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Brown, Mainord looking for receivers to break from the pack

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Demarco Robinson - 28 catches for 297 yards in 2012 - is UK's leading returning receiver. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics) Demarco Robinson - 28 catches for 297 yards in 2012 - is UK's leading returning receiver. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics)
Competition, according to every coach in America, is a good thing on the practice field.

It brings the best out of everyone involved and, when game day comes, assures that everyone will have worked for their spots.

For Kentucky's wide receivers at spring practice, competition is no issue. On any given day, there's no guessing which of the targets on the outside will look the best.

UK's coaches don't want to see the competition stop, but they'd like to see that latter trend end soon.

"We have a lot of guys kind of clumped together right now," wide receivers coach Tommy Mainord said. "I'm still looking for that guy to sort of take ownership of the position and say, 'Hey, this is mine.' "

Through 10 practices of spring ball, the player who has come the closest to grabbing hold of a starting position and not letting go is Demarco Robinson. The junior is UK's leading returning receiver with 28 catches for 297 yards in 2012 and has drawn the most consistent praise from Mark Stoops and the rest of the UK coaching staff. But even he is being asked to raise his game.

"Demarco, he needs to be a big-time player for us," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "This football team needs him to be a playmaker. And he's never been asked to be in that role, so it's a little bit different."

Robinson has never produced at the college level in that way, but Brown wouldn't be asking if he didn't believe Robinson could do it.

"He's a talented guy," Brown said. "He can run. He can stick his foot in the ground. He can get open. He understands the passing game."

For the rest of the receiving corps, understanding remains an obstacle.

In discussing the installation of Brown's fast-paced attack, the quarterbacks are the ones most often referred to as facing a significant learning curve. But as the weeks of spring practice wear on, it's becoming clear just how much is required of the wide outs.

In his post-practice comments, Stoops has singled out dropped passes as an issue among the wide receivers. As physical a problem as that may seem, its root is very much mental in the estimation of Mainord.

"A lot of it is head-spinning," Mainord said. "That's a lot of our guys. They're heads are spinning still. Maybe they're not grasping the offense as well; maybe they're not playing as fast as they need to play."

The coaches are doing everything they can on the practice field to address that, but they are very much limited by the NCAA rulebook. As much as Mainord and Brown would like to be on the practice field and in the film room with their players for hours on end, they are only allotted limited time. For that reason, it's on a young group of receivers that lacks a single senior to make up for that.

"You can't do it in the time we're allotted by the NCAA," Mainord said. "A lot of these guys gotta get in here and put some time into it on their own, get in there and study on their own on the computer. Everybody's a little bit independent, everybody's got different issues."

Mainord and Brown - who coached together at Texas Tech for the last three seasons - are giving their pupils the tools they need, starting with software that allows for detailed viewing of film of the Red Raider attack, one of the nation's most prolific over the last three years.

"They've got to be mature enough to get up there and do it," Mainord said. "They've got to get up there and do it on their own and say, 'Hey this is what I want to do and I want to be this great.' And some of them are doing that. Some of those guys are doing that; it just hasn't clicked yet. They'll get there."

In five starts last season, Daryl Collins showed flashes of the kind of skillset needed to excel in this new offense. He admits it hasn't been an easy transition, but now has an idea of the level of detail Brown is asking Collins and his teammates to grasp.

"Learning frontside and backside (routes) what you gotta do," Collins said. "You can't just know the frontside and on the backside because you'll mess up and you'll hear it from Coach Brown."

Along with DeMarcus Sweat, A.J. Legree and Rashad Cunningham, Collins is one of four sophomores looking to emerge in the new offense. The youth of the unit makes the growing pains understandable, but it hasn't diminished excitement over what they group will be able to do on opening day.

"We're very eager to get started," Collins said. "I can't wait for the first game to show out the new offense. They say it's the Air Raid, so that's pretty much what we're going to do: put the ball in the air."

True as that sentiment may be, it also ignores an aspect of Brown's offense that often goes unrecognized. Playing wide receiver at UK these days is about a lot more than running and catching and running some more.

"We ask them to block," Brown said. "We're asking these guys to be physical blockers. That's the thing that I was probably most proud of our guys last year at Texas Tech: Our wide outs, they punished people. If you watched us play or you talked to the people we played against, that's one of the first things they're going to talk about, how physical our receivers (were)."

According to Brown, UK's wide receivers and tight ends are "not even close" to where they need to be in terms of physical play. The coaches are demanding the Wildcats be much more willing to embrace the yeoman's work when it comes to blocking, and the same goes for pass catching.

"We need steady. ... We need guys to make routine plays," Brown said. "If they make a great one every once and awhile, that's fine, but I want guys that when the ball is thrown to them they catch it."

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