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By GUY RAMSEY, UKathletics.com
Kentucky held its third scrimmage of the spring on Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium. Throughout three practices this week and really most of the spring, the Kentucky defense had its way. After a particularly lackluster effort from the offense on Friday, Neal Brown threw down the gauntlet to his offensive troops heading into a Saturday scrimmage.
“We were just trying to respond,” sophomore running back Josh Clemons said. “Yesterday the defense got after us a little bit and Coach got onto us and motivated us to come out here and get the job done today.”
Mark Stoops said UK’s third scrimmage was the offense’s best day of the spring. Some of that can be chalked up to the natural “ebb and flow” of spring football – borrowing Brown’s words – but Saturday marked a significant step forward as the Wildcats install a new offensive system.
“Today was really the first day that I thought we looked like an SEC offense,” offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. “I thought our guys competed hard today, they had good energy, we finished plays, and they had fun.”
Many of the mistakes that have plagued UK throughout the spring – turnovers, penalties, dropped passes, missed assignments – disappeared for a day. As a result, the offense was able to both sustain long drives and hit big plays as the Cats worked for the first time in Commonwealth Stadium, the site of next week’s Blue/White Spring Game.
“I think for the first time since I’ve been here I had one side really take over and make some plays and dominate a practice or a scrimmage,” Stoops said.
Fans hearing about the offense’s good day will likely picture the ball flying all over the field in Brown’s Air Raid attack, and quarterbacks Maxwell Smith, Patrick Towles and Jalen Whitlow did have their best day as a group. The importance of the run, however, should not be dismissed.
“We ran the ball better, which if you run the ball, you can have some opportunities to hit some big play-action passes,” Brown said.
The perception that UK’s new system is about throwing the ball is wrong to begin with, but considering running back is arguably the deepest and most talented position on the offense, the ground game could become ever more vital.
Jonathan George and especially Raymond Sanders – the two seniors at the position – have consistently impressed throughout the spring and they did so again on Saturday. But it was another player – one who didn’t dress once last season – who ripped off the biggest run of the scrimmage on a long touchdown that sounds vaguely similar to an 87-yard run he had back in 2011, at least based on the description of those who saw it.
“I thought Josh Clemons really stood out today,” Brown said. “He had a couple of nice runs. That was encouraging. He hit one big run up the side.”
The redshirt sophomore is still practicing only every other day as he tries to round back into form after missing a season and a half with a knee injury, but Clemons’ confidence is growing by the carry.
“I’m feeling great,” Clemons said. “I’m not really thinking about it anymore, just going out there and trying to get better and shake off those cobwebs from however long I was out.”
Brown wasn’t willing to say Clemons is back to 100 percent just yet, but it means something that he is beginning to feel like he is.
“That’s the hardest thing with knees, is mentally,” Brown said. “… And if he mentally is there, that’s a huge, huge breaking point really. There’s probably some things he can get better at, but I was big-time encouraged with him today.”
Sanders and George, at least right now, might be better-suited for catching the ball – something backs will be consistently asked to do – but there’s plenty of room for a bruising back like Clemons.
“Ray’s shifty and probably a little bit better out of the backfield and motion-wise and some things, but Josh is a one-cut, downhill (runner),” Brown said. “He’s a load to tackle, and (Dyshawn) Mobley is the same way. Those guys are hard, physical runners.”
There was plenty to be positive about in the passing game as well.
Demarco Robinson overcame a stomach virus to give UK a consistent threat at wide receiver, while A.J. Legree came up with some important third-down catches and Rashad Cunningham made progress. Junior-college transfer Steven Borden had his best day of the spring at tight end, while Jordan Aumiller and Tyler Robinson made a couple plays of their own.
But a good day for the offense means the opposite for the defense. UK’s line – the defense’s most consistent unit this spring – had its moments, but the defense as a whole will need to respond just as the offense did on Saturday.
“The defense came hard last scrimmage, but I guess we held back and let the offense come back and put pressure on us,” defensive end Za’Darius Smith said. “But we just gotta keep working, that’s the main thing.”
The good news is the Cats still have three practices and the spring game to do just that.
“We’ll put the best product we can out there next Saturday,” Stoops said. “We’ll prepare hard this week. We’ve got a lot to get better at. We’ve got to make each practice count and each rep count to get better today, this week. And we’ll do that.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
To perhaps get your mind off Kentucky’s disappointing loss at Tennessee Saturday in basketball, take a look at what UK running backs coach Chad Scott has to say about some returning UK players.
Question: Have you had a chance to evaluate the returning running backs yet?
Scott: “I have. Last year the two guys they used for the most part were Raymond Sanders and Jonathan George. Those guys played really well. Even though it is a spread offense, the run game is downhill. Sanders has the ability where we can use him as a running back and slot receiver and find ways to get him the ball in space. George, we will play more with him in the pistol because he is more of a downhill runner and will be very effective in short yardage and goal-line situations. So those two kids coming back with experience they have in the SEC is huge for us.”
