There’s been a lot of talk this offseason about how Lamar Thomas is changing the attitudes inside the wide receivers room.
The former Miami star with his eight seasons in the NFL has given the Kentucky wide receivers more swagger, more spunk.
But when the players discuss how their new wide receivers coach has changed their meeting room, they go for a more literal meaning.
On a regular basis, Thomas pulls out a depth chart and he puts the first-string players in the first row. The second-string players sit behind them. The third-string players sit in the third row.
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“He makes it very clear in the room,” redshirt freshman receiver Tavin Richardson said. “You want that first seat. That first seat is where you got to be. You don’t want to be sitting in the back. No way.”
And then there’s the matter of the food. Early in camp, Thomas said no food in the meeting room. He didn’t want the distraction. Then he permitted grapes.
No one is sure why grapes.
“The only thing on the board we’re allowed to eat is grapes,” junior Garrett Johnson said last week. “He made me throw a smoothie away the other day. The only thing we can bring into the room is grapes. … That’s as far as our list got was grapes.”
This week, the list got a little longer. Players can now eat bananas to avoid cramping and peanuts for protein.
The overall message isn’t lost on Johnson, one of Kentucky’s top returning receivers from last season with 46 catches for 694 yards and two touchdowns.
“It seems small, but at the end of the day, you have to obey it, respect it and be disciplined,” Johnson said. “Whether it’s bringing food in the room or being on time. It all correlates.”
It’s made the players much more disciplined, junior wide receiver Charles Walker said.
“We’re older, more responsible, more accountable,” he said. “We’re really watching out for each other making sure we’re not skipping reps, not doing things that will hurt that in the long run.”
Thomas has the players’ attention, whether it’s via the great grape debate or the words he’s telling them on the field in practice, offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said.
“All these guys want to play at that level,” Gran said of the NFL. “He’s been there, so he brings credibility. He gets after their tail and lets them know that you can’t perform like this if you want to get to here.”
And if the musical chairs in the meeting room and the food embargoes seem silly, that seems to be part of Thomas’ plan, too.
A much-maligned wide receivers room that returns 99.1 percent of its catches from last season has to find a way to play looser, to have more fun, he said.
“I enjoy the game and I want these guys to enjoy the game,” Thomas said. “I think that’s a part of the game that some coaches can’t get to. … The most important part is loving the game, putting in the time to get better, doing the little things.”
One of his favorite parts of the job is walking into a meeting room and seeing players in there before he is, studying the playbook ready to ask questions, Thomas said.
“I’m really excited about the way they’re working,” Thomas said. “Everybody’s been pretty consistent. We’ve been pretty happy that they’re developing some kind of leadership in the room and accountability. I think that’s important.”
Accountability applies to those dreaded drops, too.
The drops that UK’s receivers have been asked about time and again since they stepped on the field at Commonwealth Stadium, most of them as true freshmen.
“We’re getting better; we have a couple of drops here and there,” Thomas said recently. “The things I like about these guys is they’re not putting their heads down. They’re jumping back in there and ready to go. We’re not harping on it.”
Too many drops and players move back a row or two in the meeting room.
And because it’s Thomas, there’s always a funny aside.
“They know you’ve got to pay the price if you drop a ball,” he smiled. “You’ve got to do some pushups, gotta build up your chest. Keep dropping the ball you’re going to look like Popeye.”
So far this camp, it doesn’t sound like there have been too many obscenely barrel-chested sailors on the practice field.
But there’s been more consistency, which is what Mark Stoops said the group lacked last season.
“They’ve grown a lot; I like the way they’re going about their business,” the head coach said. “They’ve been very energetic. They’ve been leaders. They’ve been making plays and if they’ve made a bad play or a drop, they’ve just moved right along and made the next one. I’ve been very pleased with the progress we’ve made there.”
Kentucky’s wide receivers
The main man: Ask any of Kentucky’s talented collection of defensive backs the wide receiver they always have to watch out for and inevitably junior Dorian Baker’s name comes up. The speedy, physical 6-foot-3 junior led the wide-outs last season in catches with 55 and touchdowns with three. The narrative this offseason is that he’s worked on his maturity and discipline off the field, which coaches say will make him an even more formidable weapon.
The supporting cast: Kentucky doesn’t just have the benefit of size (a Baton Rouge Advocate article recently measured the Cats’ scholarship wide-outs as the third-tallest in the league) in players like Baker, Blake Bone, and redshirt freshmen Tavin Richardson, Jabari Greenwood, among others. UK also has a good mix of shifty slot receivers like Garrett Johnson (46 catches for 694 yards and two touchdowns), Charles Walker and the top wide receiver two seasons ago in Ryan Timmons. And then there’s the speed of a player like Jeff Badet (29 catches for 430 yards and two TDs). It’s an impressive mix that could be a strength of the team. “So many guys to choose from, so many different types of body styles,” new position coach Lamar Thomas said. UK has plenty of targets and some depth on top of that.
Outlook: Kentucky returns 99.1 percent of its catches from last season and each of the players has talked the regular offseason talk about getting bigger, stronger, faster. But they’ve also discussed more consistency, accountability and maturity. All of that in concert could make this one of the strongest units on the field. “I see more confidence,” quarterback Drew Barker said. “It kind of gives them an edge. They come out ready to practice. They want to make plays.”
Scouting the Cats: Wide receivers
This is the second of nine stories looking at the 2016 Kentucky football team position by position. Here is the previous story in the series: