UK continued spring practice on Monday, building on a solid Saturday scrimmage. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Two days removed from a scrimmage he called UK's best day so far this spring, Mark Stoops was singing much the same tune after a Monday practice moved inside due to rain.
The Wildcats, according to Stoops, didn't let the momentum built on Saturday go to waste.
"It was good to get out there today and put another good practice together," Stoops said. "I thought Saturday, like I said, that was one of our better days. I felt like we backed it up with a pretty good day today. We're starting to move forward, get a little bit better in each phase of the game."
Stoops didn't get into details, but his evaluation of the scrimmage was no different after viewing tape.
"I just felt like it was just better football," Stoops said. "As the head coach, you're not just worried about one side, one position group or anything like that and obviously I just felt like there was more quality football being played."
This time a year ago, it was tape from Kentucky's annual Blue-White Spring Game Stoops and his staff were watching. Now, UK still has two weeks of spring practice left. That delayed schedule is no accident.
"We went into spring ball late so we could really have some to lift and put on some weight and get stronger," Stoops said. "I feel like that's paying off."
Benefiting from a long winter in UK's High Performance program, the Wildcats entered the spring bigger, stronger and faster. Stoops has known that all along, but he got a reminder of his team's progress from a special practice guest on Monday.
Defensive line guru Pete Jenkins -- a former assistant with the Philadelphia Eagles, LSU and USC -- is continuing an annual spring tradition of observing Stoops' team and came away impressed by the difference between the team he watched Monday and the one he saw a year ago.
"Sometimes when you see it every day you want to make those steps faster, but he noticed it and told me it's a much different team, better-looking team, looks like we're more physical and all that," Stoops said. "So it's good to hear that from somebody that spends a lot of time going to a lot of spring practices and been around the block."
The positive feedback is nice, but the real reason Jenkins -- who also coached UK assistant Jimmy Brumbaugh at Auburn -- is spending time in Lexington is to be a resource as Stoops and defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot look to develop the same kind of dominant line play Florida State had.
"It's something we take great pride in," Stoops said. "It's something we did at Florida State. The better you play up front, the better you're going to be. It starts up there. I think Coach Brumbaugh does a great job of developing those guys. We got a long way to go with some young guys, but that's key for us."
The road may be long, but Stoops believes the Cats are on the right track.
"We're battling," Stoops said. "We're getting better. We've got a few young guys in there with Regie (Meant) getting better. But Mike Douglas is battling, doing a good job and Melvin's (Lewis) getting better, so we're improving."
Of course, the bookends of UK's defensive line are ends Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith. Both continue to draw rave reviews for their play and leadership, but even the two seniors who bypassed the NFL Draft have room for growth.
"I think with Bud it's his versatility, and making sure he's getting enough quality reps to continue to progress with his hand in the dirt as a great D-linemen, and then being able to get him some snaps on his feet and doing some other things and being versatile with Bud," Stoops said. "That's a matter of keep on getting reps there. With Z, you can never get enough reps. You're always getting better."
Dylan Dwyer picked up the win after tossing 6.1 shutout innings against Missouri on Saturday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
In a perfect world for UK baseball, Chandler Shepherd would have made his regular weekend start. He would have avoided the forearm laceration that sidelined him on Saturday and Dylan Dwyer would have started on Tuesday against Morehead State.
Instead, Dwyer was pressed into action.
The circumstances under which Dwyer made his first-career Southeastern Conference start may not have been ideal, but he made the best of the situation.
"What you really hope when a kid gets an opportunity, whether it's playing defense in the ninth inning, a pinch hit or his first start in SEC play, is that he maximizes it and forces you to give him more opportunity," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "And that's what you hope and that's what he did."
With UK on a two-game losing streak and in need of a Saturday-night win to even a crucial league series with Missouri, Dwyer stepped up. He tossed 6.1 shutout innings, allowing just six hits and a walk against a Tiger lineup that touched up the Wildcats for eight runs just a day earlier.
