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Five observations/thoughts from Blue/White Game

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4695830.jpegThe Kentucky football spring season officially wrapped up Saturday with the annual Blue/White Game.

The Blue team, which was comprised of second teamers and spotted a 14-0 lead, hung on to defeat the White team (the first teamers) 31-28. Joe Mansour kicked the game-winning field goal in the final minute, a 38-yard line drive that split the uprights.

Guy Ramsey of UKathletics.com has the full recap on our homepage. Since we've already got that up, I thought I'd break the game down into the five biggest things that stood out.

1. Newton's progression: It's Morgan Newton's time. If the Kentucky football team is to continue its bowl run and even take the next step in the program's evolution, a lot of the pressure falls squarely on Newton's shoulders. A few months ago, while Newton struggled in UK's fifth straight bowl appearance, that prospect looked like a scary thought.

Fast forward to the end of April and Newton's final two seasons at Kentucky look bullish. Newton was 23 of 44 for 256 yards, three touchdowns and just one interception. His numbers would have been better had it not been for several key drops by his wide receivers (more on that in just a bit).

"We need to get better at timing but we'll work on that over the summer," Newton said. "That's what the summer is for. It's for getting everything together, and we scored today when we didn't even have everything in sync."

It's hard to determine what's improved more: Newton's throws or his attitude.

On Saturday, Newton threw crisp, accurate passes to his receivers. He appears more comfortable in the pocket and has beefed up his arm strength. Although Brian Adams couldn't come down with the ball, arguably the most impressive play of the game came in the second quarter when Newton calmly dropped back and flung a pass nearly 65 yards in the air as though it were a Nerf football.

"It's night and day," head coach Joker Phillips said of Newton's improvement. "If you look at it, he is one of those few guys who played as a freshman. He has started in two bowl games already and he has two years left. As a freshman, if you saw him after the Music City Bowl and saw him very little in the season last year, and then playing in the bowl game, it's night and day. He now understands he is changing protections. His first year, he couldn't have done a lot of those things."

But Newton is also carrying himself differently. Whether it was the realization that the job is finally his or the tutelage of former record-setting quarterback Andre' Woodson, something made the lights turn on in the head of Newton this spring.

He's changed his attitude and stepped into a leadership position that is so desperately needed on his team. Even though his wide receivers dropped a lot of his passes Saturday, Newton kept his head up and nearly led the White team to an impressive comeback. Phillips said he only had to talk to Newton once about body language.

"It's tough for me because if everything doesn't go right I get real mad and I'm not happy," Newton said. "But when you're a leader on offense, you kind of have to make sure you have an even keel and your head is always up and you're always positive."

2. Adams the Amazing: Adams' story as a two-way player for the football and baseball teams has been well profiled, but Saturday we got to see the actual thing in work.

The junior-to-be missed the first game of a baseball doubleheader against No. 12 Arkansas for the Blue/White Game. If anyone thought Adams would be saved for the nightcap of the doubleheader - which Adams started in - they were sorely mistaken.

Adams not only played, he may have been the star. The 6-foot-4, 223-pound wide receiver caught a game-high seven balls for 121 yards and two touchdowns. 

After an early fumble, Adams put his full arsenal of athleticism on display. On his 39-yard touchdown pass in the second half, Adams used his speed to burn cornerback Dale Trimble. He also used his overlooked 6-4 frame to shield off defensive backs.

"There were times where he was completely gassed out there and I kept him out there just to see how mentally tough he would be and that was when he started doing better," wide receivers coach Tee Martin said. "It shows me that the kid has some character and he's going to compete to make plays. He's going to compete and give you everything."

Phillips said Adams has only been able to practice four or five times this spring because of his double-duty with baseball, but every time he's been able to make it out to practice, Phillips said he's "made plays."

"He's blessed with unbelievable speed and he's blessed with an unbelievable body and body control," Phillips said. "I think it definitely helps that he's a baseball player. He understands how to adjust to the deep ball. He's a guy that you get down on the goal line, he can go up and catch the fade. He also, when he gets inside of a DB on a slant route, it's just hard to go through him. I think he has a lot of ability and has the potential to be the next great receiver here."

