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At this stage in preseason camp, it is typical for young players to begin to hit the wall with physical and mental fatigue.
After Kentucky had a practice that left room for improvement on Tuesday evening, the coaching staff was eager to see how the team would react for Wednesday's practice.
"We had a good practice," UK defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "It was competitive, enthusiastic -- one of our most enthusiastic practices of training camp, which is good. The guys were flying around, playing fast, and it was encouraging.
"It was in response to yesterday. And sometimes that's the way it goes, you know? Guys have got to bounce back and they got to play better and they got to practice better and they did today."
Stoops echoed Eliot's assessment of the effort level in Wednesday's practice.
"Not bad work," UK head coach Mark Stoops said after coming off the practice field on a steaming Wednesday afternoon. "We're getting to the point where guys are getting very beat up and wore down like you'd expect through two and a half weeks of camp. But we got some good situation work today."
After Stoops tabbed sophomore Patrick Towles the starting quarterback on Monday after a four-way competition for the spot, the announcement dominated the storylines over the last two days.
With Stoops, Eliot and UK's defensive players available to the media on Wednesday, the conversation shifted to the development of Eliot's squad. While Stoops has been dialed into the progress of the secondary, he emphasized that the linebackers were also ready to take that next step in their development.
"We have some (linebackers) that have done some nice things," Stoops said. "We need to be on point there. We can't be hit-and-miss and missing some responsibilities here and there. That's where, like I said earlier in the year, there's always that fine line. As you get into year two, as you get better and better, there's a balance between doing more things or being simpler. The better you are, the less you really have to do, to be honest with you. So, we'll see. We're working our way through that, but I think we have some guys to work with at linebacker. Josh (Forrest) has done a nice job. Ryan Flannigan has been a nice surprise. We've got to continue to get him a lot of reps and get him ready to go."
Kentucky's defensive unit is, as a whole, a more experienced group that will greatly benefit from being in the second year of Stoops and Eliot's system.
"They definitely do," Stoops said about the unit's increased understanding of what the defense is trying to accomplish. "That just comes from experience. Some of those guys are in year two. There are not as many newcomers. They had an offseason to look at things, what we did and did not do well. They had spring practice, so obviously they understand things better."
Over his career as a defensive coordinator, Stoops' teams have had notable improvement in his second year, something he is eager to see translate to his second-edition of the Wildcats.
"Yeah," Stoops said about the defense making a jump in year two. "I think you've always got to increase your talent level. You've got to make the players you have better. And I think we've done that. I think you've got to be able to execute the nuances of the defense. As you always talk about doing more or less, whatever it is, when you do it you got to be able to execute it right. You got to be more on point with what you're doing, and you've just got to play at a higher level. I think we're getting to that point. We're getting better. I don't know how much. We'll see how much of a jump we made. I know we've improved. I know we'll play better. To what extent, we'll see. We got to go prove it."
Just 10 days from the 2014 season lidlifter vs. UT Martin at noon ET on Aug. 30 at Commonwealth Stadium, Stoops is starting to get the squad geared towards preparation for the Skyhawks.
"We've got to get some guys healthy," Stoops said. "There's nothing major. A lot of lingering issues, bumps and bruises like you'd expect. But we've got to get some guys healthy and get them back out here, start our prep here for our first game here soon."
Towles father, Terry, had lost his father when he was 18 years old and was a huge football fan. Towles sent his dad a quick text, "Papa Tommy is partying in heaven." It didn't take Terry long to realize his son was named the starting QB for the Wildcats.
Following Tuesday's practice, Towles had his first opportunity to meet with the media as the new signal caller for Kentucky.
"Relief," Towles said about his reaction to being named starter. "I'm super excited. It's a great opportunity. It's something that I've wanted for my entire life. To have this kind of opportunity is awesome."
Now having two practices under his belt as the starting quarterback, Towles can now focus on his duties without the distraction of a QB competition.
"Good. I felt like I can play free," Towles said about how practice has been the last two days. "During the competition I would make a bad throw, and I'd constantly be like, 'Gosh.' Every throw had to be perfect, but now it's a relief that I can go out and just let it all hang out and play. I felt like I was a senior in high school and I was just able to play and just make plays. And that's a good feeling."
Now the key cog in offensive coordinator Neal Brown's high-tempo offensive attack, Towles must take on a leadership role and set the standard for his unit's performance.