"I was just planning on attacking," said Dwyer, who found out Wednesday he would be making his SEC starting debut. "My approach was to go in there and attack, keep the ball low and let them hit on the ground, let my defense work for me."
Behind Dwyer, UK (23-12, 7-7 SEC) topped Missouri (16-17, 5-9 SEC), 12-0. Five different Cats had two RBI, led by A.J. Reed, who got the scoring going with a two-run home run -- his NCAA-leading 14th of the season -- in the fifth. Reed now has homers in five straight SEC games, making him the first player in the modern era of UK baseball to accomplish the feat.
"Especially in our conference, guys are going to come at you and it's just a matter of hitting the pitch when you get it," Reed said. "Like I said, right now I'm doing a pretty good job of that and not missing those pitches."
Reed narrowly missed out on a second home run, with his sky-scraping seventh-inning fly ball losing steam at the warning track.
"It's pretty impressive," Henderson said. "He's seeing it good right now, taking good swings and even when he swings and misses and chases a pitch he doesn't get out of his game, it doesn't speed up on him and he's at a good spot right now."
The final score would have been even more lopsided had Reed's fly ball left Cliff Hagan Stadium, but don't be fooled into thinking Dwyer (4-1, coasted through his outing with a big lead. He traded scoreless frames with Missouri's John Miles through the first four innings, with UK not breaking the 0-0 tie until Reed's blast in the bottom of the fifth.
"You lose Friday night and you don't score until the fifth, there it is," Henderson said. "And that's what it is and, yeah, he did (pitch in some high-stress situations). Got out of a couple of jams where they could have scored first, but didn't and really proud of him. Solid effort. He's growing up."
Dwyer sustained the momentum built in his last start, when he overcame early struggles to pick up the win as the Cats topped rival Louisville on April 1.
"The U of L start, I learned what I did wrong and I knew I had to come in here this time and fix it," Dwyer said. "I thought I came out well, kept the ball down and let my defense back me up. There was a bunch of great plays."
The best of those plays came from Austin Cousino, who fired a strike from center field on a single by Dylan Kelly to throw out Logan Pearson and preserve the shutout and UK's 3-0 lead. The play, which ended the sixth inning, drew the most emotional reaction of the game from Dwyer.
"That's the biggest play of the night right there," Dwyer said. "After we put up a three-spot and then he guns them out, we put up a zero right there and all the momentum goes to us and that just kills their momentum."
Any remaining momentum in the Missouri dugout was eliminated by a nine-run bottom of the sixth when Max Kuhn delivered one of his four hits and the Cats capitalized on three Tiger errors.
The crowd enjoyed the offensive explosion, but Dwyer's night will likely prove much more significant. The left-handed sophomore is exactly the kind of arm the 12th-ranked Cats will need to advance in the SEC and NCAA tournaments, which means his budding confidence is likely to pay dividends down the road.
"Having these starts like this is definitely good for experience and getting me ready for the postseason because that time is going to be time to have four starters ready," Dwyer said.
UK is within striking distance of first place in the SEC in spite of operating at less than full strength at the mound. In addition to Shepherd's injury, key reliever Kyle Cody is battling forearm tightness and has not yet pitched this weekend.
If the Cats can get Shepherd and Cody back and healthy and Dwyer pitching like he did on Saturday, they could be playing into June.
"Those are the things that are going to allow us to keep winning and do well once we get to the postseason," Henderson said.
Mark Stoops didn't leave the scrimmage -- UK's second of the spring -- thinking one side of the ball had the better of the action and wondering what had gone wrong with the other.
Instead, Stoops came away believing neither the offense nor defense had won the tug-of-war in Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday.
"That's why it's hard for me, because if one side does well I'm disappointed in the other," Stoops said. "But I really did feel like both sides had some moments today. I thought we were a little bit more stout in some of the run game with the ones on defense. Had some good stops, but the offense bounced back, had some good drives, threw the ball well, caught it better."
