Nate Northington and Wilbur Hackett were a little worried when the doors opened for Kentucky’s Fan Day and they watched the blue crowd stream past them to get the autographs of names like Mark Stoops and Drew Barker.
“When everybody came in, they kind of headed a different direction,” Northingon said.
But it didn’t take long for that blue tide to head their direction.
“They went that way first, but they came right back around this way,” Hackett said.
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The two former Kentucky players, who helped break the color barrier in the Southeastern Conference and were memorialized on a team poster this season, stuck around well after UK’s current players left for practice.
Northington and Hackett signed and signed and signed.
And signed. And signed.
But you won’t hear either of them complain about cramped hands.
“I could do this all day,” smiled Northington, who became the first black player to play in an SEC game on Sept. 30, 1967. “At my age, to have someone who still wants your autograph is pretty amazing.”
A line of fans waited patiently even as event staff tore down the final pieces of Fan Day around them, waiting to meet two of the four players who will forever be memorialized in a statue that will stand outside the new football practice facility.
That statue of Northington, Hackett, Greg Page and Houston Hogg will be unveiled at a special event on Sept. 22.
Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops was happy to have them on campus with several former football alumni in to have lunch with the team and take in the open practice.
“It’s good to have them,” Stoops said of Hackett and Northington. “I thought it was appropriate because they’re on the poster and we’re recognizing those guys and it was good for our fans to be able to see them, spend some time with them.”
Neither ex-Cat ever recalled signing an autograph as a player, but they said it was a lot of fun to be included in the Fan Day festivities.
“I really appreciated all of the people saying, ‘Thank you for what you did,’” said Hackett, the first black team captain in any SEC sport. “It meant a lot. It was so nice.”
Despite soupy, almost swamp-like conditions, hundreds of Kentucky fans flooded the new practice fields off Alumni Drive for a first glimpse of the team this season.
Some casual observations from the second practice of fall camp:
▪ Despite being 100 percent cleared after offseason elbow surgery, UK running back Boom Williams was in a red no-contact jersey, as were the quarterbacks.
Stoops said the junior was in blue for the first practice on Friday, but the jersey shade swap is not an indication of any lingering issues.
“He’s good to go,” Stoops said of Williams, who made several explosive runs and catches in the middle of the field. “The object with him with the red is not to bring him to the ground. We’re not supposed to be doing that right now anyway. He’s fine. He’s good to go.
“We will be smart with him. We can’t be silly. He’s had some major injuries. So, we’ll have him ready to play but we do have to be somewhat cautious and let him work his way back.”
▪ Williams wasn’t the only one making big grabs on Saturday. There were several from senior Ryan Timmons (who had just one bad drop) as well as Dorian Baker, Jabari Greenwood, Garrett Johnson and Jeff Badet.
“They made some competitive catches,” Stoops said. “I like seeing that. I like seeing good coverage and good catches, because that’s what’s going to happen.”
Always a defensive backs coach, Stoops had to note the competitive plays opposite those receivers. One of them included a pretty pick for Marcus McWilson and another for true freshman Jordan Griffin.
▪ Starting quarterback Drew Barker looked in command of the offense while working with the first team, with Stoops saying later that the sophomore has been “very decisive” early in camp.
But there’s still plenty for him to work on.
“We had some deep balls open again that we’ve got to connect on,” the head coach said. “We’re constantly working on that, fundamentally from receivers to throwing the ball accurately as well. But there’s some things we can do better to connect on some deep balls.”
▪ Sophomore Jared Tucker, listed third string on the depth chart at cornerback going into fall camp, asked for and was granted his release, Stoops announced.
“Jared is going to go play somewhere else,” he said. “Really appreciate Jared. He’s a fine, young man and wish him the very best. There was no animosity on either side. He wants to go somewhere where he can get on the field and play.”
▪ Several players went down during the nearly two-hour practice with cramps, including linebacker De’Niro Laster and wide out Dorian Baker (after making a nice catch).
