UK Football

Don’t be surprised to see Kentucky special teams get a little more aggressive

A do-over excited Gran

What play had UK offensive coordinator Eddie Gran excited after scrimmage?
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What play had UK offensive coordinator Eddie Gran excited after scrimmage?

Kentucky’s coach hasn’t exactly been a riverboat-gambler type when it’s come to special teams risk-taking.

But new special teams coach Dean Hood laid his cards out on the table during his recent job interview with Coach Mark Stoops.

“I said, ‘Coach, I’m very aggressive in my approach,’” Hood relayed this week. ”We talked about, ‘I like to be aggressive and here’s why, and I kind of showed him.’”

A few years into his tenure as head coach at Eastern Kentucky, Hood handed over the defensive side of the ball to his coordinator and worried he’d get bored with nothing to coordinate. So Hood took on special teams as a fun project.

“It’s really awesome when you’re the head guy because then you don’t have to ask, ‘Hey, can we run the fake here?’” he smiled, noting that he’ll be fully compliant with what Stoops chooses to do.

But Hood anticipates that taking some chances on special teams will become a ready wrinkle for the Cats.

It’s already become a staple in spring practice, with Kentucky starting work on punt fakes on the third day. Practice video released by the athletics staff showed Hood drilling players on punt-block fundamentals, too.

It’s all in an attempt to make the risk-taking not seem so risky.

“With coach seeing that and knowing this isn’t going to be some game-week thing, something you draw up and say, ‘I hope it works,’ it’s something we’re doing as part of our install,” Hood said.

“So I think he’s more open to it because he sees it’s not gimmicky. It’s structured, it’s part of practice and we’ve bought into it early.”

For various reasons, Kentucky hasn’t taken too many special teams risks under Stoops. A search of the stats showed only a couple instances.

There was the fake field goal in Stoops’ first season when kicker Joe Mansour ran for a 25-yard touchdown against Florida, tying the game early at 7-7.

In 2014, UK appeared to be running a fake field goal against Louisiana State but was called for a delay-of-game penalty that resulted in an Austin MacGinnis 33-yard field goal in a 41-3 loss.

Last season, what looked like a fake in the opener against Southern Miss was really just a botched snap.

When asked about getting more aggressive on special teams after Saturday’s closed scrimmage, Stoops seemed comfortable with the plan.

“Definitely. I’m all for it,” the head coach said. “I want to be aggressive as well. You want to keep people off balance on all sides of the ball, and certainly on special teams it’s no different.”

Being the aggressor can change the entire game, Hood said.

“It opens your eyes to, ‘Hey, if I become aggressive, they almost have to become passive from a special teams standpoint.’”

‘Very committed to this university’

There were some canned Stoops quotes in the release from Kentucky last week about the school extending its head coach’s contract an additional two years to 2022.

A raise and many individual incentives were attached to the new deal.

In his first media opportunity since the deal was made public, Stoops said the extension “means a great deal to me.

“I feel very blessed to be the head football coach here,” he said. “I’m very blessed to have the support. We’re going to need it. It’s a very good situation. I’m very committed to this university. They’ve been committed to me. None of us are content. We want to keep on pushing.”

Some quarterback praise

During scrimmages, Kentucky’s head coach spends most of his time directly behind the line of scrimmage. It gives Stoops pretty good insight into what Stephen Johnson is seeing while running the first-team offense.

So far, so good, Stoop said after the Cats’ first scrimmage of the spring at Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday morning.

“Just a very calm demeanor,” Stoops said of the senior quarterback. “And he’s very, very comfortable back there right now. I could hear him talking about the disguises, the looks and the pressures. He can pick up on those things very quickly on who’s coming and who’s not. He’s just experienced. I was very pleased with him today.”

Offensive coordinator Eddie Gran used words like “efficient” and “comfortable” when discussing the player who took a bulk of the snaps last season after Drew Barker went down with a back injury.

“I thought Stephen, he was very controlled, knew exactly where to go with the ball and made some good decisions,” Gran said, noting Johnson’s targeting and decision-making were excellent.

Things definitely seem to be slowing down for Johnson, who threw for 2,037 yards and 13 touchdowns last season.

“It helps having more experience than I did last year,” he said. “Trying to see how defenses start to rotate and see things before they start to happen.”

If coaches had a major complaint about Johnson last season it was turnovers — particularly fumbles like the one on the Cats’ first series of the TaxSlayer Bowl.

“Really focusing on that, getting my hands and forearms a lot stronger than they were last year, just being able to hold onto the ball while I’m in the pocket,” Johnson said.

That work includes regular walks around the perimeter of the weight room while carrying a 45-pound plate weight with his fingers.

“It just burns your wrists, your forearms and your fingers, but it helps out a lot,” he said.

Practice points

There was too much unnecessary chatter all around for the coaches Saturday at the closed scrimmage.

“You’ve just got to close your mouth and play football,” Gran said was the message after the scrimmage, where stats weren’t released. “There’s too much talking. Coach (Stoops) did a great job addressing that today. … It’s not about jabbering and all that bull crap. So we’re going to make that more a point of emphasis: Just close your mouth and do your job. If you do, we’ll be a better football team.”

Outside linebacker Denzil Ware said the defense learned the shut-up-and-play message the hard way.

“We’ve got a lot of people out here that like to joke, a lot of jokesters,” he said. “Coach Stoops said instead of talking junk, we just need to play ball. At times, we were trash-talking and they’re hiking the ball and scoring touchdowns. So we do need to cut that out.”

▪  Biggest play for offense? It wasn’t a touchdown, but it helped set up a touchdown and showed that the offense has some resiliency, which made Gran happy. Johnson had a wide-open Tavin Richardson on a fade route but underthrew it. Blake Bone swapped in and they connected for a 60-yard play to the 2-yard line, Gran said.

“That fired me up because it was a perfect pass and I chewed him,” the offensive coordinator said. “That’s good stuff, when you have a quarterback” respond.

Johnson was frustrated with the first play and glad he could have a do-over. “Should’ve made it the first time,” he smiled.

News and notes

As discussed early in camp, but confirmed on Saturday, redshirt freshman Davonte Robinson has moved to the safety spot. The former Henry Clay star has shown the ability to play physical and be versatile. He’s playing behind Darius West at one of the safety spots.

▪  Cornerback Lonnie Johnson, a junior college transfer, missed the scrimmage while attending a family funeral, Stoops said.

▪  The offense was turnover-free except for one late in the scrimmage by redshirt freshman A.J. Rose, but it was recovered by Richardson. Junior running back Sihiem King had a couple of nice cuts and big runs, Gran said.

“He’s got tremendous vision, is able to see the hole as it develops,” Stephen Johnson said of the running back, who saw plenty of carries on Saturday.

▪  Gran wasn’t pleased with the first-down efficiency in the run game and wants to see more physical play. He thought the defense won those battles on Saturday. “We’ve got to have lower pad level. There weren’t enough explosive run plays for me. So we’ve got to be better.”

Jennifer Smith: 859-231-3241, @jenheraldleader

Blue-White Game

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

TV: SEC Network

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