By GUY RAMSEY, UK Athletics
Mark Stoops was running down his team’s schedule for the week, describing a planned full-contact Saturday practice to assembled media. Wheels churning, he decided on the spot to open the practice.
What Stoops wants, Stoops gets. He is the head coach after all.
“It’s a beautiful day,” Stoops said. “It’s nice to get out here. And I know y’all needed to get in here and watch a practice. You know, I got nothing to hide.”
The goal of opening practice to fans and reporters was to see how players executed the things they’ve been working on through four practices in a live environment. Stoops and his staff got exactly that on a sunny Saturday morning and early afternoon at Commonwealth Stadium.
“We just wanted to say, ‘Hey, do what you know right now. Let’s see what happens,’ ” new offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said. “You’re in the stadium. You got some people out here. That was fun. It’s tackle and so when the bullets were flying how do you react?”
Though there were some inevitable bumps and miscues, the answer, overall, was encouraging.
“There was a real chance they could have come and had a letdown,” Gran said. “We had a pretty good practice on Thursday and they matched the intensity. That’s what I was excited about.”
There were good and bad plays on both sides of the ball, with the first-team offense getting the better of the action against its counterpart and the second-team defense doing the same.
“For the first scrimmage, I thought that are twos did a good job,” defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. “You gotta have depth and nobody’s earned a job. Maybe some of those guys will get into the starting lineup.”
A player whose spot is as secure as any on the defense is linebacker Courtney Love, though even he is still learning UK’s defensive scheme. The Nebraska transfer has been named a leader by nearly every coach and teammate, with Stoops leading the pack.
“He’s real important, because as you’ve heard us talk about, he’s special when it comes to a person and leadership. He’s special. He’s way above the norm. And he’s a great kid. I think that’s important to have in your locker room.”
Considering the presence he’s so consistently provided, it should come as no surprise that he was the first to say the defense needs to step up after Saturday.
“The first team, we got scored on every time,” Love said. “We gotta come back and we gotta respond to that. We gotta stop the offense every chance we get next time. We’re going to get another chance, we’re going to get another opportunity and we’re going to have to make 100 percent out of those opportunities every day.”
But it wasn’t that the first-team defense was all bad. The offense opposing it was good too.
With bruising back Mikel Horton – who sustained a leg injury Stoops believes is minor – taking advantage, UK created plenty of running room.
“You have to have that,” Stoops said. “You hear me talk about it and anybody – you watch enough football – you have to have some balance. I don’t care what the numbers say, but you have to have some physicality about you to get the tough yards and move it when you can and we’re seeing some of that.”
With the running game functioning well, Drew Barker was able to thrive in the passing game. He took all first-team reps in the full-scrimmage portion of the practice and played well. And once UK hit the red zone, he often looked for C.J. Conrad. The versatile sophomore tight end – who caught a pretty play-action pass for a touchdown on the final play of the practice – looks to poised to have a big year in Gran’s offense.
“That’s what he brings to the table,” Gran said. “Matched him up out there with a linebacker and ran a corner route, and that’s what you want to do. You hope you can win those battles more often than not, so that was really good. It’s nice that you don’t have to change personnel and you can split him out.”
Conrad is making the leap you’d expect in his second year, and the same is true for UK as a team in Stoops’ fourth season. UK’s capacity is growing rapidly.
“We’re nowhere near where we want to be, but our guys are able to handle more,” Stoops said. “We’ve been grinding these guys early in the morning throughout the week. We let them sleep in today – our first meeting was at 9 – but they handle work from 9 until 1. That’s all we’re allowed in a day: four hours. They’re able to do that now. That’s an improvement.”
And with that long day, the Cats did not lapse.
“They’re concentrating more,” Stoops said. “Like I said, we’ve got a long way to go, but I like the way we’re competing. You can see. For yourselves today offensively, the tempo, the attitude, those guys are doing some good things. We have a long way to go, but it’s a good starting point.”