Bud Dupree had 91 tackles and 6.5 sacks in 2012. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
As front offices have grown more sophisticated, three positions have emerged as the most important on NFL rosters.
Quarterbacks touch the ball on every snap and direct offenses that rely on the pass more and more. Left tackles protect those quarterbacks, ensuring they need not worry about getting hit from the blind side.
Defensive ends, meanwhile, are tasked with disrupting all of that.
If Saturday's Blue/White Spring Game is any indication, Kentucky might have a pair of ends with quite a talent for disruption in Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith.
"They're both fast," quarterback Jalen Whitlow said. "They've got safety speed, almost. Bud is a freak and Za'Darius is long and strong and fast. They're both pretty good players."
When he was playing for the White team, Whitlow had to be constantly aware of where Smith and Dupree were. Smith had six tackles, including one for loss, while Dupree had a sack of Maxwell Smith. That production came in spite of the fact that two-hand-touch rules applied to the UK quarterbacks throughout the four-quarter scrimmage.
"If it was a live game and we were live on the quarterbacks, I think they could have created some havoc," head coach Mark Stoops said. "They did a nice job, they are very active and have been very solid all spring."
Since Smith and Dupree couldn't make their presence felt with hits, they made sure they were heard.
"They can't tackle us, so they talk to us a lot -- about how they wish they could tackle us and how they would do us if they could," Whitlow said.
Smith - who lined up at right end opposite left tackle Darrian Miller most of the evening - estimated he would have had "two or three" sacks had the quarterbacks been fair game.
"I don't even want to think about it just because that excites me when I make a sack," Smith said, adding the 50,831 fans in Commonwealth Stadium made following the don't-hit-the-quarterback rules even more painful.
It's no secret that the Wildcats have much work ahead of them at linebacker and in the secondary. But if Smith and Dupree produce at the level they believe they can, it could serve as an eraser of sorts for the defense as a whole.
"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."
Avery Williamson is particularly excited about that prospect. The middle linebacker led UK by a wide margin in tackles last season, but he made just seven on Saturday.
"Last year it was kind of like I was making every tackle, so it was kind of weird not having to make every tackle," Williamson said.
The senior certainly doesn't mind if he doesn't match his 135 tackles from 2012.
"I'm just worried about winning," Williamson said. "The rest will take care of itself."
Smith admits he's worried about sacks too. The good news for UK is that wins are likely to follow if he and Dupree spend as much as time in opposing backfields as they believe.
"When we play in a real game, we feel sorry for the quarterback that we're going to play against," Smith said.
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.
The Grand Opening Ceremony of John Cropp Stadium was held pregame on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
"Let's go give this stadium and ESPN a show it deserves."
That was the direct quote from head coach Rachel Lawson while wrapping up her pregame ceremonial speech before the UK softball team went out and bested the third-ranked Florida Gators, 4-2 in front of a season-high 1,206 fans.
The ribbons have been cut and the banners have been dropped as the UK Softball Complex was reintroduced as the new John Cropp Stadium on Saturday on a day that will never be forgotten for the UK softball program.
The Wildcats gave exactly what ESPN deserved alright and showed the nation what UK softball is all about.
"The atmosphere was great," Lawson said. "The fans were into the game they loved it. I thought both teams played really hard and there were a lot of really exciting plays. I don't think we could have asked for a better game from us. I thought the whole thing was an incredible day for us."
Kelsey Nunley starred on the mound, tossing a complete game as she set the school single-season wins record with 20. It was Krystal Smith who a bulk of UK's damage at the plate two hits and three runs batted in, including a go-ahead two-run single in the bottom of the sixth inning.
Before the upset win, Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart, Lawson and stadium namesake Associate Athletics Director John Cropp all spoke at the podium. The day has come where UK softball boasts one of the top facilities in all of college softball. There was a time where some thought it might never happen. That includes Cropp, who has been a large part of the program since its existence.
"I can remember our very first practice that took place in Woodland Park," Cropp said. "We didn't even have a field on this campus. Our first coach, she can remember well going over to Woodland Park and practicing softball. That was a long time ago but I don't think either one of us ever envisioned us being here today."
