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Braylon Heard carried twice for 116 yards and two touchdowns in UK's 59-14 win on Saturday. (Elliott Hess, UK Athletics) Braylon Heard carried twice for 116 yards and two touchdowns in UK's 59-14 win on Saturday. (Elliott Hess, UK Athletics)
Throughout fall camp, Mark Stoops and his staff have preached the importance of making the simple play and executing assignments.

Braylon Heard's first two carries in a Kentucky uniform looked anything but simple.

The Nebraska transfer took the first 73 yards for a touchdown, sprinting through a big hole and slowing down only to make sure no UT Martin defenders were on his heels. They weren't.

On the next, less than four minutes of game time later, he found another seam and went 43 yards for another score.

The plays will surely end up on UK's highlight reel at the end of the season. And of course, they speak to the talent of the player who made them.

That doesn't mean they weren't perfect illustrations of what the staff has been saying.

"The two runs he had that he broke were extremely disciplined runs," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said.  "... The thing that's going to be encouraging to me is we turn on the video tomorrow and here's Braylon doing the thing exactly the way we coach it. Exactly, to a T, the way we coach it. Boom, big play."

Heard was far from the only Wildcat to make big plays on Saturday. All told, UK had nine offensive plays of 20 yards or more in a dominant season-opening 59-14 victory, not to mention the defense's two interceptions and three fumble recoveries, one of which Khalid Henderson returned 89 yards for a touchdown.

In reflecting on the win, though, Stoops didn't marvel at his team's newfound game-breaking potential. Asked what single thing stood out to him about UK's performance, he gave an answer that was characteristically simple.

"Really just clean," Stoops said. "I think they were just--it was relatively clean."

The fans at Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday left singing a slightly different tune.

After all, they had just seen the influx of talent that Stoops has brought to Lexington back up the hype bestowed on it by recruiting services more than at any point since the second-year head coach's arrival.

They watched Heard -- limited to two carries by an ankle injury that knocked him out of the game for precautionary reasons -- led a ground game that rolled up 243 yards and six touchdowns on 28 carries. They cheered a young receiving corps that caught deep balls and turned short passes into long gains in equal measure, just as true freshman Blake Bone did on a screen pass that became a 29-yard touchdown.

"Definitely impressed," quarterback Patrick Towles said of the receiving corps. "The ball I threw to Blake that he scored on was behind. That should have been farther in front, but he made a really good play. The receivers all around played awesome."

Towles, starting for the first time at Kentucky, deftly ran the show. He completed 20-of-29 passes for 377 yards and a touchdown, adding 30 yards and another score on the ground.

"The big thing was, to me, he was very poised and he made very good decisions," Stoops said. "You know, we know he has the talent to get the ball down the field. I think it was important for him to be efficient in the intermediate area and I thought he did that. He missed a couple, but overall, just very pleased with his poise."

Towles was in Lexington before Stoops' arrival, but he's in the minority among UK's top offensive contributors. Players recruited to Kentucky by the current staff accounted for 529 of the Cats' 656 yards from scrimmage.

"I was very pleased with the young guys in general," Stoops said. "You can see the ability of some of the guys that we've been talking about, all the freshmen running backs, the freshmen wide receivers looked very poised out there and made some good plays."

That poise has everything to do with preparation, says running back Mikel Horton.

"I don't even think our coaches look it like freshmen being played because how prepared we are," said Horton, who carried seven times for 45 yards and two touchdowns. "Each freshmen, each senior, sophomore , junior are very prepared and each can rotate in and know the plays. I don't even look at it as freshman anymore. I look at us as players. When you're well prepared and you don't have a class on you, you can go in and handle your business."

UK's defense didn't rely quite as heavily on newcomers, but its biggest star on Saturday suited up in blue for the first time.

Safety A.J. Stamps has drawn raves all offseason from Stoops and defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot. The first-year junior-college transfer didn't wait long to back up the talk.

After Heard scored his first touchdown late in the first quarter to give UK a 14-0 lead, Stamps came flying into the backfield on the first play of the ensuing UT Martin drive. Before Ladevin Fair could hardly see him, Stamps flipped him into the air with a big hit for a three-yard loss.

"A.J.'s a very talented player and I've said all along he's been a great addition to our defense," Eliot said. "He's a very athlete, a very good football player, but he's also a good leader and he's got a lot of good instincts."

Those instincts showed up again on the Skyhawks' next drive. Reading a deep ball by UT Martin's Dylan Favre, Stamps sped over and snared the pass with his right hand, making a play sure to be seen again on the SportsCenter Top 10.

"Everybody said I could have made it with two," Stamps said. "But hey, one hand looked better."