That kind of give-and-take is exactly what Stoops is looking for. As a result, UK had its best overall day of the spring, representing a vast improvement from last Saturday's scrimmage. Stoops opted to cancel Friday's practice to focus on preparation for Saturday and the Wildcats took advantage.
"That's maybe why I was a little frustrated (after the last scrimmage): looked a little bit sloppy," Stoops said. "But it was good to get back out there today. We had a couple days to meet and to get set and kind of just went out there today, basically got a warm-up, did a little seven-on-seven and did some special teams and rolled right into the scrimmage."
Offensive coordinator Neal Brown was even more positive in his evaluation,
"Probably our best in a scrimmage or a game-type atmosphere - the best, just from the mechanics of the game, the best we've executed," Brown said. "What I mean by that is playing at the tempo that we want to; we're getting closer. We're not there yet, but we're a lot closer than we ever were at any point last year."
Naturally, much of that has to do with quarterback play.
Jalen Whitlow, Patrick Towles, Reese Phillips and Drew Barker are splitting time as the battle for the starting position continues with Maxwell Smith recovering from a shoulder injury. Stoops does not yet have a timetable for making a decision, but Brown did say he wants to get it done sooner than a season ago.
The important thing right now is Brown knows UK will be improved at quarterback in 2014, no matter who wins the job.
"The thing I'm pleased about is they're all much, much better," Brown said. "We're better. Whoever the quarterback is going to be, they're going to be better than we played last year. So that's pleasing."
Barker -- the highly touted midyear enrollee -- is the lone signal caller who was not on campus last year, but there were moments when he could have fooled Brown.
"I think the biggest thing about Drew is, if you would've came out and just watched us today, you wouldn't have known he was a high school senior," Brown said. "And that's the most impressive thing to me. Because the mechanics of the game and not being in awe of being in that stadium for the first time and playing, that was what I was most impressed with."
Barker was hardly the only one of the four to impress. Towles, a redshirt sophomore, made a handful of throws that drew praise from both Stoops and Brown while Whitlow and Phillips each had their moments as UK's offense did not commit a turnover.
"I think all of them stood out," sophomore running back Jojo Kemp said. "That's gonna be the coaches' call. They got a handful, I can tell you that, because to me all of them looked great. All of them was competing, completing passes. Just the whole group of guys looked good today."
It helps that the quarterbacks are surrounded by a group of talented running backs and a receiving corps improving by the day in spite of battling some bumps and bruises.
"The young guys did some good things," Stoops said. "Thaddeus (Snodgrass) had a chance to make a real big play, didn't come down with it. T.V. (Williams) made a nice play where he caught the ball, bounced off some people, made a big play for the offense, which was good. I think (Ryan) Timmons. Timmons is always -- he's been solid."
The offense had only to contend with the defense's base packages. Installing wrinkles is for later.
"We weren't trying to out-scheme anybody and we just wanted to find out who could make plays and who could play hard and so we got something to build on," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said.
As expected, senior defensive ends Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith shined. Beyond his two building blocks, Eliot saw one fresh face and two more familiar ones stand out.
"A.J. Stamps, again, did some good things," Eliot said. "I was pleased with some his effort. And Jason Hatcher did some good things. I was pleased with some of the things he did. I saw some good plays by J.D. Harmon just initially. And after we watch the film we'll be able be more detailed on that."
Stamps, a junior-college transfer, appears poised to contribute immediately in the secondary in spending most of his time at safety after playing corner at East Mississippi Community College.
"A.J. Stamps is making a pretty good impact on our defense, giving us a better balanced look," linebacker Khalid Henderson said. "A more versatile safety back there."
Harmon, meanwhile, has added important depth at cornerback after sitting out last season and Hatcher is taking steps forward in his first college spring after playing as a freshman in 2013.
"You know, at any sport, any position, it's hard to come in and play as a freshman," Eliot said. "And so now we're seeing a big jump in Jason because he's a sophomore and I'm really liking the progress that he's making. He's grown up, not only on the football field, but in any natural progression from a freshman to a sophomore he's done that as well."
