The University of Kentucky's football team will strap on the pads and helmets this Friday for the first day of spring practice. Spring practice is important for a number of reasons. It gives the coaches a period to evaluate how progress in the weight room is translating onto the field. Will the players that transformed their bodies also transform their play? More generally, coaches will notice who has improved their play, and possibly what positions need to be upgraded in future recruiting.
Rosters can also be established as early as the spring. The starters will see the majority of reps once camp starts in August, so it's imperative to make a good impression early. The further back a player is on the roster the fewer reps he'll see. It's difficult to improve that way once the season begins. This is an important month for a few returning starters and all of the back-ups.
Spring practice will culminate with a scrimmage being held Saturday April 26th in Commonwealth Stadium. Last season's attendance registered at 50,8000 people, but due to ongoing stadium renovations the total number this year will be capped at 46,000 people. Last spring had its share of story lines: the return of the Air Raid, Mark Stoops' coaching style, and the overwhelming fan response. This year there are new story lines worth following.
There is a logjam at the quarterback position largely due to no single quarterback separating himself from his competition. It's unlikely the coaches will publicly declare a starter coming out of the spring, but a spring performances will go a long way. Part-time starter redshirt junior (to be) Maxwell Smith will sit out this spring due to recovery from his shoulder surgery, but the other part-time starter junior (to be) Jalen Whitlow will be competing. Along with Whitlow will be redshirt sophomore (to be) Patrick Towles, redshirt freshman (again, to be) Reese Phillips, and true freshman Drew Barker who enrolled in December. Everyone in this group has strengths and weaknesses.
- Whitlow has the most in-game experience and creates plays with his feet, but his decision-making and mechanics held him back last season.
- Towles redshirted last season so little is known about his progress; however, with Whitlow and Smith's struggles there was never talk of removing his redshirt. This is probably indicative that he wasn't performing at a high level in practices. Towles will reportedly work with quarterback guru George Whitfield in May which displays a new level of seriousness, at least publicly, on his part.
- Towards the end of last season, Neal Brown and Stoops strongly suggested Reese Phillips would have been the starter the last two weeks of the season if not for his redshirt status. Phillips was originally an unheralded Joker recruit who caught the eye of previous offensive coordinator Randy Sanders. Phillips stands a strong shot of being named the starter this fall.
- Barker will face college competition for the first time, and is likely to struggle early. His mechanics and technique will be scrutinized to a level of detail that he may not be accustomed to outside of his Elite 11 experience. Meanwhile, he'll also have to adapt to college level speed and athleticism..
Weight room Warriors
Developing players is just as important as recruiting the right ones. UK's current roster had a talent deficit at many positions last season. Stoops is changing that slowly through recruiting, but needs are immediate. I'm curious to see how UK's much publicized strength and conditioning program is changing players. It certainly helped Avery Williamson improve his draft stock, and the photos of many players that have leaked online shows many have added good weight. Can the weight room and nutrition program mold average players into great players? Will they be stronger, quicker, faster, and more flexible and will those physical changes translate to their performances on the field this spring?
Who Will Lead?
Hopefully during the grueling winter workout campaign several players have become leaders. Spring practices may give fans insight into who are these fine gentlemen. Last season the leader was senior Avery Williamson by all public accounts, and new voices will be needed with his graduation. Ideally, UK's best players are also your leaders but most of UK's best players are underclassmen outside of Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith. Are the underclassmen ready to assume the mantle, and will they be followed by their older peers? I look forward to hearing who the coaches feel stepped up during winter workouts to lead either through motivation, example, or just plain fear. UK returns eight starters on defense and eight starters on offense so there will be candidates. Leadership is best with multiple players on both sides of the ball. Coaches can only do so much policing themselves, and this season there will be a thin line between three and five wins. Leadership will play an important factor in this season's success.
Play-Makers Apply Within
Kentucky's anemic offense did not have much in the way of play-makers last season. The most explosive plays usually were the result of Whitlow scrambling and making plays for himself. That is not a recipe for consistent success. The wide receiver corps showed promise but was young. Javess Blue led the team in receptions but defenses were able to key on him, and second or third options were rarely viable. Blue, himself, did not seem to make plays when in double coverage last season. The running backs showed improvement, but also weren't capable of making big plays when needed. Who will emerge as a play-maker this year?
Much has been made of the transfer running back from Nebraska Braylon Heard. Coming out of high school Heard was rated a four star and in the top 40 overall. His sophomore year at Nebraska he averaged nearly 7.0 yards per carry. The coaches raved about his performances on the scout team last fall. Heard and Jojo Kemp should make a solid foundation in the backfield. I'll go into more detail in the offensive preview tomorrow, but at least two players from tight end and wide receiver grouping will need to step up also.
UK's roster is heavy in underclassmen. These are the players Stoops recruited his first two seasons, and they are unquestionably have more natural talent as a group than their elders, but are they ready to contribute consistently? Last season Ryan Timmons, Jojo Kemp, Alexander Montgomery, and Jeff Badet contributed to varying degrees. Jason Hatcher and Blake McClain saw a lot of game-time action for the defense. All of these players will need to have better sophomore seasons than their freshman seasons. Meanwhile, redshirt freshmen Regie Meant and Jacob Hyde will be expected to contribute as key back-ups along the defensive line. UK's second and third string have an over-reliance on the players in these younger classes. There will inevitably be injuries and they will have to step up when called upon.
There's also this fall's incoming freshmen who may receive consideration because of lack of depth at certain positions. It will be hard for most of them to earn playing time this season, but if they are able to contribute it is important that they are effective. Freshmen wide receivers Dorian Baker, Thaddeus Snodgrass, and Blake Bone may be required to augment the wide receiver corps. Mikel Horton and Stanley Williams will likely see playing time in the backfield given the wear running backs receive over the course of a season. Defensively, Dorian Hendrix probably sees game action given he was an early enrollee and there is a yawning gap at middle linebacker with Williamson's graduation. Ideally, most of the true freshmen will redshirt and won't be needed.
Those are a few story lines I'll be paying attention to over the next month. What say you?