Mark Stoops: ‘We had so much fun it ought to be illegal’
The biggest question facing UK football ahead of its 2019 campaign is: How will it follow up one of the greatest seasons in program history?
It’s still too early to start answering that one, but Friday night’s Blue-White Spring Game will provide a glimpse of what the Wildcats have to offer and gets us one step closer to making an educated guess. Here are five things to keep in mind when UK enters Kroger Field for the first time since November.
Benny Snell chewed up a ton of carries — 53.9 percent, to be precise — last season on his way to the school’s rushing record, and quarterback Terry Wilson accounted for a lot himself (135, or 25.2 percent of the Cats’ 536 rushes). That didn’t leave many touches for the rest of the backfield, but the stable seems just fine.
A.J. Rose, in line to start for the Wildcats this fall, brings back 442 yards and five touchdowns on 71 total attempts, an average of 6.2 yards per rush, one more than Snell. Eddie Gran on Tuesday called him a “home-run hitter” — perhaps alluding to Rose’s career-best 75-yard TD run against Louisville last year — but said he’s become more of a physical runner. “And with that big body, that’s good,” UK’s offensive coordinator said.
Chris Rodriguez and Kavosiey Smoke, formerly three-star recruits, each got some light run in their redshirt seasons and could help create a three-pronged attack in their second year on campus.
Gran likened Rodriguez to Snell.
“He’s a little more like Benny, but the scrimmage before he had a 58-yard run and he got up to 20 miles an hour on the GPS, which is pretty good for a 225-pound back,” Gran said.
Trying to evaluate what happens in the spring game can be a trivial affair. Example: Last year’s game saw the Cats’ offense generate 366 passing yards on 35 completions; it was the last time in 2018 that UK cracked 300 yards through the air.
The coaching staff insists that it wants to toss the ball around more this fall, and has installed new plays to accommodate that effort. How much of that we’ll see Friday, if any of it, is to be determined.
“We’re not gonna do a lot, but what we do I want to see ’em do it fast,”offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said Tuesday. “I want to see ’em throw and catch and be physical at the point of attack, and don’t be sloppy.”
There’s been some emphasis on getting the backfield more involved in the passing game this spring. That’s an area in which Rose showed promise as a sophomore, scoring once and going 82 yards on just eight grabs.
“He catches the ball really good and he runs good routes,” head coach Mark Stoops said last week. “He’s an athletic guy, so he’ll be a good target.”
If there’s a position group that both coaches and fans would like to leave the spring game feeling better about, it’s probably receivers.
After Lynn Bowden there’s not a lot else in terms of experience. Bowden led the Cats with 745 yards and five TDs in 2018, but five of the next six guys who caught passes are no longer with the program. Josh Ali — a junior — played in 12 games last year and is the second-leading returnee with 10 catches.
He’s emerged as a solid running mate to Bowden but has suffered in the same area that’s plagued the rest of UK’s pass-catchers this spring: consistency.
“They’ve gotta freakin’ battle every day, you’ve gotta compete,” Gran said. “Those DBs are gonna be up in their face, they’re gonna press and they’ve gotta use their technique and not freak out when they get pressed. They lose their mind, and you can’t do that.”
UK returns a wealth of experience to the middle of its defense. The same can’t be said for its group of defensive backs.
“I’ll lose a little more hair, get a little more gray,” Stoops said of working with the corners.
Junior-college transfers Brandin Echols and Quandre Mosely should bring some stability to the defensive backfield along with the four safeties — Tyrell Ajian, Jordan Griffin, Zach Johnson and Davonte Robinson — who’ve lettered. Cedrick Dort Jr. is UK’s only returning letterman at corner; he played in nine games as a freshman before redshirting last season
A note that might ease fans’ concerns: Stoops when he was coaching at Miami at the turn of the century had to replace four starting defensive backs who helped the 2002 Hurricanes lead the nation in pass defense; the 2003 unit repeated that feat.
Point of pride
Line play should not be a concern for Kentucky.
The offensive side of the ball lost three starters in George Asafo-Adjei, E.J. Price and Bunchy Stallings (in addition to tight end C.J. Conrad) but brings back eight bodies who’ve seen the field, including 13-game starters Drake Jackson and Logan Stenberg. Back from an ACL injury is Landon Young, a former five-star recruit who started six games and played in all 13 in 2017.
On the flip side, nose guard Quinton Bohanna started UK’s last six games last season as a true freshman and has been raved about this spring. T.J. Carter, Phil Hoskins, Kordell Looney and Calvin Taylor Jr. played in all 13 games last year (Taylor started the last nine).
The defensive line also could get a big boost, physically and emotionally, from Josh Paschal, who played all 13 games as a true freshman before a battle with a malignant melanoma on one of his feet limited him to the final three games of last season.
Blue-White Spring Game
When: 6 p.m. Friday
Where: Kroger Field
TV: SEC Network