“That’s par for the course right now across the country,” Stoops said. “There will be some IV bags going up in there, but they’ll be fine.”
▪ There were a couple periods for punt return on Saturday, with Ryan Timmons, Jeff Badet, Garrett Johnson and Charles Walker each getting reps.
Working freshmen in
While the first and second teams seemed mostly unchanged from the post-spring depth charts, UK coaches sprinkled several of the true freshmen in throughout.
“We’re giving them reps as you saw out there today, so we’re constantly giving third team guys reps, but we’re also making a point to make sure all freshmen — if we do happen to be deep at that position, we’re getting all freshmen some looks,” Stoops said. “And as camp goes on we’ll take them specifically and work with them after practice as well and make sure they’re getting the reps and staying up to date.”
It might be the first time Kentucky hasn’t had to rely on true freshman at positions of note, which wasn’t lost on Stoops, who called that a sign of program progress.
“It’s a lot less frustrating when you walk off the practice field because you’re not trying to feed somebody water with a fire hose,” he said of working with newcomers.
“You’re letting them come along the way they can. We have some very talented freshmen and some of them may play, but right now it is nice to see some older guys at the positions that have been around.”
An old friend returns
Kentucky had more than 125 former players back on campus this weekend for the opening of fall camp and the new, $45 million practice facility.
The celebration of UK’s football past is prominent in the new venue, which pleased the head coach.
“One of the aspects of the building we don’t touch on a lot is the history we’ve really tried to embrace and bring back,” Stoops said on Friday. “We appreciate all the past players, all their efforts, the past teams, the winning teams, the coaches that have done so well. We’ve really tried to embrace that history.”
On that list of returnees was Harry Rogers of Frankfort, who played for the Cats on the 1947, 1949 and 1950 bowl teams under Paul “Bear” Bryant.
He was able to spend time in the new facility and even got to see his place on the wall there.
“It was awesome to have them and their families here,” Stoops said of the various returning alumni.
‘It’s a big place’
Perhaps there is one problem with Kentucky’s new practice facility and its maze of hallways and various levels.
“I got lost the first day,” confessed true freshman cornerback Jordan Griffin.
He wasn’t alone. New running back A.J. Rose had his own issues navigating the nearly 100,000 square foot facility that has its own dining area, weight room, meeting rooms and barber shop.
“When you look at it from the outside, it doesn’t look that big,” Rose said. “I still get lost in there. … Doors, you open up and you don’t know where they go. It’s a big place.”
No worries, newbies, even the guys who have been around the program for a while have had issues.
“I’m still figuring it out right now,” tight end C.J. Conrad said. “It’s almost too new for me right now.”
There have been “some kinks” to work out with the new building for everyone, Stoops said. But the thousands of positives still cancel out any negatives.
“It is a fresh start for us,” Stoops said of the new building. “It’s a fresh start. We’re excited about that. But none of that matters except what goes on between the white lines.”
UK’s top athletic administrator doesn’t want to seem like an old curmudgeon. In fact, Mitch Barnhart admitted when he sat down with the media on Friday that he hated wearing his reading glasses because they made him feel older.
But when asked about social media usage and athletes, he admitted there’s an age gap, especially with this current crop of college kids who have grown up in a completely digital world.
There have been many times that he’s shaken his head when hearing of things that have been posted on Twitter and other social media platforms.
“There’s some things that are Twitter-able, if that’s a word,” he smiled. “Did I just make that up? Pretty good. There’s other stuff that shouldn’t be Twitter-able. Shouldn’t be.”
Injury and health discussions, thoughts that need to stay in the locker room of a team, relationship back and forth with your significant other, he rattled off a few items.
More than anything, UK advises its athletes to find balance on social media.
“If you want to (tweet) that you got cheesecake last night, tweet that you got cheesecake out there last night: Who cares? Great,” he laughed.