UK Football

Offseason work by some key players has Kentucky football much more ready to go

Highlights from UK football’s Fan Day and open practice

2018 UK Football Fan Day and open practice at the Joe Craft Football Training Facility in Lexington.
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2018 UK Football Fan Day and open practice at the Joe Craft Football Training Facility in Lexington.

It might not have been evident to the fans who stood around in the heat to watch Kentucky’s open practice on Saturday.

But Coach Mark Stoops said in just two practices back with the Cats, he can see it in almost every interaction on the field.

“You always want a team that’s player-led, and you’re starting to see a lot of that,” Stoops said to the media after UK’s annual Fan Day in the morning followed by two hours of a standard, pre-pads practice.

This summer, team leaders went beyond what normal team leaders do, creating an environment where every player — including freshmen and newcomers — was able to improve.

“Doing it with a sense of urgency and doing it right, opposed to just going out there and putting in time,” Stoops explained of the summer work. “Having a purpose, doing their work and being sharp. I could tell they were more efficient at doing that.”

It was something that tight end C.J. Conrad mentioned a few weeks ago representing the UK players at Southeastern Conference Media Days.

“We feel really confident about the work we put in this summer,” the senior said. “We have some really good leaders. We’ve just got to learn how to win. … We just didn’t have that winning culture before.”

It started with veteran players who were willing to take on high-level leadership roles and become coaches during the summer, when coaches aren’t allowed to do as much coaching.

Getting leadership from players who also are among the best on the team — guys like Conrad, running back Benny Snell, linebacker Josh Allen and safety Mike Edwards — has made a big difference.

It’s part of the culture that Stoops has been preaching since he arrived at Kentucky, Allen said this summer.

That’s the “it” that Stoops can see as Kentucky starts this long stretch of practices in the aggressive August heat.

“It’s a big difference, a very big difference,” the head coach said.

“Nothing’s forced right now. Guys are very comfortable. There’s a lot of good leaders, a lot of guys who do things right. A lot of our best players have a purpose and want things to be done the right way. They did a nice job this summer of having a team meeting and just sort of setting the standards of what they expect of each other, and it’s paying off.”

After the annual Fan Day and an open practice at the Joe Craft Football Training Center, Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops talked about how his team has performed early in training camp.

Quarterback impressions

There were not many “oooh” and “ahhh” plays for the fans on Saturday, especially not from the quarterbacks, who seemed out of sorts for most of the day.

But Stoops later cautioned not to read too much into what seemed to be a lackluster day for his quarterbacks, especially likely top starting candidates Gunnar Hoak and Terry Wilson.

“It’s hard without pads on,” Stoops said on Saturday after a mess of incomplete passes. “We get to put uppers on tomorrow, get to put shoulder pads on tomorrow. It’s rough right now with protection.

“Everybody’s in the quarterback’s face. It looks a little bit sloppy right now, but it will get cleaned up. The pocket needs to get a little more firm. As they put pads on it will look a lot better.”

The UK coach stands behind the quarterbacks for most of the practice, so he has a pretty good view of what they see. And what he saw on Saturday was a defense further ahead than the offense, especially during team drills and blitz drills.

It meant the offense didn’t have much flow and the quarterbacks didn’t have much rhythm.

“The pocket was really messy,” Stoops said. “We’ve got to get some things cleaned up, but it’s always like that. Defensively, we ought to be a little ahead right now. We’re putting a lot in, guys are comfortable and we have some experience over there.

“Offensively, that was day two install, so some new plays out there from yesterday. We’ll get things cleaned up.”

There were still plenty of nice throws and catches on Saturday, including a couple by wide receiver transfer Ahmad Wagner, who apparently has done that for two days in a row.

“Yesterday he made two really nice catches as well,” Stoops said. “Those catches where you’re completely covered and he came down with two balls yesterday.”

Lots of talk in the spring was about the growth of Lynn Bowden as a wide receiver. It showed on Saturday when the sophomore caught almost every pass that went his way.

Still settling in at punt return

Charles Walker wasn’t a burner, but he was consistent and steady, which is what Stoops and staff are looking for in a punt returner. They’re looking for that this season as they try to replace the now-graduated wide receiver.

Several players had their turn at grabbing the job on Saturday, including David Bouvier, a former standout at Lexington Catholic, running backs Sihiem King and Benny Snell, as well as defensive backs Mike Edwards and Lonnie Johnson.

Bowden, an explosive player who likely will be the Cats’ top returner on kickoffs, didn’t field any punts because he was cramping during that part of practice, Stoops said, adding that the sophomore wideout isn’t as comfortable fielding punts. “We’ll continue to try and bring him along.”

Stoops seemed to like what he saw from Edwards, a long-time starter at safety for UK, who returned kickoffs in high school. “He’s looking comfortable the past couple of days. He’s a viable option.”

And don’t forget Bouvier, who has the look of the always sure-handed Walker.

“We know what we’re going to get, he’s comfortable, he’s going to secure the ball,” Stoops said.

Kentucky can’t necessarily think about finding an electric playmaker in that situation just because of the talent of the punters in the SEC, he argued.

“Some of the punters we’re playing in this league, there’s very few options on punt returns at times,” the head coach said. “We get the ball and field it get 2, 3, 4 or 5 yards, sometimes it’s better. There are times they mishit it, but some of the punters that we face do not give up return yards in general. Just depends.”

A few Fan Day observations

The longest line of the morning autograph signings by far belonged to the Kentucky running backs, whose line was double the size of even the head coach or quarterbacks an hour into the event.

Kentucky doesn’t keep official head counts for Fan Day, but today appeared to be the largest crowd for the event in Stoops’ six seasons as head coach.

Luke Klausing, an 11-year-old cystic fibrosis patient that UK football “signed” earlier this week, was a part of the festivities, happily signing footballs, posters and pictures at the long wide receiver table. Klausing spent most of the open practice on the field watching and talking with players and coaches.