Lawson is in her sixth year as the head coach and what she has done since her time at UK has grabbed everyone's attention.
Barnhart noted that there are times when programs build a facility to increase performance and help gain a winning reputation and there are other times when teams are able to produce with what they have and are rewarded for their achievements.
That's exactly what Lawson has done in her tenure and she is now getting recognition for her accomplishments. Six years later, she owns the school's all-time wins record and has taken UK to unprecedented heights.
"We need to thank her for the five straight NCAA appearances and the college Super Regional that we hosted two years ago that gave us the ability to do these kinds of things and build this facility," Barnhart said. "To have 2,000 people in here on national television, gave our program the visibility we have not had."
Lawson's success has garnered attention from other schools during her time at UK. There was a point where she was interviewing elsewhere for jobs which, at the time, had better softball facilities than UK.
There was a day a few years back when Lawson remembers speaking to Barnhart on the phone about what this program needed to become among the best. Barnhart promised Lawson they would provide her with a new stadium and he stayed true to his word. Lawson decided to remain at UK and according to her, the stadium actually came a year before than expected.
"(Barnhart) actually did it a year earlier than he said he was going to do it," Lawson said. "To be around people who actually not only say things but actually come through with what they say they are going to do, that's exceptional and that's very special to me because we live in a world where not very many people come through with their promises. I will never forget that day so that's very special to me."
Lawson took time to thank multiple people, including Barnhart, Cropp, former UK president Lee Todd, current UK president Dr. Eli Capilouto and the rest of the athletic department. She also gave thanks to her associate head coach Kristine Himes and assistant coach Molly Johnson, who have both been with Lawson for every win at UK either as a coach or in Johnson's case as a player as well.
But Lawson gave special thanks to the Big Blue Nation, because without the fans, alumni and current players, Saturday's celebration would have never taken place.
"You can build an incredible stadium and I can't be more thankful for this stadium, but this stadium is only worth the people that are in it and work for it every single day," Lawson said. "The Big Blue Nation is awesome. We are one of the few softball programs in the country in that we had a large fan base prior to the new stadium.
"I think that's great that they are going to have some place where they can sit and see a game because each year we are putting up temporary bleachers. Not only do we fill those seats up but we have had to build more and more and more until we had 2,000 people at Super Regionals. So I have to thank the Big Blue Nation because without you we would not have this stadium."
The stadium is going to do some great things for the softball program. The obvious thing is it will enhance the recruiting and will give players and fans an atmosphere that they deserve for SEC softball.
However, what the new facilities bring is the ability for the players to become complete student-athletes and give them a home away from home where they can feel comfortable. Not only did the program get a new stadium, but a new locker room and hitting practice area is being constructed down the third-base foul area.
Lawson takes pride in her student-athletes' work on the field and just as importantly in the classroom. She wants the Cats to become great off the field when they leave UK. Lawson says the new locker room will give her players a place for them to go after class to study, practice, eat and then go home to get a good night's rest.
Barnhart appreciates the efforts Lawson has had on the made but he notices what she does in the community and the example she sets for the players for them to become the best human beings as possible.
"She has given a lot of young women in this community the dream that they can play in a place like this in a league like this," Barnhart said. "Maybe just maybe you get to the College World Series in Oklahoma City. On the way she has done an amazing job that her kids do a great job in the classroom."
This entire project took a lot of hard work from several different people. It's been a long process but it's now time to take the next step in UK softball history.
Cropp capped off the opening ceremony with the last speech of the three and he emphasized UK softball would not be here today without the leadership of the two standing right there next to him: Barnhart and Lawson.
"Athletics is a team, and it took the whole team to put this together," Cropp said. "But what else you have to have in athletics and life is leadership and the real reason we are here today doing this is because of the two people here standing beside me. They are the ones to make this happen."
