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Notes, observations from Wednesday's open football practice

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UK held its sixth practice of the spring on Wednesday at Nutter Field House. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK held its sixth practice of the spring on Wednesday at Nutter Field House. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
On Wednesday, Mark Stoops opened football practice to the media for the first time this spring. Dozens of members of the press roamed the track at the Nutter Field House as Kentucky held a practice of a little more than two hours.

Eventually, Stoops said he wants to open practice to the general public. Before then, here are a few of my observations from Wednesday to tide you over.

  • Without question, what sticks out above all else from the new staff's practices is pace. Whether it's during positional drills, 7-on-7 or 11-on-11, there is minimal time to rest between reps. For example, when a play is over during 11-on-11, there is a flurry activity as both the offense and defense line up. Seconds later, a new play is underway.
  • Just as no practice time is wasted, neither is any space on the practice field. Due to weather, UK has had to work inside for all but one practice so far this spring, but efficiency means this isn't much of a problem. As an example, during one eight-minute practice segment, I noticed the offensive line working in one end zone. From the 50-yard line in, quarterbacks, running backs, tight ends and wide receivers were passing and catching. On the other half of the field, the defensive line, linebackers and secondary split the field equally with special teamers working in the other end zone.
  • That efficiency goes for splitting up reps as well. Since there is still no depth chart in place, players rotate in and out frequently in all drills. As for the quarterbacks, they are always working. Even in 11-on-11 with just one quarterback getting actual snaps, the other four are shadowing his movements. And in many pass-and-catch drills, all five are dropping back and throwing at the same time as receivers run routes all over the field.
  • From players to managers to coaches, no one on the field leaves without breaking a sweat. Managers have to be on their toes and hustling as they collect balls, otherwise they will get run over. Coaches, meanwhile, are constantly in motion and lead their positional groups in running to their next station between drills.
  • On the subject of the coaches, they set the tone for it all. They are constantly enthusiastic and in the middle of the action. In 7-on-7 and route-running drills, you can often find Stoops standing where the offensive linemen would normally be. As for offensive coordinator Neal Brown, I could have spent the entire practice watching him alone. He doesn't rest for a second during practice, whether he's signaling in a play, shouting instruction, correcting mistakes or offering praise. The same goes for every staff member.
  • With Stoops serving as a head coach for the first time of his career, I was curious to see where he would spend most of his time coaching. Watching him, it's clear his background is on the defensive side - and with defensive backs specifically. He's leaving Brown and the assistants to do their jobs and handle the offense, but he's not ignoring that side of the ball. Far from it in fact. You can see the wheels turning as he absorbs the schemes and sets of UK's new offense and it won't be long before he's completely up to speed.
  • The most common words I head from coaches were "Finish!" and "Get upfield!" The new staff is trying to teach the Wildcats the importance of every last rep and anything other than maximum effort until each play is blown dead is unacceptable. As for the "Get upfield!" command, yards after catch are of the utmost importance in this new offense, which is why that's a constant refrain.
  • I said earlier that the first thing I noticed was the pace of the practice, but I'm realizing that's not true. The first thing I actually noticed was the music. During warm-ups and positional drills, speakers are constantly blaring hip-hop. The coaches want players to be energetic and have fun, and this is a way to help that along.
  • On to a few more specific observations, Za'Darius Smith is one large human being. At 6-foot-6, 257 pounds, he looks the part of a Southeastern Conference defensive end. Lining up at right end, Smith was opposite left tackle Darrian Miller for much of the morning and it was quite a battle. It's difficult for pass rushers to stand out when quarterbacks are wearing red jerseys, but Smith still managed to do just that on a few occasions. On one play, recognizing he was not going to be able to get to Maxwell Smith, he saw a running back flaring off into the flat and found his way into the passing lane. While maintaining contact with Miller, he jumped and effortlessly knocked the ball out of the air. If Smith and Bud Dupree continue to develop, UK's pass rush could be a strength.
  • At linebacker and as you might expect, Avery Williamson was the most consistent performer. He drew consistent praise from defensive coordinator/linebackers coach D.J. Eliot, with one exception. In positional drills early in practice, the linebackers had to serve as blockers and ball carriers against one another as they rotated. Williamson had a bit of trouble with this, leading Eliot to say something along the lines of "You're the worst cut blocker I've ever seen." It's a good thing playing linebacker doesn't require much blocking.
  • In writing about UK's running backs earlier in the week, I passed along the note that the backs would be responsible for calling protections at the line. On Wednesday, I got to see that process in action. It's a bit strange to see Raymond Sanders and the other backs pointing and shouting pre-snap instructions, but they seem to be getting the hang of it.
  • I spent a lot of my time focused on the quarterbacks and it's plain to see why coaches still call it an open competition between Smith, Patrick Towles and Whitlow. They are all still finding their way in the offense, but also showing off their respective strengths. Smith seems most comfortable in the offense with his experience and his ability to get the ball out so quickly. Towles looks the part and has a big arm, which he used to hit Demarco Robinson on a deep touchdown pass. Whitlow, in spite of his reputation as a runner, was throwing a beautiful ball on Wednesday. It's going to be interesting to see how this battle plays out.
  • It's evident that Brown is taking a hard look at the quarterback run game early this spring. When Whitlow and even Towles were in, the read option was a constant threat. I also noticed a quarterback power play that was used once or twice when the 6-foot-5, 234-pound Towles was in.
  • Speaking of power, don't let what you've heard about Brown's offense fool you: UK is going to be running downhill often. There were plenty of physical runs from Wildcat running backs.
  • In terms of formations, UK worked primarily out of shotgun and pistol sets with a lot of pre-snap action and even some jet-sweep type plays.
  • Next up for the Cats is the first scrimmage of the spring. Stay tuned for a report on Friday.

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