Three take-aways from Kentucky football’s spring football game Friday night:
1. There is quality depth at quarterback
Redshirt freshman quarterback Gunnar Hoak put on a show Friday, completing 16 of 24 passes for 174 yards and two touchdowns without an interception. Hoak showed poise in the pocket, threw a nice ball and led the White team, competing against the first-team defense, to two scores before switching to the Blue and leading it to a score.
And come fall, Hoak is likely to enter training camp as the No. 3 quarterback behind senior starter Stephen Johnson and junior Dew Barker, last year’s starting quarterback in the opener but now coming off back surgery.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
Johnson, the California native who replaced the injured Barker and led UK to a bowl game last season, struggled at times Friday. He ended up completing eight of 18 passes after overthrowing some receivers and missing on some deep shots.
“Stephen has had a great spring, OK?” quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw said. “He just got a little greedy tonight.”
Johnson also was hurt by the fact the quarterbacks were non-contact. A touch of the quarterback by the defense brought about a stop in play. Therefore, Johnson couldn’t use his speed and quickness to elude pass rushers and scramble for yardage.
“It was frustrating,” Johnson admitted afterward. “But I understand why they did that.”
Barker didn’t participate Friday night, but the good news is that he was able to go through some non-contract drills during spring practice. He missed all but three games last season, and after his back didn’t heal on its own was forced to undergo surgery. All signals appear to point toward Barker being ready to compete in the fall.
Meanwhile, UK coaches have said all along that they liked the way Hoak looked at practice. Friday night was really the first time he could show his skills in a game-like setting. And he showed, as Hinshaw had said earlier this spring, that he has the makings of a quarterback who can win SEC games.
If Barker is healthy come fall, this might be the best depth Kentucky has had at quarterback in a while.
2. Finding those yards that must be replaced at running back
Benny Snell picked up right where he left off. First play of the game, the sophomore running back gained 11 yards off tackle. Second series, he took a screen pass 21 yards to the opponents’ three-yard line. Next play, he took the direct snap out of the Wildcat and bulled his way into the end zone. After that, he was done for the night.
Who the coaches wanted to see were the candidates to replace Boom Williams and the 1,000-plus yards he produced last year before he left a year early to enter the NFL Draft.
The leading candidate all along has been junior Sihiem King, who did nothing to give up that distinction Friday. The Georgia native gained 107 yards on 19 carries and scored two touchdowns.
King might not be as explosive as Williams, but he showed good elusiveness and no doubt he’s still learning how to make cuts and what offensive coordinator/running backs coach Eddie Gran wants him to do out of the backfield.
“He knows it’s real,” Gran said after the game.
In other words, King knows that after two years of waiting, this his chance. He also knows he has competition in redshirt freshman A.J. Rose, who suffered a neck strain Friday from a hit by Eli Brown. (Mark Stoops said the injury wasn't serious.) True freshman Bryant Koback might also be a factor, as might others.
Snell will be the featured back, of course. After all, he did rush for more than 1,000 yards as a true freshman. And Friday, in something close to a cameo, he showed again that he’s tough to bring down.
3. Don’t read too much into the defense
Yes, the offense put up good numbers Friday night, even against the first-team defense. Hoak had a big night. King ran well. Charles Walker caught two passes for 49 yards. Kayaune Ross caught a 48-yard pass.
But Stoops appeared fairly happy with the play of his defense. He kept the defensive packages vanilla. The head coach said the coaches used very little out of their third-down packages. Instead, they were just looking for good technique and effort.
New defensive coordinator Matt House, on the staff last year as an outside linebackers and special teams coach, said he was happy with the play of redshirt freshman Boogie Watson and true freshman Jamin Davis.
Watson, a 6-foot-3, 240-pound linebacker from Forestville, Md., recorded a game-high four sacks. Davis had a game-high eight tackles, including five solos and one tackle for loss.
Asked about his defensive line play, Stoops was complimentary but said he’s looking for improvement. He said summer would be a key for the players up front. Defensive line development could also be a key to how the Cats do overall in 2017.
Kentucky football 2017 schedule