Zac Zellers gave Kentucky a 4-2 lead with a clutch two-run single in the eighth. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics)
The first two hitters in a batting lineup are usually responsible for getting on base and scoring runs. Friday night in the series-opening 5-4 victory over Tennessee, the table setters wiped the bases clean to claim the come-from-behind win.
Since Kentucky head coach Gary Henderson inserted freshman Kyle Barrett at the top of the batting lineup, Barrett is batting .500 (5-of-10) in his first two games as the Wildcats' new leadoff hitter while driving in four runs.
"When you look at the scoreboard, we weren't exactly banging it around and someone's got to step up," said Henderson. "(Barrett)'s done it a few times for us."
Barrett drove home Kentucky's first two runs of the game, including a game-tying RBI double to knot things up at two in the momentum-shifting bottom of the eighth.
While Barrett was continuing his hot start in the leadoff role, Zac Zellers looked to be rediscovering his stroke as well in the two spot. Coming into the game hitting just .272 (15-of-55) with runners in scoring position, Zellers ripped a one-out, two-run single to give the Wildcats their first lead of the game and put them ahead 4-2.
Sophomore center fielder Austin Cousino, now the third batter in the UK lineup, added an important - and ultimately decisive - insurance run with an RBI double in the four-run eighth.
Barrett seems to be transitioning into a role that may look familiar. Cousino came in as a freshman last season and took the reins as the Kentucky leadoff man. With Cousino now in a position to impact the UK offense as a more prominent run producer in the middle of the lineup, Barrett is providing this offense with a sparkplug at the top.
"He's really aggressive and gives us a strong presence," said Henderson. "He's done a really nice job of making hard contact with guys in scoring position. He's a threat defensively, so they've got to come in at the corners to take away a bunt, but the thing I like the most about him is his presence."
As a freshman, it took Barrett a while to finally break into the lineup on a consistent basis. It wasn't until the second game of UK's first Southeastern Conference series in Florida when Barrett would put a stranglehold on a starting spot that he's yet to relinquish.
Now batting .343 with a .397 on-base percentage, Barrett is the ideal man to get the offense going.
"He looks like a winner when he plays," said Henderson. "He just makes you proud to have him on your team."
Though it took him a solid portion of the season to finally break into the everyday lineup, Barrett feels like that's where he belongs. And his play is backing it up.
"I was honestly just glad to be out here," said Barrett. "It's just an awesome experience. I got my opportunity and took advantage of it. I'm still the cheerleader in the dugout, even though I'm playing."
It took Barrett and the Kentucky offense a while to finally get something going. After being swept by LSU last weekend on the road, the Wildcats needed to take advantage of the Volunteers back at home. With A.J. Reed on mound for the opener, Kentucky had to feel pretty good about its chances.
Reed held up his end of the bargain, allowing just two runs over 6.2 innings before leaving the game trailing 2-1 in the top of the seventh. It could have been worse, but as Reed has done time and again this season, he battled through a big-time jam to leave runners stranded at second and third in the sixth to keep the deficit at one.
"He's been fascinatingly good at that all year," said Henderson. "He has probably done something exactly like that or very close to it five times this year. It's fascinating. That's not coaching."
After Reed was lifted, Chandler Shepherd came in and gave the Wildcats 1.1 scoreless innings in relief, finishing off the Volunteers in the seventh and leading the Wildcats to the bottom half of the eighth where they would do the bulk of their offensive damage.
After Barrett doubled in the tying run in eighth to pull even at two, Zellers stepped in with a chance to give the Cats their first lead of the game. Zellers has yet to find his stroke from the 2012 season, but he put a solid swing on Dalton Saberhagen's delivery to drive in two go-ahead runs to make it 4-2.
The hit came in a huge moment as Zellers picked up his teammates as they have done for him throughout the season.
"It's always good to be able to come through for your team," said Zellers. "A lot of guys got on before me. Kyle had a great at-bat. All the guys before him were able to get on base. I was able to get the pitch I was looking for and we scored two, and that's what it's all about: picking up your teammates."
