Cats Continue Progression at Second Scrimmage

Kentucky’s defensive group has a lot of pride.

That’s why the Wildcats spent much of the last week talking about how their performance in the first scrimmage of the fall last Saturday would not stand.

“We were harping on it all week,” sophomore cornerback Derrick Baity said. “We weren’t going back to last week. We weren’t playing. We were going to come out with enthusiasm. We were going to play more physical and just play as a unit and swarm to the ball. That’s how we came out at the beginning of the practice and how we played.”

Their intent was clear during the very first series, as the defense picked up a sack, pressured Drew Barker on another pass and forced a three-and-out.

“It was good to see the defense get some three-and-outs early and put the offense in some bad situations,” Mark Stoops said.

But to the offense’s credit, the very next drive went differently. Second string in, Stephen Johnson hit junior-college transfer Kayaune Ross, who made multiple defenders miss after the catch and raced 60 yards for a touchdown.

“Started off three and out then came right back with a 60-yard touchdown pass which was fantastic,” offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said. “That’s what we talk about: recovering and moving forward.”

The following drive, the first-team offense returned to the field and drove deep into opposing territory. The Cats would have to settle for a field goal, which was a theme on Saturday during the second scrimmage of fall camp.

“For me, with the ones it had to do with finishing,” Gran said. “We converted on third down last week and converted almost every time in the red zone. We didn’t get that done this week. That will be the emphasis this week in practice.”

Universally, that was the tone of the coaches following the scrimmage: pleased with the good, but acutely aware of the not-so-good.

“I have some mixed feelings,” Stoops said. “I think always as you move into the second big scrimmage of the year and you’re really trying to be detailed and have the fine strokes on things when it doesn’t happen it kind of frustrates you a little bit, but I think overall we got a lot accomplished again.”

At once Stoops was thinking about big plays like Baity’s athletic interception and Ross’s touchdown catch and stewing over sloppy play by UK’s second and third teams.

“When you’re in a scrimmage like this and you’re looking at every player and you’re looking at 105 guys, it has a tendency to get a little sloppy with the twos and the threes and that kind of puts a sour taste in your mouth because we need everybody,” Stoops said. “We need them to play at a high level. We’re not overly deep at certain positions, and that still looks ugly at times. That’s where we need to make the biggest jump in the next two weeks.”

Asked if he had any specific positions in mind with regard to developing depth, Stoops didn’t hesitate. It’s all about linebacker and defensive line. The good news on that front is the two units are getting better quickly.

“We certainly improved from a week ago,” Stoops said. “I was not very pleased with that a week ago. Again, that’s what’s probably most beneficial for the d-line and for the linebackers: To see it in a scrimmage situation because things are cloudy all the time when we’re thudding. To see the holes develop and all the traffic in front of them, it’s very beneficial to the linebackers. You see them make a big jump between last week and this week.”

At both positions, Stoops is reminded of last year’s secondary when they see some of UK's young talent. A season ago, Baity and Marcus Walker were backups as true freshmen to start the season. They just weren’t ready. By midseason, they were starters. Now they’re anchors of the defensive backfield.

“We’ll look at that this week and we’ll make a decision, same with the defensive line,” said Stoops of the prospect of playing freshmen at linebacker. “But I definitely think there will probably be some guys that we need to play, at least bring them along, much like you saw last year with the defensive backs. They didn’t start, but by game five, six, they were ready to go and we’ll have to do the same thing with some of these freshmen.”

Those freshmen might not be ready quite yet, but there’s a reason the Cats still have two weeks before their season opener.

“The players have worked through these first two weeks of camp extremely hard,” Stoops said. “We got an awful lot done. We certainly have pushed them. We’ve had full two-a-days when we could and got a lot of work there. We’ve had long practices. We’ve done probably 28 percent more work, 25-28 percent more work overall than we did a year ago. So they can handle it, they’re stronger, they’re in better shape and they’re doing some really good things.”