The bad news: Kentucky’s defense had issues tackling in its first live scrimmage of the season and is struggling with depth at some key positions.
And here’s defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot with the good news: “I saw plenty of things we can get better at. The good thing is we have time to do it.”
Kentucky has roughly three weeks before the season opener and the defense hopes this first week of fall camp will be the worst of it for them. The difficulties have included losing starting defensive lineman Regie Meant for undisclosed reasons for an undisclosed amount of time.
And then on Saturday, Coach Mark Stoops announced that likely starting safety Darius West will miss the rest of the season after injuring the patellar tendon in his left knee on Friday.
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“It is extremely tough for the kid,” Eliot said of the safety, who has had a series of leg injuries (the other leg) since his senior year of high school. “You really feel for him with the injuries he’s had already in his career and how hard he’s fought through to bounce back, how much better of a player he had become.”
The 6-footer from Lima, Ohio, played in 10 games last season and was a star on special teams, even being named a special teams captain in spring drills.
“It’s a blow also because the more depth you had, the bigger an impact you can have on special teams because Darius was a really explosive guy,” Stoops said of West, who had 17 tackles last season, including seven in UK’s victory over Charlotte.
West was mired in a position battle with seniors Marcus McWilson and Blake McClain, who also is a regular at the nickelback spot. Marcus Walker also could get in the mix, Stoops said.
It’s another setback for the Kentucky defense, which is still working to replace Meant. Eliot said Adrian Middleton is at the No. 1 spot now and that coaches are seeing good things from true freshmen like T.J. Carter, Kordell Looney and Ja’Quize Cross.
The defense is handling the adversity well, linebacker Courtney Love said. It’s created a renewed sense of urgency.
“Guys are definitely wanting to step up,” Love said. “You see guys wanting to work harder, getting extra film and things like that.”
As for the so-so tackling, Love also offered a positive spin, noting that the first scrimmage is always difficult.
“That’s something that always happens because now it’s finally live and guys are finally starting to tackle and you’ve got to bring your legs and things like that instead of just tagging off,” he said. “I think with this next scrimmage coming up, we’ll do a lot better job and going into these next practices, we’ll definitely work on that a lot.”
At least a few defensive players caught the eyes of their teammates, with quarterback Drew Barker complimenting the Cats cornerbacks as well as several linebackers like Jordan Jones, Eli Brown, Nico Firios and Kobie Walker.
“Everyone looks solid,” Barker said on Saturday after the closed scrimmage at Commonwealth Stadium. “Pretty impressive. They had their share of plays today.”
When asked about the play that was most promising for the defense on Saturday, Love mentioned a key tackle for loss for outside linebacker Denzil Ware.
That rang some bells for Barker, too.
“I don’t know how I forgot Denzil,” the quarterback said. “He’s had a great camp, too. I don’t know how I forgot about him. He’s always in the backfield.”
On the flip side
If the news is bad on one side of the ball in scrimmages, it’s generally much sunnier on the other. Saturday was no exception.
Offensive coordinator Eddie Gran and Stoops mentioned a few bright spots, including key third-down conversions, multiple 12-play or more drives.
Barker drew praise from his coaches as well.
“Drew I thought really made good decisions,” Stoops said. “I felt like he was really smart with the ball and was decisive, made good decisions, quick decisions and took care of the football and moved the offense.”
At the end of the scrimmage, the offense was running a two-minute, make-it-or-break it drill and on third-and-5, wide out Jeff Badet made a key play in the back of the end zone, Barker said.
“That play was really exciting,” the QB said. “It was really exciting to see a guy step up and make a play in a situation where we have to step up and make plays where we haven’t in the past.”
When asked what players stood out to him, offensive coordinator Eddie Gran mentioned freshman running back Benny Snell and wide receiver Dorian Baker.
And special teams?
The unit that had some issues last season continues to have them this season, with Stoops saying simply: “We still need a lot of work there.”
Kicker Austin MacGinnis, whom Stoops called “healthy for the most part,” was put in some difficult kicking situations and missed a couple, Stoops said, which was “unlike him.”
Stoops said UK is still looking at the punters, meaning there has been no separation between walk-on Bryan Kirshe and true freshman Grant McKinniss.
“We’ve got to continue to look at and work, so we did,” Stoops said. “We worked punt and kickoff return today and had some good reps at it.”
Stoops ran off a list of return options for UK, including Garrett Johnson, Jeff Badet, Ryan Timmons and Charles Walker. Running back Sihiem King was mentioned as a kickoff return guy.
‘Whole team was just blown away’
It’s become one of the feel-good moments in fall camp for Kentucky: When Stoops grants a scholarship to a walk-on. This season was a no-brainer in wide receiver Charles Walker, who has played in 24 games with one start.
The 5-foot-11, 203-pound junior from Louisville has made his name on special teams, second on that unit in tackles last season with six. As a wide out, he had five catches for 61 yards.
“The whole team was just blown away, because they love the kid,” Stoops said of Walker. “How can you not? He really exemplifies everything you want in a player.”
The head coach went on to discuss Walker’s positive, competitive attitude.
“He just has a smile on his face, has a competitive attitude, but he’s also contagious,” Stoops said. “He’s fun to be around and does everything you ask him to do; he does it the best he can.”
It was a special moment said Barker, who added that Walker should be “the standard for how everybody should come to work every single day.
“He’s one of my good friends, so just to see him in that moment, I think he teared up a little bit,” Barker said. “I don’t know if he’ll admit that. But it was pretty cool to see him get that scholarship and he definitely was very deserving.”
Extra fall install
A season or two ago when so much of Kentucky’s offense was barely out of high school, Stoops would’ve limited the amount of extra information thrown at them.
But this week when Gran said he wanted to give them even more of the vast playbook, Stoops didn’t hesitate.
“Coach said, ‘Put it all, go, throw it at ’em, let’s see where they’re at,’” Gran recalled.
So now UK’s offense has it all in. The offensive coordinator will have to go to the scrimmage film to see how much of it actually sunk in, but he seemed pleased with the results overall.
“How many missed assignments did they have? If there’s too much then you trim the fat. It’s like I told them,” Gran said. “I said, ‘Guys, we’ve got everything in. Every week it’s not like that. It will be trimmed, it will be so much easier when we get to our first game.’”
The new offensive wrinkles still left a few things to iron out, Stoops said, but he likes having an offense that can soak in more information and use more of the playbook.
“You’ve heard me talk about other teams we play, if we’re stopping one thing, they go to a different package,” Stoops said. “I definitely feel like we have the ability to execute things better with some of the new stuff. There were a few hiccups here and there, but again, I like where we’re at and I think we’ll get it cleaned up and use some of it.”
Running back Boom Williams was held out of the scrimmage on Saturday as a precaution. Coaches are being careful with him after his elbow surgery this spring. … RB Mikel Horton suffered an ankle injury during the scrimmage. Wide receiver Blake Bone has been nursing a hamstring injury and is likely to return on Monday or Tuesday.