"He's talented enough to run any offense, really," Brown detailed. "He's got a strong arm. He's big. He's 6-4-plus. I think he's 240 pounds-plus. He hit like 19.8 miles per hour yesterday in practice, so he runs well. So our offense, any offense, he's capable of doing well."
The former Kentucky High School Mr. Football out of Highlands in Ft. Thomas, Ky., Towles played in five games as a true freshman in 2012. He dazzled Commonwealth Stadium with a sparkling debut, completing 5-of-5 passes for 71 yards and a 32-yard touchdown strike in his first career series in 2012 vs. Mississippi State. Later in the game, Towles suffered an injury that hampered his chance to get on the field as a freshman.
"It's a whole maturation process," Towles said about his first two years on campus. "It goes through ups and downs. Like I said, when I got here, I was an 18-year-old kid. Playing in front of 65,000 people was nuts. It was crazy. Now I've been here for going on my third year in school, and it definitely feel like everything is a lot quicker, sharper and it's easier to make decisions."
Towles then battled with Maxwell Smith and Jalen Whitlow in a preseason competition in 2013, with Smith and Whitlow sharing the position during the season.
"I guess around this time (last year), the race was between me, Jalen (Whitlow) and Maxwell (Smith)," Towles detailed. "(Coach Stoops) brought me in there and was like, 'Hey, you're doing a good job but there's still some stuff you need to work on before you can really make a run at this thing.' I said, 'All right, got it.' So this entire time I went out and fixed everything that he had said."
And go to work he did, dedicating his redshirt season to revamping his fundamentals.
"Just with everything, everything fundamentally," Towles said about his goals for improvement during 2013. "You have to be fundamentally almost perfect to play well in this league, consistently play well, especially against the people that we play against. My feet had to get better. My release had to change. I had to get my head on straight and really go after this thing. That's what I did."
Now the starting quarterback at his home-state school, it would be easy for Towles to bask in the glow of his accomplishment. That is not in his plans.
"This is just the beginning," Towles said. "Right now I'm focused on Tennessee Martin and next Saturday."
On Monday morning, Kentucky second-year head coach Mark Stoops put the question to bed, announcing on his twitter account that sophomore Patrick Towles had won the starting gig over freshmen Drew Barker and Reese Phillips, and junior Maxwell Smith.
"Patrick's done a very good job," Stoops said. "I have a lot of confidence in Patrick. He's worked extremely hard. I said it before that I was proud of his work ethic."
A 6-foot-5, 238-pound native of Ft. Thomas, Ky., Towles is coming off a well-utilized redshirt season in 2013, after seeing action in five games as a true freshman in 2012.
The former Gatorade Kentucky High School Player of the Year out of Highlands High School, Towles played as a true freshman in 2012 after injuries plagued the position. His first drive as a collegiate quarterback dazzled the fan base, going 5-for-5 for 71 yards against Mississippi State, capped by a 32-yard TD pass.
Later in the game vs. the Bulldogs, Towles suffered an injury, hampering what could have been a promising freshman season. He finished 2012 completing 19 of 40 passes for 232 yards, including his TD strike vs. MSU.
Following his freshman season, Towles saw Smith and Jalen Whitlow share the quarterback position in 2013 as UK learned a new, exciting offensive system under Stoops. Towles dedicated himself in the weight room, improving his fundamentals and to the mental side of the game, putting himself in position to compete for the 2014 starting job.
"A lot of people, a year ago when he was told that he was not going to be in the mix, could have put their head down," Stoops detailed on Towles mindset during his redshirt season. "They could have quit, they could have transferred. Or they face it and get improvement. And he worked. And I'm proud of that. I like the fact that he just went to work to get better. That sends a good message to the rest of the team."
"What he did is he really grew up, he matured, became more serious about football, started doing things right off the field," UK offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "And what I mean by that is -- he was always a good kid, I don't mean that -- he made football one of the top priorities in his life. After the givens, he made football a top priority. He went out and got a lot of drill work. We focused on fundamentals, which was really important to him. He went out and got some extra work, and he was productive."
Towles brings a dynamic skill set to the position in Brown's high-tempo offensive attack. As Mr. Football in Kentucky in 2011, Towles led his club to three consecutive state championships, compiling a three-year record of 44-1, including a 38-1 mark as the starting QB. As a senior, Towles completed 171 passes for 3,820 yards with 32 TDs and just one interception.
"Patrick has a big arm," Stoops said. "He's sneaky fast, too, as well. He's maybe not as fleet of foot as some other guys, but in the open field he's really got some pretty good speed. He's a big guy. He's strong. And he can make all the throws. He's improved on his release. He's much quicker getting rid of the ball, and that improves his decision making. That's the biggest area of improvement for him over a year."
