Approximately two weeks until Kentucky’s opener Sept. 3 against visiting Southern Miss, five observations from fall camp:
1. Defense is the biggest concern. And we’re not just referring to the unexpected losses of starting defensive tackle Regie Meant (personal reasons) and starting safety Darius West (knee). Though neither of those absences help the situation.
After a less-than-impressive performance by his defense in the camp’s first scrimmage, Mark Stoops was a bit more pleased Saturday, but the head coach was hardly gushing. Tackling is an issue. Depth is an issue. While the secondary is ready for a starring role — safety Derrick Baity intercepted a Drew Barker pass Saturday — the front seven remains in flux. That’s concerning.
2. Watch out for Kobie Walker. The 6-foot-3, 215-pound linebacker has been one of the stars of camp. A sophomore out of Baltimore, Walker did not play his first two years because of academic issues and injuries. This year will be a different story.
In several interview sessions this camp, offensive players have been asked which defensive players have been giving them trouble. Walker’s name almost always pops up, especially as a player with speed who can provide a pass rush off the edge.
“He makes good plays because he’s very active,” Stoops said Saturday. “He’s a guy that you need with some of the things we’re doing. He makes loose plays. Where he’s supposed to be outside and if they’re overreaching, then he comes under and makes a play. … He’s definitely going to be an important piece of the package.”
3. Drew Barker is doing what he needs to do. The coaches, wide receivers, running backs and offensive line are all unanimous in their praise of the sophomore quarterback’s camp to this point.
Barker has known since the end of spring ball he is the No. 1 quarterback and by all accounts has taken that to heart. We know Barker, a four-star recruit, has the physical ability. What he has shown this camp is a work ethic that has commanded attention.
Example: Quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw was asked Friday how Barker was doing with making protection calls for the offensive line, a responsibility UK quarterbacks have not been given lately.
“I’m really proud of him,” Hinshaw said. “He understands what he needs to do to protect himself in the pocket and get the line slid the right way so we have the best protection possible.”
4. Higher expectations for the offense. Eddie Gran isn’t shy about saying he has set a high bar, and to be honest the new offensive coordinator has more to work with on his side of the ball.
There is depth at running back, wide receiver, tight end. The offensive line appears set. Barker has made just two career starts at quarterback, but few doubt his ability. Given the questions on defense, UK’s offense will have to meet Gran’s expectations if the Cats are going to cross the five-win hurdle and go bowling.
5. Show-me attitude. This applies to the fan base. As Jennifer Smith reported Friday, season ticket sales are down 14 percent from last season. That reflects the public feeling about the state of the program right now.
After six straight losing seasons and five straight years without a bowl — not to mention a long history of football struggles — the faithful are taking not just a wait-and-see approach, but often a skeptical one. The feedback about fall camp so far has been much like the feedback from spring ball, when any sense of optimism was greeted with a we’ve-heard-that-before.
Heading into Stoops’ fourth year, the bottom line is what counts. As a football-fanatic friend told me over the summer (paraphrasing), “They’ve got to win. They can talk all the want about better recruiting and better facilities. They’ve got to win games. Simple as that.”
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