Signs of renovation are everywhere at Commonwealth Stadium. The good news is there also seem to be signs of rebuilding on the field, too. Not a finished product, but Kentucky does look like a team that seems to have upgraded at several positions.
Following are impressions from Herald-Leader UK football beat writer Jennifer Smith and recruiting writer Ben Roberts, who were both in attendance for Saturday morning's first open practice of camp.
Jennifer Smith's observations:
-- Some key players sat out with injuries. Among the missing were cornerback Nate Willis, defensive end Jason Hatcher, safety Glenn Faulkner, cornerback Fred Tiller, running back Jojo Kemp, wide receivers Javess Blue, Jeff Badet and Garrett Johnson and offensive lineman Jordan Swindle.
-- Afterward Coach Mark Stoops said none of the injuries was significant: “There’s a lot of things that are not major but are lingering — hamstrings, when you’re going this many reps and doing all that, you’re gonna get some nagging injuries. I don’t think anything there is to report on that’s significant that’ll be more than a couple days on most everybody.”
-- Saturday's practice seemed pretty indicative of what the coaches are talking about with the quarterbacks. They make a really nice-looking play and then follow it up with a near-pick. It happened to all of them at least once. For example, Patrick Towles was leading a drive, seemed to be in rhythm and found Dorian Baker for a 40-yard pass. Then he immediately overthrew Blake Bone on a short pass.
-- The running backs are as good as advertised (and as deep) with Braylon Heard and Josh Clemons taking many of the first-team reps and breaking loose for a couple of nice runs where they had to make defenders miss.
-- Seeing Mikel Horton wear the No. 4 jersey this season is strange. He’s infinitely bigger and broader than Raymond Sanders was last season and he’s a physical runner. I think it will be hard for them to redshirt him this season because he adds a more physical, aggressive running style and finishes strong.
-- Stanley “Boom” Williams broke away for a nice run late in practice and the stadium yelled out a collective “BOOOOOM.” Offensive coordinator Neal Brown didn’t seem to be ready to anoint the back quite yet, but did say that he’s the “fastest guy we have back there. The good thing about him is he goes from zero to full speed really fast.” Gonna be tough to decide who gets the redshirt in that running back group.
-- If he can stay out of off-the-field trouble, wide receiver Demarco Robinson could be an asset for UK. He was a good bailout option for the quarterbacks a few times and made plays in the middle of the field.
-- T.V. Williams’ size is questionable but his speed is not. He made some acrobatic catches and then got more yardage after big catches.
-- Us media types have been scoffing a little at Neal Brown’s regular mentions of walk-ons in his post-practice wrap-ups, but there was Charles Walker, a former St. Xavier player, hauling in a short Towles TD throw.
-- I’m 5-foot-2, so most people seem extra tall to me, but Matt Elam dwarfs everyone on the field, including defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh and his fellow linemen. Any guy that makes Bud Dupree seem small is a big guy. But Elam got in the game regularly with the second team and did his job clogging up the middle. He did seem gassed by the end of practice when the humidity really took hold.
-- Speaking of Dupree, he’s a fast, fast human. A few times he came off the edge and was able to get to the quarterback in what felt like a second or less (it helped that Swindle was out). QBs were no doubt happy to be in no-contact gear today.
-- Coverage was better by the Cats’ secondary, they got hands on balls and disrupted plays in the middle of the field.
-- UK opened up in the nickel package and showed it regularly. With the lack of depth at linebacker, that may turn out to be their go-to defense this season, too.
Ben Roberts' observations:
-- The quarterbacks were the main attraction, and it’s pretty clear why the UK coaches still haven’t named a starter with three weeks to go until the season opener. There was nothing that screamed “SEC quarterback” out there Saturday.
-- Reese Phillips and Patrick Towles got the majority of the reps and both did some very good things. They also made their fair share of poor passes and poor decisions. UK offensive coordinator Neal Brown said afterward that it was “probably the least sharp we’ve looked in the passing game” so far in fall camp. Brown declined to specifically comment on the QB situation and said we could judge it for ourselves.
-- Drew Barker and Maxwell Smith also got some snaps, but the competition looks like it’ll come down to Phillips and Towles.
-- Phillips — a redshirt freshman — appeared to be the more consistent of the two Saturday. He made arguably the best throw of the day — a 25ish-yard pass down the left side that landed perfectly in the hands of freshman wide receiver T.V. Williams.
-- Towles’ highlight of the day was a bomb down the right side to freshman Dorian Baker, who made a nice catch over a defender on the sideline. Towles also threw a couple nice balls downfield that were dropped by his receivers.
