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By LARRY VAUGHT
Linebacker Avery Williamson, Kentucky’s leading tackler last season, said it wasn’t hard to see why Western Kentucky amassed 487 yards and was able to run 75 plays in last week’s 35-26 win over UK.
“Just a lot of missed assignments and guys not being in the right spots, including myself,” said Williamson, who had a game-high 14 tackles.
“I felt like we were prepared and that everybody knew what to do. But when we got in that atmosphere (at the stadium) and when things didn’t go our way, we weren’t thinking too clear sometimes. That surprised me.”
It did UK coach Mark Stoops, a long-time defensive coordinator, too.
“One of the things I’m most disappointed in is the things that we should’ve played better than we did. The things we were in position to play better and we just didn’t do it. We’ve got to go back to work and it starts with fundamentals,” Stoops said.
That’s one reason Travaughn Paschal will start at outside linebacker in place of Khalid Henderson when UK hosts Miami (Ohio) Saturday in its home opener. Miami lost 52-14 at Marshall last week.
“We just have to play him. We have to get him on the field. I just feel like we have not been playing winning football at linebacker. We need to improve,” Stoops said.
He wasn’t any happier with the secondary play that gave up 271 passing yards.
“Not good enough. We need to improve, again, it’s a team loss,” Stoops said. “We’re all in this together, but we didn’t play good enough at a lot of positions. We played poorly in the secondary. I was very disappointed with position on the football. That’s what I talked about going into the game, our awareness on a couple things was very poor.”
Williamson, a senior, believes UK will show dramatic improvement this week.
“I feel like we did some great things to build on. We got turnovers. We got run stops at times. We just have to tackle better. That is the biggest thing,” Williamson said. “I did feel like our scheme was simpler this year, but biggest thing was just not filling run gaps. You have to stop the run and we didn’t fill gaps at linebacker and sometimes at D-line, too. Sometimes linebackers didn’t get over top and that caused problems. We have to learn to take better angles. I expect full focus from everybody this week.”
His message to teammates has been simple.
“Just be more aggressive. We’ve got to be more aggressive and downhill and make tackles. We knew what had to do and guys just had first-game jitters,” Williamson said. “Younger guys were just a little bit anxious to get out there. And we just were kind of timid I feel like some plays. I feel like I wasn’t aggressive enough. That loss hurt a lot. It kills me. I’ve got to keep my head up, be a leader. I’ve got to show these guys I’m not going to give up. I’ve got to keep the young guys up and keep fighting.”
Williamson was a bit perplexed when junior defensive end Bud Dupree admitted the Cats might have been “overconfident” despite going 2-10 last year and losing to Western in overtime.
“I felt like we were pretty confident. Maybe a little bit too confident,” Williamson said. “We felt like we were doing everything perfect preparing. It was tough taking a loss when you feel you have been doing everything right. Fans were really excited, and I hope they still are. We just have to worry about the team now and go play. But we know we let a lot of people down last week.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky senior tight end Jordan Aumiller didn’t mince words about UK’s 2-10 season in 2012 that cost coach Joker Phillips and his staff their jobs when he said it wasn’t “fun for any UK fan or player.”
But will this year be different? Kentucky coach Mark Stoops is facing a schedule loaded with ranked teams and a season-opening game against Western Kentucky and new coach Bobby Petrino — the coach some thought would have been a good fit for UK when Phillips was fired.
Returning players have been careful to try and avoid criticizing last year’s staff that featured a way too complex defense put together by Rick Minter, an offense that apparently was equally difficult to learn under Randy Sanders and lack of confidence that the Cats could win.
Yet when the players have been asked questions, they have answered freely and the insights help explain why last year was bad. Very bad. It also justifies why fans were right to bail out on Phillips when they did in spite of his contributions to Kentucky as a player and coach.
Sophomore linebacker Khalid Henderson didn’t hold back when asked how frustrating it was last year trying to understand the defense.
“It was really frustrating. Even though it was my freshman year, I knew that was not the right process going into a game and not knowing what was going on on the field. That’s all I will say about last year. It was hard to adjust and play,” said Henderson.
Is football more fun this year?
