Former Wildcat Chad Scott returned to Lexington this offseason to serve as running backs coach on Mark Stoops' UK staff. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Within a day or two each of practice this spring, offensive coordinator Neal Brown takes to Twitter. After reviewing film, Brown tells his 13,000-plus followers which of his players performed well.
His reasons for the exercise in transparency are twofold. First, he wants to keep fans up to date since Kentucky's first five practices have been closed to the public. Second, it's for the players. He wants those who are performing well to receive recognition and those who are not to strive for it.
Thus far, he's named between four and eight players each day and will almost certainly do the same at some point on Tuesday. When he does, you can rest assured that at least a one of two of UK's running backs will be on the list.
Whereas other positions on the offensive side of the ball lack experience and depth, the UK backfield is flush with both. Because of that, the backs are shouldering more than their fair share of the load as Brown looks to revitalize the Wildcat attack.
Led by their new coach, the UK running backs don't mind.
"I like it," running backs coach Chad Scott said. "Give us pressure. We like it. We'll respond, I promise you."
That doesn't mean Scott's unit isn't a work in progress though.
Just as it has for every other positional group, the installation of Brown's offense has presented challenges. The responsibilities and priorities in UK's quick-strike attack are radically different than anything the running backs have ever dealt with before, which has caused plenty of fits and starts, even for the veterans.
"Really the experience, it's gonna come in handy in the latter part of spring ball and going into the season, but now the offense is totally different," Scott said. "Even these guys that are experienced, it's an adjustment period for them."
Raymond Sanders and Jonathan George combined for nearly 1,100 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground last season. With all the football they've played at the Southeastern Conference level and their pass-catching ability, the two seniors were expected to stand out early. That's proven to be the case a third of the way through spring practice, particularly for Sanders.
"Raymond Sanders has looked the best so far," Brown said. "He's changed his body. Really pleased with how he's handled himself. He's matured, and he's done well not only rushing the football, but in the passing game. He's well ahead of the rest of them in blitz protection."
In spite of his 5-foot-8 frame and the fact that he is listed as at least 13 pounds lighter than any of his fellow backs, Sanders has emerged as the most consistent blocker of the bunch, a key role in Brown's pass-happy scheme. In fact, that might be the biggest area of adjustment. UK's backs are responsible for making protection calls at the line of scrimmage, which requires smarts and, just as importantly, a willingness to speak up.
"We make the protection calls, which is something totally different," Scott said. "Now we're asking them to be communicating more and communicate loudly and it's something that's totally different them."
Different as it may be, Sanders is doing his best.
"I make mistakes just like everyone else, but I try to limit my mistakes and make sure I have everyone else going as far as running backs," Sanders said. "I just try to pick guys up and execute and make sure I'm doing the right things on the field."
Outside of blocking ability, Scott says the most important attributes of a running back in this system are "lateral agility and quickness" - words the former UK running back used more than once in speaking to the media on Monday. Sanders certainly fits the bill.
"I think he has it all," Scott said. "I think he's really the total package. I think he's done a great job taking care of his body to put himself in position to be as good as we need him to be."
"I definitely feel like this offense is a great fit for me," Sanders said. "Catching out of the backfield, speed sweeps, there's a lot of different things that coaches are integrating that can get me in space and get me in alleys where I can hit the seam or make some moves on guys."
As good as Sanders has looked early, his emergence shouldn't discourage any of the other running backs. George, sophomores Josh Clemons (who has returned to practice after redshirting last season with a meniscus injury) and Dyshawn Mobley and redshirt freshman Justin Taylor are all getting roughly an equal share of practice reps.
Brown's offense may have a reputation for throwing the ball, but anyone who minimizes the supposed impact a running back can have hasn't watched closely enough.
"You might think, 'Hey, how do they fit within our offense?' " Scott said. "It's a spread offense, but it's a downhill run game. We still, in all our run game, we try to find a way to get our shoulders squared and run downhill."
Take last season at Texas Tech for example. Three Red Raiders rushed for at least 450 yards, led by Kenny Williams, who received All-Big 12 Honorable Mention honors after racking up 824 yards.
Williams' strong 2012 also serves to dispel another notion about UK's new offense: that big backs have no place in it. Williams is listed at 5-foot-9, 219 pounds, which suggests that heftier Wildcat backs George, Clemons, Mobley and Taylor can excel, provided they can move.
"That's something that even the bigger guys, when we first came in, the bigger guys kind of struggled with, kind of muttering under their breath, 'Man, we're not going to fit. They're looking for a smaller guy,' " Scott said. "We're not. We're looking for guys that have got great lateral agility and quickness."
Scott believes all of his backs have that kind of ability, even though it might not come as naturally as it does for a player like Sanders. He says the key for them will be spending time away from practice honing their craft. And in turn, that will be the key to the unit as a whole fulfilling expectations.
"We like the pressure," Scott said. "It is pressure, but it's a good problem to have. It's a good kind of pressure. Just respond to it. Prepare yourself well and respond to the opportunity when it comes."
Matthew Mitchell talks at Monday's practice as UK prepares for its second-round matchup with Dayton in the NCAA Tournament. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
When Kentucky and Dayton square off in the second-round of the NCAA Tournament on Monday night, it won't be the first time that they've gone toe-to-toe in the last calendar year. But it has been since October that these two teams scrimmaged, so it might take awhile for them to recognize one another.
As most teams do in the preseason, Kentucky held a closed scrimmage with the Dayton Flyers as they have over the last few seasons. Due to the proximity of the schools and the relationship between UK head coach Matthew Mitchell and UD coach Jim Jabir, the teams have developed a friendly rivalry that takes place before the real games get underway.
"We don't play each other in the regular season and we're in different leagues, so we can really be open with each other in the process of playing and it's been really good work for us," Mitchell said at Monday's press conference. "Jim's been really good about setting up situations and going through different things. They're very competitive and we're very competitive, so I think for both teams it's been a good development for us."