Question: What about Josh Clemons, who redshirted last year because of his knee, and Dyshawn Mobley, who played sparingly as a true freshman?
Scott: “Mobley not play as much, so it is kind of hard to give him a fair assessment. We have to wait and see in spring ball and see how he does. With (Justin) Taylor being redshirted, we will have to wait and see what he does. Clemons, his freshman year he showed a lot of promise and what he can do. We are confident he has that ability. It’s just whether or not his injury lets him come back and do it again.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Sophomore Josh Clemons, UK’s leading rusher last year when he injured his knee midway of the season, likely will be redshirted — a decision that seems right for him and Kentucky.
“Josh is again week to week and not getting any better,” Phillips said earlier this week. “The further along we get, we will have to make a decision about whether to redshirt him.”
Phillips indicated Thursday that Clemons “likely” would be redshirted because of the knee failing to respond since he’s already missed four games and is not close to being ready to play again. All summer several sources close to the team predicted Clemons would not be able to play and four games into the season it seems clear he needs the redshirt year.
He said it is the “same” with sophomore safety Glen Faulkner, who injured an ankle in the preseason. Phillips said he will be out another two to three weeks.
“Is that enough time to get him ready and use up a year of eligibility,” Phillips said.
The answer obviously is no and Faulkner should be redshirted, too, because that’s best for him and the the program.
Clemons and Faulkner were two of the top players in UK’s 2011 recruiting class. Faulkner did not get cleared to play academically until just before preseason practice opened and then played sparingly last year.
By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky’s brightest offensive performer early last season was freshman running back Josh Clemons — and then he tore his meniscus in game six at South Carolina and had the knee injury end his season.
He was leading the team with 279 yards rushing and both of his touchdowns were game-winning plays, a 14-yard run against Western Kentucky and 87-yarder against Central Michigan. That 87-yard run was the longest by a UK player since 1979.
Clemons established himself as a legitimate threat when he ran for 69 yards against LSU, which used its defense to reach the national title game.
“(Trainer) Jim (Madeleno) thinks he will be ready for training camp. He will be one of those guys that goes two days, off a day, then goes two more days, then off,” Kentucky coach Joker Phillips said during the Southeastern Conference Media Days. “We are just hoping that everything that goes well for him because he is such a good kid and such a good player for us. He is one of the leaders of this football team and we need him on the field for us.”
If Clemons is not 100 percent early in the season, Phillips says the coaching staff might have to at least consider redshirting him rather than having him available for only part of the year.
“That is in the back of our mind that we will have to consider if he is not ready, but we and Jim think he will have a chance to be ready for us,” Phillips said.
One reason Phillips might even be able to consider a redshirt for Clemons if he’s not ready early is the depth the Cats have at running back.
Junior Raymond Sanders is healthy and has rushed for 409 yards. Senior CoShik Williams led the team with 486 yards and three scores last season after injuries to Clemons and Sanders gave him a chance to play.
“We have four running backs (Clemons, Raymond Sanders, CoShik Williams, Jonathan George) who have already played and are bringing in two quality backs (Dyshawn Mobley, Justin Taylor),” Phillips said. “Now we are going to have two 220-pound running backs (Mobley, Taylor) in the program.
“This is a grown man’s league. If you have 185-, 190-pound backs, it takes five or six of them to get through a season. Now we have bigger backs. That gives us a chance to have guys who can play every down. Dyshawn Mobley dead lifted 630 pounds three times. That is pretty dang good for a freshman coming in who has not been in the program but for a few weeks.
“Again, the quarterback position and the running back position I think will be the two positions that will have the most competition. Mobley and Taylor add quality depth to a position that already has some experience.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky running backs coach Steve Pardue offered this update on sophomore Josh Clemons, UK’s biggest playmaker last season as a true freshman before he was injured, going into UK’s final week of spring practice before the Blue-White Game Saturday at 6 p.m.
Question: How is Josh Clemons coming along after knee surgery that ended his freshman year after six games when he was leading the team with 279 yards rushing and two touchdowns?
Pardue: â€œUnfortunately, the trainer spends more time with him than I do. I feel good about him mentally. He is in all my meetings and is with us in groups. The thing about Josh is that heâ€™s a mature kid. A lot of kids his age, they canâ€™t handle being injured. They kind of turn off the learning switch, but he hasnâ€™t. He is pretty much on top of everything. It definitely hurts you not getting reps, but we are all on the same page. We need him in August a lot more than we need him now. If we err, we want to err on the side of caution a little bit.â€
Question: If heâ€™s cleared to play in August, how hard will it be for him to get back in game shape physically and mentally?
Pardue: â€œAgain, he is so mature. He takes cares of his body. A lot of it will be when does he get to start training all the time again. I donâ€™t see it being a problem. I really donâ€™t. Again, I learned my first year last year that you canâ€™t have enough of those guys. Really, my goal is to have six guys that I feel good putting in there. So I definitely see Josh being in that rotation of guys.â€