The University of Kentucky's football team will strap on the pads and helmets this weekend 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. 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 shortly after fall camp begins, and 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.
This year also brings a twist. With CWS undergoing renovations, there will not be a spring scrimmage this season. Spring scrimmages don't impact roster decisions too much, but they do serve as important fan service. Instead of a spring scrimmage, there will be multiple open practices for fans to attend, and hopefully one or two of those will feature a heavy dose of first string offense going against first string defense.
The last two springs had their share of story lines: the return of the Air Raid, player development, and the overwhelming fan response. This year there are new story lines, and corresponding questions, worth following too.
New Offensive Coordinator Means...?
As postulated in November, Shannon Dawson will get his first practice time as the new offensive coordinator. He inherits more weapons than Neal Brown originally did in 2013, but how he'll use the pieces in a similar offensive system will finally be on display. He'll be given wide latitude in shaping the offensive side of the ball, and players may be used differently than in the past. Additionally, new players may emerge altogether as sometimes a new coach means the erasing of old biases.
One of the first orders of business for Dawson will be determining the starting quarterback. That would've have sounded foolish back in October, but Patrick Towles' play in November weakened his standing a bit. The competition will be open. Drew Barker isn't as green as last spring when Towles won the job from him, and Reese Phillips' injury means the two quarterbacks will get a lot of reps. This has the makings of a close race at the outset.
More than anything, it'll be interesting to see how Dawson runs a practice as the man in charge of the offense. Will his personality be laid back or is he more of the intense-type? What tempo will the offense operate at during the spring? Do the player's listen to his advice and then go on to execute suggesting his quality as a teacher? We should learn more about his personality from attending the open practices.
Weight room Warriors
Developing players is just as important as recruiting the right ones. Stoops has changed that slowly through recruiting, but there continues to be a heavy reliance on underclassmen in the two-deep. I'm always curious to see how UK's much publicized strength and conditioning program is changing players, but most especially the younger ones along the offensive and defensive line who must contribute this season. The S&C program certainly helped Avery Williamson and Bud Dupree improve their draft stock, and the photos of many players that have leaked online shows many have added good weight. Has the program molded freshmen who redshirted last year into players ready to contribute? Will they be stronger, quicker, faster, 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 these fine gentlemen are. Last season the leaders were seniors Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith by all public accounts, but new voices will be needed with his graduation. Ideally, UK's best players are also your leaders. Last year Jordan Swindle was singled out for his leadership, and Patrick Towles was mentioned at times too.
This year, though, individuals from the junior ranks (Stoops first signing class) need to assume the mantle - probably a first time for a lot of them since arriving in Lexington. 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 seven 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 yet another thin line between four and seven wins. Leadership will play an important factor in this season's success.
Play-Makers Apply Within - Especially Defensive Ones
Kentucky's offense had more play-makers last season than the 2013 campaign, but questions at quarterback, and the need to replace leading receivers (Demarco Robinson and Javess Blue), provide opportunities. The young receiving corps showed promise but was young and/or injured for long stretches of last season. Ryan Timmons was electric at times, and inconsistent at others. Stanley Williams appears poised for stardom given his performances in November, but can he seize the starting running back role? Alexander Montgomery and Jeff Badet were promising receivers before their string of injuries, but are they now healthy and ready fulfill their early promise? CJ Conrad and Darryl Long are two very young players who will get most of the reps at tight end this season, but do they display the strength to be consistent in-line blockers and the speed and route-running discipline to reliably get open?
That's just the offense, and it has good options regardless of a few lingering questions. The major need for play-makers will be on the defensive side of the ball with the departure of Bud Dupree. Josh Forrest had a great season, and AJ Stamps made a few eye-opening plays, but where will the tackles for loss, sacks, and forced turnovers come from especially along the defensive front? This is a more important question than anything on the offensive side of the ball.
The Youth Are Now Elder Statesmen
Mark Stoops first class have now been in the program for three seasons, and their responsibilities and corresponding expectations have never been higher as a class. The classes that came after them arguably have more talent than them, but they must do their part in allowing the younger players to mature and develop without being rushed onto the field. A disproportionate ratio of experience to production was supplied by this class as freshmen and sophomores, but now production must continue to rise with added experience. Critically, given the class' veteran status, they'll be expected to win on the road and close out tight games this season. Anything less will be disappointing.
The last two seasons Ryan Timmons, Jojo Kemp, Jason Hatcher Jon Toth, Marcus McWilson, and Blake McClain saw a lot of game-time action. All of these players will need to have better junior seasons than their sophomore seasons. Meanwhile, underclassmen like Regie Meant, Kyle Meadows, Dorian Baker, Blake Bone, Matt Elam, Denzil Ware, and Jacob Hyde are but a few of those that will be expected to contribute as either key back-ups or new -found starters.
Those are a few story lines I'll be paying attention to over the next month. What say you?