Wide receivers coach Tommy Mainord
Offensive line coach John Schlarman
Offensive line coach John Schlarman
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Wide receivers coach Tommy Mainord
Offensive line coach John Schlarman
Post-practice interview with Mark Stoops
It was a family reunion of sorts at the Nutter Training Facility on Wednesday, as Mark Stoops was joined on the practice field by brothers Mark and Mike.
Oklahoma -- where Bob and Mike serve as head coach and defensive coordinator respectively -- wrapped up spring practice earlier this month, so two of Mark's three older brothers took the opportunity to pay a visit to Lexington.
"We're going to go watch film and all that right now and everything," Mark Stoops said. "They came in last night and talked some football with us. It was good to have them."
Of course the Stoops brothers will spend some time catching up and enjoying themselves, but media watching the first half of practice on Wednesday saw firsthand that Mark Stoops will be calling on his brothers' expertise.
"That's what there here for," Mark Stoops said. "I mean, they're not here just for fun. You know, we've got to put them to work. ... We talk about ideas, ways to do things, different change ups, how they may play a certain formation or a certain adjustment. So it's good to have them here. I'm definitely going to utilize them while they're here to go watch some film of this practice and some previous spring practices and get some work done."
Bob Stoops even traded his normal crimson and cream for a UK pullover.
"They like to support us," Mark Stoops said. "He's proud to wear it. I'm sure he'll take that home with him."
Stoops reported the Wildcats had another "good, physical practice" with his brothers and John Calipari watching, including a period of solid work on short-yardage situations. UK continues to plug along through the final week of spring, battling through a number of injuries on both sides of the ball.
"It just happens," Stoops said. "That's the way it is. Some of them were through the winter with surgeries and some of them were dinged up in practice. The good news is, I think there's nothing major -- knock on wood -- nothing that's gonna keep guys out for the year. So we should be at 100 percent if we don't have anything new happen."
The latest injury is to sophomore wide receiver Jeff Badet, who broke his fibula on Monday. Stoops called the injury a clean break, meaning no surgery will be needed. Badet is expected to miss two-to-three months but heal in time for fall camp.
"He was alone," Stoops said. "It was a good play-action pass; he was wide-open. He kind of got underthrown and just a freaky accident."
Badet's injury is another short-term blow to UK's wide receiver depth, as is A.J. Legree's decision to transfer, which Stoops announced on Wednesday. As a result, Stoops is considering ways to minimize injury risk at Saturday's Spring Game while also still putting on a show for fans.
"It looks like I'm gonna split it up ones against everybody else," Stoops said. "So the only thing it'll change as far as the fans and things like that -- and most people do it -- you're gonna speed up the game somehow. We can't afford to take a whole boatload of reps. We're just thin. So we'll iron out all the details and tell you, but it'll be very similar to last year. Some type of abbreviated schedule."
D.J. Eliot on UK's Wednesday practice
Post-practice interview with Stoops
UK began the final week of spring on Monday, holding its 12th practice.
With just five days before the Blue/White Scrimmage on April 26, head coach Mark Stoops continues to like his team's direction.
"I think we're improving, competing," Stoops said. "Had a good third-down period today. So overall, we're still grinding it out, getting better and better each day. I like where we're going."
The only exception is on the injury front.
"Just getting some guys nicked up, and that's starting to bother me," Stoops said. "Nothing major -- I don't think anything major. Just guys that are going to be nicked up and maybe miss this last part of spring practice here."
That's frustrating to Stoops for a couple reasons, first because the improving Wildcats can use all the work they can get.
"We just need it," Stoops said. "You know, we have the spring, we have time to get guys back, but you're trying to find that good balance where you're getting good work in and competing as hard as we can, with staying healthy just so we can have good practices."
Stoops also has the fans in mind when he considers the Cats' bumps and bruises because of the upcoming Spring Game.
"A lot of it's for the fans," Stoops said. "And you want to get out there and put a good product on the field and have some fun. But we need to see where we're at."
UK's already thin receiving corps has been hit hard, the latest blow coming as sophomore Jeff Badet twisted an ankle on Monday. The Cats have been without Javess Blue and Alexander Montgomery throughout the spring, while Ryan Timmons, Thaddeus Snodgrass and Joey Herrick are contending with minor injuries.
"We're banged up a little bit at wideout," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "Well, we're thin. Our numbers aren't where they should be. We've got to get -- we need more scholarship wideouts, we need more walk-on wideouts. We've got help coming. ... I think we're probably a year away from getting this thing, from a numbers standpoint, where it needs to be. We were grossly thin getting here, then we had some injuries this spring that definitely haven't helped."
