UK Athletics hosted the 2015 CATSPY Awards on Monday night in Memorial Coliseum. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
When the Kentucky men's basketball team brought home the Southeastern Conference Tournament championship in March, UK Athletics completed the goals set forth in the 15 by 15 by 15 Plan.
Mitch Barnhart didn't wait long to issue the next challenge to the department he leads.
Delivering his speech at the CATSPY Awards - UK's annual celebratory awards show - Barnhart described the successor to 15 by 15 by 15, which called on UK Athletics to win 15 conference or national championships, finish in the top 15 of Directors' Cup standings and achieve a cumulative student-athlete grade-point average of 3.0 by 2015.
It's called 1-3-5.
The goals are as simple as they are lofty.
1 - By the year 2022, Barnhart wants all of UK's 22 teams to win a conference or national championship.
3 - He's calling for a department-wide grade-point average of 3.0 for UK student-athletes each and every semester.
5 - Finally, he's asking UK Athletics to pursue a top-five Directors' Cup finish in the next seven seasons.
"This won't be easy," Barnhart said. "I know that. But 15 by 15 by 15 seemed just as ambitious seven years ago. We didn't let that stop us from pursuing greatness. We went after it anyway. Now, I challenge you to do the same with 1-3-5 because I know we can do it. I know we can become elite."
The word "elite" was a common thread throughout Barnhart's remarks.
The 13th-year athletics director reflected on the start of his UK tenure at the CATSPYs, commenting on the fan support and tradition that drew him to the job in the first place. UK, he said, was a good athletics department that embraced the task of becoming great.
Now it's about taking the next step.
"We're here to take on the challenge to go from great to elite," Barnhart said. "To me, being elite means we are in the conversation for the best athletics department in the country. Individually, it means each of us pursues being the best of ourselves."
Barnhart, an avid climber, likened UK's journey to elite status to scaling a mountain. "I've thought about this over the last month and I keep coming back to one of my greatest passions: mountain climbing," Barnhart said. "Becoming what we are today has been quite a climb already. It's brought us to within a few thousand feet of the summit, but those final few thousand feet of the climb are the toughest."
To make the final leg of the climb and reach the summit, Barnhart said everyone involved with UK Athletics will have to go to the next level, starting with the student-athletes.
"Are you committed to working, to becoming the best version of yourself?" Barnhart said. "You were brought here because you possess unique gifts. It's on you to develop them."
"Are you willing to embrace the expectations that come with being at Kentucky? The resources that go into supporting you, the facilities you play in and the fans that cheer you on demand excellence. It's on you to make it happen.
"Are you able to put yourself out there? You will never reach the heights you're capable of if you're not willing to make yourself uncomfortable. You're going to have to risk failure to succeed the way I know you can."
Barnhart, ever committed to the growth of UK student-athletes as people, was sure to point out the answers to those questions will determine more than just the department's success over the next five years.
"This is the start of your climb in life and this is the start of our climb to becoming elite," Barnhart said.
(1) Golden State Warriors def. (8) New Orleans Pelicans (Anthony Davis), 4-0
Despite 31.5 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks per game in Davis' postseason debut, the Pelicans were swept by the top-seeded Warriors. New Orleans stayed competitive in each contest, including in holding a 20-point fourth quarter lead that led to an overtime loss at home in Game 3. Golden State will face either the Memphis Grizzlies or the Portland Trail Blazers in the second round.
After playing just 10 minutes in Dallas' Game 2 loss in Houston, Rondo has been ruled out for the remainder of the postseason with a back injury. Meanwhile, Jones continues to thrive in the Rockets' starting lineup despite having played in only 33 games during an injury-riddled regular season. The 23-year-old has averaged 12.3 points and 6.8 rebounds over the series' first four games. Houston claimed the first three matchups by an eight-point average margin of victory, but failed to complete the series sweep Sunday night in Dallas. Game 5 will take place in Houston on Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET on TNT.