As fate would have it, both teams were shipped from the Midwest to the East Coast with the opportunity to reconvene in Queens, N.Y., for the NCAA Tournament.
Kentucky seemed to be in for a bit of a scare after one half of play had the Cats trailing by a point to 15th-seeded Navy. A reinvigorated Wildcat squad led by a collective defensive clinic helped UK hold Navy to 15 points in the second half to carry Kentucky to a 20-point first-round victory, its largest margin of victory in an NCAA Tournament game.
Dayton, a No. 7 seed, was in for quite a battle as well, facing host and No. 10 seed St. John's. It was a back and forth affair as Dayton seemed to have control, but with the crowd at its back, the Red Storm forced overtime. Dayton would ultimately prevail after an additional overtime period to pull off the 96-90 double-overtime victory.
Mitchell doesn't believe that the extra wear and tear on Dayton should be an issue for the Flyers after getting a day of rest on Monday. However, he does feel that much like his team showed in the second half against Navy, Kentucky needs to come out with great energy and intensity to get the win Tuesday night.
"I don't know that yesterday's game will have anything to do with that," said Mitchell. "I think that we need to really be tenacious on defense because they're such a good team. We played early (Sunday) and I think they'll have plenty of time to recover. People have a funny way of getting ready to play this time of year so I don't think that the double overtime is going to impact it and I think we need to focus us."
Just like Mitchell doesn't expect Sunday's Dayton game to affect Tuesday's outcome, senior guard and Southeastern Conference Player of the Year A'dia Mathies knows her performance from Sunday won't affect her attitude heading into the second round.
Mathies, for the first time in her collegiate career - and maybe for the first time in her life - played a game without making a field goal. Though she did not make much of an impact offensively, she was still a factor defensively in UK's 20-point route of the Midshipmen.
"She made some great defensive plays yesterday," said Mitchell. "We went back and watched the film and she made a few defensive plays that I don't think anybody could have made. I think she did some good things there. She got some loose balls. Shots didn't fall for her, but she'll play better tomorrow."
Mathies has similar expectations, though she's more than willing to do whatever it takes for her team to win.
"I feel like that's how I am with any game," said Mathies. "It might not show up in the stat sheet with getting 12 steals or 15 boards, but I feel like if you play aggressive and do the little things, that should help and that's what I'm going to focus on."
That's what Mitchell is looking for out of his team: to focus on Kentucky and not worry so much about its opponent. If the Wildcats continue to play their brand of basketball, the rest should take care of itself.
That's also why Mitchell doesn't put too much stock in his team's preseason meeting with the Flyers. While those around the program say that the scrimmage was close and competitive, the two teams on that day likely have completely different identities than way back in October.
"I think it would be a mistake for either team to take very much from the scrimmage. It was real, real early and we didn't have a lot of things in," said Mitchell. "It's a long, long time ago and I don't know how much you can put in that especially at that stage of the season."
At that point in the season, UK has yet to implement its offense or its press. That scrimmage is usually a way for Mitchell and his staff to gauge where they are defensively.
Fast forward from October late March, and the Cats have a pretty good grasp on just how tough they are defensively. They will look to use that as their major weapon against Dayton Tuesday night at 7 p.m. ET at Carnesecca Arena and any other opponents they may face along the way if they continue to advance in the NCAA Tournament.
"I think with any game we just want to keep the pressure on and wear them down," said Mathies. "Just knowing that they've got 10 extra minutes on their legs and that could potentially help us on the long run, I really think we need to put a focus on that and take them out of the comfort zone. I think we're the best team at doing that, so just playing aggressive and playing hard and I think that should help us in the end."
Jennifer O'Neill's big second half in her return home to New York sent Kentucky past Navy and into the second round of the NCAA Tournament. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Matthew Mitchell believed the two weeks between games was good for his team.
He was right and he was wrong, depending on what half of basketball you watched Sunday afternoon in Kentucky's NCAA Tournament first-round game with Navy.
The Wildcats looked rusty and a bit out of sorts after the layoff. Though Mitchell was encouraged by his team's effort and energy in practice over the past two weeks, no one was sure what to expect when the team finally got back on the floor. It didn't take long to find out how much the time off would affect the team.
Navy came out and gave UK its best shot from the tip and caught the Wildcats off guard. Kentucky was out of rhythm and struggled putting the ball in the basket for much of the first 20 minutes. Meanwhile, Navy was getting exactly what it wanted.
The Midshipmen were overmatched athletically, and they knew that coming in. They wanted to slow the game down, move the ball, exploit Kentucky's trapping on defense, and shoot a lot of 3s. In the first half, those were falling and the Wildcats were staggering.
Kentucky did not look like Kentucky. They were rusty.
"I thought we were really off-balanced and rushing around the rim," said Mitchell. "Where the rust might come through is we're a very rhythm-oriented team defensively and we were just a step or two late on some rotations. I thought we were giving some good effort in traps, but late on rotations."
Navy knocked down five 3-pointers in the first 10 minutes of the game and completely grabbed the momentum, eventually building a seven-point lead with 6:29 left to go in the first half. But Kentucky relied on its full-court pressure defensively to scrap back. Kentucky had a chance to head into the locker room with the lead, eventually grabbing a one-point advantage, but Navy's April Bernal hit a jumper with 36 seconds left to give the Midshipmen a 26-25 lead at intermission.
When the Wildcats came out for the second half, they came out a different team, or a more familiar one that Mitchell had been accustomed to seeing for 27 wins this season.
Navy head coach Stefanie Pemper and her players noted that UK played a brand of basketball that they had never seen before, when in reality, Kentucky was just getting back to its old ways.
The second half started out with a readjusted Jennifer O'Neill who decided to start imposing her will. After trying to let the game come to her for the first half, she began attacking and asserting herself on both ends of the floor.