The depth at receiver has added a wrinkle to the ongoing competition at quarterback between Patrick Towles, Reese Phillips and Drew Barker. Brown has had to adjust on the fly to get them the work they need.
"That's why we were out here doing some extra work with me and (graduate assistant) Tyler (Sargent) catching the ball," Brown said. "Just because we don't have enough -- the quarterbacks aren't getting enough work right now, so we've got to build it in pre-practice and post-practice stuff to make sure they're getting enough reps of the stuff we're going to run."
Brown on Monday practice
Drew Barker was only a junior in high school, but he had a pretty good idea how the recruiting process would play out.
Even though the Burlington, Ky., native was listening to his home state school's pitch from new head coach Mark Stoops, Barker figured he would end up elsewhere.
On April 13, 2013, Barker reached a "turning point."
"I remember going into the spring game last year and I was pretty sure South Carolina was my leader and Tennessee and Kentucky were kind of behind," Barker said. "And then I went to the spring game and I saw over 50,000 people there and just the atmosphere."
The rest, as they say, is history.
Less than a month after his visit for the annual Blue/White Spring Game -- attended by a record 50,831 fans -- Barker announced his commitment. Kentucky had its prized quarterback prospect and the momentum Stoops and his staff were building with their work on the class of 2014 went from snowball to avalanche.
"It was really eye-opening to me and all the recruits that were there because I know the majority of the recruits that were there ended up committing to us," Barker said. "So I think that had a big impact on not only myself, but everybody else that went."
Count Mikel Horton in that group as well.
The four-star running back out of West Chester, Ohio, was on the verge of committing and coming to the spring game pushed him over the edge. He gave his pledge exactly a week later.
"The atmosphere was ridiculous," Horton said. "Having that amount of fans there and especially there with my family and friends to show them that this is where I'm going to be playing and this is where I'm going to be scoring my touchdowns and getting long runs and helping out the team. It was a very humbling, life-changing experience for me as far as football. It made me appreciate it more."
For Horton, there was no substitute for getting a sneak preview of game day in Commonwealth Stadium.
"Oh man, just the college atmosphere," Horton said. "The fireworks, the screaming and the hitting and everything. I was shocked and wanted to be a part of that so much."
Dorian Hendrix had a unique perspective on the day of the spring game. Having committed three weeks prior, the linebacker from Huber Heights, Ohio, was playing recruiter, trying to convince his fellow visitors to join him at UK.
"That was actually a really important day," Hendrix said. "There were a lot of guys there who are committed to us now who weren't committed at the time. They came and they saw that same energy, that same excitement and that made them want to be a part of this whole thing. I talked to some guys and got them on board and that was a good day for UK."
In the two months after the spring game, Stoops secured 12 new commitments. All told, 20 of the 28 players who eventually signed with Kentucky attended the spring game.
"Just everything from the Cat Walk to being on the field before the game, we were sitting there, everybody's talking, like, 'Man, this is awesome,' " Barker said. "If they're doing this coming off a 2-10 season, imagine if we all come here and get a recruiting class to join everybody else who is here and start winning, imagine the support that would then come.' We were just talking about that and we thought it would be really big and that was definitely a big turning point for myself and my recruitment."
A year later, Barker, Horton and Hendrix will again be at the spring game on April 26 at 3:30 p.m. ET, but this time as players. The trio is among seven midyear enrollees who arrived on campus in January.
"I'm really looking forward to actually being on the field as a player with that kind of atmosphere," Barker said. "So it's definitely going to be awesome and I'm just blessed to have the opportunity to come in here early and have that opportunity to get on there before an actual game."
Due to construction, Commonwealth's capacity will be reduced to around 40,000, meaning last year's record attendance won't be threatened and UK is unlikely to rank in the top six nationally in attendance again. Nonetheless, a packed house would be a big deal for the players who will be uniform and those who could be a year from now.
"It's huge," Hendrix said. "It's huge for recruitment. It's huge for us. It lets us know that this community and this school are supporting us. It's huge for recruitment. You got guys coming from down south and everywhere across the country coming to see this game and they see 40,000 in the stands, it's important."
Horton, asked of the impact fans can have by attending the spring game, had an even more direct message for the Big Blue Nation.
"Why not get a ticket?" Horton said. "I'm not going to boast on UK. I'm not going to tell people something that they've heard and it has not changed, but we're a different team. And that's coming from my soul. That's coming from deep in and I wouldn't lie to the fans. We're a different team. The mentality, the physicality here is totally different.
"For this spring game, you need to get a ticket because you're going to see something different."