After Stoops and the staff broke the news to Towles and the UK quarterbacks on Monday, they were pleased with the reaction of the four QBs in the ensuing practice.
"He was excited," Brown said. "He's worked hard for this. What I told him though: this is just the start. You've got the opportunity, let's see what you do with the opportunity."
"The truth is that he won the job," Stoops said. "He won the job. It was very close, but he ended up being the winner."
Days after the UK offense had one of its best days of Mark Stoops' time in Lexington on Wednesday, the Wildcats returned to Commonwealth Stadium for the second scrimmage of fall camp.
Calling passes on the majority of plays on Saturday, the goal was clear: gauging the progress of UK's air attack.
"I wanted to see where we are with the quarterbacks," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "I wanted to see where we are as far as the receivers getting open. We did some good things. We got some growth to make in that area for sure and I think that's going to be a big part of us improving on third downs: being able to protect, throw and catch."
The results, before film review, were mostly positive.
"I thought we improved in predictable pass situations," Stoops said. "That's the best we've looked as far as drop-back passing. So I thought we made some improvement there."
Tight ends Steven Borden and Ronnie Shields each caught touchdowns, according to Brown, while Ryan Timmons, Rashad Cunningham and Dorian Baker impressed in the downfield passing game. Timmons, however, knows consistency is more important than big plays to the offense's development.
"That's what the offense needs to do to make drives and put a lot of continuous plays together to score more points," Timmons said. "I think the offense, we're working a lot to try to make more consistent plays."
UK's contenders to start at quarterback split time as they have throughout fall camp.
"Again, they all did some good things and did some bad things," Stoops said. "So, we'll get in there today and evaluate this film and evaluate the past couple weeks and see where we're at."
Brown, who has been quiet about the quarterbacks since Media Day last week, gave some insight into what he and Stoops will look for in evaluating that film.
"I want to see who manages our tempo," Brown said. "There's a lot of things that go into that as far as getting the signal, getting us going. ... Different quarterbacks operate our offense different as far as how quick they get the signal, communicate it with the O-line and those type of things. I want to see who makes the best decision, especially on crucial downs, third downs. And I want to see who's most accurate."
After Wednesday's scrimmage, Stoops said a decision on a starter would come "in the next week." On Saturday, Stoops said nothing to suggest that timetable has changed, but he also reasserted that he won't make a choice prematurely.
"If we're ready, if we feel like we have a decision after that, then we'll make an announcement," Stoops said. "If we don't, then we'll wait. I'm not going to feel rushed by that. We've got to get it right. I think each quarterback has really shown that they're capable of leading this offense."
The quarterback battle has drawn the spotlight in fall camp, but UK's defense -- the "Bad Boys," as the group has taken to calling itself -- shouldn't be forgotten either. The backups have work to do, but the defensive first team -- led by defensive ends Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith -- was stout on Saturday.
"I think they just play faster," D.J. Eliot said. "They communicate better. They execute more. And sometimes on the twos, it may be just one person that doesn't execute, but that messes the whole deal up. So if you can get 11 guys doing it right, then you got a chance to be successful."
With two weeks to go before UK's season opener, Stoops feels better about his team's chances at success than he has in 20 months on the job.
"We're much further along," Stoops said. "They've been really good about going about their work and just trying to take care of business each day and get better and be fundamentally better. X's and O's, schematically we're doing a lot of things better. We still have a ways to go, but I like where we're at. I really do. I think we have a good group."
As good as the group is, the Cats could use a break from the grind of fall camp.
"Guys need to get away a little bit," Brown said. "I told them, I said, 'Hey, don't even think about football until I see you tomorrow afternoon.' "
When Kentucky offensive coordinator Neal Brown came off the field to meet with the media following Friday's practice, there was little hiding his frustration with his unit's performance when faced with adversity.
"Broke my sunglasses; you can tell it probably wasn't that good of a day," Brown said.
Broken sunglasses were a minor issue for Brown, who has been neck deep in constructing the Kentucky offense in his second season under coach Mark Stoops.
"It was an okay practice," Brown said. "We had some give-and-take. We did pretty well in the scrimmage on Wednesday. Defense got after us a little bit in the team portion of it today. We worked some situations. You know, we're reaching that point in camp where guys are getting tired. We've got a lot of young guys. They've got to get mentally stronger. (I'm) happy where we're at. We're still excited; we just got to handle adversity better."
