This Saturday the University of Kentucky's football team will hold a public scrimmage that will officially conclude the 2014 spring practice period. Some question if spring practice is actually beneficial. And it's a good question! For the experienced players it may not be, but for the inexperienced players and the coaches it certainly is of value. Particularly for the coaches. It gives them a month to evaluate their roster and to experiment with different schemes and positional changes. Spring practice is kind of like a new restaurant having a "soft opening" with invited guests before the doors really open and reality strikes. What the coaches are learning this spring - both good and bad - they preferably don't want to learn for the first time in August.
Another question: are spring scrimmages beneficial or are they largely just fan service and recruiting events? Scrimmages may not be beneficial for teams at most schools. For the coaches at UK they've had the last month to evaluate players, and one more scrimmage probably only has a marginal impact. There will be a few positional battles that are tight enough that the scrimmage will matter though - namely, the quarterbacks.
At this point, what we have learned the last month won't be changed by Saturday's scrimmage; likewise, what we've yet to learn probably won't change after Saturday either.
What Have We Learned
Here are some things that seem pretty clear:
- The quarterback race has been whittled down from four quarterbacks to probably just true freshman Drew Barker and redshirt sophomore Patrick Towles. Praise the old gods and the new!
- Jalen Whitlow's transfer, and Maxwell Smith's shoulder injury, have contributed; however, Barker has proven himself capable of competing at a collegiate level, and Towles has made the biggest strides of any player, according to Mark Stoops. Redshirt freshman Reese Phillips may still be a threat to them both.
- The running back corps is deep and this is largely due to the re-emergence of Josh Clemons and the abilities of true freshman Mikel Horton. Impressive given the transfer of Dyshawn Mobley last December.
- Alvin Dupree, Za'Darius Smith, Braylon Heard, and Jordan Swindle are all upperclassmen the coaches say have taken on leadership roles. They are all upperclassmen who among the team's best players. This is important.
- The freshmen may contribute more this fall than previously believed. Underclassmen will provide a critical level of depth this season, and so they will need to perform for UK to succeed. So far, all the early enrollees appear ready to do that. Even TV Williams who seemed destined for a redshirt season probably will see the field this season.
- JUCO transfer AJ Stamps is for real and will probably start this season at free safety.
- Neal Brown has said this will be a huge recruiting weekend. Last year's spring game atmosphere helped sway some recruits:
What Have We Not Learned?
What we haven't learned can largely be attributed to mounting injuries keeping players off the field. Injuries will also prevent some of UK's best players from competing against each other in the scrimmage.
- Who will be UK's starting linebackers? Hard to say since several candidates are banged up.
- Who's emerged as a play-maker? Hard to say since UK's receiver corps has been decimated by injuries.
- No quarterback has separated himself enough to be named a starter. Let's see how the remaining three look in the scrimmage in front of 42,000 fans. Additionally, let's see how the quarterbacks look when matched up against UK's first team defense while running the second/third team offense.
- There will be more attrition to make the scholarship numbers work out. This week receiver AJ Legree's transfer was announced. Legree was buried on depth chart behind Javess Blue and Alexander Montgomery last season. He was moved to inside receiver this spring probably in an attempt to maximize match-ups against linebackers suggesting he didn't have the speed to win battles against defensive backs. Upperclassmen who can barely break into the two deep will always be candidates for attrition. Best of luck to AJ. He won't be the last.
What To Focus On
The scrimmage will feature the first team offense and defense "against the rest." Stoops has remarked that in order to keep injuries down the scrimmage will go quickly. That probably means a running clock of some kind. Also likely will be vanilla offensive and defensive schemes. The scrimmage probably won't tell fans a lot given these constraints. Does it mean much if Cody Quinn shuts down the second or third string receiver? Is it significant if Drew Barker and Ryan Timmons connect on a 65 yard touchdown pass against the second or third string secondary? Maybe. Maybe not.
Fans may learn more by focusing on factors that filter out talent disparities. Examples include but aren't limited to: quarterback accuracy, technique (if you're into that sort of thing), physicality, competitive mentality, offensive tempo, offensive skill positions routinely making plays in open space, and defensive players making open field tackles routinely.
Most importantly, the scrimmage should be fun for the fans and the recruits in the stands while the players on the field stay injury-free. For the players a summer of "voluntary" workouts beckon.