(5) Washington Wizards (John Wall) def. (4) Toronto Raptors (Patrick Patterson), 4-0
In a battle of former collegiate teammates, Wall's Wizards defeated Patterson's higher seeded Raptors 4-0 in Washington's first series sweep in franchise history. Wall led the way with an average of 17.3 points and 12.5 assists over the four-game stretch. Poor field-goal shooting notwithstanding, Wall made his living at the free-throw line with a 24-for-28 (.857) performance. Patterson shined for Toronto, posting a 10.3 scoring average (3.0 points higher than in the regular season) and a 7-for-15 (.467) three-point field goal total. Chuck Hayes, who is also on the Raptors roster, logged zero playoff minutes. The Wizards will face the winner of the Atlanta Hawks and Brooklyn Nets in the second round.
(3) Chicago Bulls (Nazr Mohammed) vs. (6) Milwaukee Bucks, CHI 3-1
Like Hayes and James Young (whose Boston Celtics were swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the playoffs' opening round), the 17-year veteran Mohammed has not seen the floor this postseason. Game 5 in Chicago is scheduled for 8:00 p.m. on TNT.
Kelsey Nunley pitched nine shutout innings in UK's 1-0 win over WKU on Wednesday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Kelsey Nunley had waited for three weeks to break the record, so a couple extra innings were no issue.
On April 1, Nunley tied Chanda Bell atop the all-time wins list in Kentucky softball history. She made seven starts and appeared three more times looking for win No. 69, but it never came.
Wednesday it finally did.
"Kelsey and I haven't really talked about it, but I'm sure it's probably a big monkey off her back," UK head coach Rachel Lawson said.
Nunley didn't have the luxury of pitching like she had anything but her jersey on her back against Western Kentucky. With Miranda Kramer in the circle for the Hilltoppers, the slightest lapse in focus would have meant a loss in a 1-0 pitchers' duel that lasted nine innings.
"Wow, it was something else," Nunley said. "I just had to believe in my team and believe in myself that we were just going to come out with a win and just go out there and stay strong."
The way Kramer was dealing, it took a lot to keep the faith. The Western Kentucky University ace mowed through the UK lineup, piling up strikeouts and mounting a no-hit bid that lasted until Brooklyn Hinz's infield single in the eighth inning.
"I think that Kramer's an exceptional pitcher," Lawson said. "I think she's one of the best in the country. I'd be hard-pressed to find anyone better."
The No. 17 Cats (29-17), however, wouldn't stop swinging even as they struck out 18 times, the most in school history. In the ninth inning, they finally got Nunley her record-breaking win in walk-off fashion. Christian Stokes singled with one out and moved to second on Griffin Joiner's groundout. Maisie Steed then delivered an infield single and Stokes was able to score when Kramer's toss sailed over the head of her first baseman.
Twenty-four hours removed from a run-rule loss to Louisville that left Lawson evaluating her team's toughness, the performance was encouraging.
"We had a really embarrassing loss last night so Coach got us back together and just told us that we gotta go out and play tough and it's not going to get any easier from here on out," Nunley said. "So if we don't get ourselves together and start playing better we're not going to be able to do as good as we want to do."
The Cats responded immediately.
"We talked about taking each at-bat one at a time because we thought that we wouldn't be able to get on her until the third time through the order and they stuck with the game plan and they did it," Lawson said. "And I think anytime a team can stick with the game plan they set out to do at the beginning the game really says a lot about their toughness."
When it comes to toughness, it starts with UK's all-time winningest pitcher, who threw nine scoreless innings and allowed just six hits and struck out nine.
"I don't think you're going to find anybody tougher than Kelsey," Lawson said, "I don't think you're going to find anybody who can command the zone better than she does and I don't think you're going find anybody in the country who's more battle-tested than she is. She's been doing this for us for the last three years."
Kyle Cody pitched four scoreless innings to earn the win Tuesday vs. Xavier (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Coming into Tuesday's game vs. Xavier, Kyle Cody's confidence was shaken.
The junior righthander was 2-4 and had a 6.37 ERA in nine appearances to start the season. He had been pulled from his normal Sunday spot in the rotation and had the last nine days off.
In those nine days, something changed. Cody came out and allowed just two baserunners in four scoreless innings to propel UK to a 6-1 win on Tuesday.