Kentucky would need all four eighth-inning runs to pull out the Friday-night winner, as UK's all-time saves leader picked up Zellers after his costly ninth-inning error. After Trevor Gott took care of the first Tennessee hitter, the Vols got two runs on a single to left field that got past Zellers.
In a jam, Gott settled in and delivered back-to-back outs including a strikeout to clinch the series opener, 5-4. With two more games remaining in the series including Saturday's 2 p.m. ET matchup at Cliff Hagan Stadium, the Cats were happy to get back into the SEC win column after they were swept last weekend at LSU.
"It's good to win on Friday," said Zellers. "We were able to get back on the right track, but we still have to win two more, though."
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."
UK rebounded from a three-game sweep at LSU with a 6-3 win over Austin Peay on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Nothing went the way of the Kentucky baseball team last weekend.
The Wildcats played their worst weekend series of the season. LSU - arguably the nation's best team - played exceptionally well in front of a raucous home crowd. And it didn't help that every break went the Tigers' way.
The result was a three-game sweep - UK's first weekend series loss of the season - as the Wildcats were outscored 29-6.
"That wasn't a one-inning blip," head coach Gary Henderson said. "We just didn't play well."
As disappointing as the performance was, Henderson isn't sounding any alarms. There were issues that needed addressing, but UK had played too much good baseball leading up to the road trip to Baton Rouge, La., for grave concerns.
"Baseball's like that," Henderson said. "You've gotta be able to experience those weekends, get through 'em and then get rid of them and then get on to the next one."
But before the Cats could move to the next weekend, they faced a midweek matchup with Austin Peay in a game that suddenly took on additional importance as UK sought to avoid a four-game skid. Behind a second straight strong start by freshman Kyle Cody, the Cats won 6-3 on Tuesday night.
"I thought it was really important," Henderson said. "Austin Peay's a good team, they've got a really good chance of winning the (Ohio Valley Conference), they have really good players, a good track record. For us to play well, pitch well - especially defensively play well - was a really good sign. I thought we came back and played with a lot of confidence."
The task now becomes transferring that confidence back into Southeastern Conference play.
UK (23-9, 6-6 SEC) will host Tennessee (14-17, 3-9 SEC) for a three-game set beginning at 6:30 p.m. ET on Friday. The Volunteers have lost six straight in conference play, but Henderson singled out Saturday and Sunday starters Nick Williams and Zack Godley as pitchers who will give the Cats all they can handle.
"They present the challenges of being an SEC team that's got two solid starting pitchers, and they're in a corner," Henderson said. "They'll show up and they'll be aggressive and they'll fight. We need to respond accordingly."
UK's pitching staff, meanwhile, will face an offense reminiscent of the one it sees in practice every day. The Volunteers have just eight home runs on the season, but have already stolen 54 bases, which will be a test of the Wildcats' ability to control the running game. UK has allowed just 13 steals in 22 attempts in 2013.
"They try to rattle you a little bit," Henderson said. "Our guys typically are very good with that type of approach because it's similar to ours."
Henderson believes it important for the Wildcats to embrace their own offensive identity. At times this season - particularly the first two games at LSU - UK has tried to go against that nature and the result has been pop-ups aplenty.
"It's not a home-run game anymore; it's a different game," Henderson said. "It just is and we need to approach it where we really emphasize or utilize or accentuate our talents, our skills. We're a line-drive, doubles-hitting club and that's how we need to approach it."
In emphasizing that approach, Henderson used a tweaked lineup in the Austin Peay win. It was by no means an overhaul, but Austin Cousino, after leading off in every game of his first season and a half at UK, moved into the three hole, freshman outfielder Kyle Barrett led off and fellow newcomer Zack Storm got his first-career start.
Barrett and Cousino are likely to stay in those spots on Friday. Beyond that, anything could happen.
"I don't think anything's permanent," Henderson said. "That's where we are now, but a baseball lineup is constantly in flux."
Regardless, don't view the Tennessee series as some sort of proving ground or place for experimentation. The Cats will play 14 of their next 16 games against ranked opponents, but this weekend is the priority.
"Anybody in this league is good enough to beat anybody," Henderson said. "That's proven every weekend."