O'Neill blitzed Navy with a personal seven-point run in the first minute and 13 seconds and before Navy could blink, a one-point advantage turned into a four-point deficit. While the offensive outburst was impressive, the key to it may have been a purely defensive spark.
"The run was sparked by Jennifer O'Neill's defensive intensity," said Mitchell. "She scored a bunch of points and assisted on some points, but I really thought it was her defensive intensity coming out of the break."
Kentucky's team defense turned up a notch as well in the second half.
The Cats forced Navy into 14 second-half turnovers including four steals by O'Neill in the half alone. Without her decision to come out and impact the game, the Wildcats may not have ever gotten on a roll.
"I do feel like I am changing the game because my teammates start going," said O'Neill. "Coming into the media timeout, Coach Mitchell ran out to me and he was telling me, 'Now we are playing like this because you are playing defense and you are being intense on defense.' "
O'Neill finished with a big day in her homecoming in New York, scoring 12 points with four assists to go along with five steals. While she set the tone defensively and was a necessary sparkplug for the Cats, DeNesha Stallworth was steady throughout in the post.
The UK center worked well in tandem with post mate Samarie Walker. Kentucky's size coupled with its athleticism made it hard for Navy to contain the Wildcats on the block.
Stallworth scored nine points in each half to finish with a game-high 18 points to earn a double-double in her first NCAA Tournament game as a Wildcat. With Kentucky struggling to get anything going offensively through the first 20 minutes of action, it was the work done in the post that helped weather the storm.
"I felt like we were just a little rusty," said Stallworth. "We haven't played in a couple of weeks. I think we played hard, tried to stay focused and not let that bring us down. That was the adversity that we did face. The team did a great job just keeping our heads up and knowing the game is 40 minutes."
Though the first-half performance was unsettling, at no point was there a sense of panic. Due to Kentucky's recent success and another great run in the Southeastern Conference this season, the Wildcats are going to get their opponent's best night in and night out. What Mitchell can always rely on his team's defensive pressure to get UK back on track when the offense isn't flowing.
"There was no panic in the first half because we were pretty clear on what we needed to do to get a different result," said Mitchell. "I knew that if we could get some sharpness to our defense, I felt like we could do what we did in the second half. There was no panic.
"I was just more so trying to get us to settle down offensively. Just really hurrying, poor shot selection from the standpoint of just in a hurry and not letting it come to us and getting better rhythm."
Once Kentucky imposed its will on the defensive end, that was it for Navy. The Midshipmen could never get back into an offensive rhythm themselves in the second half managing just 15 points in the final 20 minutes. UK held Navy to 23.8 percent (5 of 21) from the field in the second half and hit the boards hard to outrebound Navy 43-30.
After Navy hit five 3-pointers in the first 10 minutes of the game, the Mids were just barely able to match that point total in the entire second half as they managed just one 3-pointer for the rest of the contest (6 of 22).
Kentucky will try to continue to apply that pressure in the second round, which could be an even greater advantage on Monday. The Wildcats will face Dayton, who defeated St. John's 96-90 in double overtime. With that extra mileage and energy spent to advance, Kentucky will likely look to exploit the Flyers to take advantage of additional wear and tear from a hard-fought overtime battle.
The Wildcats will take on the Flyers at 7 p.m. ET Tuesdat night back at Carnesecca Arena broadcast on ESPN2 as Kentucky looks to continue its quest for a Final Four berth.
"I had a lot of family and friends here, but the game wasn't big because of them," said O'Neill. "The game was big because it's the NCAA Tournament and we have a goal of making it to New Orleans. That what made this game big."
Austin Cousino and Corey Littrell celebrate after UK's doubleheader sweep of Mississippi State on Saturday. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
If you had watched Austin Cousino swing the bat at all this week, you wouldn't have thought he would have much cause for confidence.
As he strode to the plate with the bases loaded the bottom of the ninth inning, Cousino had just one hit in his previous 16 at-bats. The potential game-winning run stood on third base with star Mississippi State closer Jonathan Holder looking to preserve a 3-3 tie in the series rubber match.
But if you have watched Cousino at all during his Kentucky career, you would have known he would step into the box with all the confidence in the world. That's just who he is.
"I just wiped away what happened early in the game," Cousino said. "I knew that if I could get up, I could get him in."
As has been the case more often than not over his two seasons as a Wildcat, Cousino's confidence was proven to be justified.
On a 1-0 count, Cousino laced a single down the first-base line to score Kyle Barrett - the true freshman who reached on a double to lead off the inning - and send No. 8 UK (18-5, 4-2 Southeastern Conference) to a 4-3 victory and a doubleheader sweep of the visiting and 14-ranked Bulldogs (21-5, 2-4 SEC).
"I think Austin's a really good player," head coach Gary Henderson said. "I think good players rise to the moment most of the time."
Cousino arrived on campus an assured player, but that's been reinforced by the group that surrounds him. He might be the best example of a Wildcat who never lacks for self-belief, but he's not the only one.
"You try to have that king of team, and sometimes it's easier said than done," Henderson said. "They certainly hear that a lot from me. It doesn't do you a lot of good to be disappointed for very long."
That was on display Saturday.
The Cats had lost each of their last two games before the doubleheader, including an 8-4 decision on the previous night. Friday's defeat also marked UK's fifth in its last six meetings with Mississippi State, which might have led another team to wonder whether the Bulldogs had its number. With Henderson leading the way, the Cats had no such thoughts on their way to a second series win in as many SEC weekends.
"We have that mojo, we have that feel to our club coming from last year and just bringing that culture to this year," Cousino said. "We fully expect to win every time out."
With starting pitchers like the ones UK trotted out on Saturday, that's a reasonable expectation.
Jerad Grundy started the opener, and he will admit it: His approach changes based on the outcome of Kentucky's Friday-night game. Other pitchers might insist their focus remains the same no matter what, but as UK's Saturday starter, Grundy feels just a little different when the Wildcats lose before he takes the mound.