“I would say that. Everybody is coming to practice ready to practice and wanting to practice. People want to get better and I love that about going into this season,” Henderson said. “It was not like that toward the end last year. There were a lot of shameful moments then, but we are looking forward to this season now. It’s completely different.”
Wow! Shameful moments and players not even wanting to practice. No wonder Vanderbilt embarrassed UK late last season and the Cats were no match for a poor Tennessee team.
Having senior Avery Williamson, UK’s top tackler last season, anchoring the middle linebacker spot helps sophomore Khalid Henderson, an outside linebacker, in a lot of ways.
“He is a great leader. He told us this summer it was his senior year and he wanted to go out on top and I am pretty sure everybody is behind him and wants to see him go out as the man,” Henderson said. “From my standpoint, he’s always been like a big brother to me from the time I came on my official visit.
“One reason I came here was to follow his footsteps because he really motivated me. I could see it in his eyes. If you see somebody that wants to be great, you want to follow in his footsteps and it motivates you to do better. I just view him as a big brother and I try to always follow behind.
“But we all feel that way. He is a strong guy with the experience and other qualities to go with that talent, so everybody does look up to him and wants to play well like he does so our team can win.”
Khalid Henderson knows there are questions about Kentucky’s linebackers other than Avery Williamson, the team’s top tackler last season, going into this year.
However, he also says other players are using that as motivation.
“It motivates us, but we know we are the quarterback of the defense and that everything will come through us. Everything is communicated out of our mouths,” said Henderson, a sophomore. “I feel that we already have responsibility and we can handle it this season. People will know about us this season. I feel like the defense is going to be really good. Very multiple, but still simplistic from a defensive standpoint. Everybody is going to know what to do and have the ability to make plays.”
Henderson finished spring practice as the starter at weakside linebacker. He played in all 12 games last year and had 26 tackles, including five against both Mississippi State and Vanderbilt late in the season.
He’s been timed in the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds and was rated the No. 19 outside linebacker in the nation by ESPN and the No. 17 prospect in Georgia coming out of high school. He ran the 100- and 200-meter dashes along with both hurdles in high school and also competed in the triple and long jumps.
“I just feel like I am having more of a motor this year and I am in a good position. I feel like I can go into the season and make big plays and accomplish a lot,” Henderson said. “I have got more explosive. The high performance program we had this summer really helped me out. It helped me key the things I wanted to. Everybody had an adjustable program for themselves and how they wanted to build their bodies up. I was able to add bonuses to my appearance. I loved the work, too.”
Henderson, a National Honor member in high school, has more confidence in the overall defensive scheme this year under coordinator D.J. Eliot than he had last year.
“It will feel great having confidence going into a game and having that ability knowing where everybody should be and having the ability on the defense to communicate with everybody,” Henderson said. “That’s the only way it is going to work. Everybody has to be on the same page, and we were not last year. If one man is off, it messes up everything. Being simplistic and everybody knowing what to do is going to make the defense stronger as a whole.
“The defense can be a lot better this year. Talent alone will not get you a win in this league. It has to come from a mental standpoint, physical standpoint and confidence. If everybody works as a unit, that is how you get a win.”
He says the overall team confidence and morale is much better this year than it was last season.
“It is a big difference. Fan support, team support and a family environment within the facility. We are building off that,” Henderson said.
He says Eliot, who coaches the linebackers, is a “unique coach” to play for.
“Off the field, it’s more a personal standpoint. You can talk to him and any type question you want to ask him, he will answer your question in detail. On the field, it is strictly business. He’s the coach and he handles it that way,” Henderson said.
By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky players got to see the angry side of coach Mark Stoops Friday.
For the first time since he was hired in December, Stoops was not happy with his team’s effort in practice and did not mince words about it.
“Very poor day, to be honest with you. Very frustrated. Had to start certain segments over again today. Just very weak mentally, physically. Just a very average day. So very disappointed,” Stoops said.
Stoops said not to think it was just coaching rhetoric at this point in preseason training camp that had him blasting his team.
“If I’m happy, I tell you. If I’m disappointed, I tell you. There’s no game, there’s no reason. I don’t have it on my calendar to be mad today. Just disappointed,” Stoops said. “I was loud. I was not happy, let’s put it that way. We got to have some more pride about what we do. We got to have some more leadership. We got to have some more toughness. And we didn’t have any of that today.”
