UK Football

UK football notebook: Making it out of junior-college ranks helps new Cats form fast bond

Defensive lineman Naquez Pringle was interviewed at Nutter Training Facility at the University of Kentucky in Lexington on Jan. 28, 2016.
Defensive lineman Naquez Pringle was interviewed at Nutter Training Facility at the University of Kentucky in Lexington on Jan. 28, 2016.

Even before any of them have played in a Kentucky jersey, Tate Leavitt feels a special connection with many of his new UK teammates.

As the offensive linemen met with a collection of media on Thursday, Leavitt looked to his left at fellow newcomer Naquez Pringle and smiled.

“Naquez is a (junior college) transfer, so it was cool when I met him,” Leavitt said. “There’s a certain bond that juco guys have, too. Juco family. They always say of the juco struggle: ‘We made it out.’”

Leavitt, Pringle and new UK quarterback Stephen Johnson II join soon-to-be signees Jordan Bonner and Kayaune Ross as well as current Cats Courtney Miggins and Alvonte Bell as junior-college players expected to give Kentucky a boost at key positions next season.

Several of them interviewed Thursday talked about feeling grateful for the chance to play at Kentucky, to have made it to the Division I level.

“Going from junior college to SEC football is night and day,” said Johnson, who played quarterback at College of the Desert in California. “But it’s definitely been a good journey so far and I’m excited to see where it takes me.”

For Pringle, a defensive lineman from Itawama Community College in Mississippi, being on Kentucky’s campus the past couple of weeks has been surreal.

“Bigger campus, bigger atmosphere, bigger everything,” he said. “It’s a whole different world.”

Pringle talked about falling asleep on a bus ride to a game at the junior-college level.

“I’d go to sleep for two hours, woke up and still riding,” he said of team travel. “We rode a bus for about five or six hours down South. That was the longest bus ride of my life.”

Leavitt, who played for the past two seasons at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas, recalled a bus ride to play at Iowa Central that included a stop at a hotel in between because it was nearly eight hours to get there.

The most notable difference for Leavitt, though, has been the food at Kentucky.

“Oh, my gosh, I love it. I absolutely love it,” he said. “The food at junior college is not what — I shouldn’t say what it should be because that’s sounding greedy — but it’s a big difference. They definitely take care of you here. At juco, the funds aren’t necessarily there.”

At the junior-college level, he was eating grilled cheese three times a week. Now he’s replacing those meals with chicken, salad, rice and his favorite: the custom omelette bar.

Leavitt already has spent time meeting with the UK dietitian to make sure he’s doing all of the right things to drop a few pounds and add some lean muscle.

The training table options weren’t the only bonuses the players were excited to talk about. Pringle said he’s already feeling his body change from time in the weight room.

“It’s a whole different level in there,” he said. “It’s extreme, intense and pounding business. It’s a whole different level in that weight room compared to what I’ve been through.”

Having been there and done that at the junior-college level has made the players more appreciative of the opportunities they have in front of them at Kentucky.

They’ve played against other Division I prospects at that level and hope it makes the transition to the SEC easier.

Despite the long bus rides and some other bumps along the way, Pringle was happy he had the experience of playing at junior college.

“It helped me grow,” he said. “Juco makes a man out of you. It teaches you about your life and what you’ve got to do and to take advantage of everything.”

Well, this is awkward …

Long before he got an offer from Kentucky, true freshman quarterback Gunnar Hoak got one from Darin Hinshaw, then quarterbacks coach at Cincinnati.

“I went through the whole recruiting process, then getting an offer from Kentucky, just playing in the SEC is a dream,” Hoak said last week.

So did he feel a knot in the pit of his stomach when he found out the coach he’d spurned was hired to be his new position coach at Kentucky? Nah.

“I was pretty excited,” said the 6-foot-4 quarterback from Dublin, Ohio. “It makes it a better thing to get into. I already know him and now coming in here, he knows me. It’s better.”