Head coach Rachel Lawson recorded her school-record 182nd career victory in the Wildcats' 6-2 win over Eastern Kentucky on Wednesday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
This weekend will mark a monumental moment for the Kentucky softball program. Not only do the Wildcats welcome the third-ranked Florida Gators, but the Grand Opening Ceremony of the newly renovated UK Softball Complex is set to precede Saturday's 1 p.m. ET game.
Gates will open at 11:30 a.m. with pregame festivities slated to begin at 11:45. Athletic's Director Mitch Barnhart, head coach Rachel Lawson and select others will be speaking to officially open the new stadium.
Six years ago Barnhart hired Lawson as UK's new softball coach. Since Lawson's arrival, the program has made major strides and now the athletic department is rewarding the hard work of the coaches and players by providing them a brand-new playing atmosphere.
This is a big moment in UK softball history and Lawson is the first to recognize who is responsible for it all and give thanks.
"First you have to thank the Big Blue Nation," Lawson said. "If we didn't have the fan support and the financial support you would never see an amazing stadium like this going up. You have to thank everybody who works so hard in the athletic department to make these things possible."
Of course Lawson wouldn't be a part of this weekend's celebration had she not been hired back in July 2007. It was Barnhart's decision, but there was another member of the athletic department who played a key role in the process.
"You have to thank Mitch but you have to thank (associate athletic's director) John Cropp for hiring me," Lawson said. "Mitch ultimately made the decision but Coach Cropp was the one that went out and believed in me."
On Wednesday, the Wildcats traveled to Frankfort, Ky., to compete in a doubleheader against Eastern Kentucky. UK took the opener 6-2, giving Lawson her school-record 182nd career victory.
Lawson, who is humbled by the whole experience, is always striving for more and is looking for ways she can improve the program.
However, she did take a moment after to sit back and take it all in.
"It's really cool," Lawson said. "You never stop and think about what you accomplish you only keep moving forward. It was a brief moment in time where I got to stop and I got to think about all the people that helped me get here."
Associate head coach Kristine Himes has been with Lawson since day one at UK and Lawson says she wouldn't be where she is today without her. Lawson also took time to thank the athletic department and all the players that helped rack up the record amount of victories.
A few minutes was enough time for Lawson to think about breaking the record as she quickly turned her focus back to the future goals of the program.
"That's a cool moment, with that said I know we all want a national championship," Lawson said. "While the wins are incredible and it's good to get to that point, it will be even better when we move forward. Every team at Kentucky, our goal should be to win the SEC and to win national championships, that's what we all do. Once you get there and you have one, you're going to want another and another."
Fans should be in for a treat this weekend with the Gators coming into town. Florida is an impressive 39-4 on the season and 12-3 in conference play, but the Cats are having a tremendous season themselves and have no reason to back down.
With the 18th-ranked Wildcats sitting at 8-4 in SEC play, a series win over the Gators would give them loads of confidence heading forward. Lawson knows her Wildcats have a huge challenge in front of them but also realizes it's a great opportunity for them to make a statement.
"It's going to be quite a challenge," Lawson said. "With that said, us and Florida are usually good games. They are usually played hard and played clean and usually they are good television games. Hopefully that will continue this weekend and we can get some wins."
When Lawson was brought in to lead the Wildcats back in '07, one of the things on the top of the athletic department's list was to build the softball team a new facility. The opening of the stadium hasn't been a major shock for Lawson, however the dedication and pace that everything has come together has really taken the sixth-year head coach by surprise.
"I knew it would be coming but for it to be coming so soon and in such a huge fashion has been such a huge surprise for me," Lawson said. "Everything that we have asked for is actually happening. They have gone top rate with everything in here. It's going to one of the best if not the best facility in the country."
Cedric Kauffmann has guided the men's tennis team to the No. 8 ranking in his first year as head coach. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The Kentucky men's tennis is team is very good. The No. 8 ranking next to its name suggests that is so.
