After a season of doubts and hesitation, Denzil Ware made a promise to himself this spring.
The Kentucky defensive end, one of the only returning pass rushers on the team, decided to stop worrying so much.
“I’m just going to play full speed,” Ware said he vowed. “I’m going to make mistakes full speed. I’m not going to be timid today.”
It’s really something that the sophomore from Alabama promised himself to start the spring, too.
It showed in Kentucky’s Blue-White Spring Game on Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium when he led the starting defense with a game-high 10 tackles, including five for a loss, while managing four sacks (or at least pseudo sacks against the no-contact quarterbacks).
So many question marks have come about Kentucky’s defense this spring, about how few returning tackles for loss and sacks are back from a team that already was low on them.
Ware hopes he showed he’s ready to assume the role.
“Denzil really had some good rushes,” Coach Mark Stoops said after the spring game that the starters won 31-20 on Saturday. “That’s what you like to see when it’s predictable pass and we’re playing it straight we’re rushing four and no games and you just need to win a one-on-one. He won several of those today.”
The hybrid defensive end/linebacker who finished last season with 39 tackles including 5.5 for a loss learned a lot from that season of challenges, said D.J. Eliot, his position coach.
“Sometimes when you throw somebody out there for the first time, what’s going through their mind is, ‘What do I do? What do I do? What do I do? I don’t want to mess that up.’ Now we’re at the point where this is how you do it best. We’ve really emphasized that,” Eliot said.
The coaches have a lot fewer worries about those outside linebackers — and their inexperienced linebacker group in general — after the spring despite the large chunks of rushing yards given up to both offensive units.
“We did some good things fundamentally inside when they were running gaps, game plays, and as far as the physicality of the defensive run game I thought we really made some improvements, honestly,” Stoops said. “A lot of the yards were perimeter stuff that we would have to the to game plan some different things.”
Changes to High Performance?
Less than 24 hours before the spring game, news broke that Kentucky’s High Performance Coordinator Erik Korem would be leaving the Cats to take a similar position for the NFL’s Houston Texans.
On Friday night, Korem told the Herald-Leader that a transition plan already was in place for the program to move forward and that he expected it would be a big part of what UK is doing even after he leaves.
“They’re going to continue some sports science, that would be a better way of phrasing it,” Korem said. “They’re not doing away with tracking and all that kind of stuff. It’s now very much part of the game. You watch any game, every NFL game is tracked and it won’t be long before every college game is tracked. This is not going away. It’s always about how you use.”
Stoops said as much on Saturday after the spring game, noting that UK has several people on staff that were “very in tune with what we’re doing there.”
He pointed to Corey Edmond, the head strength and conditioning coach, as a guy who will continue to guide UK’s plan going forward.
“Coach Ed will have the main voice with what we’re doing in the weight room and will continue to work with the sports science,” Stoops said. “To what extent, we’ll re-evaluate all of it and see what’s been very useful to us and what we want to do moving forward, but it will certainly still be in our program.”
High on the secondary
Kentucky’s head coach spent the entire scrimmage directly behind the quarterbacks and was able to have a unique perspective each time they’d take a shot down the field in Chris Westry’s direction.
“Immediately I’m like, that’s not going to be complete,” Stoops said of Westry, who had two pass breakups in limited action. “I thought that was a very low percentage that we were going to complete that. And that was true.”
Nothing this spring has made the Cats coach waver in his love for the secondary, now made up of mostly sophomores such as Westry, fellow cornerback Derrick Baity and safeties Darius West and Mike Edwards (who missed the spring game with an injury).
“Really high on those three guys, amongst others, in the secondary,” said Stoops, a lifelong secondary coach. “Overall in the secondary we’re playing better. You see the depth.”
He specifically noted the strong play of senior Blake McClain and others like Kendall Randolph in the nickel packages as well.
Special teams notes
With limited bodies available and the desire to come out of the spring game with no injuries, UK opted not to do kickoff and punt returns on Saturday.
But senior wide receiver Ryan Timmons has emerged this spring as UK’s likely punt returner.
“We’ll continue to work guys and have a lot of options there, but, yeah, I mean as long as Ryan keeps on producing and doing the right things, then he’ll have that opportunity,” Stoops said of Timmons, who was demoted from that spot last season. “I have a lot of confidence in Ryan. … I think he’s going to have a big year.”
▪ Austin MacGinnis connected on one 29-yard field goal in the spring game. His first attempt from 52 yards fell short. He made six of his seven extra-point tries. The miss came on a botched snap.