He struck out three and earned his first win since March 8. Xavier brought more than three batters to the plate just once, when four batted in the fourth.
It was just the outing that Cody needed.
"It was a big confidence booster for me," Cody said. "To go out there and put up some zeros, I haven't been able to do that the past month or so, but I'm trying to get back on the right track. Tonight was a start to that."
Preparing for Tuesday's start, Cody needed to fine tune some things and get back to the basics. He hadn't lost anything, he just needed to find that edge again. While Cody's confidence the past few weeks had taken a hit, he still knew he had what it took to win.
Heading into Tuesday's start, his coach did too.
"Kyle's done that before," UK head coach Gary Henderson said after Tuesday's win. "He just had a little bit of a hiccup for a couple of outings, but he'll be right back doing what he needs to do."
It helped Cody to know that not only did Henderson know what he could do, but his teammates did as well.
As he prepared for Tuesday's start, and Cody and Henderson talked, he got that boost from his coach.
"He told me to do what I'm capable of," Cody said. "He knows what I'm capable of. I feel like everyone knows. Everyone is behind me. Just trying to get back on the right track and tonight was a good start to that."
Today was definitely a good start.
With his teammates and coach behind him, Cody was able to focus on his approach to Tuesday's start. Henderson wanted him to find a rhythm, throw at the bottom of the strike zone and to keep it simple.
Cody got into trouble early when Xavier's leadoff hitter singled to open the game, but he quickly induced a 4-6-3 double play to stop any scoring opportunity. A groundout ended the inning
He followed with a 1-2-3 inning in the second, with one strikeout and a nifty defensive play from right fielder Storm Wilson to cut down Xavier's Derek Hasenbeck at first.
In the third, Cody again retired the side, with a pair of pop-outs and a groundout.
Nine up, nine down through the first three innings. In the fourth, which was decided before the game to be Cody's last, he walked the leadoff hitter. Two strikeouts and a fly out later though, Cody escaped unscathed and primed for his third win of the season.
Tuesday was all about getting that rhythm back and keeping it simple.
"Get the ball down, first of all," Cody said of the adjustments he made. "Obviously the numbers were not what I'm capable of, I just have to go out there and prove it to my teammates that I can get outings like this. "It's all mindset issues, confidence issues. Having an outing like this is big for me to get my confidence up. Just moving on to my next outing, I'll be even better."
"He did a nice job of throwing strikes," Henderson added. "The fact that he found his rhythm after the first six pitches of the fourth inning, when it could have gone the other way and it didn't, he found it and he got back to the strike zone and got the two punch-outs. I'm really pleased with that effort."
Cody will be the first one to tell you Tuesday was just a step in the right direction and he has a lot of work to do still.
However, four innings with three strikeouts, no runs, one hit and one walk is definitely the game that Cody wanted.
Up next for the junior righty?
"Just pitch when my name is called," Cody said. "That's where I go."
Keep on pitching like he did on Tuesday night and his name will be called sooner rather than later.
(1) Golden State Warriors vs. (8) New Orleans Pelicans (Anthony Davis), GS 1-0
After falling behind 25 points late in the third quarter, Davis spurred a Pelicans comeback effort that ultimately came up seven points shy in his NBA Playoff debut. The former No. 1 overall selection tallied 35 points, seven rebounds, and four blocks in the 106-99 Warriors victory. Game 2 will take place Monday night at 10:30 p.m. ET in Oakland, Calif. on TNT.
Jones, who has reached the playoffs in each of his first three seasons in the NBA, emerged big in a Game 1 starting effort for the victorious Rockets. The 6-foot-9 power forward notched 19 points, nine rebounds, and six assists in the 118-108 Houston win. Rondo logged 15 points and five assists for Dallas. Game 2 is scheduled in Houston for Tuesday at 9:30 p.m. on TNT.