Cedric Kauffmann, UK men's tennis head coach, would agree. But sometimes very good just doesn't cut it, especially when the head coach holds his program to such high standards.
"I thought we started a little bit better than I expected, and in the middle we took some losses," said Kauffmann. "Overall, they're doing very well. But I'm a perfectionist and I'm very picky, so very good is just not good enough."
The No. 8 Wildcats (19-8, 6-4 SEC) are in the midst of yet another terrific season as they battle through the war that is Southeastern Conference men's tennis. They have eight wins against current top-25 teams including two wins against teams in the top six in No. 3 Georgia and No. 6 Ole Miss. UK also boasts two players in the top 25 in the singles rankings in senior team captain No. 19 Anthony Rossi and No. 21 Tom Jomby.
Those two upperclassmen along with junior Grant Roberts have been given a little extra burden to carry this season as Kauffmann has been forced to fill half of his singles lineup with freshmen. With the loss of junior Alejandro Gomez to injury earlier this year, the lineup got much younger and inexperienced. It also made Kauffmann's job more challenging as UK looks for a strong finish to its regular season.
In Gomez's absence, Kauffmann would like to see a bit more urgency, especially from his younger players, heading into the postseason.
"We've had to do it quicker since we lost Gomez," said Kauffmann. "I have three freshmen in my lineup out of six. It's not easy. My freshmen sometimes act like freshmen. It's OK because they're freshmen, but I don't accept it.
"You can see if you come to a match that there is a difference in the body language in my freshmen than to Rossi or Grant Roberts. You can see the difference. What I want to see not just through one through six, but one through 12, is the way you conduct yourself on the court and how you take care of business every day, and not just talking about it."
Kauffmann, who is enjoying his first season as head coach after serving as an assistant coach to former head coach Dennis Emery since 2005, says things haven't changed all that much in his new role, but there have been plenty of challenges in following up last year's SEC regular-season championship.
The biggest challenge heading into the season was finding out if returning players like Rossi and Jomby would be able to handle the roles of No. 1 and No. 2 in the UK singles lineup with UK great Eric Quigley and fellow senior Alex Musialek departing last year. Fortunately for Kauffmann, while those departed players are irreplaceable in many respects, Rossi and Jomby have filled a very deep void and helped make Kauffmann's transition to head coach smoother than expected.
"Rossi and Tom have done a good job replacing the one and two spots," said Kauffmann. "They're very, very good. What Quigley and Musialek did was show up in the big matches and the big moments, especially in the postseason. They came up big.
"I expect Tom and Anthony to do the same in the coming weeks. But they've done a tremendous job filling those shoes."
The shoes left by Emery for Kauffmann were oversized as well because Kauffmann's first match as head coach at UK would be his first as a head coach at the collegiate level.
Emery had basically built the entire men's tennis program from the ground up in his 30-year career as the UK tennis head coach, acquiring legendary status in amassing 655 wins and 23 NCAA Tournament appearances, and is responsible for nearly half of UK's all-time wins. He also lays claim to two SEC championships.
Kauffmann, however, has remained true to himself and the lessons he'd learned from Emery while coaching by his side for the last eight seasons while also playing for him for four as a Wildcat. Not much, other than some extra office duties, has changed the way Kauffmann handles his business. He has, however, found losses a little more difficult to deal with in his new role.
"I don't feel that much different," said Kauffmann. "I maybe just blame myself a little bit more which is normal. If something goes wrong or we lose, I can tell the guys you didn't do this right or wrong, I kind of blame myself first. What could I have done better for this kid to play better and do more of, which is good."
What Kauffmann has come to realize, however, is that there is more to being a tennis coach than coaching tennis. He's learned that there's more to being a student-athlete than just being an athlete. He's taken it upon himself to improve the lives of everyone in and around his program no matter who they are or what they do.
Whether it's improving the skill of the last man on the team or having a roster full of gentlemen, Kauffmann wants his players to constantly grow. That's what he claims is his job.
"I pay a little bit more attention to everybody on the team," said Kauffmann now that he is a head coach. "Even when people are not playing, at the end of the day, I know my job is measured on wins and losses and how we do in the SEC, but I try as a head coach to do more than that.
