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Stoops, Cats inspired by spring game support

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An estimated crowd of 50,831 watched Blue defeat White 24-23 in UK's annual spring game. (Chet White, UK Athletics) An estimated crowd of 50,831 watched Blue defeat White 24-23 in UK's annual spring game. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Mark Stoops had no way of knowing what kind of crowd would be in attendance for his first Blue/White Spring Game. He heard all about how tickets had been distributed at a record rate and felt the excitement around the program.

But until the day came he had no way of knowing how that would translate.

It turns out he was wise to withhold judgment, because no matter how optimistic he may have been, Stoops couldn't have foreseen what Saturday night would bring.

"I was amazed," Stoops said. "You felt that, you heard these numbers for the past couple weeks, and you know, you never know who is going to show up. It was overwhelming. It was fantastic."

What Saturday brought was a record crowd of 50,831 fans (estimated) that figures to rank among the top spring games nationally in terms of attendance. What Saturday brought was an environment that felt a whole lot more like October than April.

"I've said it a few times, but again, I really thank them for their support and their belief and their passion for this program," Stoops said. "It's tremendous. It does nothing but help us, and it also, you know, makes us want to do better. As players and coaches, we feel that passion and energy and we want to deliver."

And they felt it even before they set foot in Commonwealth Stadium. An hour and 45 minutes before kickoff, thousands of members of the Big Blue Nation lined the Wildcats' path from the Nutter Field House to Gate 1 for the first Cat Walk of the Stoops era.

"I feel it from the fans," defensive end Bud Dupree said. "The Cat Walk was unbelievable and that's for the spring game. Imagine the first game."

The Cat Walk and, later, taking the field in front of an almost completely packed lower bowl was so incredible, in fact, that it completely changed the team dynamic.

"When we ran through the tunnel and saw everybody in the stands, we really thought we were going to play a real game," Dupree said. "That whole practice mentality switched over and everyone was in game mode."

The result was a level of play closer to what will be demanded of the Cats in Southeastern Conference play than anything Stoops saw in four weeks of spring practice.

"I thought it was a great night for the program," Stoops said. "Really appreciate the fan support, just an unbelievable atmosphere. I thought the players played hard. Made some mistakes, but overall, pretty clean game."

The Blue team - composed of UK's first-team defense and second-team offense - built a two-touchdown lead, only to allow two scores in the final 7:52. White, however, couldn't convert a two-point conversion and Blue held on for a 24-23 victory.

"It seemed like (the coaches) were pretty happy," Williamson said. "There's always going to be, on film, mistakes, but we weren't being lazy out there I feel like. We were really flying around and making plays."

Even though UK had barely a dozen practices to install new offensive and defensive systems, the Cats committed only one turnover and two penalties in the four-quarter scrimmage.

Splitting reps evenly at quarterback were Maxwell Smith, Patrick Towles and Jalen Whitlow. Stoops and offensive coordinator Neal Brown were conscientious all spring about not tipping their hand in a quarterback battle that will likely last into fall, and they took that to a new level on Saturday. All three were on the field for the game's opening snap, only to split wide as Raymond Sanders took a snap in the Wildcat formation.

Each of the threw for at least one touchdown, but it was Whitlow who stood out. He completed 17-of-28 passes for 193 yards and two scores while carrying seven times for 49 yards.

"Jalen did a nice job, he has that dimension to run the football and pull it down when something is not there and create," Stoops said. "He did a nice job tonight. I was impressed with the way Jalen played."

Smith completed 11-of-18 passes for 108 yards and a touchdown while Towles was 6-for-14 for 65 yards, one touchdown and the game's lone interception.

"I have to go back and look at the film," Stoops said. "It was really hard for me to tell but I thought each of them had their moments and were consistent. We need more playmakers around them, and so it's not always on the quarterbacks. It's on the other ten guys that are out there playing with them."

The supporting cast certainly needs work, but there were impressive performances. A.J. Legree (seven catches for 68 yards) and Demarco Robinson (six catches for 93 yards) each scored a touchdown, though neither was much of a surprise. The same goes for running backs Raymond Sanders (45 yards rushing and a touchdown), Dyshawn Mobley (79 yards) and Josh Clemons (56 yards on just 10 carries)

Rashad Cunningham, however, had his best day of the spring with eight catches for 80 yards and a touchdown of his own.

"This is the best he's played and that's good to see," Stoops said. "Again with the fans out here and the media out here and all that, to see him step up and make some big catches was good to see."

A few of those catches might not have been had defenders been able to hit the quarterbacks.

Even though they had just one sack between them, defensive ends Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith consistently presented problems rushing from the edge. Smith was a factor against the run as well, accounting for six tackles and a tackle for loss.

"(Getting strong play at defensive end) does an awful lot, because if you can get some pressure with four guys, then you can put another guy in the coverage," Stoops said. "So that's a big part of it and also in the run game, if you can learn to play the run game without numbers all the time, then that helps your defense, as well."

Just as Dupree and Smith could serve as the foundation for UK's defense, spring practice and specifically the spring game could do the same for the Stoops era. Coaches had a chance to see how players reacted in a pressure-packed environment and the Cats now have an idea what to look forward to in Commonwealth this fall.

"I feel like we took a great step forward today," Williamson said. "It's good to have pressure on us because that makes everybody work harder. I know we're going to work hard. I'm going to push these guys as well as all the other defensive and offensive guys. We're going to push each other and we're going to grind it out this summer."

Stoops feels the same way.

"Nobody wants it more than that group of guys down there in the locker room, so we want to get this done and deliver for this state because we deserve to have a great program," Stoops said.

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2 Comments

Why was Reese Phillips accomplisments in the game completely overlooked. You mentioned Whitlow, Towles and Smith split the reps evenly. Reese Phillips had nearly as man reps and completed something like 10-12 passes for 75 yards, including a TD pass. He looked very poised for a kid who should still be in high school.

This isn't the only article I've read thats completely overlooked Reese Phillips.

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  • Guy Ramsey: He did play well, but this story was not intended as a general recap of the spring game. (Note that read more
  • trueblujr: Why was Reese Phillips accomplisments in the game completely overlooked. You mentioned Whitlow, Towles and Smith split the reps evenly. read more