Three takeaways from Kentucky football’s annual spring game:
1. The quarterback race appears to be even.
Sophomore Gunnar Hoak and junior college transfer Terry Wilson, also a sophomore, are the two top two contenders to succeed Stephen Johnson as Kentucky’s quarterback for 2018. “Big shoes to fill,” said Wilson afterward.
So it stood the reason that those two got the vast majority of the reps Friday night at Kroger Field. Hoak, who starred in last year’s spring game, completed 14 of 25 passes for 121 yards and a touchdown. Wilson, who arrived from Del City Junior College via a brief stay at Oregon, completed 10 of 24 passes for 131 yards with an interception.
Hoak is more of a traditional dropback passer who has good pocket presence and an accurate arm. His arm strength isn’t tremendous, but it’s plenty good enough. And though he lacks Wilson’s burst of speed, offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said afterward, “He can still make enough efficient yards to get us in a good situation.”
Wilson has the stronger arm, but doesn’t appear to be as accurate. He made one good throw, followed by a couple of off-target deliveries. He is elusive, something we didn’t get to see a lot of considering the spring game rules made to protect the quarterback. There’s little doubt he’ll bring an extra dimension to the position.
Head coach Mark Stoops said he was not in any position yet to name a favorite, much less a starter. He said it would not be fair to say which of the two has had the better spring. Gran echoed that when he talked to the media after the game. “I think this thing will go down to the wire,” he said.
2. Now that’s the A.J. Rose we had heard about.
For whatever reason, the sophomore running back out of Cleveland has not seen the field much in his UK career to this point. What we heard is that he was not quite ready. He hadn’t fully learned the offense. He hadn’t excelled in pass protection. There were simply better, more experienced runners ahead of him on the depth chart.
Friday night, however, Rose showed that might be about to change. You could make the case the 6-foot-1, 208-pounder was the star of the scrimmage, rushing for 134 yards and three touchdowns on just 11 carries. Rose had the longest run of the night, a 34-yarder. He also scored on a 27-yard run.
This was not a spring aberration, either. Stoops said Rose had performed well in UK’s last scrimmage. So it was important that he put two good performances back-to-back.
“You never know when somebody is going to pull it all together,” said the coach. “You love to see guys getting better and developing over time. Some guys walk in — very few of them are ready to compete at a high level. Sometime it’s out of necessity that you’ve got to play some young guys, but you never know when it’s going to all come together for him. He’s been showing flashes for a long time, but to put it all together and play winning football all the time, he’s been doing that this spring.”
If Rose can carry over his spring to the fall, he could give UK a stable of backs along with Benny Snell and Sihiem King. Last year, the Cats were two-deep at running back. In 2018, they could be more like the 2016 version when Snell, Boom Williams and Jojo Kemp carried the load.
3. Questions about the defense.
It’s difficult to tell in a spring game, where the rules generally favor the offense, but Stoops said afterward he is confident that his defense will be improved in 2018.
“I definitely feel stronger about the defense, there’s no doubt,” he said. “I think we’ll be an improved unit. I think we have to hand all hands on deck. We have to be deeper than we’ve been. But no, we’ll be an improved unit. There’s no doubt that we’ll be better and we’ll continue to challenge them.”
The pieces are in place for improvement. Getting Josh Allen and Denzil Ware back at the defensive end/outside linebacker spots is huge. Josh Paschal figures to continue his improvement. T.J. Carter and Adrian Middleton are veterans on the defensive line. Nearly the entire secondary returns, including Derrick Baity, Lonnie Johnson, Chris Westry, Mike Edwards and Darius West.
Jordan Jones missed most of the spring with a shoulder injury. Stoops confirmed that Jones has had surgery and should be ready to go by fall. The coaches will have to settle on a replacement for Courtney Love. Losing Eli Brown to Western Kentucky as a transfer doesn’t help. But there are candidates to replace Love, including junior Kash Daniel.
And for all the talk about the quarterback spot, defense could end up being much important to how UK fares in 2018.
Kentucky football 2018 schedule