Stamps -- who finished with a team high-tying eight tackles -- clearly had some fun on Saturday. He wasn't alone.

"This is the most fun I've had in a football game since (November) of 2012, probably," Brown said, recalling a text message he sent after the game. "And here's the thing: It's been fun all camp. It really has. I've had a good time. I appreciate the way our guys have worked, how they've prepared."

During camp, Brown joked about the gray hairs he's spouting coaching so many youngsters. In a good mood on Saturday following a big win, he talked about the flip side of coaching an up-and-coming group.

"These guys really want to be good," Brown said. "Our talent's getting better. We haven't arrived by any means, but our talent's getting better. They're eager, really eager to do well and they've been a fun group to coach. Not just myself, our whole offensive staff. We really enjoy coaching this group and I really think you're going to see continued growth as we go along."

On Saturday evening, UK released the following statement on cheerleader Brooke Gibbs, who was was injured after a fall on Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium.

Brooke Gibbs, a sophomore on the UK Cheer team, has been treated and released from UK Chandler Hospital following a fall during the 4th quarter of Kentucky Football's victory over UT Martin. Brooke, her family and the cheer program are appreciative of the efforts and expertise of the athletic trainers, team doctors and paramedics who cared for her at the stadium, as well as the doctors, nurses and staff at the hospital. She has heard of the outpouring of thoughts, prayers and concerns from the Big Blue Nation and can't wait to get back on the field with her teammates and the football team soon.

Video: Post-UT Martin video interviews

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Head coach Mark Stoops


Offensive coordinator Neal Brown


Defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot


A.J. Stamps, Braylon Heard, Ryan Timmons, Patrick Towles, Dorian Baker and Mikel Horton


Live blog: Football vs. UT Martin

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Live Blog Football vs. UT Martin
 
Anni Thomasson had 13 kills and 12 digs in UK's season-opening win on Friday night. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics) Anni Thomasson had 13 kills and 12 digs in UK's season-opening win on Friday night. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
In practice leading up to the 2014 volleyball season, kills were hard to come by.

What Craig Skinner wondered was whether that had more to do with the strength of Kentucky's defense or the offense's need to improve.

After a season-opening win over Wichita State, the former seems more likely.

Facing a team that reached the NCAA Tournament a season ago, the Wildcats were dominant on the attack in a decisive sweep of the Shockers.

"I'm very happy with the way we played in our first match," Skinner said. "Who knows what to expect. You know how you've been playing against your own team. Wichita State, even though they're a young team, they're always well coached and always very athletic."

It was a balanced effort that carried UK, with four Wildcats putting down at least six kills on the opening night of the Bluegrass Battle. Senior setter Morgan Bergren guided an offense that hit at a .372 clip with 31 assists as No. 19 Kentucky moved to 1-0 entering a Saturday doubleheader against Butler and Virginia Tech.

"I thought Morgan did a really nice job of finding the right people at the right time," Skinner said. "Everybody got involved in the offense. Wichita State had a hard time knowing who she was going to set."

Anni Thomasson was the most likely candidate to finish off points. The sophomore had 13 kills and just two errors in hitting .440.

"Anni's just a great volleyball player," Skinner said. "She figures out ways to score. When she can't pound it straight down, she's going to find a seam or a hole in the defense."

Not only does she find holes in the opposing defense, she also fills them in UK's. Thomasson added 12 digs in what figures to be the first of many double-doubles for her this season. Thomasson was one of UK's best players a season ago in receiving All-Southeastern Conference Freshman Team honors, but she appears poised to be even better in 2014.

"No one outworks her," Skinner said. "She just is a grinder and wants to be really good and never takes a day off. When you're like that, it's hard not to improve."

The Newark, Ohio, native is an outside hitter, a position sometimes occupied by offensive specialists, but Thomasson is as much of a contributor on defense. That's a big reason why Skinner says this could be the best defensive team he's coached.

"There's not a position that's weak defensively," Skinner said. "Typically you'll have one, maybe two people that struggle defensively. I think we're going to make it tough for people to score, but we gotta do it every day."

That means practice too, where more intense offense-defense battles are surely in store.


What Kentucky Volleyball Means to Me: A Look Back

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Countdown Recap.jpg
To count down the days to the start of the 2014 season, the UK volleyball team and coaching staff talked about what Kentucky volleyball means to them as part of the Countdown to 2014 UK Volleyball.

For head coach Craig Skinner, it's "a culture of great people that are striving to be the best." Junior Morgan Bergren added that playing for UK is about "being part of something bigger than yourself," while freshman Ashley Dusek said UK volleyball means "passion."

