Mark Stoops wasn’t ready to declare Kentucky a world beater or anything of the sort after the Cats’ annual Blue-White Spring Game.
But the UK coach felt more than comfortable enough to say: “We’re much improved.”
When asked if that meant Kentucky will be strong enough to make it through a difficult Southeastern Conference schedule and come out on the other side better than the 5-7 it’s been each of the past two seasons, Stoops hesitated.
“To say that you’re ever strong enough, I mean, that’s like being — I can’t be any prettier or have too much money, you know what I mean?” he said.
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The Cats’ coach was in a joking mood after the Blue Team starters defeated the White Team reserves 30-21 at Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday, completing what he’s called UK’s best spring in his four seasons in Lexington.
There was plenty to be happy about after a game that included competitive plays on both sides of the ball.
Wideout Jeff Badet had two touchdown catches, one that went for 85 yards from backup quarterback Stephen Johnson and another on an 11-yard dump pass.
There was a 64-yard pass from Drew Barker — whom Stoops declared the starting quarterback in the post-game news conference — to senior Ryan Timmons, who has struggled with confidence at times the past couple of seasons.
There was strong play in the secondary and enough solid work from the defensive front seven that it helped erase some questions the coaches had going into the spring.
All of that made Stoops as pleased as the weather was perfect on Saturday.
“I like the way the game played out,” he said. “I think you want to have some offense. You want to have some fun. You want your fans encouraged walking off the field.”
Just a few short months ago, those same fans were less than encouraged after Kentucky gave away a 21-0 first-quarter lead to rival Louisville and lost on this same field, ending bowl hopes for another year.
That feeling motivated the UK players through a more-grueling-than-usual offseason.
Barker called this spring “a good starting point.
“We have to keep working and everybody on the same page, keep working like we did in the winter and the offseason,” said Barker, who was an efficient 12-for-18 for 156 yards with two touchdowns and one interception in the spring game. “We have to have that same hunger we had coming off that Louisville loss coming out of this spring.”
That Barker was able to come back from that interception and then lead Kentucky’s starters back from a 13-10 deficit to the White Team (and the speedy feet of running back Sihiem King and quarterback Johnson) in the final two minutes of the first half pleased the UK coaches.
“It was really good to see Drew bounce back after the interception ... and throw some really nice throws in some tight windows to make some explosive plays,” Stoops said, noting tight end C.J. Conrad made a nice play in traffic on the 19-yard touchdown pass with 21 seconds left in the first half.
Offensive coordinator Eddie Gran was happy to see the Blue Team make that play before the half and grab a 17-13 lead it would never give back.
Badet made sure of it, first with his 85-yard catch while playing a different wide receiver position than he normally plays.
“I’m an X-receiver and Coach Gran was trying to get me the ball at halftime and he said he was going to find a way to get me the ball, so he actually flipped me to Z,” said Badet, who had three catches for 107 yards and two touchdowns. “He said, ‘I’m going to run a ton of screens with you, so just run.’ That’s what I did.”
Badet wasn’t the only one who had a big game. Timmons had three catches for 99 yards and a score.
“It was great to see him take that touchdown to the house,” Barker said. “Everybody on the sidelines was saying that’s the old Ryan Timmons we’re used to seeing. It was definitely big for him and I think his confidence is at an all-time high right now.”
Johnson, who was playing mostly with the No. 2 offense, connected on four of 11 attempts for just 36 yards with three sacks. When he was moved briefly to the Blue Team, he made both of his throws, including that 85-yarder to Badet.
“Stephen has had a really good spring and just seems like he had a hard time getting started a little bit today,” Stoops said of the junior college transfer. “But he made some good runs and you could see the threat he has with his legs as well.”
The White Team got 84 yards and a touchdown from sophomore running back King, including a 5-yard scoring run. The Blue Team got 66 yards on nine carries from senior running back Jojo Kemp.
“He’s really got good vision,” Stoops said. “We know he has some ability in the open field when he gets some space and you saw that today. … He’s a nice complement to some of the other backs.”
There’s still plenty to clean up on both sides of the ball but there were enough highlights to leave most players — and even a few coaches — feeling better as they end spring ball.
“We have some players with some skill and some experience,” Stoops said. “That makes a big difference. So I’m more confident in our team. … We’re moving in the right direction.”