The Kentucky football team has completed nearly a week's worth of practice, and so far the news that has filtered out has been largely positive. It's hard to know what to make from that. On one hand, we all want to believe the football team will improve on last year's 2-10 campaign. On the other hand, lurks the threat of "coach-speak" and player "group think" skewing the truth. Overwhelming positivity historically warrants caveats when it comes to UK football.
However, with yesterday's open practice a third party (our heralded media) received access and pretty much corroborated what we have been hearing from the coaches and players. The team appears deeper at most positions, more physical, and the early enrollees appear to be making at least some impact. As previously stated, the underclassmen will be critical for success as they supply a large pool of the depth and probable starters at a few positions.
I've been around this team for 4 years now and that's the most physical I've seen an open practice. This team is different.— Rashawn Franklin (@RashawnFranklin) April 2, 2014
With the release of an updated roster, it does appear like many of the players have gained (presumably good) weight in the offseason. Listed heights and weights are usually to be taken with a grain of salt - they tend to be inflated - but several players made pretty large leaps in weight compared to last season. Linebacker Tyler Brause, linebacker Khalid Henderson, defense end Bud Dupree, and quarterback Patrick Towles to name a few. Recruit and develop indeed.
A look at the roster also notes that Marcus McWilson has moved to safety from his position of nickelback last season. It has long been rumored that McWilson's future was at outside linebacker, but this spring it looks like he will get reps at safety. Cornerback JD Harmon was also listed on the roster after not participating last season. Harmon was a walk-on who played well his freshman year, and his return was a pleasant surprise.
Offensively, coach Neal Brown already feels like the quarterbacks are improved from last year. During yesterday's practice freshman Drew Barker and junior Jalen Whitlow split reps with the first team, but overall all the quarterbacks are getting equal first team reps. Encouragingly, all the quarterbacks seem aware of their flaws and have each been working to correct them. The quarterback competition will make them all better. Stoops and Brown both seem to want to name a starter as early as possible. If one of these guys separates himself this spring, a starter will be named heading into the summer. Previously, many thought the race could drag into fall camp.
Additionally, tidbits filtering out make it sound as if early enrollees Mikel Horton and Thaddeus Snodgrass are performing well. They will both be needed to augment the running back and receiver corps. The first team offensive line will consist of Darrian Miller, Zach West, Jon Toth, Ramsey Meyers, and Jordan Swindle which is of no surprise. Miller and Swindle were UK's best linemen last season, Toth is the returning center, and Meyers received lots of praise during his redshirt season.
Defensively, the coaches seem committed to being "multiple" beyond rhetoric as they showed 4-3 and 3-4 fronts at practice yesterday. When the team shows 3-4 Bud Dupree and Jason Hatcher will move to outside linebackers, while Za'Darius Smith, Regie Meant, and Mike Douglas will be on the line. This line-up makes personnel sense as Hatcher and Dupree are better speed rushers, and the down linemen are bulkier and can absorb two gaps. In the 3-4 and nickel package Miles Simpson and Khalid Henderson were getting reps at inside linebacker perhaps indicating they are considered the top two linebackers at least as of yesterday. Depth and getting players to react rather than think will be challenges going forward.
Overall, it sounds as if the practices are going smoother. This is to be expected given a year in the system, but the broad unanimity is encouraging. It's positive that depth has indeed improved, and that the team's best players (specifically Bud Dupree) are being vocal leaders. For more tidbits, I highly encourage you to check out Rashawn Franklin's Twitter timeline from yesterday observing practice. The media won't get regular access to practices going forward. A team that plays physical, has some depth, and eventually learns to react and execute will win some ball games this fall and will compete in most of the others.