"You're kind of back against the wall when you lose Friday night because you don't want to lose a series and be fighting to not get swept on Sunday," Grundy said.
The senior lefthander dazzled in eight-plus innings, allowing just two runs on six hits to pitch UK to a 3-2 win. Grundy faced the Bulldogs twice last season, striking out nine over six innings the second time around in the SEC Tournament. Armed with that experience, Grundy attacked Mississippi State hitters to the tune of 10 strikeouts.
"I saw a real aggressive approach, and they were kind of like that last year," Grundy said. "I kind of pitched backwards throwing my off-speed stuff early and try to get some free swings and going to my fastball later."
In his more than two decades as a pitching coach and now a head coach, Henderson has seen more than his fair share of impressive pitching performances. Because of that, he knows how special outings like Grundy's are.
"That effort today was about as good as you ever see in college baseball," Henderson said.
No one will describe Corey Littrell's seven innings in the nightcap in any such terms, but he was effective nonetheless. Starting for the 10th time in a series-deciding game over the last two seasons, Littrell overcame six walks and two third-inning errors before giving way to Walter Wijas. Littrell gave up three runs (one earned) and now has a 1.85 earned-run average in those rubber-match starts.
"I was a little wild early and then the defense made errors, but the biggest thing for me was knowing that I've been in that situation before," Littrell said. "I know I can find it at any moment."
Even during a sophomore season that earned his second-team All-SEC honors, Littrell may not have been able to battle through seven innings, but 2013 is another story. Littrell has lasted at least seven innings in each of his last four starts, a trend that spreads to each of UK's three weekend starters. In 18 combined starts, A.J. Reed, Grundy and Littrell have lasted an average of nearly six-and-a-third innings. Last season, UK's weekend starters averaged a little more than five-and-two-thirds innings per start. They have also lasted six innings or longer 13 times, seven innings or longer eight times.
Part of that is driven by a slightly less deep UK bullpen, but a lot of it has to do with who Henderson is starting on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
"We're a little bit stronger in that area I think, just physically stronger," Henderson said.
With that durability, the Cats have even more cause for confidence.
"We know that we're not going to win every game," Littrell said. "We're going to lose again because it's baseball, but we're confident and we know that if we play the way we know how, we'll come out successful."
Kentucky head coach Matthew Mitchell led practice on Saturday at Carnesecca Arena in preparation for UK's first-round game against Navy. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
It will have been exactly two weeks since the Kentucky women's basketball team played an actual game when the Wildcats tip off against Navy in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Sunday.
Kentucky's last game, a forgettable loss to Texas A&M in the Southeastern Conference Tournament Championship, occurred on March 10 in Duluth, Ga. After the loss, head coach Matthew Mitchell gave his players three full days away from basketball to let them clear their minds and refocus on a new goal.
"We are ready to go out there and get a win," said senior guard A'dia Mathies. "The ultimate goal is to go to the Final Four so, just to have that goal, it'll be very achievable. We're just excited to play."
The previous goal that UK had focused on heading into the season was winning the SEC regular-season crown for the second season in a row. After falling just short, the Wildcats regrouped and set their sights on the tournament title. There, Kentucky came one win short of reaching that mark yet again.
Now UK, a team who has reached the Elite Eight twice in the last three years, is looking to take that next step and reach New Orleans, the site of this year's Final Four. That achievement would likely trump any SEC aspirations the Wildcats had going into the season.
"I think we tried to refocus and get our minds right to know that we have another opportunity, our last opportunity to try to win another championship," said junior forward DeNesha Stallworth. "I think all our minds are straight, just taking 40 minutes at a time and one game at a time."
While some teams may struggle to regain rhythm during a two-week layoff, the time off has served as an important developmental period for Mitchell's squad. After some much needed time recharging the batteries, the Kentucky players came back to practice rejuvenated and ready to work towards their next goal.
"What's been so great about this time is that we had a really good team heading into the SEC Tournament and then we had some time to get better," said Mitchell. "So from our practices we have certainly seen more aggressive play in the post and playing physically with poise. That's been a really good result from the practice time."
Mitchell's been quick to make sure that he doesn't dismiss Navy as a formidable opponent for UK's first-round game. However, a two seed has never fallen to a 15 in the history of the Women's NCAA Tournament. But whether it's Navy or Baylor, Kentucky is focused on itself and playing its own game rather than the opponent.
The Midshipmen (21-11) were the winners of the 2013 Patriot League Tournament and earned the automatic bid to this year's Big Dance. That achievement in its own right is something that Kentucky was unable to accomplish on its way to its school-record fourth straight NCAA Tournament bid.
For Kentucky to reach that ultimate goal of a Final Four appearance, it all starts with taking care of business in the first round beginning Sunday at 12:05 p.m. ET at Carnesecca Arena in Queens, N.Y.
"They spread the floor and they have the capability to make threes at all four positions," said Mitchell. "But for us, we need to focus on what we do well. We need this to be a fast-paced game and try and speed Navy the best we can. It's a big challenge for us and we really need to do everything we can to be as close to our identity to defeat Navy tomorrow."
Though the focus is ultimately on Navy, Mitchell is perfectly fine with his players looking somewhat ahead to goals further down the road. After all, the only way Kentucky can win a national championship is by winning a regional championship.
"We're very focused on our region and trying to advance through it and win four games," Mitchell said. "I am really happy to hear them say that. That's what we want to do. We want to beat Navy tomorrow. We have to beat Navy tomorrow to get to the Final Four. I think that is exactly where our minds need to be.
"I told them last night they have a great chance to beat Navy tomorrow and when we do that, we'll have a good chance on Tuesday night against whoever that may be. We just need to keep trying to understand where we're headed right now, and I have no problem with their goal being the Final Four."
A Final Four appearance could be the crowning achievement that Mathies has been searching for in her senior campaign. Mathies made it clear that her aspirations and expectations were to win an SEC Tournament title this season. As the career of the most decorated Wildcats in program history, Mathies is looking to see just how long she can extend her run with plenty of basketball left to be played.
