Hundreds of fans filled the sidelines of the football practice field on Saturday to catch a glimpse of Kentucky this spring.
Without a Blue-White Game this season, fans settled for a scrimmage at the field outside the training center. There was plenty to ooh and aah about, especially on offense.
Both quarterbacks Patrick Towles and Drew Barker made their share of big plays, but Towles had an error-free day and moved the ball well, even against the Cats' No. 1 defense.
Last year's starter left fans with a lasting impression at the end of the scrimmage, finding Thaddeus Snodgrass for a 50-yard completion to set up a touchdown catch from 15 yards out for Rashad Cunningham as the final horn sounded.
But Coach Mark Stoops wasn't ready to say any quarterback was pulling ahead in what he insists has been a tight race this spring.
"It does go back and forth," he said of the competition. "There are times when one or the other really shines and has a big day.
"Patrick has done a nice job. I feel like he's getting better, and that's the most important thing. Rather than naming a starter, I need all the guys to get better and in particular at quarterback. I feel like those guys are getting better."
Towles, who connected on the TD pass to Cunningham and another on a 23-yarder to Cameron Fogle, seemed to enjoy the back and forth, insisting it makes him better.
"You try to treat every practice like a game day," he said. "You can't off and on, no matter who you're playing. It's confidence building for me to go out there and play like I did today. I gotta be consistent with that."
At one point during the day, Barker had a particularly bad series and Towles was loudly shouting to the redshirt freshman to not worry about it.
"At the end of the day, we're on the same team," Towles said. "One of us is going to go out there and play and the other one is going to root for that one. So if it's Drew, I'm going to be his No. 1 fan. If it's me, I'm sure Drew would say the same thing. I love seeing him succeed."
One place both quarterbacks found some success was going deep, with Towles connecting on long balls like the 50-yarder to Snodgrass and another from about 47 yards out to Blake Bone.
"We keep getting looks like we do, we'll be in good shape," Towles said of the long throws. "Thad (Snodgrass) ran a good route, and Blake (Bone) had a good one too, so that was nice."
Stoops seemed as impressed with Bone's work on that out route as he was with the throw.
"Blake did a nice job of adjusting and running underneath that one and coming down with the catch," Stoops noted. "That's what a quarterback needs: for the receivers to come down with some big plays for him."
Going deep has been a big focus this spring, coaches and players have said.
"We've been working on that: taking our shots," Stoops said. "We've been hitting more and more."
So often last season the Cats weren't able to take advantage of teams stacking the box against them, Towles said.
"We either didn't have the personnel or didn't make a good throw, but that's definitely an emphasis of Coach (Shannon) Dawson's offense. I think y'all saw a good bit of that today."
Kentucky's offense was able to move the ball despite being shorthanded at the wide receiver spot. The Cats have gone all or most of the spring without leading pass catcher Ryan Timmons (shoulder/ankle), Dorian Baker (knee), Alexander Montgomery (knee) and walk-on Charles Walker (shoulder).
On Saturday, the Cats also had to rely on one healthy running back in Stanley "Boom" Williams and walk-on Will Mahone. UK's other two backs, Jojo Kemp and Mikel Horton, were held out with an illness and a high ankle sprain, respectively.
Williams didn't disappoint, though, running in untouched from about 2 yards out against the first-team defense before slapping fans' hands along the end zone on a Towles-led drive.
"A lot of the times we just give Boom (Williams) the ball and just let him do as he may," Towles said. "He made a really good play. Saw a crease and bounced it outside, so it was good."
Towles wasn't the only quarterback who led the team on scoring drives. Barker had a 42-yard touchdown pass to Snodgrass and another impossible-looking score to T.V. Williams, who caught the pass despite being draped by Cody Quinn.
■ Barker also had his share of miscues, including twice being picked off by linebacker Josh Forrest. Much like last season, Forrest drew high praise and some ire from his coaches.
"He's very good at pass coverage," Stoops said. "You probably heard us yelling at him a few times in the run game. ... We need to be more consistent there."
■ Senior Farrington Huguenin had two of a handful of swats at the line of scrimmage. The overlooked defensive lineman will be a playmaker this season, Stoops said.
"He's going to have a big year; he'll play well," Stoops said of Huguenin, who also had a fumble recovery. "He played some good football for us a year ago, but he was behind some good players."
Saturday side notes
Be on the lookout for some fun footage of the spring practice from Kentucky's video department soon. Towles had a GoPro camera mounted to his helmet during the spring scrimmage.
Photo credit: Matt Goins
But don't look for it to become a regular part of the quarterback's equipment.
"It just kind of felt weird, I guess," he said. "I'm weird about that kind of stuff. I don't know. I just didn't like it."
■ The defensive tackle turned fullback (part-time for now, at least) Jacob Hyde continued to draw attention on Friday. Stoops was asked about the 333-pounder putting some of his defensive teammates on their backs. "Yeah. Yeah. He does that just about every day." It also confounded officials who noted the defense had just 10 players on the field at one point before Stoops yelled that he had a nose guard wearing blue.
Huguenin laughed when asked if he'd taken a shot from Hyde yet. "We had a stalemate, but that's about it," he said. "We went up against each other once. That's a big boy coming at you."
■ Some other players that weren't on the field and were in red, no-contact jerseys included quarterback Reese Phillips (Achilles' tendon), left guard Zach West (shoulder, precautionary), defensive tackle Regie Meant (shoulder) and cornerback Fred Tiller (shoulder).
Others out included offensive lineman Josh Krok, tight ends Greg Hart and Darryl Long, linebackers Jabari Johnson, Courtney Love and Kobie Walker, and defensive back Kendall Randolph.
A special visitor
Kentucky's team had a surprise visitor last week in Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, who was on campus to speak to a student group and took some time to meet with the football players as well.
"What I wanted Richard to get across to our guys is that he's just a guy, first," said outside linebackers coach Andy Buh, who coached at Stanford when Sherman was a player there. "Second, look past the Stanford degree, look past the Compton (where he grew up), look past the All-Pro and look at what he really is: He's a competitor.
"That's what I wanted the guys to see, and Richard did a great job of emphasizing that in his speech to the guys, that, 'Hey, all I am is a guy who loves football. I compete at everything I do. And I love to win.'"
It was definitely a fun visit for Kentucky's players, who said they learned things like confidence, having a short-term memory when things go poorly, how to break down a play from almost every position's perspective and much more.
"He loves football," UK defensive back Blake McClain said. "All he does is breathe, eat, sleep football."
Even the players who didn't play his position or weren't even on Sherman's side of the ball benefited from his speech, Stoops said.
He "really talked a lot about work ethic and what it takes to be that successful and all the little things and the day-to-day grind, whether it's getting through school or competing at the highest level like he is now," Stoops said.
"I just thought he had a great message. He was very good with our team. Stayed for a long time. Answered questions, took pictures. So it was good just to be around him."