Kentucky practiced inside and outside at Kroger Field on Thursday morning.
UK’s practices are typically closed to the media, but the Wildcats opened practice Thursday for the first time this spring. Here are five things that stood out:
1. Kentucky is thin
While this might turn out to be one of the most skilled and deep teams in the Mark Stoops era by September, here in early April, the Cats are incredibly thin at some key positions, including tight end, wide receiver and both middle linebacker spots.
Those levels at linebacker got even lower this week with the news that Jordan Jones is out for the rest of the spring with a shoulder injury.
“It’s not typical the way we’ve been,” Stoops said of the low numbers this spring, which meant lots of catches and plays for walk-ons. “The way our numbers fell, we’re short a little offensively in particular. And definitely at linebacker inside a little bit as well. Nothing to worry about.”
Kentucky was even thinner Thursday with several UK players out for various reasons, including wide receiver Lynn Bowden (appointment), injured middle linebackers Alex King and Jamin Davis as well as outside linebacker Jordan Wright, who has an ankle injury.
Those thin numbers probably will mean a change to the way Stoops structures the spring game. The head coach hasn’t announced his plans yet, but it likely won’t be the first-team units against the rest as it has been previously.
“We’re going to have to do it differently,” he said last week.
I expect there to be No. 1 offense against No. 1 defense this season in the spring game. “How we score it, I don’t know,” Stoops said. “The good thing is everybody will get a true indication.”
The good news is UK gets a lot of talent back in the fall, including play makers like wide receiver Dorian Baker and tight ends C.J. Conrad and Justin Rigg, along with a host of highly rated wide receivers and tight ends.
2. Quarterbacks are fun to watch
No matter who wins the job in the fall, he will be a good player. There wasn’t much to distinguish quarterbacks Gunnar Hoak and Terry Wilson. Both throw a beautiful ball and both were relatively on target for both inside passes and sideline throws.
Both showed some elusiveness in the quarterback run game.
But both also had a lot of help from wide receivers, who made several acrobatic catches (Tavin Richardson) and fingertip grabs (Josh Ali).
That will be key as this competition unfolds: Players around Wilson and Hoak making plays for them. It was the difference between Saturday’s subpar scrimmage and Thursday’s practice, Stoops said.
“The receivers made some competitive catches today,” the coach said. “That’s going to definitely make the quarterbacks look better.”
Once practice moved from the indoor, where it looked like Hoak was having a better day, to the stadium for a couple of live-look periods, Wilson looked superior.
Early in the outdoor period, the junior-college transfer Wilson made a good read and flew past several defenders in the middle of the field for what would’ve been a touchdown if the coaches hadn’t stopped to get another play in.
Wilson also finished the day with a pretty pass into traffic from that turned into an impressive catch by walk-on David Bouvier, a former Lexington Catholic standout, in the end zone.
“When they throw the ball in good places — just like that last play of the team period there that you guys saw — you’ve got to catch it,” Stoops said. “That was a fantastic catch that leads to a touchdown.”
3. Wide receivers improving
There aren’t nearly as many of them, but coaches weren’t kidding when they said they were seeing more plays and a stronger presence from the wide receivers, especially Josh Ali and Isaiah Epps.
The sophomores both looked much more confident in the offense, ran clean routes, made strong catches in space and didn’t have any drops that I witnessed. Ali, a speedster, also was used in a bunch of different jet sweeps the way that Jeff Badet was a few years back. Clevan Thomas had two drops during the indoor period, but made a nice, contested catch in the stadium later.
Wide receiver turned defensive back turned wide receiver again Zy’Aire Hughes made three pretty catches in the early portion of practice and might be able to help UK in the fall at that shorthanded spot, too.
4. Defensive line a strength?
Lots of position groups at Kentucky have been labeled a strength of the team for that upcoming season, but never the defensive line. The Cats have struggled to build and maintain depth at that key position during Stoops’ tenure.
It’s still early, but that might be changing with the move inside for Josh Paschal, the emergence of athletic play makers like Quinton Bohanna, Phil Hoskins and Tymere Dubose and then a mix of players who were key cogs last year.
Is this defensive line the best one since Stoops has been here?
“I think that’s fair to say,” the head coach acknowledged Thursday. “We’ve had some really good players with some guys who did some really good things for us, but as far as overall depth, yes.”
The size, athleticism and depth at every position could be a difference maker for the Cats in the fall.
5. Quick hit observations
The Cats’ final closed scrimmage before the Blue-White Spring Game is being moved up a day to Friday night after a forecast for snow on Saturday, Stoops said. ... Some other things of note from Thursday’s open practice included former middle linebacker Courtney Love back on the field shadowing defensive coordinator Matt House. Seems like coaching will be Love’s ultimate destination if he doesn’t play professionally. … Former UK center Jon Toth was spotted at practice walking around the track. … Benny Snell is still Benny Snell. In a modified team drill, the running back smashed through three guys and ran for what would’ve been a touchdown if they’d been running all the way downfield. … Senior Josh Allen has gotten bigger in just a few months, with outside linebackers coach Brad White noting that much of Allen’s improved size has come in his lower body, which gives him added explosiveness.