(2) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (7) Boston Celtics (James Young), CLE 1-0
Young, a 19-year-old rookie, failed to see the floor in Boston's 113-100 Game 1 loss to the Cavaliers. The Celtics will get a second shot at Cleveland Tuesday at 7 p.m. on TNT. (3) Chicago Bulls (Nazr Mohammed) vs. (6) Milwaukee Bucks, CHI 1-0
Mohammed, a 37-year-old veteran playing in his 17th NBA season, also spent Game 1 of his team's best-of-seven series on the bench. The Bulls defeated the Bucks 103-91, and will play Game 2 Monday at 8:00 p.m. on TNT.
(4) Toronto Raptors (Chuck Hayes, Patrick Patterson) vs. (5) Washington Wizards (John Wall), WSH 1-0
In a postseason series featuring former 2009-10 teammates and First Team All-SEC performers Wall and Patterson, the road team edged out the home favorites 93-86 in Canada. Despite nightmarish 5-for-18 field goal shooting, Wall scored 10 points, with eight assists and six rebounds. Patterson matched Wall's 10 points in addition to five rebounds, while Hayes logged no minutes on the court. Game 2 will commence Tuesday at 8:00 p.m. in Toronto on NBA TV.
Ka'ai Tom had a three hits, a homerun and three RBI as UK completed a sweep of Tennessee on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Ka'ai Tom knew he would have to deliver for the Wildcats to have the kind of season they wanted to have.
He did on Saturday.
"Obviously he was impactful today," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "Clearly."
With Tom anchoring the lineup in the No. 3 spot, Kentucky baseball completed a sweep of rival Tennessee for the first time in Cliff Hagan Stadium history. The Cats won 5-3, due in large part to Tom's big afternoon. The junior right fielder had three hits in four at-bats, driving in three runs.
"It does help us get back on track in the conference," Tom said. "We lost a lot of close games and it's good to finally pull one off."
Tom got the scoring started for UK (22-16, 8-9 Southeastern Conference) in the bottom of the first inning. With one out, he followed up an Evan White double with one of his own to stake the Cats to a 1-0 lead. Two innings later, Tom was in the middle of a rally to retake the lead in the third inning, but he would save his biggest blow for later.
The game seemed destined for a tight finish before Tom stepped to the plate in the fifth inning with Kyle Barrett standing on third base. Needing a fly ball to send Barrett home with one out, Tom came up with just that. His fly ball, however, landed well into the parking lot past the right-field fence for his third homerun of the season.
"That was probably most clean I've ever caught the ball," Tom said.
For the season, Tom is batting a team-best .377 with 42 runs batted in, though he fell short of his second cycle of the season when he flew out to center in the seventh inning. The Kaneohe, Hawaii, native has had an uneven run through conference play, hitting just .257 entering Saturday's season finale against the Volunteers. That makes his performance all the more encouraging as UK enters the final month of the regular season.
"He's a real presence in the box," Henderson said. "He's a threat. He's an all-league kid and everybody's aware that he's a really accomplished hitter. He's a guy that if he doesn't do well his first at-bat you can count on him to give you a solid at-bat in the box, a solid approach throughout the game."
JaVon Shelby would follow Tom's two-run shot with another long ball for UK's first back-to-back homers since 2012 and the Cats wouldn't look back. Wildcat pitchers turned in another solid outing, with Andrew Nelson, Zach Logue, Zach Strecker, Logan Salow and Spencer Jack combining to allow just three runs on nine hits.
The Vols' biggest threats came in the final two innings. Tennessee loaded the bases with one out against Logue and Strecker in the eighth, but Salow entered and retired Chris Hall and Christin Stewart in order to preserve the final margin. In the ninth, Salow allowed runners to reach second and third. Jack entered and allowed both Vols to score, but got the save nonetheless.
Over the course of the three-game sweep, UK yielded just four runs.
"I think we're way advanced in terms of clarity and plan from where we were six, seven weeks ago," Henderson said. "Much more confident. Obviously the body language was pretty good all weekend on the mound. Our presence was good. We did a nice job pounding the zone early in the count."
Thanks to the stellar pitching and Tom's big Saturday, the Cats climbed to within a game of .500 in SEC play. The season they were all hoping for is still within reach, especially since UK faces the three teams it trails in SEC East standings over the next four weeks.
