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Spring game a chance for UK to vault into what's ahead

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UK will hold the first Blue/White Spring Game of the Mark Stoops era on Saturday at 7 p.m. ET in Commonwealth Stadium. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK will hold the first Blue/White Spring Game of the Mark Stoops era on Saturday at 7 p.m. ET in Commonwealth Stadium. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
For four weeks - with the exception of one practice that was open to the media - Kentucky has worked behind closed doors.

As Mark Stoops and his coaching have installed new schemes and systems, fans have only heard about the Wildcats' progress secondhand.

On Saturday, that will all change.

"I'm excited to show everybody what we've improved on," linebacker Avery Williamson said. "Last year was a real bad year for us and I just want to show everybody what we've improved on, how much better we've gotten and how committed these guys are to making these fans proud."

More than 40,000 tickets have been distributed to Saturday's Blue/White Spring Game in Commonwealth Stadium, meaning a record crowd is certain to see the event when it kicks off at 7 p.m. ET. Through film sessions, individual workouts and 14 tough practices, that unprecedented support has been a constant motivator.

"I'm excited about the energy and really appreciate the great support that we've received and from everything I'm hearing about the spring game tomorrow," Stoops said. "The team feels that; we're energized by that."

That energy was on display Friday at UK's final practice before the spring game. Though the Cats practiced without pads, Stoops reported seeing an energetic, fun practice. He is hoping for more of the same on Saturday.

"Just good football," Stoops said when asked what he wants to see at the spring game. "Good execution, good tough blocking, good tough running, catching the football. On defense, great pursuit. Physical, making good tackles, just good execution on both sides."

To encourage that kind of competitiveness, Saturday will feature a regular game format. The first-string offense and No. 2 defense will pair up to form the White team and face off against a Blue team composed  of the No. 1 defense and No. 2 offense.

UK has not yet released a depth chart this spring, which means the way the teams are split will be the first indication of who has grabbed the early lead in battles for starting roles. Even so, don't think anything is decided just yet.

"They're all up for grabs," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "I know there are some good players out there that are doing some good things, but we don't have many spots at all that our solid."

That's particularly true at quarterback. Snaps will be split evenly between Maxwell Smith, Patrick Towles and Jalen Whitlow as they have been all spring, and expect to see all three line up with both the Blue and White teams.

Absent from the scrimmage will be most of UK's special-teams sets. There will be no kickoffs or kickoff returns and all punts will be fair caught.

The Cats have gotten enough work on special teams that Stoops feels comfortable, and that's mostly true for the offense and defense as well. None of UK's units is anywhere near where it will need to be when the season opens, but Stoops and his staff had a clear idea of what needed to be accomplished this spring. On that front, they are satisfied.

"I think they have a good understanding of the tempo that we want to operate," Stoops said. "I think they've got a good understanding of how precise we want to be. So we've made some good strides in those areas."

The spring game will represent somewhat of an end point for UK, but only to the initial phase of the Stoops era. Much work is ahead in the next stages, but Saturday - with a strong showing by both the team and fans - can serve as a springboard into the summer and fall.

"It's gonna be great," Williamson said. "I'm excited. It would mean the world to me to see all these fans come out and show their support to us. I'm just so excited. Can't wait."

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