Stoops wasn’t through, either.
“Mentally weak. Physically weak. Just a lack of focus to details and pushing yourself to do the right things. Just execution,” he said. “Execution always looks worse on the offense because they’ve got to do things even on error. So I was just disappointed all the way around because I thought we were very poor execution-wise on defense and on offense.”
Stoops hoped players were mad at him when practice ended.
“If they’re not, then we’ve got real issues, because I’ve said all along, I believe we have good kids here, and they mean well, but we have to have some toughness to us, some fight about us, or we’re going to have a long year,” Stoops said.
“We wasted it today. That’s exactly what I told them, we wasted the day. Wasted the morning.”
Did the players know how upset he was, especially with a full scrimmage slated for Saturday?
“I think they had a pretty clear picture of it today. They could see when I’m upset,” Stoops said.
Linebacker Khalid Henderson said Stoops’ message was not hard to understand.
“We just had a bad day and he let us know. We know it, he knew it. It was unacceptable and we won’t let it happen again,” Henderson said.
“I think they know we got a lot of improvement to do. And I don’t want to — it is what it is. I’m not going to sit here and beat down negatives every day. We’ve got to get better, and we know that. They’re working to get better. But today we didn’t,” Stoops said.
He admitted that Florida State sometimes had similar practices when he was defensive coordinator there.
“When you’re going through this many practices, there’s going to be some that are not as good. But we can’t afford it. We’re not good enough to waste reps and to go out here and go through the motions,” Stoops said. “And more than anything, it’s just our habits and our attitude that we need to change and we need to get better.
“And that’s got to come. Our coaches do a great job. We’ll motivate when we have to. I’ll motivate when we have to and all that. But you have to have some of that from the team. Some pride about that that comes up through the team that pushes everybody, that gets everybody on the same page, and have some pride about what we do.”
He played in all 12 games last season as a reserve linebacker and special teams player, but now Kentucky sophomore Khalid Henderson is expecting more. “I know more about what to expect and what I can do,” said Henderson, who made 26 tackles in 2012.
He had five tackles against both Vanderbilt and Mississippi State when his playing time increased late last season. Here’s what Henderson had to say about how spring practice.
Question: How do you think practice has been going?
Henderson: “Things have been going good so far. Offseason looked real good and excited about spring football.”
Question: What did you work on the most in the offseason?
Henderson: “Just working on my size and explosion. I wanted to be more explosive this year and I wanted to have time to learn the defense. I am weighing about 225, which is about the same as last year. They didn’t really emphasize my weight gain. They felt I was good where I was at because of my body mass and wanted to keep me lean so I would keep my explosion and speed.”
Question: How is this system different from last year?
Henderson: “It is different as far as the snap point. It is simplistic, but it also multiple at the same time. To me, it is easy coming out of high school because we ran the same defense in high school. So that has made it easier for me.”
Question: Will there be more big plays out of you this year then?
Henderson: “Oh yeah. Lot more. The instincts are still very familiar in my head, so I feel like I will be a big playmaker this year.”
Question: Was defense last year too complicated that it prevented playmaking?
Henderson: “I think that is right. There was a lot of bad communication from the sideline to the field that left us all in a blur at times on the field. This year should be better. It is very simplistic.”
Question: How is defensive coordinator/linebacker coach D.J. Eliot different from Chuck Smith, your linebacker coach last year?
Henderson: “Coach Eliot is very vocal. He will let you know if you are doing it wrong and tell you. He always instills in us to keep going and looking ahead and try to stay ahead of the game and not look for mistakes and fix what you do wrong. Personality, off the field we don’t really talk football. On the field, he’s very vocal and he’s a leader and we follow behind him and say, ‘Yes sir, keep it moving.’”
Question: How much better are you now compared to when you arrived here last June?
Henderson: “I feel tremendously better. I feel better spiritually, emotionally, physically. I just feel an overall increase in my ability.”
Question: How hard is it to come to a Southeastern Conference program and absorb everything on and off the field?
Henderson: “It is very hard from the moment you wake up to the time you go to sleep. It is a grind every single day. The media stuff has not been bad. I did a lot of interviews in high school and spoke at a lot of social events, so that’s nothing new to me. I enjoy that part.”