Comments from the student-athletes ranged from "family" and "commitment" to "determination and pride" and "the opportunity of a lifetime." Each answer was a different opinion of what makes UK volleyball a special program to be a part of and such a great place to play.

As the Wildcats prepared for the upcoming season, the daily feature, which coincided with updates on the team throughout preseason practice, gave the team a chance to reflect on what being a part of Kentucky volleyball and the UK community is all about. It was also an opportunity to look forward, as several student-athletes also talked about the opportunity to win a championship as they set their sights on the season.

An archive of  "What Kentucky Volleyball Means to Me" entries and team updates throughout the preseason can be found here. Each day, a UK student-athlete was featured as part of the countdown, in correspondence with their uniform number in addition to the coaching staff.

The countdown also included updates, news and notes from UK's preseason practices. From preseason national rankings to the release of a feature film about the team's trip to China earlier this summer, it was an eventful month leading up to the 2014 season-opener.

For additional updates on the UK volleyball team, follow them on Twitter at @KentuckyVB and on Instagram at @KentuckyVolleyball.


Laird looks to fill scoring void

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Justin Laird. Men's Soccer Justin Laird. Photo by Barry Westerman
By Brent Ingram

As the Kentucky men's soccer team enters the 2014 season, one of its biggest unanswered questions is who will replace some of the team's departed scoring.

With the graduation of leading scorers Tyler Riggs and Brad Doliner, Kentucky must replace 64-percent of its goals from a year ago. One of the players tasked with picking up the scoring load is senior forward Justin Laird.

A native of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Laird is UK's leading returning scorer after pacing the team with six assists in his first season in Lexington.

The Wright State transfer played in 17 games and made seven starts, finishing with one goal on 22 shots, with his golden goal in overtime vs. Old Dominion in the C-USA Tournament Quarterfinals lifting UK to the semis.

Now entering his final season with the Wildcats, Laird will be counted on as a forward in UK head coach Johan Cedergren's attacking system, a role that requires a physical presence up top as a primary distributor.

"It has been difficult for me, especially since I am the type of player that just likes to run and not really body up guys," Laird said about adapting to the system. "I like to be facing goal, not getting the ball with my back to it, but it has been a change for me. At the same time, with the changes of the coaching staff, I have a lot more clarity of what needs to be done and I feel like I have been adapting to that role real well. I think they get more pleased with me in that role, day-by-day."

A star at Hartford Union High School in Hartford, Wisconsin, Laird began his collegiate career at Wright State.

During his debut season at Wright State, Laird totaled team-highs in points (15) and goals (seven), earning a spot on the Horizon League Newcomer Team.

"I learned that D1 soccer is going to be a lot of work," Laird said about lessons learned at Wright State. "It is going to be a complete grind. Coming to Lexington it really just shows me how blessed we are to have the things that we have and have the coaching staff that we have. It just helped my momentum going forward and helped me learn about what soccer can do for a campus, and we have big things in store here."

After earning a starting spot at forward in UK's first exhibition tune-up of the year at Northern Kentucky, Laird came off the bench to play the final 45 minutes in UK's final exhibition against Georgia State. Upon entering vs. GSU, Laird's impact was immediately felt, as UK picked up the offensive intensity and attacking mindset.

"I feel way more comfortable around campus," Laird said. "I need to be more of a leader out there. I hope that I am a guy that players can look to with questions, on and off the field. I feel like I have a good relationship with this campus right now."

One benefit to Laird and UK's offensive attack in the preseason has been the daily battles with UK's stout defensive unit. With junior Callum Irving, "one of the top three goalkeepers in the country," according to Cedergren, and three starters returning on the back four, UK's defense will be a strength in 2014.

"It is hard," Laird said about facing the UK defense in training. "It is the best four that I have ever played against. In practice it is really hard to get goals on them. Their formation is set and skill wise they are almost unbeatable. It is definitely a struggle when you have to face them up in practice."

Laird has learned a lot over his time at Kentucky and has been struck by the commitment from the UK support staff in building a first-class operation.

"It all starts with the department," Laird said. "UK facilities and everything we have, we are super spoiled and super blessed. I learned that this is a place with big goals and we have the facilities to reflect and reach those goals. We can go big places with this team."

The Wildcats will open their 2014 season against Laird's former squad, Wright State, on Friday at 7:30 p.m. in Dayton, Ohio. UK will then return home for its first game at the sparkling new Wendell & Vickie Bell Soccer Complex on Sunday, hosting Belmont at 5 p.m.

"Goals for the team are to get to a final four this year. We are going to have to have a lot of leadership and a lot of people step up. But at the same time, it is possible. Individually, my goal is to have 10 or more goals."

Video: UK Athletics 2013-14 year in review

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