The soft-spoken Hoak doesn’t seem too worried about any payback on the practice field from the coach he said ‘no thanks’ to so many months ago.

“Now that he’s back, it’s kind of weird,” Hoak admitted. “It’s going to be great, though.”

Hinshaw seemed excited about the prospect of coaching a player he’d already scouted and offered a scholarship, even if the guy once turned him down.

“Just a real leader on the field,” Hinshaw said of UK’s newest QB enrollee. “Pocket-moving was extremely good, his feet were really good. He could run when he wanted to run. He could run the ball really well, and his motion was really good, and he throws the ball accurately. So, I was really excited about him.”

This is awkward, Part 2 …

New offensive lineman Tate Leavitt is one of those players who had offers from both Stoops brothers: Kentucky’s Mark and older brother Bob at Oklahoma.

So what was it like being recruited by brothers?

“I would’ve liked to have been a fly on the wall when I committed here and that phone conversation,” Leavitt smiled slyly. “That would’ve been fun.”

The Thornville, Ohio, native who played two seasons at Hutchinson Community College said Oklahoma recruited him pretty late in the process.

And he already had developed strong relationships with UK recruiting coordinator Vince Marrow and offensive line coach John Schlarman.

“The biggest thing was the position coaches and the assistants as a whole,” Leavitt said. “I just felt needed more than wanted and that was a big part for me.”

A look at UK’s wish list?

A line item in new Gov. Matt Bevin’s budget that discussed spending $21 million on a new dining facility for athletes wasn’t the only project on Kentucky’s wish list.

Football specifically has a $6.5 million item to “renovate and upgrade Commonwealth Stadium” and listed the money as being used for “routine maintenance to the interior and exterior, structural and infrastructure upgrades, and video and other technology improvements.”

This caused one sports writer (see picture attached to this column) to wonder what kind of upgrades would be done to complete the stadium, which already underwent a massive, $135 million renovation over the past two seasons.

Officials previously had discussed adding chair backs throughout the stadium, updating wireless Internet and other obvious upgrades that were not part of this latest renovation.

But the wish list is not so specific. Nor concrete.

UK Athletics has to develop budget items like this — to spend its own money — several years in advance to serve as placeholders for future projects.

“We put placeholders in the budget in case the funds become available,” university spokesman Jay Blanton explained in an email. “As a result, the list is WAY longer than we will ever build and is widely misunderstood.”

So many of the athletics projects outlined in the UK wish list have no additional details or plans attached to them at this time.

UK Athletics works with the university to develop a list of potential projects and then, if given authorization, those projects are paid for by athletics or raised from private sources, Blanton said.

Some other future potential projects mentioned include:

▪  Adding two additional indoor tennis courts and other renovations totaling $9.5 million at the Boone Tennis Center.

▪  Three separate items that combine to equal $12 million to construct and/or renovate athletics facilities to “improve the fan experience and ensure that UK Athletics facilities are comparable to those of SEC and NCAA competitors.” It’s not specific on what those facilities would be.

▪  Previously discussed renovations at the Nutter Facility when football relocates to its new training center in 2016, for which the university projected it would need $5 million.

▪  Constructing retail space ($4.5 million) that would serve as a team novelty store for fans, students and others. No details were given for where that structure would stand. A fan store previously was mentioned as an option at Commonwealth Stadium.

▪  The construction of a project called “Hall of Fame Plaza” ($4.5 million) at the main entrance to Memorial Coliseum. The line item says the plaza would be “designed to recognize current and future hall of fame members, as well as enhance the military memorial aspect of Memorial Coliseum.”

▪  UK has asked to set aside $4 million or so to potentially renovate or upgrade various playing fields when necessary without mentioning any specific fields.

▪  A proposed property lease to accommodate myriad activities for UK Athletics off campus. “The proposed space will include but is not limited to “space for training, practice, team meetings, and competitions,” the item said.

Jennifer Smith: 859-231-3241, @jenheraldleader