"This will be the last time I'm playing for Kentucky," said Mathies, "But it's still a long season. If you go all the way, you're playing for another three weeks. I'm just focused on winning one game at a time and you know we already have our goal. I think if we just stick to that, we should be playing for a long time. When it's done, it's done. I can't think about that right now."
One thing is for sure: Kentucky is happy to finally get out of SEC play.
After finishing the regular season with five out of its last seven games on the road and three straight days of play in the SEC Tournament, the Wildcats should be well tested for their opponent Sunday afternoon. If the Wildcats continue to bring that rediscovered energy and enthusiasm that they've brought to the practice setting over the last two weeks, expect to see Kentucky in the Bridgeport Regional as UK looks to execute its way to its final goal.
Bud Dupree had 91 tackles, 12.5 for loss and 6.5 sacks as a sophomore in 2012. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Bud Dupree knows all about the history Mark Stoops and D.J. Eliot have with defensive ends.
He doesn't need to be told about what Bjoern Werner and Cornelius Carradine did the last two years at Florida State. He's keenly aware of the 44.5 sacks they combined to register in 2011 and 2012 and where the pair stands in the latest NFL Draft projections.
Needless to say, he likes what he's seen.
"My eyes light up when I see that," Dupree said. "Hopefully they have two first-round picks this year."
The 6-foot-4, 254-pound junior has spent the first three practices of the spring at the same defensive-end spot where Werner and Carradine starred the last two seasons. It's early, but the coaches like Dupree just as much he likes his coaches' track record.
"Bud Dupree is extremely athletic for his size," Eliot said after practice on Friday, UK's first in pads. "I think he's got a chance to be a very good defensive end. Fundamentally right now, he's not where he needs to be, but he's working on it every day."
Dupree spent most of his freshman season at defensive end in UK's hybrid front. As a sophomore, he moved primarily to linebacker, totaling 91 tackles, 12.5 for loss and a team-best 6.5 sacks. His versatility is forcing Stoops and Eliot into a decision on where he will play in a new 4-3 base scheme.
He is listed at defensive end only in UK's spring guide and has worked there exclusively thus far. Dupree, though, isn't sure just yet whether end is where he will play in the fall. So long as he's in position go after the quarterback, Dupree doesn't much care.
"Whichever, I don't care," Dupree said when asked of his preference between end and linebacker. "I want to have sacks though."
Considering FSU's defensive ends combined for 26.5 sacks last year and the linebackers had just three, end seems to be his likely landing spot. Dupree's performance so far this spring only serves to strengthen that idea.
In three practices, Dupree and his fellow linemen have been the standouts on UK's defense. The linebackers and backs have shown flashes, but the line under Jimmy Brumbaugh - with ends Za'Darius Smith and Farrington Huguenin and tackles Donte Rumph, Mister Cobble and Tristian Johnson - has been impossible to ignore.
"I think the defensive line is doing a really good job," Eliot said. "They've got some veteran players up there, so they have some guys that are used to game action. So far, they have caught my eye."
As experienced as many of those players may be, Smith has a leg up even though he's never played a down at the Division I level. The 6-foot-6, 257 pounder played last season at East Mississippi Community College, the same junior college where Brumbaugh coached last season.
"Za'Darius is doing a nice job," Stoops said. "I noticed him a few times out there, had some nice plays today. He's doing good, and he's ahead. He knows Coach Brumbaugh's techniques and how we want to play fundamentally defensively, so he's doing a nice job."
Dupree went so far as to call Smith a coach on the field.
"Z, he's a very physical guy," Dupree said. "He knows a lot more than we do because he was with Coach Brumbaugh already at JUCO. He's ahead, he's the line leader and just calling the drills and he's showing us things Coach Brumbaugh taught him."
What Eliot hopes, though, is that it won't take the others long to catch up. Florida State succeeded with a defensive system that relied on simplicity to put players in a position to make plays. Eliot wants players to eventually know their roles so well it's not even necessary to think on the field.
"I hope as a coach that my scheme is never hard for the players, so I hope that's accurate (that the scheme is simple)," Eliot said. "I think our guys are picking it up pretty quick. Our philosophy is we want to be multiple, but we want to be simple for the players."
Dupree isn't completely up to speed just yet, but he understands what Eliot is talking about.
"It's very simple," Dupree said. "We've got a lot of schemes, but it all pretty much flows in the same category. We just know what to do when we line up and not think too much."
Eventually, Dupree wants to reach the point where the only thing on his mind during passing plays is to get the quarterback. If he can do that, Dupree can picture himself and his teammates shaking hands with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell just like Werner and Carradine will in a little more than a month.
"Maybe that will be me and Z in the future," Dupree said. "And Farrington also."
Sophomore Alexis Gross says team confidence is high heading into this weekend's SEC Championships. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Over the last four meets, the Kentucky gymnastics team has seen a gradual increase in its meet scores as they Wildcats have reeled off an unprecedented four straight meets scoring 196-plus for the first time in the history of the program while setting the program record of 196.775 at Penn State.
As the scores have risen, so too has the team's confidence heading into the Southeastern Conference Championships this Saturday in Little Rock, Ark.
While the season started with "I hope we can," the season is ending with an I-know-we-will attitude leading into the postseason.
The confidence hasn't magically appeared out of thin air this season. It actually goes back all the way to last year, head coach Tim Garrison's first year on the job. After a slow start, the Wildcats caught fire near the end of the season to give Garrison and his athletes promise heading into 2013. That promise led to a greater focus and desire in the offseason to improve and prepare for the upcoming campaign.
"I think this all started way back last year when the team started to come together. They started rolling a little bit at the end of the season," Garrison said. "They trained hard all the way through the summer. Then, in the preseason we started rolling. I think it developed over time, but I think when it clicked in competition was when they had more experience in competition because they were still new with some of these skills."
