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Mark Stoops was a happy coach on Wednesday.
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."
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
Towles talks to media
Redshirt junior Patrick Towles and redshirt freshmen Drew Barker are splitting time at the position with no clear leader yet emerging. Stoops understands how that may be perceived by some, but he doesn't agree.
"I know the old adage that if you have two you don't have any, but I don't believe that," Stoops said.
After Reese Phillips suffered an injury to his Achilles tendon this winter, Towles and Barker became the only healthy quarterbacks on campus for spring practice. The resulting battle, new offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson says, has been good for both.
"To me if you've got one guy playing really good and one guy not then it's not making anybody better," Dawson said. "I think that the key to those guys right now, and both of them go out and one day one of them might be a little better, the other day the new one might be a little better but they're pushing each other. So, that's the best part of it."
It's familiar territory for Towles and Barker, who both competed for the starting job in 2014. Towles would of course win out and show flashes of brilliance in leading UK to a five-win season, an improvement from a 2-10 mark in Stoops' first season.
Towles started all 12 games, completing 57.3 percent of his passes for 2,718 yards and 14 touchdowns and adding 303 yards and six touchdowns on the ground. His coaches have said his experience does give him a leg up, but by no means makes him a lock to beat out Barker. It's a challenge he embraces.
"I've been in a competition since I got here," Towles said. "I'm not new to this at all and I'm going to go out there and worry about me. I can't worry about what any other quarterback's doing. I can help when I feel like I can teach a little bit, but I'm worried about how I play and how the guys play when I'm in there."
Barker is doing the same.
The highly touted Burlington, Ky., native redshirted last season after Towles won the job, taking the year to adjust to college life. His adjustment has been marked by two off-field incidents that have been addressed and addressed again by his coaches.
"He's a good kid that made some mistakes, and he's got to go out there and be consistent on the field and off the field," Stoops said. "He knows that. I like him, but what I like about him right now: He's just going about his business, trying to be the best quarterback he can be, take care of himself off the field. So far so good."
That doesn't mean every day is perfect.
"There's good and bad and there is every day," Stoops said after UK's 11th practice of the spring on Wednesday. "There's days when one or the other does separate himself, but not consistently, not every day. As I said throughout the spring and I saw it again today, we're improving at that position. Both guys are improving."
Improving and taking hold of the job are two different things, though it seems unlikely a decision on a starter is forthcoming based on what Stoops and Dawson are saying.
"It doesn't matter to the point to where I'm going to sit here and I'm stressing about making a decision, because we don't play Saturday," Dawson said. "So that doesn't matter to mean. I mean I'm pleased with where both of them are at. Obviously both of them do some things that are bad at times, but those things are slowly getting less and less."
The Wildcats might not be playing this weekend, but they will hold an open scrimmage at noon on Saturday at Nutter Training Center. The scrimmage will give the staff a chance to evaluate Towles and Barker in a live setting, but it's by no means a be-all, end-all situation.
"It's important, but you're not going to win a job in one day," Towles said. "It's a whole body of work kind of thing and I feel confident about my body of work and I feel confident going forward."
Head coach Mark Stoops
Offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson
Offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson
Two days after Kentucky's first scrimmage of the spring, the Wildcats returned to the practice field on Monday.
Mark Stoops called UK's work on Monday decent, saying the Cats took some time to get their feet under them for the morning practice.
"Started a little sluggish, had to get them going a little bit," Stoops said. "Once we picked up the tempo I thought execution got a little bit better. Defensively probably had a little bit better day today than the offense but got some good work in."
That was a departure from Saturday's scrimmage, when the offense had the upper hand with a number of big plays. In further film review over the weekend, the offense looked as good at it did live.
"I really felt like we did a very good job, for six practices in, offensively," Stoops said. "We had a few pre-snap penalties, a couple holds and like you would anticipate, a few sloppy plays here and there. But overall, the execution and the amount of plays and the versatility of our plays, I thought they were very effective. And I think that's part of the beauty about what Coach Shannon (Dawson) does offensively, keeping it simple within certain personnel matchups."
Dawson was similarly pleased with the Saturday scrimmage, and the same is true about the spring as a whole. In taking over as offensive coordinator for Neal Brown, Dawson hasn't seen as many of the growing pains as he expected.
"We still, we busted a few things today, but overall we haven't really busted signals and everything," Dawson said. "It's been good. We busted a few, mental lapse, just coming out every day and competing at the same level. I thought we had a little lull today with that, but overall, the communication has been good; it hasn't been as frustrating as I thought it would be. Pleased with that."
UK will be back on the field for its eighth practice of the spring on Wednesday morning.