"We're fortunate in who we've got left because we've got the people in front of us," Henderson said. "So you get those people and then you can make up some room. It won't be easy. I'm not pretending like it's easy. But we're pretty fortunate with who we've got in front of us and if we continue to get that type of starting pitching we'll be in the ballgames."
Even more importantly than that, the Cats are trending the right way in the way they are playing the game.
"We're really taking some really positive steps forward where we have some real presence and some real body language that we didn't have six, eight weeks ago," Henderson said. "... I think it's been really, really a positive thing."
After shutting out the Tennessee Volunteers 5-0 in the first of a three-game series Thursday night at Cliff Hagan Stadium, the Kentucky Wildcats hoped to lean once again on a dominant defensive performance when the two teams squared off on Friday.
Anchored by junior right-handed pitcher Dustin Beggs, UK did just that.
"(Beggs) is awesome to play behind, and throws a lot of strikes," freshman first baseman Evan White said. "He gets a lot of ground balls. He's definitely fun because he works fast."
In throwing 109 pitches through eight innings, Beggs struck out eight UT batters and walked only two. The Roswell, Ga., native allowed just five hits, and Kentucky won the game 3-1.
"I was able to get it over (the plate) for strikes, which is helpful," said Beggs. "(Junior catcher Zach Arnold) did a good job back there catching it, framing it, and putting it in a good spot."
Kentucky held Tennessee scoreless for most of the contest, but gave up a lone run in the game's final inning. Freshman lefty Zach Logue relieved Beggs in the ninth, and went on to retire the final two Volunteer batters.
"I was a little disappointed at the end," Beggs (5-2) said. "I wanted to get it done and finish the game. I haven't had a complete game since I've been here. But, I'm glad Logue got to come in. He did a really great job shutting the door on them."
However, head coach Gary Henderson was anything but dissatisfied with Beggs' performance.
"Dustin Beggs keeps getting better and better," said Henderson. "We're really pleased about that."
Henderson went on to praise his pitcher for practicing a sentiment the head coach continuously preaches.
"We talk about (first-pitch strikes) pretty frequently here," Henderson said. "Dustin did a really good job of that tonight. If you can do that, it doesn't guarantee an in or an out, but it certainly puts you in a little bit better position."
Beggs echoed his team's emphasis on first-pitch strikes, and revealed just how much his coach's message resonates with him when he's on the mound.
"First-pitch strikes are a huge thing (Coach Henderson) preaches to all of our guys," said Beggs. "Just make sure you get ahead in the count ... So, I was really trying to get ahead."
Kentucky (21-16, 7-9 SEC) will look to complete the series sweep of rival Tennessee (15-19, 5-12 SEC) Saturday at noon on SEC Network. Senior right-handed pitcher Andrew Nelson will make his second start for the Wildcats this season.
The Kentucky football team closed out the spring with another solid practice, ending a stretch that Stoops called the "most consistent" of any time during his two-plus seasons in Lexington.
"We weren't perfect for all 15 (practices), but the guys were really out there trying to make a conscious effort to improve on the things we point out in the meetings," Stoops said. "We had great energy. Guys were really flying around this morning, having fun, competing, getting better the whole way through. Really pleased with the progress we've made."
Stoops is high on the improving depth of his roster, as well as the young talent he and his staff have brought in. That depth and talent has led Stoops to feel much different about his program than this time two years ago wrapping up spring practice, but there's another important factor in his optimism.
"I think it's hard to put into words exactly," Stoops said. "I just think it starts mentally. They understand what we want from them. They enjoy practice all the way through. Like I said, the 15th day -- all the way through they were enjoying themselves, concentrating on getting better. I think mentally we're much stronger. Definitely feel like we're developing them to be a winning football team."
A winning football team, of course, will reflect the culture Stoops has sought to build since he arrived on campus. That's a work in progress, but Stoops once again likes the Wildcats' direction.
"I feel very good about this team," Stoops said. "Again, we know where we're deficient and where we need to improve, but I like the attitude and I feel like we have good young talent that's still developing that's going to get better with every opportunity."
