The media was invited in for the first few periods of practice on Tuesday, so a few of these are observations and a few are things we heard from offensive coordinator Eddie Gran after the practice ended.
Both cornerback Derrick Baity and wide receiver Garrett Johnson wore No. 2 jerseys at practice on Tuesday, paying homage to teammate Dorian Baker, who will miss a sizable chunk of this season if not all with an ankle injury. It’s been an extra emotional few days in the wide receiver room since the senior went down in Saturday’s scrimmage with a fractured and dislocated left ankle.
“If you could’ve been in that room and he was sitting in that room and the guys are coming by and some were in tears because they know how much time and effort he put in this summer to do it the right way,” said wide out coach Lamar Thomas, who started to get emotional discussing it.
The wide receiver group is trying to stay positive about the season despite losing one of its senior leaders. “It’s not the end of the world,” Thomas continued. “He was very upbeat. I talked to him last night. He’s talking about he wants to be around and he wants to continue to do it the right way. I’m very proud of him for the way he’s handling this. He’s being strong.”
In the first few weeks, the goal is to find a player willing to step into that Baker role, whether it be Kayaune Ross, Blake Bone, Tavin Richardson or one of the freshmen. “They’re all going to get opportunities and hopefully by the first two or three games you find somebody that takes the job and they say they want it and they prove it out there and they make plays,” offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said. “That’s all it is, it’s about making plays, doing the right things every single time and then making sure they understand this offense and they all do, now it’s about just going out there and executing.”
• As for those freshman wideouts, Gran said they are swimming a little bit still getting used to playing at this pace and this level, grading them at a “B” overall as a group. But he hopes as the offense gets pared down in preparation for Southern Miss, light bulbs will click on for the freshmen. “I think when they come back (to practice) and they see it Thursday and Friday, they’ll see, ‘Whoa, this isn’t as hard as I thought,’” Gran said. One player who has had that light bulb moment already is Clevan Thomas, who was at UK in the spring. “He had three practices in a row that were really good,” Gran said. “He understands it; he’s getting better and he’s physical when he runs the ball and he loves football.”
• The offense from camp has been cutup and coaches are starting to take a long look at what the players are able to do well and what seems to be problematic. They’ll start building a full game plan for Southern Miss based on that. One thing that is clear: the wildcat package has been greatly expanded from a season ago and includes lots of new wrinkles. “There’s a lot more there that we’ve been able to do and being able to be in the second year and knowing the base offense, we were able to get into that package a lot earlier than we did last year.” UK will be able to run the ball, but Gran said much focus this preseason has been on throwing the ball better. The offensive coordinator said he’s seen the offense take a step in the right direction there.
• As for those running backs, Gran saw dramatic improvement from junior running back Sihiem King between the first and second scrimmages. “Really hitting the holes, not bouncing it around, understanding situations and they’ve got to understand on third down what kind of run it’s gotta be and they have to understand on first down, he can jump cut maybe and he’ll make a guy miss,” said Gran, who verbally penciled King at the No. 2 spot behind Benny Snell. “In his last two practices, has been he looks quick and he’s done really a good job for us.” At the practice on Tuesday, true freshman Bryant Koback, who has been coming back from a broken leg last season, was not on the field. A UK spokesman said Koback had a tight hamstring and was in the weight room, but he was expected to be fine after a day or two of rest.
• Other observations: Two freshmen who have gotten significant praise from coaches this preseason, offensive lineman Naasir Watkins and defensive lineman Quinton Bohanna, went through a series of drills where they faced off. It turned out to be quite the battle between two really big guys, who hardly look like freshmen. Bohanna is listed at 6-4, 320 pounds and Watkins is listed at 6-5, 300 pounds. … In several different formations, senior nose tackle Matt Elam was running with the first team.