"I try to make them grow and attack them as much what they do on the tennis court as much as saying 'hi' to people, looking them in the eye, opening the door for the ladies."
As far as results go, he's doing his job just fine. No, the Wildcats won't win the regular-season conference title this year as Georgia has already clinched, but there is plenty of optimism left for a successful postseason run.
With the SEC Championships just around the corner and only three regular-season matches left, Kauffmann wants his team to start preparing for the postseason by treating the remaining matches as such with challenges on the road at Florida and South Carolina.
"We talk about (the postseason) at the beginning of the season," said Kauffmann. "A little bit of reminding when I feel it's not good enough. I just want them to treat each match like it is postseason. I think that's why Virginia, who is the No. 1 team, has not lost this season. They don't take anyone for granted in their play. That's what I'm looking for from me and this team."
As the conclusion of his first full season as head coach draws near, Kauffmann hopes this team has learned from some of the mistakes it's made along the way as they strive to be a perfect, finished product by season's end. He also knows his team has what it takes to be good enough and to reach the standards he's set for them. If he does his job to the best of his ability, year No. 1 for Kauffmann may finish with a perfect ending.
"Yes, I believe they can win the SEC Tournament," said Kauffmann. "I think they can win at the end of the year. It's going to be physical and mental and all those things, but talent-wise, I think we have enough on the tennis court to do it. After that, I have to do a good job."
John Schlarman is in his first season coaching offensive linemen at Kentucky. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Losing weight is not typically high on the priority list for offensive linemen. Given the size and strength of the defenders who line up across from them each down, mass is almost always an asset.
But as Darrian Miller has gone through his first spring practice in Kentucky's new offense, the pounds have melted off. After working for so long to gain or maintain weight, Miller has dropped 10 pounds without even thinking about it.
"I didn't feel like I wanted to or needed to do that at all," Miller said. "It just sort of happened when we got out here with this fast-paced offense."
Offensive line coach John Schlarman - a former UK offensive lineman - says there's no reason to sound the alarm about the shrinking left tackle. Having spent the last five seasons coaching linemen under offensive coordinator Neal Brown, Miller - now 6-foot-5, 285 pounds - is not a unique case.
"It's very high-paced," Schlarman said. "These guys burn a lot of calories out here in these practices."
If he needed any additional evidence, Schlarman needs look no further than Miller's play in 13 practices so far this spring to reassure himself. Lining up most often opposite Za'Darius Smith - a 6-foot-6, 257-pound defensive end - Miller has more than held his own.
"Darrian Miller, I've been very, very pleased with him this spring," Schlarman said. "He's really had a good spring. He's played very, very consistent. I know we still have two practices left so I hope I don't jinx him, but he's been real consistent all spring long, come to work every day with a great attitude and done a great job on that left side."
Miller, who played well as a sophomore at left tackle in 2012, has shown himself to be a natural in UK's quick-tempo attack. The Lexington, Ky., native had a reputation as a cerebral player over his first two seasons, but reports the speed of the new offense helps him because he has less time to think, paradoxical as it may sound.
"I like to play fast," Miller said. "I think best when I don't have a lot of time, if that makes sense. Sometimes when you have more time to think about stuff, you start second-guessing yourself and you start to get confused, things start blurring together. When you actually know the offense, things sort of pop up and I guess that's what you're supposed to do."
Having established himself as a solid performer this spring, Miller is being asked by his coaches to step up in other areas. When something needed in either of the past two years, Matt Smith and Larry Warford would be the ones saying it. With those two having exhausted their eligibility - though they are still fixtures at practice as they pursue professional careers - the staff wants Miller to help fill the void.
"They've told me several times that they wanted me to step up and be more of a vocal leader," Miller said. "I'm not really all that big on yelling and screaming; I usually try to lead by example. But that's something different that I'm trying to get used to."
Miller is a logical candidate to move into a leadership role because of his experience, something many of his fellow linemen lack.
