The key word for Kentucky football this spring is more.
More players. More strength. More depth. More balance. More conditioning. More enthusiasm. More of what it takes to turn around a program that has won 12 games in Mark Stoops’ first three seasons as the head coach.
“Our players are able to handle more,” Stoops said Saturday after his team had finished a two-hour open practice at Commonwealth Stadium. “We’re nowhere near where we want to be, but our guys are able to handle more.”
Take the offense, for instance. Eddie Gran is the new offensive coordinator, or assistant head coach of the offense, to be precise. Last year, then-new coordinator Shannon Dawson took three practices to install his offense. Saturday was Gran’s fourth day of installing his new offense. He has one more to go, he said.
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Does more stuff make for a better offense? We’ll see. The first-team offense appeared to get the better of it on Saturday, moving the ball well behind quarterback Drew Barker. Running back Mikel Horton ran the ball hard. Tight end C.J. Conrad made catches along the goal line.
When sophomore running back Sihiem King was stopped short of the end zone on a run, Gran all but exploded off the sidelines yelling, “Get in there! Get in there! Break a tackle!”
Add more intensity. The “Air Raid” schemes of Kentucky’s previous coordinators (Dawson and Troy Coach Neal Brown) may have lent itself to a cooler style. Gran runs hot. He’s urging, yelling, turning up the heat. Judging by Saturday, this is a high-tempo offense. Lots of shotgun formation. Lots of zone read.
“You hear me talk about it and anybody — you watch enough football — you have to have some balance,” said Stoops, repeating something he’s preached since arriving from Florida State. “I don’t care what the numbers say, but you have to have some physicality about you to get the tough yards and move it when you can and we’re seeing some of that.”
I don’t care what the numbers say, but you have to have some physicality about you to get the tough yards and move it when you can and we’re seeing some of that.
Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops
Saturday, at least, what you needed to see more of was plays by the defense. Coordinator D.J. Eliot was complimentary of his second unit, not so much his first, especially the way they defended against the run.
“Our ones are struggling in the run game and we’ve got to get that better,” Eliot said. “Maybe we need different personnel in there at times, but we’ve got to figure out going into next year who are going to be the right guys on our defense to play physical and stop the run.”
This isn’t an unexpected concern. The defensive line lost Melvin Lewis and C.J. Johnson. Matt Elam, Regie Meant and Courtney Miggins are fighting for the starting spots. Linebackers and defensive ends Josh Forrest, Jason Hatcher, Khalid Henderson, Ryan Flanigan and Jabari Johnson are gone. That’s a lot of holes to fill.
Courtney Love figures to fill one. The 6-foot-2, 245-pound linebacker is a transfer from Nebraska who sat out last season. He’s still learning the defense, but he provides something every team values.
“He’s special when it comes to a person and leadership,” Stoops said. “He’s way above the norm. And he’s a great kid. I think that’s important to have in your locker room.”
For a team that plays in the Southeastern Conference, it’s good to have as many good football players as you can in your locker room. At some spots, Stoops seems to have more of those this year. In other spots, there is no doubt the head coach and his staff will need to focus on player development.
As practice was getting ready to start and the players were stretching on the stadium’s artificial turf, you couldn’t help but notice the rather tall young man standing in the middle of the field talking with the head coach. It was none other than Landon Young, the 6-7, 300-pound offensive lineman out of Lafayette High School who has signed with the Cats and will be on campus in shoulder pads come fall. Rivals designated Young a five-star prospect.
Every team wants more of those.
Kentucky football 2016 schedule
Sept. 3: Southern Mississippi
Sept. 10: at Florida
Sept. 17: New Mexico State
Sept. 24: South Carolina
Oct. 1: at Alabama
Oct. 8: Vanderbilt
Oct. 22: Mississippi State
Oct. 29: at Missouri
Nov. 5: Georgia
Nov. 12: at Tennessee
Nov. 19: Austin Peay
Nov. 26: at Louisville