In a spring full of talk of renewal and bouquets of compliments for the offense, the cold reality set in on several levels on Saturday morning at Commonwealth Stadium.
Battling a blustery wind and not ideal situations for its final scrimmage before the spring Blue-White Game, the Cats’ offense went frigid.
“It didn’t feel good enough, it didn’t feel like we had the right passion and energy out here,” UK head coach Mark Stoops said of the offense’s performance. “That was the first time all spring. It’s not good enough and not acceptable.”
New offensive coordinator Eddie Gran didn’t exactly discuss rainbows and butterflies afterward, either.
“It was absolutely awful,” he said on Saturday at the stadium. “There was no juice. … It was awful. We lost up front. We didn’t convert. We were off target on throws. Just, it wasn’t good. I didn’t have them ready to go and it has to be fixed.”
Gran took his share of the blame, noting that it’s the Cats’ coaches’ responsibility to get the players ready to go, but he tried to single out leaders on that side of the ball who need to do a better job.
“I didn’t hear a soul out there,” Gran said after the scrimmage, which included a couple of key touchdown drives for the offense, but they came too late to please the coach.
It was something that bothered sophomore tight end C.J. Conrad, too.
“Too many drops, real quiet and just didn’t have the energy we needed,” he said. “So the leaders need to step up like myself.”
They’ve got the potential. But everybody worries about what are they going to think of me and their peers and all that, and that’s horse crud. We’ve got to make sure we get that fixed.
Senior running back Jojo Kemp said he’ll be in younger players’ ears telling them to have a short-term memory and get better this week leading up to the final scrimmage of the spring.
“A lot of guys (were) complaining about the cold, the weather,” he said. “We just got to look past it and just keep fighting. I just see I got to get the things corrected so we can get things moving.”
Gran hears the leadership talk, but he’s ready to see some leadership in action. He’s seen players more concerned about how they’re perceived than actually finding ways to lead.
“They’ve got the potential,” Gran offered. “But everybody worries about what are they going to think of me and their peers and all that, and that’s horse crud. We’ve got to make sure we get that fixed.”
He is tired of what he called “fake” leadership.
“It’s going to be real leading, it’s not going to be fake,” Gran said. “It’s going to be guys who have earned that leadership, they come out every day and work, guys that can be respected. I’ve talked to a couple of them about it.”
Both Gran and co-offensive coordinator Darin Hinshaw regularly discuss having a “blank page mentality,” of starting fresh and being ready for what comes next.
The offense will have to live that this week as it prepares to end the spring on a high note.
“Monday they’ve got to come to work like pros,” Gran said. “We’ve got to get everything fixed, get it done, go to Tuesday, install nothing and whatever we do we execute it and take a step forward.”
MacGinnis feeling better
It took weeks for kicker Austin MacGinnis to finally feel like himself again after battling a groin strain for most of last season, which limited him greatly last season.
“I needed a couple months off for it to actually heal,” said MacGinnis, noting that each week he’d rest the leg and then kick on Saturday, which would undo all of the healing done during the week.
The former All-Southeastern Conference kicker, who made 13 of 17 field goal attempts and 22 point-after attempts despite the injury, said he took a full month off of kicking after the season to get back.
He’s been pain-free so far this spring and is hopeful it stays that way.
“I’m glad that time of my life is through,” he said.
‘I frown upon drops’
During the course of a practice or a scrimmage when the tempo is furious and the plays run together, there’s no time for scolding.
But Lamar Thomas has a running count going. The new wide receivers coach always has a count going.
“We come back later on and I tally up the drops and let them see exactly,” Thomas said. “I call them out in front of the group, embarrass them a little bit. And put them in situations to know that those could’ve lost the game for us.”
There’s been a bigger focus on drops this offseason under new offensive bosses Gran, Hinshaw and Thomas.
“I frown upon drops,” Thomas said with a low voice and a serious look. “They know how I feel about them.”
A little mental pain isn’t the only penalty for drops. Coaches are using a heavier ball in practices to encourage players to catch the ball at the right place and with strong hands.
“We’re doing more drills, we’re starting to catch heavier balls and we’re starting to work on hand-eye coordination to help us catch more balls,” senior Ryan Timmons said.
With the heavier ball, players learn to catch the ball with their hands and not their body.
“You don’t want it to get too close to your face,” Timmons said. “You want to catch the ball outside in the front, and with the heavy ball, you have to do that because if it hits your body then it’s obviously gonna hurt.”
Much of the stress has been on concentration, Gran said.
“It’s concentration, it’s technique, it’s knowing the play and being in the right position,” Gran said. “It’s everything when it comes to the receivers concentrating.”
A look inside the wide receiver room
Several times this spring, Kentucky’s wide receivers have mentioned how the new offense allows them more freedom of movement, especially in their route running.
“I don’t have to stick to one route or run it a certain way like it says on the Power Point,” Timmons said this week. “I can do whatever I want just to get open.”
That’s one of several ways the new offensive coordinators try to get their wideouts invested in the offense.
“So not only do they know their route, but how can they help themselves?” co-offensive coordinator Hinshaw said. “Also, how can they help their buddy? How can they help the guy next to them? It’s not just about me, it’s about the team.”
The offense also allows UK to play eight to 10 different wideouts through the course of the game. Hinshaw mapped it out: UK starts four wide receivers, then there are four backups that roll in and out with an extra added who usually has a large role on special teams.
The statistics from his time at Cincinnati back up those numbers. Last season, the Bearcats had 10 different players catch double-digit passes and nine players caught touchdowns, none more than seven.
The year before, Cincinnati had eight different players catch double-digit passes and nine players caught touchdowns. Two players led the team in receiving TDs with eight apiece.