At right tackle, Jordan Swindle has gotten the majority of first team reps. The true sophomore played in 11 games, but only as a reserve or on special teams. Junior Teven Eatmon-Nared and senior Kevin Mitchell have worked at the two guard spots, but only Mitchell has starting experience and that was at right tackle. At center, redshirt freshman Zach Myers is ahead of the pack.
Left out of that group, but not because he is not a potential starter, is Zach West. The redshirt sophomore started all 12 games last season next to Miller at left guard, but had offseason shoulder surgery. Because of his recovery, West missed the first two weeks of spring and is still working his way back into the mix.
"Zach's coming along," Schlarman said. "I'm proud of him. Just coming off of surgery and getting out here in spring ball and getting some work. There's a lot of guys that could have just kind of gone through non-contact in the spring and probably nobody would have said anything. But Zach's not that type of guy."
Adding West to the conversation at guard and potentially even center, Schlarman sees his group of contenders.
"Right now I would have to say we've got a starting six," Schlarman said. "We've gotta figure out how that six turns into five."
Those six linemen still have the Blue/White Spring Game to make their cases, but final decisions on starters aren't likely to be made before the fall. However, work in the summer could be what lays the foundation the five linemen that start on Aug. 13 vs. Western Kentucky.
"We're nowhere near the shape we need to be in to run this offense for four quarters right now," Schlarman said. "So the summer program is very important for us up front.
"Now they have a little taste of what this is all about. I think they'll really understand the importance of getting into good shape."
Not only do the linemen have a taste for what will be demanded of them next season, but they also have a pretty clear idea of what they could do to opposing defensive lines in the new offense, even if they might be a bit trimmer than a season ago.
"Watching our defensive linemen, I know it's going to take a toll," Miller said. "It's not something that's easy to keep up with. It hurts. It hurts to say the least."
You better throw all your Kentucky gear in the laundry right now, because you're going to need every clean piece of blue clothing you can find.
This weekend, the UK campus will be buzzing with activity, highlighted by the Blue/White Spring Game at 7 p.m. ET on Saturday. But that's far from the only opportunity fans will have to cheer on the Wildcats this weekend. With upwards of 10 events on Friday, Saturday and Sunday across five different sports, it's going to be a Big Blue Weekend.
Let's take a look at your options (all times Eastern):
There's a fair bit of overlap here, but you can make it to doubles play and at least the start of singles at the tennis match before making a short trek north or south to baseball or softball.
Saturday, April 13 (Forecast: Sunny with a high of 57 degrees, zero percent chance of rain) 11:30 a.m. - UK Softball Complex grand opening 1 p.m. - Softball vs. No. 3 Florida (UK Softball Complex) 2 p.m. - Baseball vs. Tennessee (Cliff Hagan Stadium) 4 p.m. - Wildcat Refuge opens (Gate 9 of Commonwealth Stadium) 5 p.m. - Men's soccer spring game vs. Lipscomb (UK Soccer Complex) 5 p.m. - Alumni Association tailgate (Commonwealth Stadium Red Lot, near Gate 4) 5:15 p.m. - Cat Walk (Gate 1 of Commonwealth Stadium) 7 p.m. - Blue/White Spring Game (Commonwealth Stadium)
Does that give you enough to do on a Saturday?
No matter what, start your day at the grand opening of the UK Softball Complex at 11:30 a.m. Refreshments will be available and Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart and head coach Rachel Lawson will speak at the ceremony. From there, you can either stick around for the softball game, head to baseball or some combination of the two.
The baseball game still figures to be going on when pre-spring game festivities begin, but you should have plenty of time to tailgate and maybe even make it to the Cat Walk if you stick around for the end of the game at Cliff Hagan. Gates open at Commonwealth at 6 p.m.
All parking for the spring game is free. A portion of the Green Lot will be reserved, but the remainder is available on a first-come, first-served basis. In addition, a shuttle will be available for those wishing to park at Commonwealth and receive transportation to Keeneland and back to the stadium. For complete information on the spring game, visit our Gameday Central page.