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Notes from UK's first scrimmage of fall camp

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After a week of practices, the Kentucky Wildcats moved from the practice field to Commonwealth Stadium for the team's first scrimmage of fall camp on Saturday. The idea was to get players as much experience in an intense, competitive environment as possible.

"We had an old-school scrimmage, a hundred forty-something plays," head coach Joker Phillips said. "We just wanted to put the ball down and get as many snaps as we possibly could."

The session pitted offense vs. defense with some special team drills first on an unseasonably mild August day. The scrimmage was closed, but Phillips, offensive coordinator Randy Sanders, defensive coordinator Rick Minter, wide receiver La'Rod King and linebacker Avery Williamson answered questions afterward. Below are some salient notes and quotes.

-- Quarterback play, as it has been throughout fall camp, was the salient topic. All four of signal callers in contention for the starting job - Maxwell Smith, Morgan Newton, Patrick Towles and Jalen Whitlow - saw time, but the two returners got the bulk of the snaps.

Phillips and his staff will begin reviewing film on Saturday night and the third-year head coach was unwilling to make any proclamations about the position until then.

"I'll hold judgment until I see the film, but there were some good things," Phillips said. "There some things that, at times, we played sloppy at that position, but there was some good. I think there was more good than bad."

Sanders, in answering questions, revealed that Smith and Newton have a leg up due to their experience. Sanders also said it's clear that Newton is still in the recovery process after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery, equating the procedure to Tommy John surgery for a pitcher in baseball.

As far as the two youngsters go, Phillips and Sanders both reported seeing some promising things. Nonetheless, they are in the midst of a process that's only just starting.

"He's learning a new offense," Sanders said of Towles. "It's a lot like learning a new language. He's got a really good start on that. The biggest thing is just the sheer volume of defenses he's facing. He saw more defenses in the plays he got today than he probably in the last four years of high school."

The physical gifts are unquestionably there though.

"He, I think, can get there," Sanders said. "Whether it happens in the next month or whether it happens in the next three months or whether it happens in the next two years, I don't know. But he can get there. I can see the ability."

-- Whoever ends up winning the quarterback battle figures to have an improved set of weapons at the skill positions. Phillips singled out King and running back CoShik Williams for making big plays, while Sanders mentioned multiple wide receivers, including Daryl Collins, Demarco Robinson, and freshman A.J. Legree and DeMarcus Sweat.

Phillips and Sanders were also asked specifically about big freshman backs Dyshawn Mobley and Justin Taylor. Their answers were very similar.

"When they get in there, the pile usually falls back," Sanders said. "You didn't see them getting knocked back. It'll be interesting to see how much better they are in the next scrimmage from what they are this scrimmage."

The two weren't always sure about what they needed to be doing, especially as blockers, but they make their presence known.

"I don't know if they always know yet who they're supposed to protect, but when they do, it's an explosion," Phillips said.

As a unit, Sanders wishes the offense was further along in its development, but he also acknowledges that he is very demanding when it comes to evaluation.

"I'm not displeased with where we are right now considering where we were last season, what we went through in spring practice," Sanders said. "I think we're on a good track."

-- Neither Phillips nor Sanders spoke at length about UK's offensive line, which features a blend of experience and youth with two seniors, a junior, a sophomore and a freshman projected as starters, but they were the group that first popped into King's mind when asked to pinpoint who most impressed him.

"I really like our whole offensive line," King said. "Those guys have come a long way. Matt Smith and Larry Warford really have took control of the offensive line. We got some young guys on the line, but they're taking care of them.

"They probably are the hardest-working guys on this team right now."

-- On the defensive side, Minter viewed Saturday's scrimmage as a sort of "mid-term exam," evaluating his group somewhere in the C-plus to B-minus range. Minter is a busy man during scrimmages, as his play-calling duties are nearly all consuming with the defense on the field for every snap. That hinders his ability to evaluate individuals or position groups, at least until he reviews the tape, but it was hard to miss at least a few plays.

"We did have some takeaways today," Minter said. "Those were nice to have."

Turnovers are key to Minter's attacking scheme, so seeing Malcolm McDuffen return an interception for a touchdown and Cartier Rice nearly do the same is a major positive.

Minter also couldn't help but take note of junior linebacker Avery Williamson. He forced a fumble in the scrimmage, but that's not even close to the most important thing.

"Avery Williamson is really, really outstanding, not only as a producer and a playmaker, but more importantly, our guy," Minter said. "He's our man in the middle, knock on wood, for the next two years. We're going to lean on him heavily. He's got high character, good work ethic. He's the pied piper of the linebackers and almost the entire defense."

-- Another encouraging aspect of the scrimmage was that it was relatively injury-free. Safety Glenn Faulkner suffered an injury that Phillips tentatively called a high-ankle sprain, pending medical examination.

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