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UK held its annual Blue/White Spring Game on Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics) UK held its annual Blue/White Spring Game on Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Kentucky fans listened all spring to the talk about how their team had improved since the Wildcats last took the field in November.

They heard from Mark Stoops about the way an extended winter in UK's High Performance program had made the Cats bigger, stronger and faster. They hoped that the seven newcomers who enrolled in January would add some much-needed depth and talent. They expected a full year in a new system would do the veterans some good.

During the Blue/White Spring Game, fans got to see their team back up the talk.

"You feel much better," Stoops said, reflecting on his team's progress over the past year. "You know, I really tried not to ever, you know, throw everybody under the bus, including myself and the team, but we just weren't very good. We're better. We're still not where we need to be but we're better. We're at that point where you can really start to feel that improvement."

The 35,117 fans in attendance at Commonwealth Stadium -- UK's second-largest crowd ever for a spring game -- and those watching at home felt it too.

A year ago, the record-setting crowd was there to celebrate where everyone believed UK could go in the future more than anything else. On Saturday, those fans were able to celebrate what the Cats are starting to become.

"We know what to do," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "We're more talented. We're not where we need to be. We need more talent. I think that's obvious. I would like for our White team to be more competitive at times. I thought they were earlier in the game."

UK's need for more depth was evidenced by the final score, a 38-14 Blue team victory. Comprised almost entirely by first teamers, Blue outscored White 31-7 after an even first quarter. All told, the Blue team rolled up 437 yards of offense and held White to 165.

"We are by no means a finished product, but I felt like we've improved, certainly from the fall," Stoops said. "This spring we are getting better. Got a long way to go. But overall, I was very happy with the team's energy. They have been solid all spring, really."

Unwilling to show some of the wrinkles installed this spring, the Cats kept it relatively "vanilla" on both sides of the ball. Stoops may have avoided emptying his bag of tricks, but UK's progress was on display anyway.

"I think we have improved mentality-wise," Bud Dupree said. "We have the same team except a couple guys, so we have to have the same mentality to want to, to want to get better, to want to do it and the want to produce."

UK was particularly productive in the ground game, with top running backs Braylon Heard, Jojo Kemp, Josh Clemons and Mikel Horton combining for 308 rushing yards and four touchdowns.

Kemp, a sophomore, led the way with 11 carries for 90 yards and two touchdowns to go with two catches for 41 yards. The highlight -- and arguably the highlight of the scrimmage -- was his 48-yard burst down the sideline, the last 10 yards of which he spent high-stepping into the end zone.

"It's just me out there having fun, celebrating, keeping the fans interested," Kemp said. "In the regular season, I'm not going to be doing that. You'll probably see me on the sideline because we don't want that to be called back."

Kemp will be wise to be more measured in his celebrations because he and his fellow runners figure to have more such opportunities in 2014. UK will of course throw the ball in Brown's Air Raid attack, but the Cats would be unwise to neglect running the football stable of backs as deep and diverse as this one

"We gotta have something to hang our hat on," Brown said. "I think right now we're pretty good at running the ball and our play-action's pretty good. We hit a couple big play-action plays today."

Throwing those play-action passes were quarterbacks Patrick Towles, Reese Phillips and Drew Barker.

Towles started -- which, as Stoops said Friday, meant "he earned the right to go out there with the first group" -- and displayed the improvement his coaches have raved about all spring. With fleeter feet and a quicker release, Towles looked the part of a Southeastern Conference quarterback in leading the Blue team to a touchdown in the game's first drive.

"As you saw today, I'm a totally different player than I was last year," Towles said. "I mean, it's night and day. I'm excited about where we're at as a team, I'm excited about where we're at as an offense and I'm excited about where we're going."

Towles completed 11 of 15 passes for 126 yards, his most impressive work coming on the final drive of the first half. Starting on his own 19 with just 53 seconds on the clock, Towles completed 6 of 7 passes for 54 yards to set Austin MacGinnis up for a 40-yard field goal as time expired.

"That was big," Brown said. "That's things we gotta do. ... He threw them on the sidelines. He understood that the ball had to be on the sideline. He got it outside. He didn't miss it inside. Those are key things, without question."

Towles' lone major mistake came just minutes prior, when he fired a screen pass too close to Za'Darius Smith. The 6-foot-6 defensive end snared it in midair and returned it 13 yards before Towles wrapped him up. With the quarterbacks wearing black jerseys protecting them from contact, the play was blown dead even though Smith kept his feet and sprinted for what he thought was a touchdown.

"I didn't even feel him," said Smith, who added a sack and 1.5 tackles for loss. "I just was thinking about the end zone, the ball going into the end zone."

On the next play, Blue's offense finished the job. Phillips hit Steven Borden for a 17-yard score, one of two passing touchdowns for the redshirt freshman, in a 7-of-11, 74-yard performance representative of the kind of consistency that makes him a factor in this quarterback race.