-- There are two more open practices early this week, and the QBs will continue to attract a lot of attention until a starter is named. Judging from Saturday’s small sample size, I’d give Phillips a slight edge at this point. But it doesn’t look like the competition will end soon.
-- T.V. Williams had his best day of fall camp so far, according to Neal Brown. The diminutive freshman made several nice catches on the run and had a couple of opportunities to show off his elusiveness in the open field. Rivals.com analyst Mike Farrell told me last year that he was “like a water bug” in space, and that came through Saturday. Brown also pointed out that Williams’ parents were in town for the practice, and that might have had something to do with his big day. Head coach Mark Stoops also had good things to say about Williams after practice.
-- Speaking of freshman wide receivers, Dorian Baker had one of those “wow” catches that everyone has been talking about. The 6-foot-3 receiver jumped over a defender and hauled in a pass with both hands right on the sideline, dragging his foot as he flew out of bounds. His catch on the long pass from Towles a little later in the day might have gotten the biggest cheers from the Commonwealth Stadium fans. Baker has the combination of size, speed and hands that UK has been lacking recently, and he should make an immediate impact. He did drop a couple of easy passes, but Stoops says that’s been uncharacteristic of him and didn’t seem too concerned.
-- Senior wide receiver Demarco Robinson made a couple of nice catches on not-so-great throws that required him to change direction. The Cats could definitely use him this fall.
-- UK still needs bodies at wide receiver to play at Neal Brown’s tempo, and the walk-ons got quite a bit of high-profile practice time. In-state freshmen David Bouvier (Lexington Catholic), Cameron Fogle (Conner) and Charles Walker (St. Xavier) were among those who made nice catches.
-- Braylon Heard, Josh Clemons, Mikel Horton and Boom Williams all broke off big runs in 11-on-11 drills. Horton is listed at 6-1 and 230 pounds, but he’s actually 6-3 or 6-4 and brings a different level of physicality to this group of running backs. There was a lot of talk at Friday’s Media Day about how Williams still has a ways to go, but he made a nice play around the right side Saturday that elicited the first “Booooom!” cheer from the Commonwealth crowd.
-- Redshirt freshman offensive lineman Ramsey Meyers looked good playing with the first-team O-line. Stoops said Friday that he would likely start at right guard and held him up as an example of the benefits of a redshirt season, especially for offensive linemen.
-- Josh Krok might be the most likely true freshman to play on the O-line this season. He’s listed at 6-8, 303 pounds and looks every bit of it.
-- You already know this, but senior defensive end Bud Dupree is going to be an absolute beast this fall. Dupree has added more muscle to his frame and already looks like the NFL player that he’ll be this time next year. During the no-contact portion of practice, a UK receiver caught the ball in the flat and Dupree closed on him with the speed of a cornerback. If it had been a game situation, it would have been a pretty ugly result for the pass catcher.
-- Junior linebacker Khalid Henderson will need to play a bigger role this season, and he closed well on a couple of balls in pass defense Saturday. What he didn’t do is intercept either pass, which drew the ire of one of the UK assistant coaches. Still, he showed good instinct on getting to both balls and breaking up the play.
-- Junior-college transfer Ryan Flannigan has only been on campus for a couple of weeks, but he’s getting positive marks from the coaches. He made a great play in a one-on-one pass-catching drill with Josh Clemons, staying with the running back a good 20 yards downfield and then breaking up the pass. He was playing on the weakside in 11-on-11s and should be an immediate help to UK’s linebacker corps.
-- Junior-college transfer A.J. Stamps looked to be the only defensive newcomer who was playing with the first team. Stamps has received high marks from teammates and coaches since enrolling in January. He was one of the five defensive backs in the nickel package that UK ran quite a bit.
-- True freshman Kendall Randolph looked great Saturday. He picked off a Patrick Towles pass to the sideline and would have returned it for a touchdown had it been a live-scrimmage situation. Stoops said Friday that Randolph will play at the nickel position this season and said he’s been “very impressed” with the newcomer. He was active all day and could provide some highlight plays early on in his UK career.
-- Lots of eyes were surely on freshman defensive tackle Matt Elam on Saturday. Elam got some opportunities on the D-line, but it’s clear he’s still got some conditioning work to do to get in SEC shape. On one play, he was slow getting on the field and hadn’t even gotten down in his stance yet when the ball was snapped. When he was ready and active, it took two offensive linemen to keep him out of the backfield. His upside is tremendous.
-- Jojo Kemp, Garrett Johnson, Jason Hatcher, Nate Willis and Glenn Faulkner were among the players who mostly watched from the sidelines Saturday. Stoops said afterward that there are no serious injuries, so don’t expect those guys to miss much practice time.