Stoops mentioned quarterbacks Patrick Towles and Drew Barker as two of the players who have improved the most over the spring, with wide receivers Garrett Johnson and Blake Bone joining them on the offensive side. On defense, linebackers Josh Forrest and Ryan Flannigan have made strides, as has defensive tackle Melvin Lewis.
"He is a good nose guard," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "He's a guy that I am very proud of and feel very confident about at his position, and he's completely earned that. Nothing was given to him, and he didn't walk in here a good player. He's a guy that, like I said, he may be the most improved player on our team from when he came in to where he's at now."
With the growth of players like Forrest, Flannigan and Lewis, Stoops and Eliot are feeling good about UK's defense up the middle. A key to building on UK's three-win improvement from 2013 to 2014 will be development at the cornerback spot.
"For that position, you have to be extremely skilled, but you have to be confident, too, because you're gonna get beat because it's so hard to play that position," Eliot said. "It's so hard to play that position. And you have to have the confidence to come back and be aggressive and execute your techniques the next play. I think that that's something that we've got to continue to build on are those things at corner."
That's one of many things Kentucky will need to do moving into the summer and eventually fall camp. This spring positions the Cats well.
"We need to keep that momentum, keep that consistency going here with the last two-and-a-half, three weeks of school and have a great summer -- physically and mentally getting tougher, getting stronger, getting bigger," Stoops said. "And if we do that, then we'll be excited heading into fall."
As the 2014-15 NBA regular season comes to a close, the yearlong journeys of Kentucky's 18 former players are concluding in various fashions.
Some former Cats, like John Wall and Rajon Rondo, are using the season's final week to prepare for the NBA Playoffs, which start April 18. Some, like DeMarcus Cousins and Brandon Knight, have already hung up their sneakers and join injured rookie Julius Randle in looking ahead to 2015-16.
Others, such as Anthony Davis and Enes Kanter, are fighting for their postseason lives and must play each remaining game like it's their last. Davis' New Orleans Pelicans and Kanter's Oklahoma City Thunder head into the week tied for eighth place and the final playoff spot in the NBA's Western Conference.
Performance of the Week Anthony Davis | New Orleans Pelicans: 103, Golden State Warriors: 100 | April 7, 2015 In a contest that came down to the closing seconds, Davis propelled the Pelicans to a three-point victory over the owners of the NBA's best record. "The Brow" recorded a game-high 29 points, 10 rebounds, four blocks, two steals, and two assists in 40 minutes of play last Tuesday. If the Pelicans--who own a tiebreaker over the Thunder--secure the West's final playoff spot, they will face the top-seeded Warriors in the first round.
Eric Bledsoe | #2 PG | Phoenix Suns (39-41) Bledsoe averaged 14.0 points and 5.0 assists over three Suns games. Phoenix fell to the playoff-bound Atlanta Hawks on April 7 and Dallas Mavericks on April 8, and finished the week with a 90-75 loss to Davis' Pelicans on April 10.
Anthony Davis | #23 PF | New Orleans Pelicans (43-36) Davis followed up Tuesday's monster performance with 15.5 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks over his next two games. The Pelicans lost on the road to the Memphis Grizzlies by a score of 110-74 on April 8, but bounced back with Friday's blowout of the Suns in front of the home crowd at Smoothie King Center in Louisiana.
Enes Kanter | #34 C | Oklahoma City Thunder (43-36) As OKC competes with NOLA for a shot at the postseason, Kanter continues to be the anchor down low that the Thunder were missing to start the season. The Turkey native averaged 18.3 points and 9.3 rebounds over three games last week. On Friday, the Thunder ended a four-game losing streak with a 116-103 victory over the Sacramento Kings, thanks in part to 25 points and six rebounds from Kanter.
With Kentucky entering the home stretch of spring practice, Mark Stoops challenged his team.
The Wildcats would have four practices and Stoops knew they would need to have a good week to carry momentum into the summer.
"I felt like it was the most consistent week we've had in a while with all the things we're doing," Stoops said. "The practices, what we're doing off the field, just with the accountability and dependability of our guys, whether it be academically and taking care of their business. I felt like we had a good week."