"He makes a lot of good decisions," Brown said. "He does not make big negative plays. He's not gonna do things that hurt you, that put you in bad situations."

Barker, a true freshman who attended his high-school prom mere weeks ago, is still working on eliminating some of those mistakes. He had his moments on Saturday -- most notably a 30-yard touchdown strike that hit Demarco Robinson in stride and closed out the scoring -- but it wasn't his best day of the spring.

"I had definitely struggled all day and I felt like I got a monkey off my back (with the touchdown pass)," said Barker, who completed 7 of 19 passes for 74 yards. "It was good but, like I said, but I would like to have done better."

Spring game aside, Barker is still very much a contender. And as Stoops has reiterated all spring, UK will be better at quarterback regardless who wins the job.

"I think when we have everybody healthy, all the quarterbacks will look better," Stoops said. "So there's no decision yet. I'm proud of the effort Pat has done and I really like the other two, as well. I think the other two are great quarterbacks and certainly had some great days this spring. So we'll see."

Stoops would put no timetable on a decision, saying only that he and Brown will meet in the coming week to determine how they will move forward.

"We are going to go back and look at this tape and we'll look at the spring in its entirety and look at all the drives and everything we've been through and we'll sit down next week and see where we are at as a staff," Stoops said.

Offensive coordinator Neal Brown

Patrick Towles


Reese Phillips


Drew Barker



Video: Stoops' spring game press conference

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Video: Blue/White Spring Game highlights

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Live blog: Blue/White Spring Game 2014

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Stoops on final practice before spring game


For months now, the Kentucky Wildcats have worked toward the Blue/White Spring Game.

It's been since November that the Cats have taken the field in front of a crowd, first dedicating themselves to UK's High Performance program and most recently toiling through a month of spring practice.

But with barely 24 hours to go before fans pack Commonwealth Stadium, the Cats weren't about to let a Friday practice go to waste.

"I think the guys are excited," Mark Stoops said. "It gets a little long towards the end of spring here at the end of our fourth week. But I was very pleased with the work we got done. I think we made progress even again today. It was good."

UK moved its final practice before the spring game indoors due to rain, working without pads. Stoops reported it was an efficient day, particularly in the passing game.

"Starting to make the routine plays look routine," Stoops said.

It's Stoops' belief that the progress UK has made since the end of the 2013 season will be on display on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET. The thousands of fans expected to fill Commonwealth -- which will have a reduced capacity of approximately 42,500 due to ongoing construction -- certainly deserve a show.

"Appreciate the support," Stoops said. "I think the 40-some thousand that come out there this year are going to have more fun than they did last year when we hit 50. We'll be better. There will be more to cheer for. We look forward to it, appreciate the support. It's so helpful in so many ways, so we're going to have a good time."

Injuries have piled up as the spring has gone on, creating some stress for Stoops ahead of the spring game. But with Ryan Timmons, Thaddeus Snodgrass and Joey Herrick all expected to participate, UK will be "all right" at wide receiver -- the position hit hardest -- according to offensive coordinator Neal Brown.

The Cats will play this year's spring game with a very similar format to the one held last April. The game will pit first stringers vs. the rest of the team "for the most part," with a handful of players able to change sides if need be. The game is expected to feature 12-minute quarters.

"The first half will be normal outside of just shortened a little bit," Stoops said. "So we'll get after it the first half. The second half, if we're getting enough plays we may run the clock a little bit in the fourth quarter. But for the most part, it's gonna be a normal game outside of the live kicking situations."

There will be no returns on punts, no rush on field goals and no kickoffs. Quarterbacks will be protected from contact.

Speaking of the signal callers, a year ago Maxwell Smith, Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles all were on the field for the spring game's first play. The move was both a show of the coaching staff's sense of humor an evidence of just how even the quarterback battle was.

This year, only one quarterback will be on the field to open the game. By no means is that quarterback guaranteed to start come August, but Stoops admitted the significance of the spring game starter should not be dismissed.

"I think it gives you a little indication," Stoops said. "I mean, sure. I'd be lying if I said (otherwise). Last year it really was a toss-up. This year, I think we're starting to narrow it down. We'll put the person out there with the first group that we think has earned the right to go out there with the first group tomorrow. I think it's very close still -- it's very close -- but we'll see."

Close as the battle still may be, improved quarterback play has been a consistent theme this spring. That, however, isn't the biggest reason for encouragement. The culture surrounding the program, as Stoops has always wanted, continues to change.

"I love the leadership," Stoops said. "I like the energy of our team. I think we're learning how to work, learning how to go about our business, and fundamentally we're improving. Because we're getting the leadership, we're getting the guys challenging guys, we're getting out there with a purpose and getting some work done."

Brown after Friday practice


Video: Marrow mic'd up at spring practice

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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


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