Among the challenges facing Brown in preseason camp is identifying skill players who could make an immediate impact at Commonwealth Stadium, starting with the season lidlifter on Aug. 30 vs. UT Martin at 12 p.m. ET on the SEC Network.
Among those skill-position priorities is identifying a starting quarterback amongst the four QBs competing for the job, freshmen Drew Barker and Reese Phillips, sophomore Patrick Towles and junior Maxwell Smith.
While that storyline has dominated much of the chatter during preseason camp, Brown is also focused squarely on finding reliable targets for his future starting quarterback.
While several receivers have stood out at this stage of camp, Brown singled out true freshmen Dorian Baker, Blake Bone and Charles Walker as newcomers that could develop into potential immediate impact weapons.
"When we were initially recruiting (Blake Bone), I thought he was going to be a redshirt guy, but he came here and put on like 20 pounds in the summer and he's made a bunch of plays in live situation," Brown said. "So he's really showed he's capable of playing. And Charles Walker; I knew when he made the decision that he was going to come here that he was going to be a good player. He was not going to be a typical walk-on. I knew he was going to be a really good player, but I think he's going to be a guy who's going to play for us this year."
While identifying some skill players to move the chains and change the scoreboard is a priority, another focus of Brown's at this stage of camp is improving the tempo of his unit.
"Early in the week when the practices were open we had some officials, so we had three really good days -- Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday -- of really working with what the actual tempo is going to be in a game," Brown said. "Wednesday was the best we've had since I've been here. We fell back a little bit today, didn't probably try to push it as much. But Wednesday was the best tempo in a game or a scrimmage atmosphere that we've had since I've been here."
Part of the tempo that Brown wants can be aided by vocal leadership and true accountability from his standouts on offense.
"It's getting better," Brown said. "Defense has got a little more leadership than we do just because they're a little bit older group. You know, Jordan Swindle fills that void. Braylon Heard does that in a different, different way, different type of correction, but he does that."
Through more than a week of fall camp, Mark Stoops has talked consistently about how his team has improved in facets.
He's praised the offense for playing at a pace closer to what Neal Brown's offense calls for and the defense for executing more cleanly.
On Wednesday, with UK's first full scrimmage, it was time to put it all to the test at Commonwealth Stadium.
"We really need to just put the ball down and move it," Stoops said. "Obviously there's a fine line there with all the tackling that goes on, but this was a full, live scrimmage over there today. I think we stayed relatively healthy and we got a lot of good work in, and we really needed to do that."
The offense stepped up and had one of its best days Stoops can recall since the new coaching staff's arrival.
"It was nice for them to put it together," Stoops said. "I thought they really did some good things. And that's why we need to do that -- just put it down and go -- so they can put all their play-actions together and their runs and their passes and all those good things. So it was good to see."
Asked which players performed well, Stoops didn't name names before watching tape. That, however, is a positive. It means UK is operating as a team.
"I thought they did a nice job of -- you've heard me say it time and time again -- making the routine plays," Stoops said. "So when we have our play passes or the situations where we have a slant that's open, we catch it and make a first down rather than be second and 10. That's a huge difference."
UK's quarterbacks once again shared time with the first team as they compete for the starting job, a race that is progressing but still very much up in the air. Stoops expects a decision to come "in the next week," but reiterated that he won't name a starter just to name one.
"One of the reasons why we're trying to be very critical of ourselves in making this decision is because it's so important, and when we give that person the reins, we want them to go," Stoops said. "You've heard me say that for a year now. Every time a year ago when we thought we were giving somebody the reins to the quarterback situation, something happened. Maybe they got hurt or maybe they didn't play very good. So we want to make sure we're very precise in our decision-making, and once we give them the keys to the car, we want them to drive it."
As for the defense, the group didn't have its best day of fall camp, but UK still had reason to be encouraged on that side of the ball. Competition is good for everyone.
"In practice, it's not good if you win because they screw up," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "You didn't do anything, right? So a good practice is one where they execute, you execute and then a player makes a play."
Besides, Wednesday will be far from the last time their offense gives a defense fits if Stoops and Brown have their way.
"We're much further along than we were all year last year, but that's the good thing, that's what I told the offense, that's what they can do when they go put that kind of pressure on you," Stoops said. "That's what helps them put some pressure on defenses. You all watch college football and you see some great defenses struggle with tempo because it neutralizes you a little bit because of what you can call and what you can execute."