Question: Could this team be a lot better than most are projecting?
Henderson: “A lot better. I know people are going to sleep on us, but that is what we want them to do. We are just going to keep working within ourselves and make us a better team.”
Question: Did you keep up with the players that signed and will be here this summer?
Henderson: “I did and I am glad for the progression. Our class was a good class coming in, so I look for even better in the next class. I am proud of what the guys (coaches) did recruiting-wise. I welcome the recruits with open arms and we are ready to take them in as soon as they get here.”
Question: Will the linebackers be better this season?
Henderson: “We are going to be a lot better. Everybody is getting the defense down, which is good. I just feel like we will be better on the depth chart from top to bottom.”
Question: Did you worry how things might work out when a coaching change was going to be made?
Henderson: “A little bit but I knew that was life and what I was coming into in the SEC. There are a lot of culture changes every year. You never know where you will be at the end of the day. That’s why I looked when I came here at what would be my surroundings and my team.”
Question: What does the current fan excitement about UK football mean to the players?
Henderson: “It just gives us a better push. We didn’t feel that during the season with how bad it went. It just gives us a better edge going into the season and get our minds right and focus on football. Playing in an empty stadium is not fun at all.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Could Kentucky really beat Tennessee twice in a row in football? Could it really happen in years when Kentucky football has not been that god?
Kentucky defensive coordinator Rick Minter says for that to happen, UK will have to slow down what he thinks might be the best offensive team that Kentucky has played this season. The Volunteers rank 13th nationally in passing offense,averaging 317.6 yards a game and are 23rd in total offense nationally with 477.6 yards per contest.
However, he says Kentucky’s players continue to prepare well and not be distracted by the firing of coach Joker Phillips two weeks ago.
“Kids are always bounce back, no matter what happens in life,” Minter said. “They are much more resilient than adults because they don’t think about it too much, they just do it. We will wish them well and pull for them always. Kentucky will always have a special place in your heart because whenever you work somewhere for a while you give it everything you have. Therefore when you leave, you leave some of yourself behind.”
Whoever the next Kentucky coach is, Minter said the future is bright with talented underclassmen on defense.
“All the kids on the back end that have played and contributed this year, some in a mighty role, others in a minor role, are all going to be good players,” Minter said. “You just mark it down — the Blaylocks (Daron and Zack) are going to be good players, the young corners all three of them (Cody Quinn, Fred Tiller, J.D. Harmon) are going to be good players, (Khalid) Henderson is going to be a good player, (Pancho) Thomas is going to be a good player. There are three defensive linemen that you have never seen because they are being redshirted but they are going to be good solid guys, whether it be (Patrick) Graffree, (Thomas) Chapman, (Langston) Newton.
“There are others, I don’t want to be remiss (in not mentioning them), but it is a bright future. How bright, who knows? But it is a much brighter future than it was a few years ago looking down the road of guys finally getting into this program.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
The more freshman linebacker Khalid Henderson plays, the better he seems to be.
He had a career-high five tackles last week against Mississippi State and now has 12 tackles in Kentucky’s six games as he gets set for Saturday’s Southeastern Conference matchup at Arkansas. He’s one of 14 true freshmen that UK is playing and appreciates the opportunity he’s getting.
“I am kind of glad for the opportunity the freshman class is having. I just feel like we are going to get better. I feel like it is a big plus,” said Henderson. “It gives us the opportunity to improve our talent and ultimately improve the team as a whole. It is a little frustrating at times not to be winning, but you just have to roll with the punches and take each day as another opportunity to get better. Every game you get another chance to get out there and get a W (win).”
Henderson shared these other thoughts about his play and the Kentucky program.
Question: Are you still learning the defense?
Henderson: “Coach Minter’s defense is very complex I might say. Every guy has the same job and you all have to know it. When it all comes together in one piece, it works. Certain calls are left to certain people, so everybody has to know their job and do it. If somebody messes up, that’s what comes with it.”
Question: Has any one player taken you under his wing and helped you a lot?
