Jen Smith on UK Football

A big, huge, monstrous Kentucky football practice report

More football practice notes than your sleep-deprived, basketball-watching brain can process:

It was a closed scrimmage Saturday morning at Commonwealth Stadium, so we have to rely on what coaches and players are relaying afterward, but it sounds as if Coach Mark Stoops was pleased with both sides of the ball overall.

“I wouldn’t say either side won it or lost it,” he said. “I thought it was pretty balanced scrimmage; I really did. The defense had some good stops. The offense certainly moved it at times. They had a few big plays, which we’ve got to limit, but overall, I thought it was good.”

The defense hasn’t put in a lot of its third-down packages yet, but there was plenty of work on first- and second-down looks, Stoops said.

▪  It sounded as if both sides of the ball were a little too up for their first scrimmage.

There was too much chatter all around for Stoops.

“You’ve just got to close your mouth and play football,” offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said was the message after the scrimmage, where stats weren’t released. “There’s too much talking. Coach did a great job addressing that today. And you know what? Everybody’s trying to get better. … It’s not about jabbering and all that bullcrap. So we’re going to make that more a point of emphasis: Just close your mouth and do your job. If you do, we’ll be a better football team.”

Outside linebacker Denzil Ware said the defense learned the shut up-and-play message the hard way Saturday.

“We’ve got a lot of people out here that like to joke, a lot of jokesters,” he said. “Coach Stoops said instead of talking junk, we just need to play ball. At times, we was trash-talking and they’re hiking the ball and scoring touchdowns. So we do need to cut that out.”

On the offense, the amped-up problem was pre-snap penalties, which Gran said have to get cleaned up.

“A couple of them were our tempo stuff,” Gran said of some of the new install. “They didn’t look comfortable, so that tells me I’ve got to be a better coach. So we’ll get those fixed. The good part is we can get those fixed.”

▪  Biggest play for offense? It wasn’t a touchdown play, but it helped set up a touchdown and showed that the offense has some resiliency to it, and that made Gran happy. Stephen Johnson had a wide-open chance to hit wideout Tavin Richardson on a fade route, but Johnson underthrew it. Blake Bone swapped in, and they connected for a 60-yard play that got the UK offense to the 2-yard line, Gran said.

“That fired me up because it was a perfect pass and I chewed him. “That’s good stuff, when you have a quarterback (respond).” Johnson said he was frustrated with the first play and glad he could have it back. “Should’ve made it the first time,” the quarterback said.

▪  Playing with more discipline: Ware was so excited to hit someone in the scrimmage that he popped out of bed at 7 a.m. But apparently he was too excited.

The outside linebacker was spotted doing punishment up-downs after practice. Why? “I did some things that would get me kicked out of the game on Saturdays and I’ve got to do my punishment,” Ware said. “The first thing about being the leader of a group is accepting my responsibility. I messed up and I had to do my up-downs like a man.”

Quarterback praise

During scrimmages, Kentucky’s head coach spends most of his time on the field, directly behind the line of scrimmage. It gives Stoops pretty good insight into what Stephen Johnson is seeing while running the first-team offense.

So far, so pleased for Stoops.

“Just a very calm demeanor,” Stoops said of the senior quarterback. “And he’s very, very comfortable back there right now. I could hear him talking about the disguises, the looks and the pressures. He can pick up on those things very quickly on who’s coming and who’s not. He’s just experienced. I was very pleased with him today.”

Gran used words like “efficient” and “comfortable” when discussing the player who took the bulk of the snaps last season after Drew Barker went out with a back injury.

“I thought Stephen, he was very controlled, knew exactly where to go with the ball and made some good decisions,” Gran said, and Johnson’s targeting and decision-making were excellent.

Things definitely seem to be slowing down for Johnson, who threw for 2,037 yards last season and 13 touchdowns.

“It helps having more experience than I did last year,” he said. “Trying to see how defenses start to rotate and see things before they start to happen.”

If coaches had a major complaint last season about Johnson, it was him turning the ball over, especially with fumbles, such as the one on the Cats’ first series of the TaxSlayer Bowl.

“Really focusing on that, getting my hands and forearms a lot stronger than they were last year, just being able to hold onto the ball while I’m in the pocket,” he said.

That work includes regular walks around the perimeter of the weight room while carrying a 45-pound plate weight with his fingers.

“It just burns your wrists, your forearms and your fingers, but it helps out a lot,” he said.

News and notes

As discussed early in camp, but confirmed Saturday, redshirt freshman Davonte Robinson has moved to the safety spot. The former Henry Clay star has shown the ability to play physically and be versatile. He’s playing behind Darius West now at one of the safety spots.

▪  Cornerback Lonnie Johnson, the junior college transfer, missed the scrimmage while attending a family funeral, Stoops said.

▪  The offense was turnover-free except for one late in the scrimmage by redshirt freshman A.J. Rose, but it was recovered by Tavin Richardson. Junior running back Sihiem King had a couple of nice cuts and big runs, Gran said.

“He’s got tremendous vision, is able to see the hole as it develops,” Stephen Johnson said of the running back, who saw plenty of carries Saturday.

▪  Gran wasn’t pleased with the first-down efficiency in the run game and wants to see more physical play. He thought the defense won those battles Saturday.

“I just think we’ve got to have lower pad level,” Gran said. “There weren’t enough explosive run plays for me. So we’ve got to be better.”

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