Garrison has harped all season long that all the Wildcats needed was in fact more seasoning. More competitive experience would be the key to the progression of these athletes, because they'd consistently displayed their capabilities in the practice gym. The only question was whether or not they would be able to duplicate those performances on the big stage.
The Wildcats started out of the gate hotter than they ever had before to open the season, finishing second at Cal-Berkeley in a quad meet, posting a program-best opening score. They've won a program record three SEC meets, including their first SEC road win since 1989.
Kentucky was rolling - and tumbling, flipping and landing - at a very high level.
But Garrison wanted more, mainly because he saw more. He was confident in his athletes to finally break through and take the next step. While UK was racking up scores in the high 195s, Garrison saw potential for 197s, with 196 as the standard.
Over the last four meets, UK has set its new standard.
"When you can put four 196s in a row, you're obviously doing well in every event," said Garrison. "You haven't really had one event that's a downer or something, where for a long period this season, we always had one event that held us back. Then we'd fight our way back from that bad event."
And UK has certainly shown resilience all season long. It was never more evident than at Ball State when junior Holly Cunningham picked up sophomore Alexis Gross on the balance beam in the final event of the meet. Kentucky was on pace for a program-record score, and when Gross fell off the balance beam, it was Cunningham to the rescue.
"That just shows that we're trusting each other," said Gross. "I messed up at Ball State and Holly had my back. It's the same thing that we've been doing all year, and we've been trying to teach ourselves to trust in our teammates when you make mistakes, someone's always there to pick up the pieces."
That trust can easily be identified as confidence. Not just in themselves, but each athlete has come to be able to trust and be confident in one another to do her job, as well as be able to come to the rescue things go wrong. That trust and confidence has also permitted each athlete to focus on herself and each individual skill without having to worry about the pressure of picking up a struggling teammate.
"I definitely think that there's so much more trust between everyone because we're confident that our teammates are going to hit their routines and not scared that they're going to fall," said sophomore Sara Shipley. "I think that means a lot because that makes you more confident in yourself, too."
Each athlete saw the possibility of something special at the beginning of the season. It took the low point of their meet against Missouri in which UK scored its lowest team point total of the year, even though the Cats escaped with a victory.
Between the Missouri meet (a win) and the following Florida meet (a loss), Kentucky found its turning point. The attitude had changed and this team was different. The disappointment of the low score at Missouri served as a motivator and it led to its highest score of the season at No. 1 Florida the following week.
The end result of Florida launched UK into its current four-meet stretch of 196s, and that 196 at Florida has been the key to it all. But even that result felt somewhat empty.
"Coming off a hard meet, we go to Florida," said Gross. "That's the meet after and you have the fire in you.
"We knew we messed up and now we had to make up for it. Everyone did and we got that 196 and everyone was happy about it, but the fact that everyone walked away from the meet and felt that we were better than what we just did, all the little mistakes we made, I remember a bunch of us saying that we could have gone 197 if we had stuck dismounts."
Kentucky is still looking for that 197, and It's no pipe dream either. If the Cats continue to improve weekly as they have like the last four, why can't UK score a 197 at SECs this weekend?
One thing is for sure: Kentucky is riding a tidal wave of confidence heading into the SEC Championships and is looking to make a statement.
"I think everyone's feeling pretty relaxed. It's fun," said Shipley. "We know that we're good now, we just have to prove to everyone that we are good. It's actually a lot of fun right now. We're pushing hard, but we're also doing our stuff, and it's not taking as much work as it did at the beginning of the season."
Even though the SEC boasts multiple top-10 teams nationally, that won't matter when UK walks into the arena on Saturday.
"We're more prepared than ever before. It's more than that, but I just have so much faith in this team," said Gross. "This kind of confidence is something that we need to keep rolling. I think for once this year, we don't go into a meet and get intimidated by the other team. We look at them and think that we're just as good."
A.J. Reed, who will pitch Friday night vs. Mississippi State, is 2-2 with a 2.83 ERA on the mound and has five home runs and 26 RBI at the plate. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
The Kentucky baseball team hasn't faced Mississippi State yet this season, but the Wildcats know the Bulldogs about as well as any team in the country.
Five times last season - three times in the regular season and twice in the Southeastern Conference Tournament - the Cats and Dogs went toe to toe. In those games, UK managed just a 1-4 record. Three of those losses undid the Cats' SEC regular-season title hopes; the other ended their run in the conference tournament.
The Cats scored just 13 combined runs in 2012 against a stingy MSU pitching staff. With the Bulldogs set to come to Lexington this weekend, UK shouldn't expect to see anything different out of Mississippi State's arms.
"They're the same thing," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "Their pitching's outstanding. There's no other way to look at it."
The No. 14 Bulldogs (20-4, 1-2 SEC) have a 2.27 team earned-run average this season. MSU pitchers have 225 strikeouts in 218 innings, allowing just 151 hits and dealing four shutouts along the way. But it's not as if the eighth-ranked Cats (16-4, 2-1 SEC) are slouches on the mound. In fact, quite the opposite is true, what with UK's 2.63 team ERA and three weekend starters with ERAs at 2.84 or better.
For those reasons, Henderson has a pretty clear idea of what to expect during this weekend's three-game set, which begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on Friday at Cliff Hagan Stadium.
"It's two good pitching staffs," Henderson said. "If both staffs do what they've done to this point, it'll be two staffs going at it. Low-scoring games would be what you would envision and then obviously it comes down to who cracks."
If their first 20 games of the season are any indication - particularly the last two weekends - there's little reason to believe it will be the Cats who yield.
Hosting Michigan State in its final nonconference weekend, UK won a closely contested Friday- night game and bounced back from a 6-1 Saturday defeat to close out the series against the Spartans with a 3-1 Sunday.
