begins. “He comes over here. He’ll come into meetings or he’ll be out on the field. He takes time out of his schedule to come over here and start working.”
It could be a big help for Young come this summer when he officially starts working with his new Kentucky teammates.
“It’s very beneficial,” Schlarman said of the 6-foot-7, 300-pound lineman. “He’s starting to learn some of the terminology. He can come up to me and now when he hears us make a call out there, he kind of has an idea of what’s going on. That’s huge.”
Having Young around at some practices, including the open practice with fans and some big-name recruits last weekend at Commonwealth Stadium was huge, too.
The lineman was hard to miss in the middle of warm-ups, joking with Stoops as future teammates warmed up around him.
“Got big Landon out there, he’s a big five-star guy,” recruiting coordinator Vince Marrow said of Young’s presence. “It’s different now. Our team, we look like an SEC team, and when these parents see that, they think, ‘I want my kid to be a part of this.’”
Sydney Gran extras
There is only so much story you can fit in one newspaper, so there were plenty of other tidbits that I wanted to share in the story about new offensive coordinator Eddie Gran and Sydney, his daughter who passed away in 2005 from a rare birth defect.
Gran said he was excited when he saw how close the UK Children’s Hospital was to the football facilities. After spending so many hours at a similar hospital in Birmingham, he’s eager to find ways to help in Lexington, too.
“It was one of the first things I thought about when I drove past the Children’s Hospital here,” he said. “I’d love to get involved in this community and start helping and raise money.”
Strong in his faith since Sydney entered his life, Gran also said he tries to be actively involved in campus Fellowship of Christian Athlete events.
“FCA became a huge part of what we were doing,” he said of his family. “I’d go around and tell the story and how it changed my life. It not only changed my life, but it changed players’ lives.”
▪ The Sydney Gran Foundation has not been actively raising money since the Gran family left Auburn, but a new facility at Children’s of Alabama recently opened and there is a special Sydney Gran room there with a plaque over the door.