With those individual performances and the way UK continues to come together as a team in mind, Stoops has plenty of reason for optimism.
"We feel better," Stoops said. "At times, you get out here during practices and everything, we're running a lot of teams and doing a lot of reps, so you're getting ones, twos and threes. Already in the spring, you're already a little bit thin if you don't have your whole group here. So it's sloppy at times, but overall you put it together, get out there on the scrimmage and get going. We're definitely further along. We just operate our offense and our defense better at this point. We're getting there, getting better."
UK currently ranks second among all 14 Southeastern Conference schools, trailing only No. 6 Florida, and leads all schools from the Bluegrass state, with Louisville coming in at No. 20.
Looking ahead, UK appears to have a good chance of maintaining its current ranking or even improving on it. UK will add points from gymnastics' finish at NCAA Regionals when standings are tabulated on April 24 and potentially even more as spring sports play out.
The women's outdoor track and field team currently checks in at No. 5 in the polls after finishing ninth at NCAA Indoor Championships, while the men are No. 24. Baseball, softball and men's tennis are all ranked in the top 15, while women's tennis is No. 28 and both golf teams are in contention for NCAA berths.
If those teams perform as well as expected, UK could be in line to meet Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart's goal of finishing in the top 15 of Directors' Cup standings by the year 2015 as part of the 15 by 15 by 15 Plan. UK has won 11 of the 15 conference or national titles needed to meet Barnhart's goal and has reached his threshold of a 3.0 department-wide grade-point average in three straight semesters.
It's also worth mentioning that UK is faring well in Capitol One Cup standings, tying for seventh in men's standings with 41 points and coming in 37th in women's standings.
All in all, 2013-14 is shaping up to be a year to remember for UK Athletics.
The Kentucky softball team tallied a 9-1 win over Wright State and a 10-0 win over Mississippi Valley State in a mid-week series that served many purposes in the midst of a grueling SEC slate.
The Wildcats easily could have overlooked the two games, sandwiched between a home series against Texas A&M and a three-game set at Ole Miss. Instead, they turned in back-to-back run-rule efforts to keep the momentum going from one conference series to the next.
"It says a lot about our team's focus," UK head coach Rachel Lawson said. "We had a certain game plan going into the two games, and each player went out there and did their job and executed what we were trying to do, so it really says a lot about their focus and their ability to keep working towards going deep in the postseason."
Kentucky had won four of its last five heading into Tuesday's game, and the focus never wavered.
UK scored 19 runs and allowed 29 base runners in eight total innings at the plate. In the circle, three Wildcat hurlers allowed one run, six hits and notched 12 strikeouts in 10 total innings.
Aside from earning a pair of wins to boost their record to 33-8, Rachel Lawson was happy to see the Wildcats work on improving parts of their game.
"I think we were working on hitting certain pitches, instead of taking them, and I think that was good," Lawson said. "Each girl knew what her job was, what her role was, and she was able to execute, so that was great. It was also nice to put some players into positions that I believe they are going to play this weekend, which they didn't get to do last weekend, just to make them a little bit more comfortable."
Another benefit of the two-game set was getting a number of underclassmen valuable playing experience. In Wednesday's contest, freshman Breanne Ray launched her first career home run.
"It was awesome," Ray said about getting the opportunity to play today. "When Coach Lawson told me I was in the lineup, I was extra excited for today. I just wanted to show my team that I had it in me."
Ray certainly had it in her to lead off the third inning. A shot to right center was the outfielder's first home run as a Wildcat and just her second career hit.
"I couldn't stop smiling, to be honest," Ray said. "I was so happy. Then all my teammates were there to greet me, and they made me feel even better."
"She is a great hitter and we're expecting great things from her in the future," Lawson said. "The fact that she was able to sit on her pitch and drive it over the wall says a lot about how mature she is mentally. I just love how she was able to take advantage of the opportunity."
The Wildcats, now winners of four in a row and six of their last seven, look to keep the momentum going on the road when they travel to Ole Miss for a three-game set April 11-13.