Tickets for UK's annual Blue/White Spring Game are available now online at Ticketmaster.com, by calling Ticketmaster at 800-745-3000 and in person at Ticketmaster outlets in Kentucky. Tickets are free, but there is a minimal service charge attached.
Head coach Mark Stoops
Before a break over Easter weekend, UK took the field for the 11th time this spring.
After stringing together a number of good practices, UK's offense took a small step back. Even so -- and particularly with the defense continuing to shine -- it was a productive Friday.
"Good energy from the defense, again, we need the offense to continue to progress," Stoops said. "Today was not our sharpest day, but we got a lot of good work in and looking forward to wrapping it up here next week and getting some good practices in next week to finish off spring."
With a handful of drops and some missed opportunities on first down during UK's team period, the offense found itself behind the chains too often. Some of the blame for that goes to the offense, but the defense also deserves credit.
"Defense made some good plays," Stoops said. "I think it's a combination, and we'll go watch the film. But it's not always, and that's what I told the defense, we had good energy and they're playing good, but it's not always because we're playing stellar. Maybe the offense is not executing like they can. It's a little combination of both."
D.J. Eliot, only considering his defense, was pleased.
"I wouldn't say spectacular, but we did some good things today," Eliot said. "We had good energy in the team period. Guys were flying around in that period, and that's good. We didn't execute early and just picked it up throughout practice."
The defense was again without Nate Willis. Stoops announced on Friday the senior cornerback will undergo surgery to address a sports hernia, which will force him to miss the next three-to-four months.
"It's always hard when you have an injury and you got to be out, because you miss all those reps," Eliot said. "That frustration sets in, but you always got to look at things on a positive note. He knows that he'll be back in time for the season, so he just has got to get the mental reps until then, and then when he comes back, he's just got to be clicking on all cylinders."
In Willis's place, Cody Quinn, Fred Tiller and J.D. Harmon have gotten the majority of the work at corner.
"So we're just kind of rotating them, and different days different guys do different things good and bad," Eliot said. "It's a long ways away, so it's tough to tell who's gonna be our guys."
Stoops hopes to make progress toward decisions at corner, as well as a number of other positions, over the final week of spring. He cited running back, defensive line and wide receiver, but quarterback is of course the position drawing the most attention.
Sorting out remaining contenders Patrick Towles, Reese Phillips and Drew Barker is among Stoops' foremost priorities heading into next Saturday's Blue/White Spring Game.
"If we can figure it out in the last week, we will," Stoops said. "If not, we'll continue to work through it. We have time until our first game, but I like the progress we've made overall. We need to pick it up again next week and finish off this spring. Just overall improvement, continue to build depth."
Defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot
They had decided to narrow their options at quarterback to Patrick Towles, Reese Phillips and Drew Barker. The next step was to tell Jalen Whitlow.
"When you decide you want to coach, that's not something they go over," Brown said after practice on Wednesday. "It's never fun. It's not something that I enjoy. It's really one of the worst aspects."
The discussion happened in two parts on Tuesday afternoon and later in the evening. Stoops and Brown approached it the best way they knew how.
"I told him I cared about him, which I do," Brown said. "I want him to do what he thinks is best for him with regard to our team. But I also want to be up front and honest with him."
Honesty, in this case, came in telling Whitlow he was the odd man out at quarterback, but also explaining there would be an opportunity to play wide receiver at UK, if he chose to. Whitlow -- who started eight games in 2013 and accounted for more than 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns -- decided transferring was the best course of action.
"We were in a situation where, once we told him where we're working it out with quarterback, and asked him to play another position (and) if he'd be open to that, he decided that it'd be in his best interest to go somewhere else and play QB," Stoops said. "That's where his heart is. That's what he wants to do. I understand that."
Both the coaches and Whitlow, of course, are disappointed in the result. Stoops and Brown would have loved to have an athlete as dynamic as Whitlow at wide out, while Whitlow wanted to win the quarterback job.
That doesn't mean there are hard feelings on either side.
"I appreciate the University of Kentucky and what the coaching staff and administration have done for me," Whitlow said in a release announcing he will transfer after finishing the spring semester. "I also thank the community and the fan support I have received here. I wish the coaches and my teammates the best of luck."
The same goes for everyone involved with the UK program.
"I appreciate his contributions, I really do," Brown said. "Last year was a tough year. It wouldn't have mattered who played quarterback. It was going to be a difficult season and he weathered some things, some adversity so I'm proud of him for that."
Now, UK moves on.
