Three takeaways from what was an eventful first Mark Stoops weekly Monday press conference of the 2018 season:
1. With all that’s going on, what is the mindset of the team?
There is a lot to process, here. Starting left offensive tackle Landon Young is out for the season after tearing his ACL on Friday. Sophomore defensive tackle Josh Paschal remains sidelined with a malignant melanoma. Offensive line coach John Schlarman is undergoing chemotherapy for an undisclosed health problem, though Schlarman is continuing his coaching duties. And, by the way, the opener against Central Michigan at Kroger Field is just five days away.
The Paschal and Schlarman issues go well beyond football. Anytime you use the word malignant, with regard to Paschal, that’s a serious issue. Anytime you are talking about chemotherapy, with regard to Schlarman, that’s a serious issue. Health comes first. Football is a distant — way, way distant — second.
That’s a lot for a group of college students to deal with, but Stoops is fortunate to have a veteran staff and a veteran team. The offensive staff, led by coordinator Eddie Gran, has largely been in place for three seasons. Only wide receivers coach Michael Smith is new. The team boasts 17 returning starters. Actually, it’s more than that when you consider Dorian Baker is back from injury, as well as others who saw considerable playing time last season.
Before Young’s injury, the offensive linemen said they were treating Schlarman’s illness as a rallying point. All the members of the O-line are close to their coach. Many were recruited by Schlarman. And just by coaching, while taking chemo, Schlarman is setting a tremendous example for his players.
Still, we won’t know for sure how all this is affecting the Cats until they get on the field. That happens Saturday, 3:30 p.m. at Kroger Field.
2. No surprise that Terry Wilson is the starting quarterback.
Especially since the team’s second and final scrimmage on Aug. 18, the buzz was Wilson, the junior-college transfer who began his career at Oregon, had moved ahead of sophomore Gunnar Hoak in the quarterback race. Stoops confirmed that Monday, announcing that Wilson will take the first snap Saturday against the Chippewas.
Based on the small sample size of the spring game, plus a pair of open practices in fall camp, Wilson is a mobile quarterback with quick feet and a strong arm. The accuracy of that arm is the question. Can Wilson throw strikes? And can he make quick, sharp decisions about the best time to run and throw?
Will we see Hoak, as well? Stoops said early in camp he believed both quarterbacks would play. The head coach hedged on that Monday, saying he could not commit either way. Considering that neither Wilson nor Hoak has taken a snap in a Division I college game, I’m sure Stoops would love to get both some experience. On the other hand, with UK headed to Florida and The Swamp on Sept. 8, Wilson might need all the reps he can get.
3. Time for the potential at left tackle to come through.
With Young out, Stoops said the first options at the important left tackle spot would be redshirt freshman Nassir Watkins and redshirt sophomore E.J. Price. The former pushed for playing time last season before he was redshirted. The latter was a highly regarded prospect who transferred from Southern Cal.
As Stoops pointed out Monday, it should help that the new guy will be surrounded by experience. The rest of the UK front — Logan Stenberg at left guard; Drake Jackson at center; Bunchy Stallings at right guard; George Asafo-Adjei at right tackle — are veterans with a considerable number of snaps under their belts.
Still, we’re talking the left tackle here. The blind side, and all that. We’re also talking about just a few practices to get either Watkins or Price ready for the first game of the season. When Young made his college debut at Florida, in the second game of the season two years ago, he referred to it as trial by fire. The same term could apply to the situation now.