To play the type of game Adams had on the little preparation he's been allotted speaks to the potential he has at wide receiver.

"He's a ballplayer," Martin said. "Some things are genetics. I always tell him in the meeting room, 'Some guys are beat at birth. When you were born, you were better than that guy when he was born.' He was just born better than a lot of guys."

3. Butterfingers: If it wasn't for Adams and E.J. Fields (three catches for 61 yards and two scores), it would have been a very long day for Kentucky's receiving corps.

Official drops weren't tallied at the scrimmage, but one can bet the number of drops on the afternoon was close to 10. Phillips said it's been a spring-long problem.

"We had two scrimmages where I felt we were very inconsistent in catching the football," Phillips said. "The thing that I look at is how natural they are. If they catch the ball naturally, I'm not too concerned about them. I think all of our guys are natural in catching it, so there aren't that many concerns."

One guy who was particularly plagued by drops was Matt Roark. Slated to be one of the starters in the fall, Roark had several balls go in and out of his hands, including a long post route that could have been run for a touchdown.

Roark had a reliable junior season, catching 12 balls for 170 yards, so he's not a major concern, but the inconsistency of some of the older receivers is. For guys like Fields and Aaron Boyd, the time to make their mark at UK is now.

Phillips noted Kentucky's incoming recruiting class, which is stock full of what Phillips called "true" receivers. If the veterans don't step up their game, those incoming freshmen will get a chance to play over the veterans.

"They've got to get really close to Morgan and those other quarterbacks this fall because (catching is) a skill that you can perfect when the coaches aren't around," Phillips said. "We've got jugs machines, our managers shoot balls at them all summer (and) our quarterbacks will be here all summer. You can perfect that skill when the coaches aren't around. You can get your momma to throw to you."

4468368.jpeg4. Hybrid defense spells opportunity for "tweeners:" When asked this spring to categorize his defense, new co-defensive coordinator Rick Minter called it a "hybrid" defense, one capable of switching bases to keep up with and adapt to the modern day offenses of college football.

Time will tell how that defense will stack up with the speed and strength of the Southeastern Conference, but it became clear Saturday that the versatility of the defense will open up opportunities for guys Justin Henderson, Winston Guy and Ridge Wilson, players Phillips calls "tweeners."

The trio combined for 15 tackles, led by Justin Henderson's seven stops.  Henderson, a redshirt freshman, is listed as both a defensive end and a linebacker, but Phillips said he doesn't have a true position. Henderson may have found a home in the Minter's hybrid defense.

"This is the best thing that happened to those guys, those kind of in-between guys," Phillips said. "They don't really have a true position but this defense gives them a chance to play."

After a rough start, the first-team defense ended up holding the Blue team to 94 total yards. The play calling looked more aggressive from a blitzing standpoint as the two teams combined for 18 tackles for loss and 10 sacks (it should be noted that the quarterbacks were under no-contact rules and were considered "down" upon a one-hand touch).

Minter said it was a "blur" calling the defensive plays for both teams, but he came away impressed with the way his players were able to adapt to the new system.

"Can't tell enough of how much I appreciate their efforts because I have really asked them do to a lot both mentally and physically," Minter said. "For the most part, I think they've responded."

5. New philosophy, better tackling: For all the talk about the changes in schematics of the new defense, the biggest improvement may have come in execution and fundamentals.

Albeit a scrimmage, Kentucky's defense tackled as well as it has in years. There were very few missed tackles in addition to some punishing hits. To wrap up and gets guys down this early in the preparation process for next year is a positive sign for a defense that returns its 11 leading tacklers from a year ago.

The return to a sound fundamental approach comes from an injection of new attitude, linebacker Danny Trevathan said.

"It's just the attitude, that swag we've got," last year's SEC-leading tackler said. "Coach Minter brought a different swag to the program. We're not going to let anybody run at us. Nobody is going to be more physical than us. This is our house. Wherever we go, it's going to be our house. We really believe that."

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