UK Football

UK football seeks new playmakers: ‘Time to close their mouth and time to roll’

Kentucky's Sihiem King (22) carried the ball in the first quarter against Southern Mississippi on Sept. 3, 2016.
Kentucky's Sihiem King (22) carried the ball in the first quarter against Southern Mississippi on Sept. 3, 2016. palcala@herald-leader.com

Maybe some of the electricity is gone from Kentucky’s offense last season.

Two players that showed the most home run potential last season in running back Boom Williams and wide receiver Jeff Badet are gone, along with their combined 2,265 all-purpose yards and 11 touchdowns.

But that doesn’t seem to concern offensive coordinators Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw as they head into spring practice starting on Sunday.

“As coaches, we don’t even mention it,” Hinshaw said recently of losing Williams to the NFL Draft and Badet to a graduate transfer decision. “We don’t bring it up. The players know. They saw what happened and they all know that the opportunities are there.

“And all we’re saying to them is very simply: ‘Who wants to be the X receiver? The job’s open.’”

Gran is a little bit less diplomatic about it when discussing the changing of the guard on the offensive side of the ball.

“A lot of guys have been complaining that they haven’t had their opportunity,” he said. “Now we’re going to find out. Time to close their mouth and time to roll. I think it’s a great opportunity. We have some young receivers and it’s their time.”

Gran discussed players such as sophomores Jabari Greenwood and Tavin Richardson as future big-time playmakers and some older players who will get a chance to show what they can do, such as Blake Bone and Dorian Baker. There’s Kayaune Ross, who was sidelined by injury for much of the season.

“All are capable,” Gran continued. “There’s no more play time now. No more they’re learning the offense or ‘I’m not going to get a chance to play.’ Those are all excuses, OK? So I can’t wait. It’s going to be fun.”

The options to replace Williams are a little more clear in the backfield with the return of freshman All-America running back Benny Snell, who will get plenty of competition this spring from players such as redshirt freshman A.J. Rose and speedy junior Sihiem King.

But the wide receiver room is going to be an interesting place to be this spring as players get shuffled and shifted looking for the best players to put in the best positions.

Guys will try to make the move from player to playmaker. Garrett Johnson will be used both inside and outside (think the plays in the Louisville game), Gran said.

“That will be good for him,” the coordinator said. “A great opportunity for Juice because he gets to do both. Now he’s going to be featured more.”

Lamar Thomas, UK’s wide receivers coach, anticipates a lot of shuffling both in the spring and fall.

“There’s going to be some nice battles and that’s only going to make us better,” he said in February.

As for the players who thought they could be home run threats last season, but didn’t feel like they got enough at-bats, Thomas has words for them similar to Gran.

“It’s your time. It’s your time,” Thomas said. “But you’ve got to jump on it.”

And to add a little more to the competitive fire, Thomas also reminds that there are redshirt freshmen returning and five impressive true freshmen ready to become home run hitters.

Thomas smiled. “I always say, ‘I’m bringing these guys in to replace you all.’”

Getting to know you

One thing that always fascinates me when new coaches come in is how they get to know the players, especially the ones in their room as well as assessing them without seeing them play live.

When new assistants Dean Hood (special teams, outside linebackers) and Derrick LeBlanc (defensive line) met with the media on Tuesday, they both discussed the getting-to-know-you period for new coaches.

After taking the job, Hood, a former head coach at Eastern Kentucky, immediately went to the online media guide and memorized players’ names. Then he tried to memorize his fellow coach’s names and their kids’ names.

He also watches game film and cut-ups, but doesn’t pay too much attention to who is making what plays, just learning the plays themselves.

“I haven’t been caught up too much in where the kids are on the depth chart,” Hood said. “I’m hoping to start as a blank slate and let them prove that to me throughout spring practice.”

LeBlanc has watched a ton of film since he arrived on campus.

“We have found, I guess, some answers to our problems that we’re gonna get corrected this spring.”

What are some of the issues he’s seen with UK’s inexperienced defensive line?

“Technique stuff,” he said. “Things that come with being young guys. Technique, not being able to handle the duration of the game. Just young-guy stuff. The intensity we should play at, I think, is one thing we had to address — playing at a high level to compete in this conference and play for championships.”

Special teams notes

Kentucky’s new special teams coordinator had a lot to say about his philosophies on all aspects of that facet of the game, which I’ll get into more during spring ball, but there were a couple special teams items that I found interesting.

On Grant McKinniss, who struggled at times last season as a true freshman finishing last in the league in average yards per punt (39.2), Hood said the goal will be to prove to his second-year punter that he’s safe in the pocket so his only worries will be about getting the perfect punt off.

“I’ve heard from the other coaches (McKinniss) is booming it in practice and has the leg, has the talent to do it,” Hood said.

“We’ll film him obviously and check and make sure his drop is correct and where he’s striking the ball is correct with the right part of his foot and those types of things, but it doesn’t sound like that’s the issue. Just having the confidence, that everything’s OK and I’m going to punt it with no problem.”

▪  Hood also has the extra benefit of both Kentucky’s offensive and defensive coordinators having special teams experience.

New UK defensive coordinator Matt House held that spot for the Cats last season, and offensive coordinator Gran is a longtime special teams coordinator at several stops.

“We were just putting the depth chart together for punt the other day and I’m looking and I’m talking, ‘OK, who’s going to watch the left side, the left side?’” Hood relayed on Tuesday.

He was told Gran would watch the right side and House will watch the left side as they had previously.

“I’m like, ‘Holy, Moses. Those two guys are my helpers, who have coordinated the special teams at the highest level?’ You want to talk about being blessed,” Hood continued, saying he will lean heavily on both.

“You get multiple eyes on things and guys from different backgrounds but doing the same things punt, punt return, kickoff, kickoff return and so I’m going to use them as a resource big-time. That’s a great comfort to know those guys are here.”

A day for the pros

Two former Kentucky athletes, linebacker Jason Hatcher and quarterback Maxwell Smith, will join 10 current ones at Kentucky’s annual NFL Pro Day, which will be streamed live on UKAthletics.com.

Wednesday morning’s closed event, which will be at the Joe Craft Football Training Center and Nutter Indoor Field House, puts the draft-eligible athletes through a variety of skills test similar to the NFL scouting combine. It includes running and agility drills, bench press and vertical jump.

Other UK athletes competing include fullbacks Will Tom Collins and Tanner Fink, defensive backs J.D. Harmon, Marcus McWilson and Blake McClain, wide receiver Ryan Timmons, running backs Jojo Kemp and Boom Williams, defensive tackle Courtney Miggins and center Jon Toth.

Toth and Williams also participated in the NFL combine in Indianapolis this past week.

The NFL Draft is set for April 27-29 in Philadelphia along Ben Franklin Parkway with the “Rocky” steps as the backdrop. It will be shown on ESPN, ESPN2 and the NFL Network.

Jennifer Smith: 859-231-3241, @jenheraldleader

Blue-White spring game

When: April 14, 7:30 p.m.

TV: SEC Network

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