Building Blocks in Place after Solid Spring
Kentucky has had its best spring of Mark Stoops’ tenure, but the Wildcats needed to put a bow on it with a solid outing at the Blue-White Spring Game.
On a perfect Saturday afternoon at Commonwealth Stadium, they did exactly that.
“As I mentioned to you after practice from time to time I feel like we made a lot of growth,” Stoops said. “I feel like our team has grown up a bunch. We have had a longer winter and more strenuous spring and they really worked hard to keep their concentration and work hard. I thought we wrapped it up with a good clean game today.”
In a scrimmage that featured plenty of big plays matched with solid execution on both sides of the ball, Blue – made up of UK’s first string and a handful of fill-ins – came out on top against White, 31-20.
“I think you want to have some offense, you want to have some fun,” Stoops said. “You want your fans encouraged walking off the field. But that's always tough for me because early in the scrimmage I was proud of the defense and fundamentally doing some good things and making some plays and as you hear me talk about from time to time, you want competitive plays.
“I don't want one side having success because the other's inept. I thought there was some good competitive plays and the offense had to earn their yards and we did stay vanilla.”
Leading two of the Blue team’s scoring drives was quarterback Drew Barker, who completed 12-of-18 passes for 156 yards and two touchdowns. He tossed a second-quarter interception, but quickly bounced back to guide a 10-play two-minute drill punctuated by an impressive throw and catch in traffic to tight end C.J. Conrad.
“I feel like I’ve been a lot more comfortable in the pocket due to Coach (Darin) Hinshaw – the footwork drills, and everything that he has taught us,” Barker said. “I feel like that has been a big improvement for me from last year. I guess the game is kind of slowed down a little bit. I think the experience I got, the little bit of experience I got last year kind of helped me and is going to help me in the future.”
Following the game, Stoops announced Barker would be UK’s starter at quarterback entering the fall over Stephen Johnson, whom offensive coordinator Eddie Gran credited in part for Barker’s play.
“In those four or five weeks (Barker) just kept continuing to get better,” Gran said. “And Stephen Johnson is pushing him. I think that helped more than anything else. And Stephen’s still competing for that job, but going out of the spring Drew is our starting quarterback. He earned it, but it’s wonderful to have another guy like that behind him that’s competing.”
“That's the nice thing to see about Drew is I thought he was very, very consistent this spring and really this whole offseason,” Stoops said. “So he needs to continue to stay the course there and stay consistent with his approach in just the way he's handling everything, off the field, academically, being a leader of this team and the offense, and I'm pleased with his growth.”
Stoops isn’t the only one who’s noticed Barker’s development both on and off the field.
“It’s crazy since the first time I saw Drew to the Drew now,” said wide receiver Jeff Badet, who had three catches for 107 yards and two touchdowns. “He’s a leader, used to everything, and calm and collected. You can tell he knows what he’s doing back there.”
On defense, the secondary entered the spring as UK’s clear strength on paper. With gifted sophomores Chris Westry, Derrick Baity, Marcus Walker and Darius West all back after seeing extended time in their debut seasons to go with veterans Blake McClain, Marcus McWilson, Kendall Randolph and J.D. Harmon, that made sense.
This spring, the Cats’ defensive backs backed up the talk.
“I think overall in the secondary we're playing better,” Stoops said. “You see the depth.”
The headliner in UK’s secondary is Westry, the rangy 6-foot-4 cornerback who was named the Southeastern Conference All-Freshman Team. Not a single pass thrown in Westry’s direction was completed on Saturday.
“When I see the ball going down the field on his side, like immediately I'm like, that's not going to be complete,” Stoops said. “Because I feel like it's just not going to happen. I know a couple times as I was standing behind the quarterbacks and watching them challenge him down the field, I thought that was a very low percentage that we were going to complete that. And that was true.”
Westry is far from UK’s only playmaker in the defensive backfield though.
“Each and every guy in our secondary we have faith in,” Westry said. “Really, in my opinion, we really don’t have one, two or three deep, we are all really just ones. We all go out there and grind and like I said you either win or lose and most the time we want to win.”
With a starting quarterback and defensive backbone in place, the Cats will head into the summer and fall camp. It’s time to keep improving.
“I'm more confident in our team and we better be, as you move on and you get more and more guys and I feel like we're getting our quality of player is getting better and better and we keep on adding depth to this team, we're moving in the right direction,” Stoops said. “You could never have enough talent either. You got competition that breeds success and you need a bunch of football players. It's a long year and we need 60, 70 guys that look the part. We're probably half that right now.”