Henderson: “Really, the big reason why I cam here was (linebacker) Avery Williamson. He is kind of like my big brother and is my big brother when it comes to the team. (Bud) Dupree also has a big impact on me, too. We all bond together and work together. They help me improve and I help them, too. Young guys can help older guys.”
Question: Do you ever feel the deck is just stacked against this team having to play so many young players?
Henderson: “We are so young, we just don’t worry about it. I feel like it is better to have young guys in there. Fresh legs and creates a more growing process for them and helps the older guys get rest. That feels like it is better for the game. Keeping putting in new packages, new packages and get rest for older guys and keep fresh legs in the game.”
Question: But how do you avoid being frustrated with a 1-5 record?
Henderson: “I feel like in a sense like a father does. You know how a father has bad times and keeps rolling with them. Some bills might not get paid, but you work hard to get to the next one. You have to keep moving on. It eats away at you, but you have to take it and learn. We all have winning backgrounds in some sense. I have never been used to losing. I just wish we could turn the season around and I am waiting for it to happen.”
Question: Why was Williamson such a big influence for you?
Henderson: “It started with my recruiting. Some guys you just hit it off with at first. That’s how it was when I first came around Avery. I talked to the guy and we just kind of had a good flow about things. We talked to each other and I got a good vibe from him.”
Question: Is he the biggest reason you are at Kentucky?
Henderson: “I would have to say yes. He is making my game better. He keeps an eye on me. He keeps me working hard. He keeps me focused in the weight room and classroom as well. He is just helping me take in this process because I am expecting so much so soon. He is just helping me not being stressed out and working hard and moving on to the next game.”
Question: Do you stress out after losses?
Henderson: “Certainly you can get stressed out, but you just have to take that day or night when it happened and not let it suck the life from you and keep improving.”
Question: Have you learned things from the way Williamson helped recruit you that you can use with future recruits?
Henderson: “Of course. I want to say he is my role model. I learn from him based on his mistakes and improvements. He wasn’t a five-star, four-star recruit coming in. He’s just improving his game. He is looked at as the face of the defense right now.”
Question: Would you enjoy hosting recruits and selling UK to them and why would you tell them to come to Kentucky?
Henderson: “Of course. I love that. I am going to give you the God-honest truth. I am going to tell you some things you may want to hear, some things you may not want to hear. I am going to tell you the truth because I don’t want you to come to a place and be miserable for four years. I want you to enjoy your time here at the University of Kentucky and enjoy being around a family atmosphere and a great college.”
Question: Would you tell recruits they can win at Kentucky?
Henderson: “Of course you can win. You have to work, too. Your attributes are going to contribute to the team.”
Question: What might you tell a player that he might now want to hear?
Henderson: “You may not get your chance like you think you will or you may not be as talented as you think you are right now. You might have to keep working. You might have to sit out a year. You might have to do some extra things to improve your game. You might not like the atmosphere. You might not like being a student if this is your first time to really be a student.”
Question: Is the student part tougher than some realize?
Henderson: “It is lot tougher than I thought it would be. I worked hard in school and my mom made sure she was on me about having good grades, but when I came to college it was a different atmosphere. Anybody would tell you that you have to do your thing and I have enjoyed the people at CATS (academic center) who have helped me.”
By EVAN CRANE, UK Media Relations
Kentucky coach Joker Phillips continued to praise the efforts of three true freshman cornerbacks in J.D. Harmon, Fred Tiller and Cody Quinn. All three saw action last week against Florida and played aggressive, according to Phillips. The head coach said due to the injury of safety Ashely Lowery and the play of the young corners, senior defensive back Martavius Neloms, who had been playing corner, took snaps this week at safety to provide more depth there.
“You saw a lot of young guys in the back end challenging receivers and that is the thing that stood out to me last week,” Phillips said after Thursday’s practice. “Guys like Fred Tiller, Cody Quinn and J.D. Harmon were challenging guys and that is what you want to do. Being a defensive back, you are going to get beat, that is just a matter of when and where. The thing you have to do is win your share. And the thing I saw was that those guys more won than their share of opportunities.”
Phillips has been impressed with the play of UK’s youth this season overall, especially defensively, mentioning true freshman linebackers Khalid Henderson and Pancho Thomas and redshirt freshman defensive lineman Farrington Huguenin.