The good week culminated with a scrimmage on Saturday open to the public. In front of a big crowd at the Tim Couch Practice Fields and with perfect weather, UK had a competitive session of a little more than 90 minutes.
"The scrimmage today, overall was pleased," Stoops said. "Obviously it's not always pretty. We're a little watered down. I wish we could get it more at full strength at certain positions, but you still see the progress. I thought offensively they moved the ball some, and defensively came up with some stops and big plays at times."
The big plays weren't limited to the defensive side of the ball.
Whether Patrick Towles or Drew Barker was leading the offense, it was clear the vertical passing game is a priority under new offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson. Towles hit a pair of deep balls, one to Blake Bone for 47 yards another to Thaddeus Snodgrass for 50 yards.
"You gotta be able to throw the ball vertical," Towles said. "You gotta be able to stretch them when they're stacking the box in this league and there was times last year we just couldn't do that. We either didn't have the personnel or didn't make a good throw, but that's definitely an emphasis of Coach Dawson's offense."
Towles added a pair of touchdown passes -- a 23-yarder to Cameron Fogle and a 15-yard strike to Rashad Cunningham -- in demonstrating the kind of improvement Stoops is looking for out of his 2014 starter.
"It's confidence-building for me to go out there and play like I did today," Towles said. "I gotta be consistent with that."
Barker, Towles' competition for the starting job, is going through a similar process. The redshirt freshman made plenty of big plays of his own, most notably a 42-yard touchdown to Thaddeus Snodgrass on a play-action pass and a perfect throw over the middle to C.J. Conrad that Towles called the best of the day for either quarterback.
"One of us is going to go out there and play and other one's going to root for that one," Towles said. "So if it's Drew, then I'm going to be his number one fan. If it's me, I'm sure Drew would say the same thing. I love seeing him succeed and I love seeing him play well. It motivates me and increases my confidence."
Conrad's presence is helping the confidence of both quarterbacks. The tight end, who graduated high school early and enrolled in January, is adding a new dimension to the UK attack.
"You guys saw it today, have heard people talk about it this spring that he's a guy that the sky's the limit for him," Stoops said. "He's a great kid; he works extremely hard. He does everything right on the field, off the field and he's a great student. He made some big plays today and he's going to be a guy who plays an awful lot of snaps for us."
UK was without a few more passing-game threats who figure to play plenty of snaps themselves. Wide receivers Ryan Timmons, Dorian Baker and Alex Montgomery sat out due to injury, but the offense continued to function.
"The guys that are in there are making a lot of plays and I'm fully confident with the guys we got that are playing right now," Towles said. "It's going to help them add some depth when those guys are coming."
Along the offensive line, UK is at full strength. The group protected well and paved the way for dynamic running back Stanley "Boom" Williams, who got plenty of work with Jojo Kemp and Mikel Horton sidelined due to illness and an ankle sprain, respectively.
"They're more confident up there," Towles said. "I'm more confident in them. (Center) Jon (Toth) is doing a phenomenal job of getting everything blocked up. Usually if there's a sack out there it's on us because we're not getting rid of the ball or doing something. So they're playing phenomenal. I cannot ask for anything from those guys and I look forward to them to continue to improve."
UK's defense had its moments as well, including a pair of interceptions by Josh Forrest. The athletic linebacker continues to excel in pass coverage, but Stoops is asking for him to develop against the run.
"We're still not quite as deep as we need to be where you could go scrimmage so many times, but you do see some bad plays stick out in the run game when we go live," Stoops said. "He had a few missed tackles in there. So that's where he knows he needs to improve, but he has great range and he's very good in space and can make some big plays in the pass game. We've just got to be more consistent. That's a lot of guys."
Consistency continues to be a buzzword with Stoops, but it doesn't cloud the fact that he has an improving team in his third season in Lexington.
"I still like the direction where we're headed," Stoops said. "I like the balance of our offense. I felt like we're getting better at throwing the ball down the field. We need to continue to get back at full strength at the receiver position. When that happens I think you'll see us take another big step forward with what we're doing.
"Again, just pleased. We have a long way to go, we have a lot of work to do, but this team is starting to grow a little bit." Stoops' post-scrimmage interview