Last weekend at Florida, UK lost 4-1 on Friday after a three-error, three-run seventh inning and was down 3-0 through five innings on Saturday, seeming destined for its first series defeat of the season. Instead, UK scored 11 runs over the final four frames and won again on Sunday to pick up two precious SEC road victories.
"We really got kind of punched in the nose the first game and a half at the plate," Henderson said. "The pitching was good. ... For us to be able to come back trailing three on Saturday showed me a lot and told us a lot about our kids and I think it tells the kids a lot about themselves."
In both the last two weekends and the season as a whole, A.J. Reed has done a great deal of talking with his play.
As a freshman in 2012, he starred as both a hitter and pitcher. He was a big part of UK's record-setting season, but his role wasn't nearly what it is in 2013. This year, Reed has batted third or clean-up in all 20 games this season while serving as UK's Friday ace.
"A.J. did both last year, but didn't ask him to fulfill the same role last year," Henderson said. "It was a much different role, much less taxing role I think mentally and emotionally from the pitching standpoint."
The bat has been there all along - he's hitting .364 with five home runs and 26 runs batted in - but his first two starts on the mound were a bit uneven. Since then, he's allowed just three earned runs in three starts and 19.1 innings with a 2-1 record with his only defeat coming in the Florida opener. Even more remarkably, Reed is batting 11-for-21 (.524) with eight RBI and four extra-base hits in the five games he has pitched.
"I think he's gotta continue to learn to balance both (hitting and pitching)," Henderson said. "He's done a great job to this point."
To set the tone for a series during which UK will welcome former head coach John Cohen back to Lexington for the first time, the Cats will be calling on Reed to do the same once again. Henderson doesn't feel like he's asking too much.
"He has shown up the bigger the game, the bigger the situation, the better he concentrates," Henderson said. "If we keep getting that out of him and continue to get growth with that aspect of his game, then he's going to continue to get better."
Maxwell Smith threw for 966 yards and eight touchdowns in three full games to start the 2012 season. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
On day one of Kentucky football's spring practice, redshirt sophomore Maxwell Smith got 50 percent of the snaps at quarterback. True sophomores Patrick Towles and Jalen Whitlow split the remaining half.
On Wednesday, the carousel turned. At the second practice, it was Towles who took half the reps with Whitlow and Smith getting a quarter each.
On Friday, it will be Whitlow's turn to show what he can do in a primary role.
Considering all the intrigue surrounding the quarterback position this spring, there's any number of ways all this could be interpreted. Does Smith have the inside track on the three-man battle since he got the bulk of the reps on day one? Or did Whitlow outplay his two counterparts and earn his way into half the Friday snaps?
Forget all that.
Smith, Towles and Whitlow will rotate at quarterback over 15 practices this spring just like the first week. And the reason Smith got the first crack: His last name is first in the alphabet.
In fact, fans and media can probably save their tea-leaves reading for fall camp.
"I'll be surprised if we know a whole lot by the end of spring just 'cause everything's so new," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said.
For now, Brown and head coach Mark Stoops are a lot more concerned about implementing the offense that figuring out who's going to be running it when the Wildcats open the 2013 season in a little more than five months.
True to his word from his introductory press conference, Brown said he expects installation to be complete by the end of Friday's practice. The quarterbacks and everyone else on the offensive side of the ball have had a great deal thrown at them in a very short amount of time. Even so, there's one thing about the new system that sticks out above all else no matter who you ask.
"It's fast," Smith said succinctly. "That's the best way to describe it. It's really fast."
Reporters waiting for interviews at the Nutter Field House on Wednesday got a firsthand look at that speed in watching the final few minutes of practice from a distance. The quarterback awaits either a shotgun or pistol snap with a flurry of activity surrounding him. After just a few seconds, the play begins and the ball is out of his hands via throw or handoff in a blink. Once it's over, it's a frenzy as the offense and defense rush to the line as quickly as possible and it begins all over again.
And it's only day two. Stoops and Brown both say the pace will continue to quicken as players build familiarity with the system.
"It's awesome," Towles said. "We're a team that needs to move fast. Teams like Alabama and Florida with these huge guys, they can afford to take their time and run it down your throat. We're gonna have to, with this Air Raid offense, we're gonna have to move as fast as we can."
In addition to keeping up, the quarterbacks have to deal with an abnormally crowded backfield. But don't worry, Brown isn't trying to marry the Air Raid and the Wing T. The backfield is crowded because Brown is mere feet behind his signal callers shouting instruction with quarterbacks not actually participating in the drill shadowing the movements of the man taking the snaps.
"It's the same as being on the first tee and you're playing golf," Brown said. "You got all these people and you've got to execute a good shot or you're going to hurt somebody."
If that brief description of practice makes it sound like organized chaos, that's by design.
"So when they get in the stadium and I'm over on the sidelines, now it's an easier atmosphere," Brown said. "Same with all the offensive guys. We're on them so hard about pace, I want it to where when they get in that stadium, it's almost an easier atmosphere on game day than it is in practice."
With the speed of practice, the newness of the system and pressure the coaches are trying to create, failure is inevitable, particularly when you consider it takes just one player to derail an entire play. What Brown is hoping for, maybe above all else, is that the Cats react well to that failure - especially the quarterbacks.
"They've got to learn how to prepare. You're not just going to go out here and be an SEC winning team," Brown said. "You've got to prepare and you've got to do it a lot of it on your own time because the NCAA limits us on what we can do. If you want to be a great player and create great teams, you've got to do a lot on your own."
The good news is that Smith, Towles and Whitlow all had at least a partial understanding of the offense Brown teaches coming in. Especially early in 2012 before Smith went down with a season-ending ankle injury, UK used a quick-strike passing attack reminiscent of the one the Cats will employ this fall.
"There's similar plays, but it's just faster," said Smith, who calls his surgically repaired ankle "pretty much" 100 percent. "I'd say it's a lot faster."