“At the second level, those two young freshman linebackers (Henderson and Thomas) made some plays for us and will continue to get better,” Phillips said. “Farrington Huguenin is a freshman also that continues to get better. The thing we have to do is keep improving as much as we possibly can. That is the ideal of us getting a chance to play again this weekend to see how much we have improved each week and see how much we can improve this week especially with a young team.”
Phillips said he understands that as Kentucky improves so do the teams that make up the final eight games on the schedule. But Phillips said that thought has to be removed and the team needs to worry just about getting Kentucky better.
“This is a grown man’s league and we can improve but everybody else is improving, too, with some older guys,” Phillips said. “The thing we have to do is continue to see how much we can improve and get this football team better. They are trying to do the same thing and we have to try to match them.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Freshman linebackers Khalid Henderson and Pancho Thomas wanted to believe they were good enough to play as true freshmen this season. Now they know they are indeed good enough to help Kentucky as the Wildcats get set to host Western Kentucky Saturday night.
“I didn’t really believe it, but now I do. Now I get to play next to my good friend. Me and Khalid have got really close in fall camp and now we are together on the field. It is going to be lovely on the field the next two years,” said Thomas, who tweaked a hamstring in last week’s win over Kent State but returned to the game.
“I enjoyed getting to play a lot. I feel it did help a lot to see the younger players get in and enjoy ourselves and get to make plays. It sparked the team a little bit,” Henderson said. “We are a lot more comfortable now that we have got to play. We got our chance and me and Pancho are ready to play. That last game shows the coaches have more trust in me with the schemes.
“I feel playing time is more available to me now. Getting to play helps a lot. The only way to do it is get in there and do it, so I hope this showed the coaches a lot. I am ready for the next game already and was as soon as Kent State ended. I learned and now I am ready for the next opportunity. I will go twice as hard as I have been every day now because I know I can play.”
Henderson already has three tackles in limited playing time and Thomas has two.
Kentucky coach Joker Phillips said Thomas impressed him with the way he changed his attitude on game day.
“Physical guy. He’s a box player. He’s not a guy that’s going to be out in space. The guy really loves to play the game,” Phillips said. “Again, he was one of those guys I saw that the closer we got to the game, he changed. His demeanor changed. His attitude changed.”
Thomas isn’t satisfied with how he played.
“I felt like I did pretty good. I could have did a lot better, but it was my first time and I had first-game jitters, but it felt good and I had fun,” the Florida native said. “I feel like I could do a heck of a lot more. I feel like I could do a lot of good things this year.”
Henderson said linebackers coach Chuck Smith “just basically gave us the absolute truth that we needed to step up” going into the Kent State game based on the way the defense had played against Louisville.
“Myself I played well but I have al ot of improvements to do. I am just ready to get out there, have fun and take the opportunities to play when they come,” Henderson said. “It is all about attitude. You have to give it the best you have got. You can’t let nobody scare you or let your opponent get in your heart or they will take it out of you.
“I feel the first game was a big embarrassment to us. It shocked a lot of our eyes and kind of put us on the back burner, but we came back and had a good week of practice working our butts off and it showed. That’s what we have to do every week.”
Thomas says both he and Henderson have a “nose for the ball and how to get there” and don’t let mistakes impact them.
“We just have to forget it about, learn from our mistakes the next day in film and we just know if we mess up we have to go 100 percent. You can’t dwell on mistakes in games,” Thomas said. “We just made a couple of mistakes (against Kent State) that we have to make up and clean up where we messed up.”
Thomas says nothing inspires him more than to see UK’s offense click the way it did the second half against Kent State. However, he’s just as optimistic about what he’s seen from a defense that has already played six true freshmen.
“I am very excited about the future. Actually a lot of us thought we would not come in and do this many things during the summer when we were doing summer workouts. But now that we have got to know the other guys and know where everybody wants to be, we are convinced that we can do something special here,” Thomas said.
Henderson said UK’s win over Kent State and then No. 8 Arkansas losing to Louisiana-Monroe on the same night shows how quickly perceptions can change about a team or season.
“It is funny how things change, but that is the excitement of college football,” Henderson said. “Losing to Louisville was just a shock to us, but we learned and handled it well.”