Stoops and Brown both cited consistency throwing the football as the reason they have narrowed the contenders at quarterback. Last season, Whitlow gave UK the best chance to win. With the way Towles and Phillips have improved, the addition of Barker, the talented freshman, and Maxwell Smith recovering from an injury, that's changed.
"This is not a negative on Jalen," Brown said. "The other three guys are performing well. I feel good about where we're at with the quarterback position. Now we gotta go do it with the lights on, but Saturday, in a scrimmage or game atmosphere, that was the best that any quarterbacks have looked since I've been here for a calendar year."
In that scrimmage, Towles and Barker were particularly impressive.
Towles, a redshirt sophomore, made an offseason commitment to refining his mechanics. The results showed as he made a number of throws that showed why he was so highly touted when he arrived in Lexington.
"He has made tremendous strides," Brown said. "Now he's got a long way to go, Patrick does. He's still making some decisions that aren't correct and making some negative plays, but he's got tremendously better, there's no question."
Barker, meanwhile, is hardly looking like a player who went home to Burlington, Ky., a few weeks ago to attend his high school prom and has only 10 practices under his belt in UK's no-huddle attack after playing a different system at Conner High School.
"I'm not surprised because he had big talent," Brown said. "What I am excited about is the maturity that he's shown. He's shown great maturity through this. We've thrown a lot at him. It's tough."
Brown called the competition "fluid," while Stoops said UK is still "working through" the process of settling on a quarterback.
"It's hard to get four and five guys reps," Stoops said. "Listen: I want to move on. I want there to be a clear-cut winner or a starter, or at least one and two, so we can start narrowing down reps."
The first step was cutting it down to three.
"That's why we made the decision," Brown said. "We gotta get it down to a manageable number. We're hoping to do that going into fall camp. I think that was part of the issues we had last year, is we let it drag out too far we didn't get enough quality reps for Jalen or Max."
Head coach Mark Stoops
Offensive coordinator Neal Brown
The Wildcats, according to Stoops, didn't let the momentum built on Saturday go to waste.
"It was good to get out there today and put another good practice together," Stoops said. "I thought Saturday, like I said, that was one of our better days. I felt like we backed it up with a pretty good day today. We're starting to move forward, get a little bit better in each phase of the game."
Stoops didn't get into details, but his evaluation of the scrimmage was no different after viewing tape.
"I just felt like it was just better football," Stoops said. "As the head coach, you're not just worried about one side, one position group or anything like that and obviously I just felt like there was more quality football being played."
This time a year ago, it was tape from Kentucky's annual Blue-White Spring Game Stoops and his staff were watching. Now, UK still has two weeks of spring practice left. That delayed schedule is no accident.
"We went into spring ball late so we could really have some to lift and put on some weight and get stronger," Stoops said. "I feel like that's paying off."
Benefiting from a long winter in UK's High Performance program, the Wildcats entered the spring bigger, stronger and faster. Stoops has known that all along, but he got a reminder of his team's progress from a special practice guest on Monday.
Defensive line guru Pete Jenkins -- a former assistant with the Philadelphia Eagles, LSU and USC -- is continuing an annual spring tradition of observing Stoops' team and came away impressed by the difference between the team he watched Monday and the one he saw a year ago.
"Sometimes when you see it every day you want to make those steps faster, but he noticed it and told me it's a much different team, better-looking team, looks like we're more physical and all that," Stoops said. "So it's good to hear that from somebody that spends a lot of time going to a lot of spring practices and been around the block."
The positive feedback is nice, but the real reason Jenkins -- who also coached UK assistant Jimmy Brumbaugh at Auburn -- is spending time in Lexington is to be a resource as Stoops and defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot look to develop the same kind of dominant line play Florida State had.
"It's something we take great pride in," Stoops said. "It's something we did at Florida State. The better you play up front, the better you're going to be. It starts up there. I think Coach Brumbaugh does a great job of developing those guys. We got a long way to go with some young guys, but that's key for us."
The road may be long, but Stoops believes the Cats are on the right track.
"We're battling," Stoops said. "We're getting better. We've got a few young guys in there with Regie (Meant) getting better. But Mike Douglas is battling, doing a good job and Melvin's (Lewis) getting better, so we're improving."
Of course, the bookends of UK's defensive line are ends Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith. Both continue to draw rave reviews for their play and leadership, but even the two seniors who bypassed the NFL Draft have room for growth.
"I think with Bud it's his versatility, and making sure he's getting enough quality reps to continue to progress with his hand in the dirt as a great D-linemen, and then being able to get him some snaps on his feet and doing some other things and being versatile with Bud," Stoops said. "That's a matter of keep on getting reps there. With Z, you can never get enough reps. You're always getting better."
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