Scrimmage to pit first team, second teams
For the second year in a row, the spring scrimmage will be played like a regular game with the first team (White) lining up against the second team (Blue). The Blue will start the game with a 14-0 lead to even things up.
In an intense closed scrimmage this past weekend, head coach Joker Phillips saw what he hopes will be a preview of Saturday's event in Commonwealth Stadium.
"I want to see them compete," Phillips said. "We really think we know right now who our playmakers are, guys that make things happen."
On offense, Phillips sees wide receivers Demarco Robinson and Daryl Collins, quarterback Maxwell Smith and even guard Larry Warford as standout performers, as well as tight end Ronnie Shields, who has grabbed hold of the position with a strong spring. The coaching staff is asking him to balance a heavy workload as a receiver and blocker, a role he has grown into throughout these March and April practices.
"We're asking him to do a lot of things and I was concerned early in the spring how he would handle that, but I think he's stepped up to the plate and done the things he needs to do," Phillips said.
Defensively, linebacker/defensive end Bud Dupree was the first name out of Phillips' mouth, as has often been the case. The sophomore has been a revelation as a leader and outside pass rusher. Middle linebacker Avery Williamson, safety Martavius Neloms and defensive tackles Donte Rumph and Mister Cobble are also expected to do big things in the spring game, while converted running back Marcus Caffey will bring a different dimension to the cornerback position.
"This guy's got a chance to be a real physical corner that can get his hands on people and reroute them and now he can be over the top so I think that's one of the things I'm most excited about," Phillips said.
Smith solid at quarterback
Phillips was asked on Wednesday how confident he is that this year's team will have the ability to stretch the field in the passing game more than a season ago. His answer revolved around one player.
"I'm confident, because I'm confident in what I've been seeing out here in Maxwell Smith," Phillips said. "Max has done a really good job."
After starting down the stretch as a freshman, Smith has taken steps forward in his understanding of the offense, but he still has room for improvement. After last Saturday's scrimmage, offensive coordinator Randy Sanders ordered that he run the stairs of Commonwealth Stadium as punishment for how many sacks he had taken.
"In our system, we don't ask our quarterback to win games with his legs," Phillips said. "We ask him to get out of his hands as quickly as he possibly can and get it to guys that we're asking to make plays to make plays."
Offensive line depth a concern
Having to replace three starters from last season's experienced unit, offensive line figured to be a issue this year. This spring, that's proven to be the case, but not for necessarily the expected reason. Sophomore Darrian Miller and redshirt freshman Zach West have looked good stepping into starting roles, while seniors Warford and Matt Smith have helped anchor the first unit.
However, Phillips expressed some worry over the backups, saying that a couple of UK's incoming freshman - who will enroll in June - may be called upon.
"I don't feel good at all about the depth," Phillips said. "We're hoping that we'll have a young Darrian Miller in this freshman group. We've got to find out in a hurry."
Punting a work in progress
Another position where a freshman is expected to have an early opportunity is at punter, where Joe Mansour and Jay Wilmott have battled this spring. UK has experienced an inevitable decline at the punter spot with the departure of Ryan Tydlacka.
"Our punting situation right now is not up to standards, and we're spoiled too," Phillips said. "We've had a guy that just got a Super Bowl ring last year (Tim Masthay) and we got a guy that I think could be a Super Bowl (punter) someday (in Tydlacka)."
Highly regarded kicker/punter Landon Foster will arrive on campus this summer and compete for the spot.