It seemed like the perfect way to end Kentucky’s first open practice on a picture-perfect day at Commonwealth Stadium: tight end C.J. Conrad making a perfect tiptoe catch in the corner of the end zone.
“That’s what he brings to the table,” new offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said on Saturday after his first-team offense got the best of the Kentucky defense.
Conrad had two touchdowns in the short scrimmage and showed a glimpse of what the versatile sophomore might add to the offense going forward.
“Matched him up out there with a linebacker and ran a corner route, and that’s what you want to do,” Gran continued, noting tight end Greg Hart has been able to do similar things in UK’s bigger packages.
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“You hope you can win those battles more often than not, so that was really good. It’s nice that you don’t have to change personnel and you can split him out, and so that’s what we did right there.”
Those plays were part of what appears to be an offensive resurgence for Kentucky under Gran and co-offensive coordinator Darin Hinshaw.
Coach Mark Stoops was pleased with the offense, which was still on day four of its installation.
“The first thing I would say is just our attitude, just our mentality and I think the urgency — with the tempo in the spring and our coaches just pushing these guys — I think our urgency is the first thing,” Stoops said. “And with that comes competitive plays.”
Stoops noted that while the defense struggled at times in the scrimmage, it had big plays in other parts of the practice.
“During the segmented practice, the defense did some good things,” Stoops said. “It was reversed the other day.”
Which means both sides of the ball need to be more consistent.
“We’ve got a long way to go, but I like the way we’re competing,” Stoops said. “Offensively, the tempo, the attitude, those guys are doing some good things. We have a long way to go, but it’s a good starting point.”
Some things that caught my eye
Quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw wasn’t kidding about trainers literally throwing things at the quarterbacks during drills to improve their focus and concentration under fire.
There were blue blocking pads flying every which way.
While there were signs of promise from junior college transfer Stephen Johnson, who is running with the second team, Drew Barker clearly was in command at the quarterback spot.
The only returning player with experience at quarterback missed on a couple throws, but he seemed to have poise in the pocket and guided the offense on two 70-yard scoring drives.
The success of the first-team offense left defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot with some decisions to make moving forward.
He was pleased that the second-team defense didn’t give up any points (a touchdown run by Johnson was negated by a penalty), which suggests there is depth on that side of the ball.
But it also will mean some potential shuffling.
“Nobody’s earned a job, so maybe some of those guys will get into the starting lineup,” he said of the second-team defensive players. “They did a good job in this scrimmage. Played well, didn’t give any points up, won a lot of third-down battles, played the run well.”
▪ Players that ran with the first-team defense (base) on Saturday included linemen Matt Elam, Courtney Miggins and Regie Meant; linebackers Courtney Love, Jordan Jones, Josh Allen and Denzil Ware; and defensive backs Darius West, Mike Edwards, Chris Westry and Derrick Baity.
▪ In early drills, there was a real swag battle between Kentucky’s wide receivers and the secondary. There were several diving catches by players like Charles Walker, Blake Bone and Jeff Badet.
Defenders made plays on the ball as well, including a pretty pick by Mike Edwards of a Davis Mattingly throw.
During a water break, new wide receivers coach Lamar Thomas had his players take a knee. When Stoops came over to chat with the group, Thomas also jokingly took a knee.
Thomas, who wears a pen in his visor that looks like an antenna sticking out of his head, is animated and energetic on the field.
“It’s been good. We need that,” Stoops said of Thomas’ energy. “We need that across the board, coaches to push these guys and get them energized. He’s been a good influence on them.”
▪ Former walk-on Cole Mosier appears to be making a move at that open left tackle spot. The 6-foot-6 junior, who has played every position on the line except center, was running with the starters at that spot all day and held his own. Tate Leavitt, the junior college standout with scholarship offers from 20-plus big-name schools, was in with the second team most of the day at left tackle.
▪ In the past couple days, UK has moved Ryan Timmons from the ‘X’ wide receiver position (split end) to the slot, trying to utilize his abilities more. “I love the way he came out and learned and doing the two positions, he’s got to learn a lot,” Gran said. “That’ll get him on the field more. I really like where he’s at right now and he’s coming out and competing and learning every day, so I’m fired up about him.”
Wide receiver T.V. Williams and offensive lineman Ramsey Meyers did not participate in practice. Meyers appeared to have a hand injury, but it was not clear why Williams was on the sideline.
▪ Late in the scrimmage, running back Mikel Horton went down with a leg injury near the end zone. It looked bad at first, but the junior was able to walk off gingerly on his own power. Stoops said Horton will be fine.
“It looks like he took a helmet to the shin, so hopefully it’s just that,” Stoops said. “We’ll see. Other than that I think we’re pretty healthy.”
He noted that Horton has had a pretty good spring so far, getting added reps with Boom Williams rehabbing his surgically repaired right elbow. The junior was able to participate in parts of practice on Saturday, including catching some balls, but he did not have any contact.
▪ Walk-on wideout Charles Walker made several acrobatic catches despite having a cast on his right hand.
Faces in the crowd
There were several familiar faces among the few hundred at Commonwealth Stadium to get a first glimpse of the Cats this spring, and some faces coaches are hopeful will be familiar in the near future.
Alex King, a three-star linebacker from Ohio, and Tyrell Ajian, a defensive back from Ohio rated No. 82 nationally by ESPN, were both at practice on Saturday morning.
Athlete Javonte Richardson, the No. 84 player nationally according to Rivals, and Georgia offensive tackle Tony Gray (No. 117 overall by Rivals) were on campus Friday.
The more familiar faces included UK President Eli Capilouto and Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart.
Several players from last season’s team were on the sidelines or in the stands, including punter Landon Foster, offensive lineman Jordan Swindle and linebacker Khalid Henderson, who was filming portions of the practice.
It was hard to miss one future Cat: Five-star offensive lineman Landon Young, who towered over Stoops during warmups. He was joined by fellow UK commitment Michael Warren, a four-star running back from Ohio.