As for Towles, he ran a similar offense at Highlands High School with great success, winning three straight state titles and passing for 42 touchdowns against just one interception as a senior. Towles said he feels "at home" in Brown's offense, but stopped short of saying his experience gives him any sort of leg up in the competition that's only in its infancy.
"I feel like myself individually, I'm maybe a step ahead of where I would be if it was another person's offense," Towles said. "But as far as a leg up on anybody else, I'm not really sure."
Whitlow is a bit of an X-factor in the quarterback conversation. His athleticism could add a dimension Brown's highly ranked offenses at Texas Tech and Troy have never had at any time during the last four seasons. Whitlow also showed flashes of the kind of arm talent needed to run Brown's offense effectively in seven starts last year.
Talk about the relative strengths of each of the three is best saved for later though. Right now, Smith, Towles and Whitlow - after going through a season during which UK started four different quarterbacks due to injury - are just happy to be on the field. They've all been through a starting battle before - and in Smith's case, three times - so they know how to handle themselves.
"I love it," Smith said. "It's what it's all about."
For Brown, he knows there's a lot of work ahead, both at quarterback and every other offensive position. But right now, he's getting all he can ask for.
"Our guys are trying hard," Brown said. "We've got the pieces I think; now the pieces that we have got to get better. We've got to get better at every spot. But these kids - as long as they keep preparing, as long as they keep giving great effort - we're gonna have a chance."
UK's 2012-13 season ended with a 59-57 loss to Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT. (Matt Adams, UK Athletics)
Right from the very beginning, it felt familiar.
Time after time during a season that went according to no one's plan, opponents took the fight right to the Wildcats, using physical play to unnerve an undisputedly talented Kentucky team. After it worked so many times during the regular season, why wouldn't Robert Morris try it in the first round of the NIT with a raucous home crowd?
"Last year, at the beginning of the year, every team played us this way," head coach John Calipari said. "And our guys said, 'It ain't happening.' And they fought back and that was negated. By the end of the year, you could not play us physical and tough and win a ballgame against us. We never accepted that that was an issue (this season)."
It was an issue once again on Tuesday night as the Cats (21-12) saw their season end in a 59-57 loss.
The particulars of the game need little rehashing. The Colonials (24-10) jumped out to a 10-0 lead, but UK battled back behind the inspired play of Jarrod Polson (10 points) and the determination of Archie Goodwin (18 points, seven rebounds). Kentucky would have completed a comeback win had Kyle Wiltjer's buzzer-beating 3-point attempt fallen, but that only would have delayed the inevitable. No matter how long they stayed alive, the Cats' run in the NIT was but a chance to improve heading into next season.
Outsiders will harp on the irresistible "national championship to Moon Township(, Pa.)"storyline to describe UK's change in postseason fortunes in less than a calendar year, but nothing about this season or this game alters Coach Cal's vision for the program.
"All I know is there were things that we did this year we will not do, we'll correct and we'll be fine," Calipari said. "This program's fine. The recruiting is in good shape. We're right where we need to be."
And so begins an intriguing offseason.
Calipari already has locked up his fifth straight top recruiting class. Five players have signed for 2013 and more are expected to come on board this spring. The process of determining who among players from the 2012-13 roster will join them will play itself out in the coming weeks.
"I told them we'll have individual meetings," Calipari said. "I'm not ready to do that yet. We'll have individual meetings and I told them the one this is expect me to be honest with them."
Coach Cal may not quite be ready to discuss stay-or-go decisions, but his players faced inevitable questions about the NBA in the immediate aftermath of the loss. Goodwin and Alex Poythress didn't hesitate to say they don't feel they ready for the next level and they expect to return. Willie Cauley-Stein sang a similar tune, but added that he needs first to evaluate his stock and talk to his family before making any proclamations.
Regardless of their final decisions, Poythress, Goodwin and Cauley-Stein showed maturity in fielding questions about their future. For top recruits - especially those choosing to play at UK - playing one season and going pro has come to be viewed as the norm, rather than the remarkable exception that it truly is. These Cats seem humble and self-aware enough to realize that there's no shame in developing at your own pace.
"You don't come to college expecting to be here one year," Poythress said. "You come to college, you just try to do the best you can. If you have the opportunity, then you can leave."
It's best for fans to anticipate all of UK's players with NBA pedigrees will still at least ponder the possibilities once the sting of a season-ending defeat wears off, but even Calipari is talking like a coach who expects some of his youngsters back for another season.
"What we're gonna have is unbelievable competition," Calipari said. "We may have three teams, so 15 guys that can play. And let's go. It's what we need, kind of like my first year when we had all those players. We're gonna be a little young, but with guys coming back we're still going to have some veteran guys."
Even with all the talk of next year, there was still plenty of reflection on what went wrong with the season that just ended. It was a group that came in with unfair expectations after last year's national championship, starting the season ranked No. 3 despite returning just one major contributor from a year ago.
But for all the praise that poured in from media and fans even before the first practice, it was the fact that the Cats at least partially bought into their own hype that did the real damage. After watching their predecessors steamroll their way to a title, the Cats couldn't help but think they would repeat the performance.
"Last year's team was just so good," said an introspective Poythress. "They made it look so easy and in reality it's not. There's so much hard work you gotta put in."
The 2012 Cats were driven from day one, but they didn't take their hard work to a national-championship level until after they had to navigate their way through a court-rushing mob following a loss at Indiana. It was that game that caused UK to zero in on its goals and morph into a tournament juggernaut.
The 2013 Cats found themselves in a similar situation after losing at Robert Morris. Hundreds of fans streamed onto the floor celebrating the biggest win in school history as UK's players stared with hands on heads.
The timing and circumstances, of course, were very different.
One was a December regular-season loss; the other was a season-ender. This year's Wildcats couldn't become a great team in the span of one season like in 2012, but they still might have a chance to do it on their own schedule.
"It should be driving us for a long time," Poythress said. "It's just going to stay in my mind, stay in the back of my head. It's going to be hard to get out, especially when you end your season like this."