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UK makes final spring stride at Blue/White game

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UK held its annual Blue/White Spring Game on Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics) UK held its annual Blue/White Spring Game on Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Kentucky fans listened all spring to the talk about how their team had improved since the Wildcats last took the field in November.

They heard from Mark Stoops about the way an extended winter in UK's High Performance program had made the Cats bigger, stronger and faster. They hoped that the seven newcomers who enrolled in January would add some much-needed depth and talent. They expected a full year in a new system would do the veterans some good.

During the Blue/White Spring Game, fans got to see their team back up the talk.

"You feel much better," Stoops said, reflecting on his team's progress over the past year. "You know, I really tried not to ever, you know, throw everybody under the bus, including myself and the team, but we just weren't very good. We're better. We're still not where we need to be but we're better. We're at that point where you can really start to feel that improvement."

The 35,117 fans in attendance at Commonwealth Stadium -- UK's second-largest crowd ever for a spring game -- and those watching at home felt it too.

A year ago, the record-setting crowd was there to celebrate where everyone believed UK could go in the future more than anything else. On Saturday, those fans were able to celebrate what the Cats are starting to become.

"We know what to do," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "We're more talented. We're not where we need to be. We need more talent. I think that's obvious. I would like for our White team to be more competitive at times. I thought they were earlier in the game."

UK's need for more depth was evidenced by the final score, a 38-14 Blue team victory. Comprised almost entirely by first teamers, Blue outscored White 31-7 after an even first quarter. All told, the Blue team rolled up 437 yards of offense and held White to 165.

"We are by no means a finished product, but I felt like we've improved, certainly from the fall," Stoops said. "This spring we are getting better. Got a long way to go. But overall, I was very happy with the team's energy. They have been solid all spring, really."

Unwilling to show some of the wrinkles installed this spring, the Cats kept it relatively "vanilla" on both sides of the ball. Stoops may have avoided emptying his bag of tricks, but UK's progress was on display anyway.

"I think we have improved mentality-wise," Bud Dupree said. "We have the same team except a couple guys, so we have to have the same mentality to want to, to want to get better, to want to do it and the want to produce."

UK was particularly productive in the ground game, with top running backs Braylon Heard, Jojo Kemp, Josh Clemons and Mikel Horton combining for 308 rushing yards and four touchdowns.

Kemp, a sophomore, led the way with 11 carries for 90 yards and two touchdowns to go with two catches for 41 yards. The highlight -- and arguably the highlight of the scrimmage -- was his 48-yard burst down the sideline, the last 10 yards of which he spent high-stepping into the end zone.

"It's just me out there having fun, celebrating, keeping the fans interested," Kemp said. "In the regular season, I'm not going to be doing that. You'll probably see me on the sideline because we don't want that to be called back."

Kemp will be wise to be more measured in his celebrations because he and his fellow runners figure to have more such opportunities in 2014. UK will of course throw the ball in Brown's Air Raid attack, but the Cats would be unwise to neglect running the football stable of backs as deep and diverse as this one

"We gotta have something to hang our hat on," Brown said. "I think right now we're pretty good at running the ball and our play-action's pretty good. We hit a couple big play-action plays today."

Throwing those play-action passes were quarterbacks Patrick Towles, Reese Phillips and Drew Barker.

Towles started -- which, as Stoops said Friday, meant "he earned the right to go out there with the first group" -- and displayed the improvement his coaches have raved about all spring. With fleeter feet and a quicker release, Towles looked the part of a Southeastern Conference quarterback in leading the Blue team to a touchdown in the game's first drive.

"As you saw today, I'm a totally different player than I was last year," Towles said. "I mean, it's night and day. I'm excited about where we're at as a team, I'm excited about where we're at as an offense and I'm excited about where we're going."

Towles completed 11 of 15 passes for 126 yards, his most impressive work coming on the final drive of the first half. Starting on his own 19 with just 53 seconds on the clock, Towles completed 6 of 7 passes for 54 yards to set Austin MacGinnis up for a 40-yard field goal as time expired.

"That was big," Brown said. "That's things we gotta do. ... He threw them on the sidelines. He understood that the ball had to be on the sideline. He got it outside. He didn't miss it inside. Those are key things, without question."

Towles' lone major mistake came just minutes prior, when he fired a screen pass too close to Za'Darius Smith. The 6-foot-6 defensive end snared it in midair and returned it 13 yards before Towles wrapped him up. With the quarterbacks wearing black jerseys protecting them from contact, the play was blown dead even though Smith kept his feet and sprinted for what he thought was a touchdown.

"I didn't even feel him," said Smith, who added a sack and 1.5 tackles for loss. "I just was thinking about the end zone, the ball going into the end zone."

On the next play, Blue's offense finished the job. Phillips hit Steven Borden for a 17-yard score, one of two passing touchdowns for the redshirt freshman, in a 7-of-11, 74-yard performance representative of the kind of consistency that makes him a factor in this quarterback race.

"He makes a lot of good decisions," Brown said. "He does not make big negative plays. He's not gonna do things that hurt you, that put you in bad situations."

Barker, a true freshman who attended his high-school prom mere weeks ago, is still working on eliminating some of those mistakes. He had his moments on Saturday -- most notably a 30-yard touchdown strike that hit Demarco Robinson in stride and closed out the scoring -- but it wasn't his best day of the spring.

"I had definitely struggled all day and I felt like I got a monkey off my back (with the touchdown pass)," said Barker, who completed 7 of 19 passes for 74 yards. "It was good but, like I said, but I would like to have done better."

Spring game aside, Barker is still very much a contender. And as Stoops has reiterated all spring, UK will be better at quarterback regardless who wins the job.

"I think when we have everybody healthy, all the quarterbacks will look better," Stoops said. "So there's no decision yet. I'm proud of the effort Pat has done and I really like the other two, as well. I think the other two are great quarterbacks and certainly had some great days this spring. So we'll see."

Stoops would put no timetable on a decision, saying only that he and Brown will meet in the coming week to determine how they will move forward.

"We are going to go back and look at this tape and we'll look at the spring in its entirety and look at all the drives and everything we've been through and we'll sit down next week and see where we are at as a staff," Stoops said.

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