Kentucky football has completed a little more than half of their spring practice workouts, and the final scrimmage two weekends from now is on the horizon. The next two weeks worth of practice will probably cement the lineup at certain positions while others will still be in play (quarterbacks, receivers, defensive tackles, secondary, and linebackers). In the meantime, several themes - both good and bad - have emerged and all likely deserve credibility at this point.
Coach Stoops, defensive coordinator DJ Elliot, and offensive coordinator Neal Brown all seem much more optimistic this year than last spring. Last spring their language suggested the team lacked physicality, players still needed to learn their new systems, and the incoming JUCO and freshmen signees would have a shot at playing time come August camp. This spring their tone is largely more upbeat.
Overall, the coaches have stated the strength and conditioning program has fielded a better team. The coaches have also stated they are getting leadership from the right players. This was imperative. Additionally, all three coaches have encouraging things to say about the increasing depth, not at all, but some positions. This likely means last season's freshmen have made a leap to contributor roles. This was also needed. Lastly, the reports of increased physicality have been persistent the last two weeks.
Offensively, all the quarterbacks have improved from the end of last season, according to Brown (more on this in a below). Brown has also stated that center Jon Toth is the maybe the most improved player on the offense. It's encouraging to hear offensive guard Zach West has improved, and that redshirt freshman Ramsey Meyers is also ready to step up on the line. This is important as the interior offensive line suffered from poor play a lot of last season. The running back corps has also received many compliments. Most encouraging is the re-emergence of oft-injured Josh Clemons. Prior to the spring it seemed as if he would be competing with freshman Mikel Horton for the third string spot, but his play reportedly has been strong enough that he will be competing with Jojo Kemp for second string. Most encouraging indeed.
Defensively, it sounds as if the coaches hit a home-run on JUCO signee AJ Stamps who is mostly seeing time at the safety position this fall (at his signing Stoops said he would be a cornerback). Elliot and Stoops have also repeatedly praised redshirt freshman Regie Meant and JUCO transfer Melvin Lewis, which again, it will be important for the newcomers to contribute this season. JD Harmon, who sat out last season, is also having an impressive spring. Harmon has good size for a cornerback, and his addition to the secondary will aid depth. The competition in the secondary will make all these players better.
Prior to the spring it sounded as if the coaches were strongly hoping to be able to announce a starting quarterback heading into the summer. Two weeks into spring practice that doesn't appear any closer to happening. The coaches seem to intentionally say good things about all four quarterbacks for probably a myriad of reasons. One would probably have an easier time predicting the draft decision of Andrew Harrison and Aaron Harrison than picking the starting quarterback out of this group. Will a starting quarterback go unnamed until the beginning of fall camp? It doesn't sound like the coaches prefer that scenario and are looking for a reason to name one of them. Their performances this spring do probably suggest that the injured Maxwell Smith will not compete for a starting job barring injuries this fall.
Causes for Concern
Optimism abounds but there are still areas for concern that have been identified by the coaches' statements. Defensively, there is a noticeable lack of buzz for the linebacker corps. This was to be somewhat expected given the departure of Avery Williamson and the uneven play of the main returning linebackers. It sounds as if several of the linebackers are being cross-trained at different linebacker positions, and they are all be given opportunities to excel. Still, it would be more encouraging if the coaches were bragging on the linebackers like they are for AJ Stamps or Bud Dupree. JUCO transfer Ryan Flannigan is expected to play middle linebacker when he arrives, but his arrival will not be a panacea.
Offensively, there has been some encouraging words for certain receivers but there hasn't been a consistent drum beat for one or two players throughout the last few weeks. With Javess Blue sidelined with a shoulder injury, someone needs to step up besides Ryan Timmons this spring. Offensive balance is paramount for league play, and two wide receivers probably won't be enough over the grind of a season. Early enrollees Thaddeus Snodgrass and TV Williams have received praise, and may contribute more this season than previously realized, but they will still be freshmen coping with the rigors of the SEC. Ideally, Steve Borden, Rashad Cunningham, AJ Legree, Jeff Badet, and Demarco Robinson would have earned more headlines. There are important caveats: there are reportedly some injuries in the wide receiver ranks - but the public doesn't know the number or names - and basing player's performances off a coach's public comments only goes so far.
Spring practice to this point largely sounds like a positive endeavor and improvements at most positions sound apparent. The real tests will come this fall, no doubt, but there also appears to be real momentum. We will know more after the spring game, and hopefully the coaches will arrange the first team offense versus the first team defense so we can get the clearest idea of all.