UK Football

Aggressive Kentucky wide receivers clearing the way for big plays

With fellow wide receiver Garrett Johnson, left, looking to block, Dorian Baker made a catch during the first half of UK's 21-13 win over Missouri on Saturday.
With fellow wide receiver Garrett Johnson, left, looking to block, Dorian Baker made a catch during the first half of UK's 21-13 win over Missouri on Saturday. Herald-Leader

Kentucky has learned many times during the past couple of seasons that dropped passes can be as contagious as the flu.

But what the Cats' wide-outs also have discovered, this season especially, is that big plays can be contagious, too.

Another thing that's become clear on game tape is that those big plays require assistance.

"Everybody's really seeing how our blocking not only affects us but opens up big plays for everybody else," said wide receiver Garrett Johnson, who leads the Cats with 16 catches for 253 yards. "We've all seen how it can win games."

So much so that on the UK sideline now, there's a friendly competition between the wide receivers for the most knockdowns in a game.

More than just knockdown blocks, coach Tommy Mainord has put a premium on being physical, being aggressive, winning every snap, not just the ones when the ball is thrown in your general direction.

Mainord regularly shows his wide receivers film of NFL players and some of his players at previous stops such as Texas Tech, Lamar and Sam Houston State doing that.

It was one of the reasons that Coach Mark Stoops said he hired Mainord. The head coach went back and watched film of Mainord's receivers at Texas Tech and was impressed.

Stoops, a former defensive backs coach, saw how often Mainord's wide receivers were winning those battles.

"They were very physical and played very aggressive," Stoops said, noting that UK's receivers are blocking better this season than in any season previously.

The goal is to win the one-on-one battles every time, even in subtle ways, sophomore Jeff Badet said.

"I like to be physical, like to go out and talk junk out there on the field, get on DBs' nerves, try to get them out of their game," Badet said. Mainord "does emphasize it a lot. It's just a lot of fun watching it on film, seeing all your boys out there blocking as hard as they can."

Kentucky's wide receivers are the reason the Cats are making big gains on big plays. Yes, Boom Williams breaks a long run or Jojo Kemp jets down a sideline, but there's usually a receiver clearing a path for him.

Four games in, Kentucky (3-1, 2-1 Southeastern Conference) is 17th in the nation in plays of 20 yards or longer, with 26. That's after having only 57 in 12 games last season.

The Cats, who play Eastern Kentucky on Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium, have gone from averaging 4.75 plays of 20 yards or more last season to 6.5 a game this season.

"If you're not blocking out there, big plays aren't going to spring," said sophomore wide receiver Dorian Baker, who has 16 grabs for 190 yards and a score. "We all know that."

When Kentucky has made long runs or succeeded in its perimeter passing, it's been from the work of wide receivers.

"Be happy when your buddy makes a play" has been his message this season, offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said. "Be happy when your buddy makes a play, and want them to make a play."

It's easy to point to a Baker — all 6-foot-3, 208 pounds of him — and see him as a physical receiver. But Mainord said across the board he's seen major growth from his group in that way, pointing to players like Johnson, Ryan Timmons and walk-on Charles Walker, among others, as impressive blockers.

"They're doing a great job collectively, and they're buying into that and calling each other out and working hard," Mainord said.

Most of the drills the coaches use to improve physical play happen in the spring and during fall camp. Mainord makes sure they're stressed every day during the season.

"Being physical is 99 percent effort," he said. "That's more important than technique, so we talk more about the effort. We still talk about technique and we still coach it up, but the effort part of it — we try to embrace the fact that this is the difference in winning close games and not."